Greek: 5 εἰ δέ τις ὑμῶν λείπεται σοφίας, αἰτείτω παρὰ τοῦ διδόντος θεοῦ πᾶσιν ἁπλῶς καὶ μὴ ὀνειδίζοντος, καὶ δοθήσεται αὐτῷ. 6 αἰτείτω δὲ ἐν πίστει, μηδὲν διακρινόμενος, ὁ γὰρ διακρινόμενος ἔοικεν κλύδωνι θαλάσσης ἀνεμιζομένῳ καὶ ῥιπιζομένῳ·
My Translation: 5 But if anyone of y'all is destitute of wisdom, beg from God, who grants all openly and does not revile, and he will grant to him. 6 But ask in faith, doubting nothing, for the doubter is like an ocean surge wind-agitated and tossed.
KJV: 5 If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.
My translations are purposefully stretched and should not be viewed as more accurate than the KJV translation unless I say so in the post. I'm trying to show the range lying between the original Greek text and the English.
James the Just
The Letter of James claims to have been written by the historical figure known as James the Just. We know that James was a real figure of history as his violent death is recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus, and he is mentioned independently by both Paul in his letter to the Galatians and by the author of the Acts of the Apostles. According to these sources, James was the brother of Jesus (Jesus having brothers appears in a number of different sources from the New Testament), was an early Church leader, and Paul said he claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus. Is there any evidence that he is the author of this letter? Not really, but there isn't much evidence against it. Scholars today are divided on this question of whether or not the historical James was the author of this letter, but the issues are really when it was written and whether or not it would be reasonable to assume that James was still alive for the various proposed dates of composition. Myself, I'm always more comfortable in a position of careful doubt than one of certainty, so while I'll be calling the author "James" I am not convinced that he's the actual author.
The author could have been the historical James for a few reasons. First, this work is very much a Jewish work. It stands in stark contrast to the theology and writings of Paul (which we'll discuss much more next time) by focusing on issues common to Judaism: the Torah and good actions. Secondly, the letter itself is addressed to "the twelve tribes of Israel". Again, while Paul has shown us that the early Christ movement had many issues in regards to the place of Gentile converts, this letter is not addressed to them but is only addressed to the Jewish converts. This would make sense for a Jewish author from the Jerusalem Church, which James appears to have been in charge of. Paul refers to him first before Peter (James, Peter, and John - Galatians 2:9), and indicates that Peter had been eating with Gentiles until Christians from James arrived and convinced him otherwise, implying that Peter was following what James had said. Whether or not James was Peter's superior, this event illustrates James's Jewish adherence to the Torah in contrast to Paul's rejection of it. This adherence to Torah is a strong part of the Letter of James.
However, there are a number of issues that speak against James as the author. First of all, the letter appears to have been influenced by Matthew's Gospel (which makes sense, as the very Jewish author would probably love Matthew's Jewish perspective), especially the famous Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5-7. The Gospel of Matthew is a very late composition that certainly occurred long after James's martyrdom. It's possible that James is quoting from the now-lost "Q" source (as parts of the Sermon on the Mount find their way into Luke), but there's no way to be certain of that. Also, James begins his letter by encouraging his readers to patiently endure trials. Since the movement seems to have existed both alongside and among regular Judaism for a number of years, this too points to a relatively late date of composition.
The Context of this Scripture Mastery
James encourages his audience to be happy about their trials, because enduring them will bring them perfection, so that they're not lacking in anything. But if they are lacking in wisdom, they should ask God to give it to them. However, James then cautions them to ask without doubt, because God will not give a doubter anything as a doubter is double-minded and unstable in his ways.
Mormons enjoy this scripture because Joseph Smith, in one of his many varying accounts of his First Vision, mentions that this scripture is what drove him to the woods to pray about the state of his soul. Joseph felt that he needed wisdom in order to either know the state of his soul or which Church to join, depending on the account you read. In response, he said that God and/or Jesus visited him. From this vision, Mormons believe that Joseph began his career as a prophet.
I'm not going to go into the specifics of that story anymore than to just say that the variations between the different stories are enough to convince me that while Joseph may have had a genuine experience, time caused him to expand it greatly with each retelling. But is this view of the scripture, that we should pray if we need wisdom, correct?
My verdict is that this is a correct use of this scripture within its context. However, most Mormons do not read the following verses very closely, where James states that having doubt will prevent the individual from receiving anything from God. As well, the idea is that Christians should already be perfecting themselves through their trials. Asking God is only if they are still deficient in wisdom from these trials. The author probably has questions about these trials in mind when he is talking about anyone "lacking wisdom", but who am I to say for sure?
Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?
I think this verse was chosen because it's part of the modern foundation story for Joseph Smith. According to his 1838 account, he received his first vision of God because he was following this advice given in James. I think that most Christians would view this scripture the same way, though it needs to be noted that the context does emphasize this lack of wisdom arising from trials we are enduring than just lacking wisdom in general.