James 4:13-17 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
What are the longest plans you’ve made that ended up working out? I’m especially interested in what some of the kids might say. For me, it’s probably having kids get married and graduate. I imagine for some of our more senior saints it would be retirement.
Let me flip the question a little bit. What’s the most frustrated you’ve ever been at well-laid plans getting fouled up (and what caused them to get fouled up)? Maybe it was when a parent said no to something you were planning with your friends. Or, perhaps, it was when your marriage ended? Or maybe it was when your investments didn’t pay off as much as you’d hoped and retirement was pushed out a few more years. Again, what’s the most disorienting disruption of your plans you’ve experienced?
I ask these questions because, as you’ve probably already noticed, this passage is about making plans. More specifically, this passage is about right and wrong motives behind making plans. And within that, the main point of this passage and sermon is that there is a critical difference between trusting in God’s design for the world and trusting in God. James’s readers—some of them at least—were trusting in the former and James wrote this passage to rebuke them, explain the problem, and call them to humbly repent by trusting in God instead.
In the course of this sermon, we’ll look at two things in particular. First, we’ll look at why James’s readers were trusting in God’s design rather than God (because God made the world to work in fairly predictable ways and they had become arrogant). And second, we’ll consider what it looks like to live in God’s predictable world while still trusting in God Himself (by focusing on the Lord’s will, not our own). Let’s pray for God’s help in all of this.
BY GOD’S DESIGN, THE WORLD WORKS IN FAIRLY PREDICTABLE WAYS (13)
As you’ve certainly noticed, by God’s design there is a rhythm and a consistency to much of our lives. The sun rises and sets at predictable times. Seasons, likewise, come and go in consistent patterns. Our bodies develop in the womb at fairly uniform rates. Gravity always pulls with the same force. Elements maintain their properties in consistent conditions. Germs behave in basically the same manner over and over again.
It is for these reasons that clocks work and calendars hold. It is for these reasons that we can measure babies in the womb and know with great precision how old they are. It is for these reasons that roller coasters and bathroom scales work every time. It is for these reasons that we can make plastic and structural engineering is almost foolproof. And it is for these reasons that infections usually respond to treatments in ways we can anticipate.
If God hadn’t designed the world with this kind of consistency, plans of any sort would be entirely irrational. Nothing would be predictable. But because God did design the world to work in fairly predictable ways, we can make plans and reasonably assume they’ll hold—which they often do.
What’s more, Grace, living as God intends often requires that we make plans. You can’t provide for your family without a good plan to do so. You can’t maintain God-honoring friendships without making plans. You can’t get an entire family ready for worship in the spur of the moment. You can’t read through the Bible in a day, so you need to plan to take in all of God’s Word. You can’t be hospitable to all of your neighbors at once, so you need to make a plan to have them over. You can’t train up your children in the way they should go in a week or a month or a year or even a decade, so you need to make a parenting plan. And you certainly can’t accidentally make disciples of all nations, so we rightly make plans to do so.
It is for reasons like these that James’s readers (just like you and I) would have made all kinds of plans. Evidently, however, some were making plans in ways that were not quite right. Therefore, James addressed those plan-makers under his charge in v.13, writing, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit…’”.
Again, there is a way in which those kinds of plans were right and even necessary. That is, there are ways in which planning to travel to a particular place and engage in commerce along a particular timeline is honoring to God. But there are also ways in which it does not honor God. James wrote this section in large measure to help his readers know how to tell the difference since several of them were getting it wrong; really wrong.
It’s good to ask what exactly they were doing wrong and what would it mean to get it right? Those are the two questions we consider for the rest of this sermon.
WRONG PLANS FLOW OUT OF TRUSTING IN GOD’S DESIGN (14, 16)
In essence, some of James’s readers were making plans wrongly in that they were doing so as a result of trusting in God’s design rather than in God. Those are two fundamentally different things.
In simplest terms, this is kind of like the famous experiment performed by Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov. As you know, he found that his dogs could be trained to salivate at the ringing of a bell, rather than at the presentation of food. Without realizing it, the dogs were in effect trusting in the bell instead of the actual food.
Are you like that? Do your plans stem more from trusting in the rhythms we’ve discovered in the things God has made or in the God who made those rhythms?
Another form of this same problem (and two often go hand in hand in my experience) is one I’ve mentioned many times before. Often times we treasure the things God provides rather than God himself. To this point, one pastor (John Piper) convictingly asks, “If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there? (God Is the Gospel, 15)
Again, are you like that? Have you come to treasure the things God can provide more than God Himself?
Both questions get to the heart of a critical matter. Is God, God for you or is something else? Whatever you are ultimately trusting in and, likewise, whatever you treasure most, is your god. You may say, and even believe otherwise, but those two things are far more revealing than all your words and beliefs.
And in both of those ways, though they probably wouldn’t have said it, and might not have even realized it, those addressed by James in v.13 were functioning as deists—people who believe in an impersonal god; a god who created and ordered the world, wound it up like a clock, and then left everything to function independently of Him according to the laws and motions He put in place.
The God of the Bible, of course, is not a deistic God. He is entirely personal and continually involved in every aspect of His creation. As we just saw, God made the world largely predictable, and yet it is in Him that we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). It is He who holds all things together (Colossians 1:17). And He, not some impersonal laws of nature, continually upholds the universe by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3).
The main problem with the planning of James’s readers, therefore, was not the planning itself, but the fact that their plans resulted from demoting God to a second-class, deistic, means-to-an-end god. And, conversely, they erred in that their plans were formed from promoting themselves—their wisdom, purposes, and pleasures—above God. That is, their main problem was that their plans had been formed from trusting in and treasuring God’s design rather than God Himself. And those things are the height of arrogance and James rebuked them sharply for it in v.16, “As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”
Grace, do you see this clearly? To simply tap into the rhythm of God’s creation in order to profit in worldly ways from it, is arrogant and evil. This was no small thing that James chided his readers for.
Further still, the evil arrogance of making plans based on trust in God’s design rather than God has two logical flaws on top of this great moral flaw.
You Do Not Know What Tomorrow Will Bring
First, in spite of the general predictability of the world, we really do not know what tomorrow will bring (v.14, “yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.). This seems to be an echo of Proverbs 27:1, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.”
Grace, the sooner we wake up to the reality that every day countless people wake up to a world entirely different than the one they’d imagined the night before, the better.
It’s hard not to think of the entire world the day after the flood started, watching everything and everyone they cared about being washed away (Genesis 8). They went to bed thinking tomorrow would be just another day. Or the whole world the day after Babel. One day they were able to talk freely and easily with one another, but the next day they couldn’t understand a word anyone else was saying. (Genesis 11). Or Jonah running away from God only to be swallowed up in a great fish for three days. Or the Apostle Paul on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians, only to be overwhelmed by the glory of Christ (Acts 9). Or the disciples the day before Jesus called them to follow Him. Or our golf outreach a few years ago that got rained out in the most torrential way possible. Or the latest Powerball winner. Or all the investment managers in 2007. Or the day before you find out that you have cancer.
At a conference I was at recently, one of the panelists was sharing a bit about how his perspective on life changed since recovering from cancer. He said something to the effect of, “Well, in the past when people asked me how I was doing, I’d say ‘well’. But now I say, ‘I have no idea,’ but I feel great.” His point, as I’m sure you already know, was exactly what James was getting at. We do not know what tomorrow will bring. In fact, we rarely even know much about what’s going on right now.
What some of James’s readers had sinfully and pridefully forgotten, which so many of us are so prone to do as well, was to remember that God alone knows and governs what tomorrow will bring. Their plans were not made in light of or in submission to that reality. Therefore, they made wrong plans, stemming from wrong hearts, and James, in love, wanted to help them see this before it was too late.
Life Is a Mist
The second logical flaw in James’s reader’s sinful planning was that they were not only living as if they knew what tomorrow would bring, but they were also living as if they knew they’d even have a tomorrow—which none of us ever does.
14 …What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes
Even in our small church, we’ve had our share of experience with the mistiness of life in several family tragedies, entirely unforeseen deaths, unexpected ends to pregnancies, tragic accidents, etc.
It’s one thing to make plans. It’s another thing to make plans as if life were not a mist, as if we are in charge of when we live and die.
God made the world to work in largely predictable ways. Consequently, we can, and in some cases must, make plans in light of the divine rhythm. However, some of James’s readers were acting as if they and the rhythm existed apart from the God who made them both. They had their own plans and purposes and made them without regard to the facts that they had no actual knowledge and certainly no authority over the events of the next day. This is the height of arrogance and it is evil.
Let us see their failings clearly that we might not share in them; or, if we do, that we might quickly repent of them. What kinds of things are you making plans for? Have you forgotten that even the best plans are always in the hands of the Lord? Are you continually conscious of the awesome power of God, constantly at work to maintain the rhythm, or do you move to the rhythm unconscious of the one playing it?
If, by God’s grace you are eager to heed the warning of this passage and forsake the kind of arrogance that causes us to live as functional deists, what will that mean? What constitutes godly planning? What does it look like to make plans stemming from trust in God rather than His design? That’s the second and final question James addresses in this passage, in v.15. Let’s turn our attention there now.
RIGHT PLANS FLOW OUT OF TRUSTING IN GOD (15)
So, having seen how not to honor God in our planning, what does it look like to make plans that do honor God? Ultimately, James taught, it means acknowledging the sovereign will of God over everything. In other words, making plans to the glory of God means acknowledging God as God over all our plans.
To that end, James said simply, “Instead [instead of the arrogant things you’ve been saying about what your future holds] you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (15). Grace, to honor God in our planning we must make plans according to God’s will. Every plan we make must be entirely surrendered to God if we are to glorify God in our planning.
There are two keys to living in light of this saying. That is, there are two things we need to keep in mind if we are to do as James charges—live with the constant refrain, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
Most of the Lord’s Will Is Hidden from Us
First, we must recognize that most of the Lord’s will is hidden from us. While James’s readers had become arrogant, believing they knew all they needed to to plan out their years, humility recognizes that God alone knows what the future holds. And humility recognizes that God has not chosen to reveal the vast majority of His plans to us before they happen. We are not responsible to know the hidden will of God when making plans, but living in light of it makes us much humbler in our planning.
God tells this to Isaiah in Isaiah 55:8-9,
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
If there’s one thing that’s easy to see whenever we read the Bible, it’s that the Bible is the story of God continually promising to interrupt the plans of man, to accomplish His great purposes. Therefore, to say “if the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that,” is to acknowledge that we understand far less than we think we do, and it is the plans of the Lord that will stand.
All That Is Required of Us of The Lord’s Will Has Been Revealed in The Bible
The second key in surrendering your plans to the Lord’s will, is in recognizing that all that is required of us (of the Lord’s will) has been revealed in the Bible. If you want to make plans to the glory of God, then your plans (all of them) will be made in light of the clear, revealed commands and promises of God.
Are you with me, Grace? If so, with the Spirit’s help, you are already running your standing plans through your mind; your summer vacation, your school plans for the fall, your picnic plans for this afternoon, your marriage plans, your television plans for the week, your sports plans for your kids, your financial plans for your family, all of your plans. If you’re with me, you’re running your plans through your mind and checking them against the will of God. Have you surrendered them all to God? Are they a specific attempt to obey one of God’s commands? Are they all made in light of specific promises of God? Are they clearly aimed at God’s glory? If not, James is talking to you as much as he was his first readers.
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
Let me press on this just a little bit further still. We ought to surrender all of our plans to the Lord, because He is Lord. He has the right to rule us and we have the obligation to submit to His rule. More that that, however, to say, “if the Lord wills…” is most honoring to God when it is our increasing delight rather than merely our dispassionate duty. In Psalm 40:8 King David wrote, “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”
Is that at the heart of your plan-making? Are you continually looking to surrender your plans to the will of the Lord, ultimately because God’s will is your great delight, more than anything the world has to offer? That is the heart of the difference between the kind of plans James rebuked here, and the kind that truly glorify God.
In conclusion, it’s critical for us to recognize that none of us have lived in perfect surrender to the Lord’s will, even as none of us have fully delighted in it; save Jesus Christ alone. All of us have arrogantly made plans flowing from trust in the rhythm of God and out of treasuring the creation of God, rather than God himself. That’s at the heart of v.17.
17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
The good news of the Christian faith is not that those who keep God’s commands perfectly can be in fellowship with God. The good news of the Christian faith is not that those who live entirely consistently with saying, “If the Lord wills” will be in heaven. The good news of the Christian faith, rather, is that Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty of every plan-sin, and every other sin, we’ve committed and to sanctify us completely.
Look to Him, right now, therefore, and know forgiveness of sins and strength for obedience. Look to Him, right now, therefore, and know fullness of life and God’s plans for you that are greater than anything you could come up with on your own if you had 1,000,000 lifetimes. Look to Jesus and you will be forgiven and freed and reconciled to God forever.