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What is the meaning of the Greek word "ask" as used in James 1:5? The verse reads (NA28 | ESV):

Εἰ δέ τις ὑμῶν λείπεται σοφίας, αἰτείτω παρὰ τοῦ διδόντος θεοῦ πᾶσιν ἁπλῶς καὶ μὴ ὀνειδίζοντος, καὶ δοθήσεται αὐτῷ.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

My confusion is that the audience is being instructed to ask God repeatedly for wisdom. Why would they ask God for something He has already given through His Spirit indwelling (as believers)? Does this Greek word have different meanings? If so what is the meaning of it in the context of James 1:5?

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  • Are you sure you are asking about etymology?
    – fdb
    Jul 12 '15 at 22:18
  • To clarify I suppose I'm just asking about what this verse is really saying in context and based on the original language Jul 12 '15 at 22:20
  • I've never used this site before and still learning how it works. Sorry for the confusion Jul 12 '15 at 22:21
  • Ashley, I made some adjustments so that it works for this site. Feel free to change to a different translation if you prefer, thanks.
    – Susan
    Jul 12 '15 at 23:24
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The best explanation is that the text is saying exactly what it appears to be saying.

Vine's entry, for example, on the root αἰτέω says

to ask," is to be distinguished from No. 2. Aiteo more frequently suggests the attitude of a suppliant, the petition of one who is lesser in position than he to whom the petition is made; e.g., in the case of men in asking something from God, Mat 7:7; a child from a parent, Mat 7:9, 10; a subject from a king, Act 12:20; priests and people from Pilate, Luk 23:23 (RV, "asking" for AV, "requiring"); a beggar from a passer by, Act 3:2. With reference to petitioning God, this verb is found in Paul's epistles in Eph 3:20; Col 1:9; in James four times, Jam 1:5, 6; 4:2, 3; in 1 John, five times, 1Jo 3:22; 5:14, 15 (twice), 16.

I checked some other lexicons and they are very similar. This site suggests about 90% of the time αἰτέω is best translated as "ask". The only other somewhat common translation is "demand", which makes very little sense in context. That is not to say a rare usage is impossible, but the default assumption should be "ask".

What isn't clear is why you think "ask" is problematic. In context, it appears that the wisdom asked for is how to deal with trials. I don't see why James (or any NT writer) would expect believers to have perfect wisdom from the Holy Spirit on how to deal with trials. Nor does "lack wisdom" imply that the person has no wisdom. It seems what James is likely trying to say is

  • Believers will encounter trials (v2)
  • These trials will improve you as person (v3-4)
  • If you encounter a trial you don't know how to deal with, ask God for wisdom (v5)
  • You will only receive wisdom if you ask in faith (v6-8)

If you have further questions, please specify why think James might mean something other than the ordinary meaning of "ask". That is, why do you see asking for wisdom as problematic theologically.

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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.

Discussion

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.

Conclusion

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.

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One must realize that Jesus said:

God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
-- John 4:24 (KJV)

We must have a spirit to Spirit relationship with the father, so when we ask, we ask spirit to Spirit. This would imply that we visualize what we ask in the spirit. We are spirit beings, therefore we visualize, then verbalize (speak into existence) it into action according to scripture. To operate in this realm we must know the difference between prayer and petitioning.

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  • Welcome to BH.SE. When you include a quote from the Bible, use a '>' symbol as the first character on a new line. This will separate the quote from your own words. Also, don't forget to include the Bible version you have used.
    – enegue
    May 22 '17 at 21:10
  • 1
    You say, "then verbalize (speak into existence) it into action according to scripture". Such a statement requires a reference, so readers know where the idea might be found.
    – enegue
    May 22 '17 at 21:14
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What is the meaning of the Greek word “ask” as used in James 1:5?

Εἰ δέ τις ὑμῶν λείπεται σοφίας, αἰτείτω παρὰ τοῦ διδόντος θεοῦ πᾶσιν ἁπλῶς καὶ μὴ ὀνειδίζοντος, καὶ δοθήσεται αὐτῷ.

The Greek word "αἰτείτω" (aiteitō) usually translated "ask" has also the implied meaning of "keep on asking"

God does not miraculously remove our problems, so one of the basic reasons for praying is to ask or " keep on asking" God for guidance if you are faced with a serious problem and you really want Him to help you.

If you pray for wisdom/guidance, God can call to your mind scriptures or godly principles that bear on the matter.( John 14:26) Of course, God will expect some effort on your part, such as researching matters in the Bible. At James 1:2-5 the Bible says.

James 1:2-5 NET

Joy in Trials

2 My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything. 5 But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him.

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