The goal of our study today is to find out what it means to 1) find joy, 2) persevere and 3) become perfected through the process of trials. We'll accomplish this goal by breaking down these first four verses of James chapter one into individual parts, specifically words.
When dealing with a passage that has a ton of information in it, breaking that huge section into smaller sections helps us to better understand the bigger picture. James 1:1-4 is one such "huge" section that packs a lot of truth into a handful of verses that set the tone for the rest of the book. Here's how it breaks down:
(Note: definitions for words are taken from Strong's Concordance unless otherwise noted. If you don't have a Strong's Concordance to do this work on your own, BlueLetterBible.org gives you free access to resource and is in general a Bible study tool I recommend).
"James" - though there is some debate on the matter, this James here is widely accepted as being James the brother of Jesus (Mt. 13:55), who hung around with Peter and John (Gal. 2:9), spoke at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13), was recognized as a "pillar" in the church (Gal. 2:9), and was recorded in history as being an elder in the Jerusalem church (Eusebius "The Church History of Eusebius" 1.305).
"Twelve tribes" - one of the indicators cluing us in to who our audience is in this letter: Jewish Christians.
"Dispersion" - not only does our audience have Judaism in their past, they also have persecution in their present having been dispersed away from Jerusalem because of the events of Acts 8 ("Dispersion" is used three times in the New Testament, once here, once in John 7:35, and one other time in 1 Peter 1:1. In all of these places, it is used to refer to those outside of Jerusalem).
Remember that our audience contains brand new Christians in every sense of the word new. They aren't just new to Christianity, Christianity is new to the world.
"Count" - is a word whose definition seems confusing at first glance. Count (Gk. hegeomai) means ruler or leader (see Mt. 2:6; Luke 22:26). Whereas many of our translations might say "count" or "consider it all joy" there's actually more going on here than just thinking "well, I guess this trial is okay."
To "count" is to lead, and in this context refers to the leading of your mind. It is not human nature to see unfortunate events as anything but unfortunate. James commands us to step back from the trial (while we're experiencing it) and see it for what it is, an opportunity for growth (more on that later) and respond not with anger, but with joy.
"Joy" - is defined as "cheerfulness; calm delight; gladness", an attitude that seems out of place in the context of what's going on. The reason it seems out of place is because of the following words in the verse "...when you encounter trials of various kinds." Left at that verse we are given the impression that we should consider horrible events to be joyous occasions, this both is and isn't the case. We "count" horrible events as joy because we are glad they are happening, not because of the trauma it's causing us in the moment, but because of the growth it causes at the end.
"Brothers" - James version of the "bless your heart" rule, meant to soften the blow of the hard truths he is delivering to this audience.
"Meet" - is a word that expresses to us the timing of trials. Luke 10:30 uses this word in the parable of the Good Samaritan. While going down from Jersualem to Jericho he "fell among" robbers. He wasn't planning to be attacked by robbers, it just happened. Such is the nature of trials.
"Trials" - speaking of trials, what are they? The text tells us that trials are "various" (meaning "many colored" or "varied"). An instructor of mine, divided trials in this way:
Persecution: hostility from others. People trying to hurt the faith you have.
Affliction: Something that causes pain or suffering or sickness.
Suffering: Anything that causes unpleasantness in our life.
Adversity: Difficulties or a series of unfortunate events.
Simply put, trials are the bad events that happen in our life. Bad, by the way, is in the eye of the beholder. A trial for you may not be a trail for someone else. While we may not share the same trials, we all experience them and are all expected to respond the same way (joy).
"Testing" - the various trials that come upon us result in a testing of our faith. This word for test (Gk. dokimion) is also used in 1 Peter 1:7, a passage that illustrates for us very well what it means to be "tested."
"Faith" - is another one of our keywords. Faith, at its core, is the belief, trust, or confidence in God. Trials have a tendency to blind us to the goodness of God (ever been asked "why is there so much evil, pain, and suffering in the world?"). That's why James begins this lesson telling us to "lead out our mind" in a state of joy for the trial. If we don't, we run the risk of having our faith broken.
"Steadfastness" - the testing of our faith produces endurance. It doesn't matter what the trials are, whether they are inherently physical or spiritual or emotional or mental, they all affect Christians at a spiritual level. "Steadfastness" is the ability to stand your ground and bear up under the pressure of things (see Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged, pg. 528). Trials are an essential part of the Christian growth process (something the dispersed Christians of Acts 8:1-4 understand).
"Perfect" - this is our keyword for "mature", but the actual definition goes even further than that. "Perfect" (Gk. teleos) does not mean "flawless" but instead means "to meet the designed end".
I mentioned a moment ago that trials are a key part of the spiritual growth process for Christians, but what does it mean to grow? Growth is not simply the accumulation of Bible knowledge, or the stretching of our comfort zones, spiritual growth is the gradual process of becoming more like Christ. That's the goal. We learn about the Bible because it teaches us how to be more like Christ, and we reach out to serve others because that is what Jesus would do. Trials, when handled correctly, help us to come to our designed end, that is, to be more and more like Jesus.
How to Make Trials Effective
They must be handled with wisdom (1:2, 5).
The lens through which we view trials determines whether we'll grow, regress, or destroy our faith.
All of us has gone through trials. Consider some of the trials that you have gone through in your life. Make a list of how these trials have helped shape you into the Christian you are today, and then make a second list laying out how you can use those experiences to help others going through a trial.