The Greek word peirasmos and the related words peirazo and apeirastos occur 7 times in James 1 (v. 2, v. 12, four times in v. 13, v. 14). The words are translated either "testing," "trials," or "temptation." Now the Greek word can mean either a "trial" or a "temptation," and most Bible studies differentiate the "trials" James refers to in vv. 2–4 and the "temptations" he talks about in vv. 13–15. Typically, Bible studies say that "trials" are difficult times that we go through and "temptations" are those times when we are tempted to sin.
This has always bothered me. Why do we make this distinction? Isn't it artificial? Why would someone use the same word in two completely different ways in the same chapter?
When I was preparing for the Bible study, I tried reading James 1:2–15 without vv. 5–11. Here is what the text says without those verses:
My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything. Happy is the one who endures testing, because when he has proven to be genuine, he will receive the crown of life that God promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am tempted by God," for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death. (NET)
Without looking, can you tell where the break is? It's between the second and third sentences. But the text makes perfect sense without vv. 5–11. Why then, should we suppose a topic change between vv. 2–4 and vv. 12–15, especially since v. 12 seems to say the same thing as v. 2?
Further, compare this new reading of James 1 with what Paul says in Romans 8:5–8, 12–13 (NET):
For those who live according to the flesh have their outlook shaped by the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit have their outlook shaped by the things of the Spirit. For the outlook of the flesh is death, but the outlook of the Spirit is life and peace, because the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. . . . So then, brothers and sisters, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh (for if you live according to the flesh, you will die), but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.
Specifically, compare the following statements:
James 1:12, "Happy is the one who endures testing, because when he has proven to be genuine, he will receive the crown of life that God promised to those who love him."
Romans 8:13, "If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live."
James 1:15, "Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death."
Romans 8:13, "for if you live according to the flesh, you will die."
So what is James 1 about? I would read the "trials" of James 1:2–4 as "temptations." James says, "Consider it joy when you are tempted to sin, because such temptation makes you stronger." I think James 1 is about living the way God has created us to live, the way that leads to life that is truly life. Living otherwise leads only to death.