The word for today is “trials.” Today in our reading of James 1:1-18, we begin our study of the New Testament book of James. Two themes serve as bookends for this opening passage: trials and temptations. The apostle asserts that when we endure trials patiently, they are constructive. He writes, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials…” (vs.2). Yet, when we give in to temptations, they are destructive. The apostle writes, “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires…[and] when desire has conceived it gives birth to sin… and brings forth death” (vs. 14-15).
The Divine Gift of Wisdom
To distinguish between trials and temptations takes wisdom. Wisdom is the gift of God as Proverbs 2:6 teaches: “ The Lord gives wisdom and from His face come knowledge and understanding.” Those who are wise have the knowledge, judgment and discernment to negotiate the course of life according to the will and ways of God. In wisdom, they do not “lean on their own understanding,” but look to God to “direct their path” (Proverbs 3:5).
Wisdom understands the nature of trials. Trials are adversities that put one to the test (Strong’s #3986, 198). Our reading suggests that trials are external circumstances and conditions that we “fall into.” Accordingly, the Greek word suggests that they “surround” us, that is, they “hem us in” (Strong’s #4045, 199).
Yet the apostle teaches that for the faithful, trials should be nothing but joy. The wise welcome them not so they can show their strength in overcoming them. But those who rejoice in affliction know that going through it produces “patience.” The Greek word means literally “to abide under” (Strong’s #5281, 259). Thus, instead of complaining, blaming, or becoming discouraged, the wise bear the burden of every hardship with a peaceful mind and a trusting heart, drawing strength and comfort from the knowledge of the mercy of God.
Trials Produce Maturity
Having proven their faith in the mercy of God, those who endure reach a state of “perfection” (vs. 4). The word in Greek refers to the end and fulfillment of something. Thus we can say that enduring patience produces “maturity” (Strong’s #5046, 248). Thus, the apostle teaches that those who reach this state of wisdom are whole and complete (Strong’s #3648, 176), lacking nothing (vs. 4).
On the other hand, wisdom distinguishes temptations from trials. Trials are external afflictions that put the character of our souls to the test. Temptations are also a test. The Greek word that is most often translated as “temptations” in verse 12 can mean either trials or temptations. It depends on the context (Strong’s #3985,196). When used in the negative sense, the tests are enticements of our wayward inner desires. The Septuagint (LXX) translates Proverbs 1:10, “Do not let the ungodly lead you astray.” The Greek word for “lead astray” is derived from the thought of wandering from the right path or deviating from piety and godliness (Strong’s #4106, 202). Accordingly, the apostle says that temptation draws one away by desires. Once “conceived,” desire leads to sin and, when fully mature, leads to death (vs. 15).
Wisdom, therefore, discerns the difference between trial and temptations. It responds to each according to its nature. For example, the Philokalia states, “The long-suffering man abounds in understanding (Prov. 14:29). Because he endures everything to the end, and while awaiting the end, he patiently bears his distress. The end, as St. Paul says, is everlasting life” (cf. Rom. 6:22.) (G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 103). Those who suffer affliction, therefore, respond to their suffering with joy, knowing that it will bear the fruit of enduring patience. And such patience will strengthen their hope in the goal and fulfillment of every struggle and striving–eternal life.
On the other hand, the Philokalia teaches the response to temptation depends on the insight into “desire,” the craving that comes from the passions. It teaches that to prevent the passions from assaulting us is not within our power. But it is in our power to prevent such thoughts from taking root and growing into outright sin. Therefore, the response to the passions is constant watchfulness and when the seeds of sin appear, to pluck them out rather than let them overcome us. (G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 15-16).
Works Cited: G.E.H. Palmer, et. al. Trans. 1981. The Philokalia: the Complete Text Vol. 3. New York: Farber and Farber