1 James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings. 2 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials,
St. James begins his epistle with a standard greeting in which he names himself and his recipients. We’ve already discussed this verse in our last study, but let’s briefly review a few points.
First of all, St. James shows his great humility by not identifying himself as the bishop of Jerusalem or as the Lord’s brother, but simply as a servant (the Greek word, doulos, literally means “slave” of the Lord Jesus. The greatest thing that anyone can say about us has nothing to do with our position, our accomplishments, our education, or our family background, but simply that we are a slave of the Lord.
Second, he addresses his letter “to the twelve tribes in the Diaspora,” a reference to the Church, particularly to Jewish Christians from Jerusalem who had been scattered as a result of the various persecutions against the very early Church. Remember that at the time James was writing, the Church was still overwhelmingly Jewish.
Third, He simply bids them, “Greetings.” Interestingly, the epistle written by James after the Jerusalem Council and preserved in the book of Acts (15:23-29) has the same brief opening (“Greetings.”). This, along with the other stylistic similarities between James’ epistle in Acts and this epistle, provide strong linguistic evidence that the author of this epistle is the same person who was the head of the Church in Jerusalem and presided over the council there.
The first interesting thing we see in verse two is that St. James addresses his hearers simply as “brothers,” a form of address that he uses fifteen times throughout the letter. This also speaks of his humility. As Fr. Lawrence Farley writes, “This shows that he addresses his hearers, not as an exalted judge, but as a fellow believer…, appealing to them to submit to the same teaching to which he himself submits, even though he is the leader of the community. The entire epistle breathes this free air of Christian egalitarianism” (Fr. Lawrence Farley, Universal Truth: The Catholic Epistles of James, Peter, Jude, and John [Ben Lomond, CA, Conciliar Press, 2008, 19).
Count it All Joy (1:2)
St. James then addresses the main theme of the first part of his epistle: trials (or “testing”) and temptations. The Greek word for these two very different things (peirasmos) is the same, and the sense of the word must be determined by the context. Most scholars believe that peirasmos is used in the sense of “trials” or “testing” in verses 2-3 and 12, but in the sense of “temptation” in verses 13-14 (more on this later). Curiously, Fr. Farley believes that St. James uses the word to refer only to “testing” or “trials” and not to temptation. More on this later…
Fr. Farley describes the trials St. James is referring to in verse 2 like this: the word perisasmos is “used for a trial of suffering so severe that it could cause one to fall away from one’s faith. It was from this experience of testing that Christ urged his disciples in Gethsemene to pray that God would deliver them and bring them safely through (Mark 14:38). James uses the word here to describe the various and many ways in which the Christian Jews are persecuted by their non-Christian neighbors. They may be tempted to despair and conclude that God has abandoned them” (19).
The Orthodox Study Bible’s notes on St. James’ Epistle add this about trials: “Trials, the world’s oppression, take place by God’s permission. The issue is not trials per se, but our reaction to them. Properly received, they reveal where our hearts are. They help to increase faith, which cannot remain static, but must grow or die” (The Orthodox Study Bible, New Testament and Psalms [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993], 540).
What is most amazing in verse 2 is how St. James tells his readers (and us too!) how to react to trials. He says to “count it all joy.” This is not the reaction that we usually have to trials. Most of the time, we gripe and complain, we grow angry, we question God, we try to figure out why this is happening, and so on. But St. James says that we should instead be joyful. Now this does not mean that we should adopt a Pollyana attitude or that we should masochistically say something like, “Yes! I’m so glad I just lost my job (or got sick, or am being mistreated, etc)!”
Nor should we get angry at God, for as the OSB notes say, “Though difficult circumstances are from the evil one, to be angry at circumstances is to be angry at God, who permits them” (540 – however, keep in mind that if we DO become angry, this is not an unforgivable sin). Instead of becoming angry or depressed, or adopting any other negative attitudes, we should be joyful and thank God for what he is going to accomplish in us through our difficult time. And what is that? St. James goes on to explain in verse 3.
We'll look at that next time...