Hello again friends.
In our previous studies in the book of James we’ve looked at some quite big chunks of the book. Today I want to look at just four short verses. However, these verses pack a mighty punch. When I studied these verses and saw how mighty they are I was reminded of what Helena says about her little friend Hermia in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; “And though she be but little, she is fierce!”
So here are our small, but powerful verses:
13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. 17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
A Text for Our Time!
If ever there was a text for 2020, I think this is it! Looking back to the New Year celebrations at the beginning of January, the air was full of the sound of people planning. Some were even boasting of new cars, ski holidays, and business ventures, with a confidence which is, in retrospect, a little embarrassing. Everyone simply assumed that 2020 would be a continuation of what we had known in 2019; and human over-confidence is in fact folly.
A Text in Context
In chapter four of his letter James has been making his readers look below the surface of their lives, and examine their heart attitudes. He doesn’t tell them just to stop squabbling amongst themselves, but to go deeper and root out the pride and ego issues that drive them. Of course, this wasn’t a new idea. James’ brother The Lord Jesus Christ himself, had emphasized this in the Sermon on the Mount where he insisted that it isn’t enough to avoid committing physical murder or adultery; but to dig out the roots of anger and lust in the heart that are offensive to God too. For James, following his greater-brother’s teaching, mere behavior management isn’t enough; because God offers us regeneration of the heart!
So, in these verses James sees an outward behavior pattern, namely presumptuous forward planning – and diagnoses an underlying spiritual condition: self-confident lack of humility before God. This error is really dangerous for us in the Western world today and shows yet again that the Bible is so relevant!, While in much of the world people are desperately short of resources and can never plan ahead but literally cry out to God for their daily bread; many of us just assume that we will have money, food, cars, plans, holidays, travel and trade. Affluence of the kind that many of us enjoy, comes from the good world that God has created and packed full of wonderful things for us to enjoy. But, the minute the eyes of our heart fixate on the gift, not the giver of those gifts; we have a problem! Covid-19 has crashed rudely through the plans of people the world over – and yet is not unique. Wars, famines, plagues, illness and a hundred other things have done this for centuries. The question James forces us to ask is whether our foundations are secure in Christ, or whether having our human schemes rattled by circumstances shakes us to the core.
What the Bible is NOT saying
Some people have taken these verses out of context of the whole of scripture and suggested that James says it is sinful to plan for the future. That is not the inference that we should draw from these verses at all. Some extreme Christian groups have, for instance, argued that it is wrong to invest in a pension-plan in the light of these verses. However, that is really not what James is getting at here. At no point does he even suggest that making plans is inherently sinful; or that we should resign ourselves to a shoulder-shrugging fatalism that fails to take responsibility for ourselves or our dependents.
Forward planning is of course, commended elsewhere in scripture. Here are some examples:
- Ecclesiastes commends planning commerce and trade (while insisting that it doesn’t provide essential meaning in life).
- Proverbs commends handing an inheritance on to children.
- In Genesis, God gives Joseph the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream which put into plan a scheme to store grain to stave off a forthcoming famine.
- Paul had a definite plan to carry the gospel to Rome, in Acts.
- God Himself planned your salvation and mine, before he created the world – according to Ephesians and Romans.
- God has a plan for this world, to bring to fruition when Christ returns. The LORD himself makes plans.
So, from this very brief survey (to which we could add to much more!), it’s clear that there is nothing inherently wrong with making plans per se; but that we can go about that in a wrong way – or the right way. It’s all about the attitude of our hearts towards God.
Getting Forward-Planning Wrong:
The forward-planning that James condemns has two shoot that sprout from the same bad root. The first is that these people’s plans are all about them. The plans described in v13 are entirely selfish- revolving exclusively around their lives, businesses and money-making enterprises. Again, just to be clear, business isn’t wrong – but anything we put in God’s central place in our lives becomes a problem. But these folks here were not planning and scheming missions-trips, it was all about them. The second issue was that they made these plans arrogantly, with no humble sense of their own frailty, or God’s supremacy. “You’re life is a mist” says James – not to be cruel, or put them down; but to introduce a healthy element of realism into their over-confident blinkered view of the world.
Getting Forward-Planning Right
15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” James says. The picture couldn’t be clearer here. It’s not wrong to plan – but we must hold out plans loosely before God, in the humble recognition that we do not know the future, and that He does. Christians of a previous era when letter-writing was a regular activity, used to write things such as “We will see you at Christmas (D.V.)” The addition of DV meant “Deo Volente” – meaning “God Willing”, as a way of reminding each other that all the plans of men and women are subject to the will of God.
David in the Old Testament and Paul in the New, saw their plans interrupted by God like this. David wanted to build the temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem and was about to instigate the building works when God interrupted, and this glorious task was passed onto his son Solomon (2 Sam ch 7). Likewise, Paul had the worthy and upright desire to preach the gospel in the province of Asia, but when he set out to do that was “prevented by the Holy Spirit”!. Even good, godly plans must be held loosely before God!
5 principles for navigation
I want to leave you then with five practical navigation tools for handling forward-planning, responsibility and decision-making in this turbulent, unpredictable world.
- Stay Calm! Alongside the planning, organizing and taking responsibility for our decisions, there is also a time for switching off the phone, and praying and trusting God. Some people are natural worry-ers who obsessively watch the news, or the stock market. Learn to make wise, honorable decisions before God, and then trust Him with them. I know that is easy to write but hard to do; but we can with God’s Spirit, cultivate a peaceful, calm frame of mind. It’s the same with politics. We all have a responsibility to be informed and to vote for the candidates in local or national elections who we sincerely believe have the best policies. And then, having done that we need to learn to pray, and trust God with the outcomes. God has presided over this world with some great leaders in positions of power – like King Josiah; and with some dreadful ones like Emperor Nero too. Act responsibly, love your neighbor (even if they voted the wrong way), and trust God with the outcome. Don’t panic, pray!
- Be thankful for today, and live in it! While this world changes, and lurches between crises; God has also given us many things to enjoy today. We can inject joy into our lives, by being intentionally thankful to God for the many things that He has given us. When the sun rises in the morning and casts a glow over your town; give thanks to God who made it. When there is coffee in the kitchen when you get up, and clean water in the taps, and power in the kettle – don’t just drink; but do it with joy and thanks to God. When you see a child smile, or a dog wags its tail, or the sight of a friend approaching; don’t just take these things for granted; thank God for them; and enjoy them in the moment fully. Take a few moments, and look around your room. Are there things there that you have never actually given thanks to God for?
- Avoid extreme reactions to the changes in the world. Some people are so fixated about how things once were, that they don’t enjoy the present because they live in the past. Others are so fixated on how they want the future to be, and what they want in life – that they never live in the moment and enjoy what God has given them now. Some people lurch to the extreme of relentlessly planning and organizing everyone and everything, trying to impose order on a chaotic world. No-one likes being micro-managed so learn to just do your bit and trust God more. You are not God, and you cannot pin-down every detail of your world. Others resign themselves to an unhealthy fatalism that doesn’t get out of bed and take responsibility for themselves. All these extremes are unbalanced and unhealthy – and which one we are tempted to fall into depends largely on our personality-type. But Christian believer, hold your nerve! Keep a sensible balance, make wise decisions, with the information you have available; then pray and trust God. If you wake up and your first thought is how your pension is performing, or how your house is looking; you need to re-balance your thinking. Instead, start your day by praying, “Lord, thankyou for giving me this day, what do you have for me today?!”
- Pray for wisdom. We’ve done a whole study on this in James 1 which you can read further back on the blog here. I won’t repeat it all except what James says in chapter 1. “5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” It’s not a complicated scripture, but a practical one we so often neglect.
- Lean into Jesus. That means to cultivate a close walk with our savior. The world changes, our heath changes, our bodies change, the economy changes, politics changes, the global health situation changes, and the lockdown regulations change, people change and relationships change too. Thank the Lord that Jesus does not! He remains the anchor who does not shift. When Jesus is the at the very center of our lives, and we live closely with him, praying; learning from and leaning into him; there will be a peace and stability which radiates from us – even though the storm may rage around us. In 1834 the hymnwriter Edward Mote wrote: “On Christ the Solid Rock I stand – all other ground is sinking sand”.
And there is the great truth on which we stand, and trust!
May God bless you!
Angela Courte MacKenzie is a broadcaster, pianist, vocalist, and worship leader. Her music has traveled all over the world through her Facebook live events and The Power of Praise program as a witness to the glory of God. Angela holds a B.A. degree in music/vocal performance from the University of Central Florida, and a M.A. in apologetics from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Her desire is to awaken hearts to Christ through music, Bible Teachings, blogs, one 2 one chats, the gifts of laughter and simply life in “real time.”
To find out more about Angela visit www.angela.org. To hear her music and other offerings visit her YouTube channel www.youtube.com/angelacourtemackenzieofficial.