The Idea in Brief
The meaning is to know why. That is, in faith we are to ask why we are suffering, and in faith we will receive the answer.
Viktor Frankl once quoted Friedrich Nietzsche as follows -
“He who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how.” I can see in these words a motto which holds true for any psychotherapy. In the Nazi concentration camps, one could have witnessed that those who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive.
Those people who therefore saw meaning in their lives, says Frankl, were able to
. . . transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.
These principles seem to have appeared first in the Epistle of James in the following verses:
James 1:2-5 (NASB)
2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.
The wisdom in this context is not just the understanding the how of suffering, but the particular why. In other words, for what purpose did the Lord permit the suffering to occur in your life? What was the meaning or purpose for the suffering?
Thus, the word “ask” in this context would refer to the petitions in earnest prayer regarding the why for the suffering. These prayer petitions must occur in faith without flip-flopping (being “double-minded”), which would be to go back and assume that there was no purpose (or why) for the suffering. This particular line of thought is the actual temptation to sin in this context:
James 1:13-16 (NASB)
13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. 14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.
The temptation here is not the reaction to the suffering per se, but to blame the Lord as capricious for having permitted its occurrence to happen in the first place. That temptation to sin is not from God.
For example, after losing his possessions and his children, Job's wife had suggested to Job that he “curse God and die” (Job 2:9), which, interestingly, was the exact prediction that Satan had made concerning Job's anticipated response to the suffering (Job 2:5). But Job's response instead to his wife was to acknowledge the sovereignty of God. In this respect, James closes his epistle with an allusion to Job -
James 5:11 (NASB)
11 We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful.
In this perspective, the Lord is full of compassion and merciful. That assumption would be the unwavering basis of the prayer petition to the Lord to understand not just the how, but the actual why for ones suffering.
When someone is suffering, one should NOT provide them these verses in James in order to discern the why, but instead “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). Such a response of sympathy and respect was how the friends of Job had reacted to the news of his misfortunes; however, their own subsequent discussions and speculations about the why did more harm then good. In this regard, the why is best left between God and the one who asks in faith to know from God, who will provide those answers in due time.