You may have heard it said that “God tests, but does not tempt.” Such conviction is usually based on a well-known verse: “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13 NRSV). Is there really a difference between “testing” and “tempting”? Can we even say that God only tests but never tempts?
In Genesis 22:15, God tests Abraham with a command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. The Hebrew verb for “test” is נָסָה (nasah), which also can be translated to “tempt,” to “try,” or even to “train.” The verb represents a “process of verifying if something is true or not”; an “attempt to determine something’s veracity or quality.”
In Exodus 20:20, Moses tells the people, “God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you, so you do not sin.” God wants to test the faithfulness of Israel, and ascertain whether they will obey or disobey. But there the Torah uses another Hebrew word for “test” here: בָּחַן (bachan). This term is very close in meaning to נָסָה (nasah) and often means to “examine” or “scrutinize.” בָּחַן seems to imply a more invasive testing–a kind of experiment to test a certain outcome. The same verb is used when Joseph when decides to see what his brothers would do in a tough predicament (see Genesis 42:16). Are these all examples of “testing” or “tempting” or something else?
The Judeo-Greek equivalent of these Hebrew terms is the verb πειράζειν (peirazein). Matthew’s Gospel uses this term when Jesus is tested (or tempted?) in the wilderness by the devil (see Matt 4:1-11). The same word appears when Yeshua is tested by tricky questions (e.g., Matt 16:1; Luke 10:25).
Returning to James 1:13, the pertinent Greek verb (peirazein, πειράζειν) comes up several times in the same sentence. And in this case, it is hard to translate it exclusively as “testing” and avoid the connotation of “tempting.” In fact, the term means both! When James says that God “tempts (peirazei; πειραζει) no one,” the text does not mean that God never tempts anyone under any circumstances. Based on the broader witness of the Bible, God indeed tests, tries, examines, tempts, and scrutinizes people, and there is no sharp difference between these ideas in the original languages. What is true, however, is that “God does not do tempt anyone with evil things” (James 1:13). The verse denies that any evil that constitutes a temptation comes “from God” (apo tou Theu; απο του Θεου). The emphasis of the teaching is to show that God is never the source of evil, not that God never ever tempts.
God may use people, circumstances, or even Satan to administer tests, but the Lord will not entice people with “evil” (Greek: κακός; kakos/ Hebrew: רָע; ra) because that is not the divine nature. God is not tempted by evil, and human beings were made in God’s image. The purpose of tempting is not to cause failure, but rather to see whether one will choose the good and overcome evil. Thus, humans made in God’s image must emulate the Maker in passing any of life’s tests or trials (cf. Leviticus 11:44-45; 3 John 1:11).