Ah, the start of a brand new year. A brand new calendar gives us the opportunity to think about how we are going to live this year differently than last. It is tempting to sit in front of our calendars, our bank books, and perhaps even our bathroom scales and tell ourselves that this year we are going to do this and that with all the confidence in the world. I know I fall prey to this year after year. In the week between Christmas and New Years, I find myself cruising through articles on productivity and schedules that will make me more organized, articles of questions to ask myself, with varying degrees of realistic attainability. I remember one article in particular had several Bible reading plans including one that took you through the entire Bible in a single month! Day one you read Genesis, the whole book, next, Exodus, the whole book. On average, such a plan would have you reading the Bible for 3 continuous hours. Now, I’m not sure what reading the Bible through in a month does for someone, but I was ready to find out! My wife looked at me and said, in the most loving way, “The internet is a dangerous place for you this time of year.” Yes, our optimism stands against countless years of opposing testimony to us, but that negative thinking isn’t going to stop us now! Or maybe you’ve reached a point in your life where you are quite satisfied with how life is going. The calendar, bank book, and more or less the scale are quite fine, thank you, and we are planning to do this that and the other thing because that is how life has always shaken out. We’ve come up with our system, our routine, and it works quite well. No need to plan anything differently.
Maybe a new year doesn’t bring either of these positive approaches. Perhaps you are looking at this year with a certain amount of dread. The same projects that have sat unfinished at the house appear to continue to look like they will be unfinished. The problems in your marriage will continue to be the problems in your marriage, the wayward kids will still be the wayward kids. Life has always been problem after problem, so you can count on that being the case this year, too.
No matter which approach is yours, they are all missing something: an acknowledgement that God runs the world, not you, and not even your previous circumstances. That is what the passage before us is trying to tell us. Contrary to the poem, we are not the masters of our fates nor the commanders of our destiny. We are utterly, totally dependent on God, and to act, or speak, otherwise is to commit a soul-decaying sin. As I will emphasize, this passage does not forbid planning. By all means, read the productivity blogs, reflect and strategize for the coming year, but before you do so, take a moment to get your soul in a place of humility and dependance. We are going to look at two points today: Be confident in God, not yourself, for this year’s plans and Pursue God’s will with the time you have.
Be confident in God, not yourself, for this year’s plans
What we have before us in this passage is a very familiar scene. The board room is packed, the plans are being laid, and the confidence is high! One commentator points out that these merchants presume the following elements are under their control: Time “today or tomorrow,” Location “such and such a town,” duration of their business “spend a year there” Labor and profits “make a profit.” (Scot McKnight, 370). Well, if one could control these elements, then confidence would be quite warranted, wouldn’t it? Business would be easy if one could control all of these things.
Now, when it is said like that, the absurdity of what they are saying comes forward. They don’t control these essential elements of life, and neither do we. That never seems to dim our confidence, though, doesn’t it? We forge ahead with plans as confident as if we did control those things. And if you are saying here, “Well, I don’t struggle with overconfidence; in fact, I struggle with constant worry about how out of control this is!” Speaking as someone who worries a lot, I actually only worry about the stuff I feel like I do have some degree of control over. If I literally can do nothing about it, then why worry? The only reason I worry is because I think that maybe there is something I can do about it, or there at least was something I could do about it, so now I’m punishing myself with regret. It’s the same pride of overconfidence just without any of the positive feelings.
At any rate, it is at this point that James makes the move to the next verse where he hits us with some cold reality: you don’t even know what tomorrow will bring. What is possible to happen in a day? I remember when I got my first ministry job in Brewton, Alabama. I was in a hurry to get to the church early (wanted to make a good first impression on the job, right?). I forgot that the street that I was on didn’t have a stop sign for the oncoming traffic, I pull out and *wham* my first (and hopefully only) car accident. Totaled my car, left some minor hood damage on the suv that hit me. A lot can change in a day. Not a great start. I had to drive around the church youth van until I could find a new ride. Humbling is the word. Now, in the grand scheme of things, that’s a minor example. No one got hurt, no one was sued, but that day taught me that I was not in control of all things. The saddest part about it, was I hadn’t even gotten off the street I was living on! I couldn’t even drive a hundred feet in my new city without an accident!
It turns out that not only is tomorrow out of control and unknown, but so is the rest of our life. It can change—or even completely disappear—in a moment. We are like mist: here this morning and gone by early afternoon. Mist isn’t permanent or definite which makes it a perfect analogy for the transience of life, and how impermanent it is. This isn’t something that we like to think about. There is terror in the idea that life doesn’t last forever, and the world of the spiritual is unknown to us and therefore scary.
So with all of this here, does this mean that we shouldn’t plan? It is actually a question worth wrestling with. After all, we don’t actually control the elements necessary to make confident plans. In fact, as one commentator put it: “...we should not take even living for granted because our very lives depend on God’s grace for their continuance” (Blomberg and Kamell, 209). Nevertheless, James isn’t saying we shouldn’t plan. As the very next verse tells us, we ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will do this, that, and the other thing.” James still has us planning at the end of that phrase but the attitude that we bring to that planning is what is different, and it is miles different than what was said at the beginning.
This phrase, “if the Lord wills” isn’t something that we just tack on to the beginning or end of a sentence, but if we actually make that a part of our thinking, it is amazing the difference it makes to our plans. This is something that has been working on my heart in the last couple weeks. I like to plan things, but the problem is that I am very bad at knowing how long something is actually going to take, and I am usually overly positive about how often I will need to work on something in order for it to work. As many of you know, I’ve been doing a lot of work in my crawlspace under my house. Every time I’ll tell Abby, “Ok, I should only need to do this that and the other thing, and this should be all done! I’ll only be twenty minutes or so.” And it would never be that. I would usually come up from the place dirty, tired, and discouraged. But when I encountered this passage, I started saying, “Well, if the Lord wills, I’ll do this, that, and the other thing.” Then going down there and seeing if what I did worked or not became a humble approach to see if God let it work or if He wanted to teach me a little more. Now with this new attitude, whether or not something worked wasn’t all dependent on me. I didn’t get credit or blame. I did my best, and I would see if the Lord would make it happen or not. Everything was in His hands. It gave me a chance to submit and a chance to rest in the good hands of God. That is what this attitude brings to us.
To do otherwise is a great deal of arrogance. And that is what James is getting after here in verse 16. Arrogance is more than just an ugly and unattractive character quality, it is actually evil. God is actually rather disgusted by pride. Earlier in chapter 4:6, it says that God opposes the proud. Why is that? Pride lies. Pride always lies. Pride always lies because Pride says you don’t need God. This is true when we attempt new things, and it is bad when we do things a million times and think that we can do it on our own (for a great example of this, see this great Desiring God article). Every time we start the day without prayer our pride is lying to us. God in His mercy works despite our prayers, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t a sin. Starting out the day by saying, “God, I have lived for many years now. I’ve gone to this job, raised these kids, taught this class, preached in this pulpit a good number of times. I still need you to help me do it again this time.” John Piper used to pray every day going into work as he would cross over a particular bridge, “Lord, help me to be faithful one more time.” I love that approach. We aren’t praying one time for a lifelong ministry of faithfulness, but we are praying for it everyday not only because we need it everyday but because we need to be reminded that we need it everyday. Perhaps this is why Jesus has in His model prayer has us praying for our daily bread. We are to regularly bring our most basic needs to God. Wal-Mart and Publix have not replaced God in providing for our food needs. The 2020 year showed us how tenuous all that can be.
Pursue God’s will with the time you have.
The final verse tells us that if we know the right thing to do, and then don’t do it, it’s a sin. In context here, this is referring to the fact about not boasting. James has told us this very plainly, so for us to continue to be arrogant in our planning can only be sin. However, this is something that can be applied in a lot of different spheres of life as well (Blomberg and Kamell, 210).
So how do we live in light of this verse? Well, that is answered here in my second point, pursue God’s will with the time you have. This phrase, “if the Lord wills” is also helpful in the way it directs our thoughts about our plans themselves. It is one thing to be reminded that we need God to make sure that our plans work out, but it is another thing to be reminded that those plans need to line up with God’s will. If you notice that all of your financial planning always comes down to saying, “Well, if the Lord wills, I’ll be able to get that boat, that lake house, and that vacation,” without a thought about the poor, the needy, and the lost, then this should point to an area that needs improvement. By telling ourselves constantly that all of our plans are up to God, we might start asking what plans might God have for our lives.
God’s will is actually not all that hard to discover. Most of the time, it is right there in God’s Word what to do. It involves prayer, a close study of the Scriptures, a sharing of your faith, and a love for God. If you are stuck between a choice for two good jobs, which of the two will allow you to do all of the above the easiest. And if either one will suit those purposes, well, then which one do you like the best? Make a choice, and boom God’s will is revealed. Even if it turns out that the decision, in hindsight, didn’t have all the facts and you made a decision you wouldn’t have made again. It was still God’s will. How do I know? Because it happened. God will teach you something through it and deliver you to greater usefulness for Himself. So wherever you find yourself, just do the next right thing. If the future isn’t clear, then stay obedient in the present.
And as you are doing this, we keep in mind that we don’t have forever. God has given us enough time to do the work He has for us, but we don’t want to waste it. Don’t fritter time away with useless pursuits. We are only here for a short while. This doesn’t mean we never rest (see the fourth commandment) or we never watch a baseball game, but it does mean that we don’t make those things our ultimate aim. We have been given something larger, much larger to be aiming for. We have the opportunity to love and be loved by God and to submit ourselves to Him.
I think this passage as a whole helps us keep this balance. “Don’t boast about tomorrow” = don’t be full of yourself as to what you can do. This will keep our overachiever in check by reminding ourselves of our dependency on God and His ways. But at the same time “the one who doesn’t do what he knows is right is sinning” keeps us from being lackadaisical. In context, this verse is telling us that if we know we aren’t supposed to boast but do anyway, it is sin. But this I think can be applied much more broadly. Don’t boast about tomorrow; keep at it today, because our lives are vapors.
Of course, the first command that God gives to us is to submit to Jesus. If you have been going back and forth about surrendering your life to Christ, this is the time to do it. Count the cost and make that commitment. If you have surrendered, well, most of your life to Christ, then consider what you are holding back and ask yourself, “Is this worth sacrificing a relationship with Jesus for?” And if you are saying, “Yes, I am following after Christ, but I am just overwhelmed with all the things I need to improve on in my life.” Remember that this is a long-term process. Keep the enthusiasm to follow Jesus, but lose the angst as if it is all on you.
All of us would do well to remember the words of Jesus in Luke 10:41 to Martha, the lady all frazzled with all she had to do: “you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.” That one thing is commitment to Jesus by being His disciple. That’s what really matters this year. Will you submit to depend on Him?
Commentaries Cited: James, Blomberg and Kamell, Zondervan.
Image by Couleur