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”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. (James 4:13–14 ESV)
Do you feel like James just said that to us today after what we have experienced over the last 45 days? James just said to pay attention those of us (which is all of us) who assumed that life and schedules would be what we planned. We thought that tomorrow would be like today. We assumed that all our plans that we made would certainly come to pass. It is interesting that it takes something like this pandemic to really think about what James was trying to tell. We could read a passage like this and think that we understand that we do not know what tomorrow holds. But we thought that possibility was really low. We thought that life tomorrow would continue as we know it today.
The Best Laid Plans (4:13-14)
So James is talking to us. James is talking to the whole world. He is warning us about thinking like this. James tells us that should never assume that tomorrow will be like today. Further, James is telling us that we cannot assume that all of our plans are going to come about simply because we made the plans. Now it is important to note here as we will also see as we go through the lesson, the problem is not making plans. Planning is not the problem. The problem is making plans with the assumption that you have control over your plans. The problem is that we act like we have the power and we have control. We act like we have charge over our lives. The problem is that we act like we have power over the outcome of life. James tells us that you do not have this power. You do not have this control. You do not have this charge.
You do not know what tomorrow will bring. We have all experienced this. All of us have watch our plans be ruined by something invisible. We have all watch our best laid plans be completely wiped out. Work plans are gone. Vacation plans are gone. Wealth plans are gone. Every plan we had made for our lives has been completely changed or is gone. Even my sermon plans and our teaching theme this year is gone. In but a moment, not only were our plans erased, we did not have beef, chicken, toilet paper, hand sanitizers, disinfecting wipes, and many other products that we previously easily accessed. It is all so tenuously held together. So much has changed. This is what God was telling us. “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.” We have a new rule in our house to not say, “That cannot happen.” The reason we have invoked that rule is it seems like every time we said, “That cannot happen,” it did. You do not know what tomorrow will bring. Every nation and every world power thought, “That cannot happen,” yet it did. The most notable instance of this is when the Persians were attacking the Babylonian Empire at the city of Babylon. The rulers were feasting while the Persians were attacking because they thought it could not happen that they would fall to the Persians. They were too powerful. The city was too fortified. The army was too strong. Yet the Babylonian Empire did fall. What they thought could not happen did happen. James’ first point is that you and I do not have the power that we think we have. We do not have the control that we think we have.
What Is Life? (4:14)
Second, James wants us to see what like is. James asks this question, “What is your life?” We might have a lot of answers to this question. But look at how James answers the question. He says, “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” James is telling us to accept our mortality, accept our lack of control, accept our shortness of life, and accept our frailty. Life is short. We are not going to live forever on this planet. Our bodies were not created to be permanent. But notice that the point is not that you need to preserve your life at all costs because it is a mist or a vapor. Rather, we are to live with the understanding that you cannot assume that you have tomorrow. We are not supposed to live life with the presumption that we have the power or the control to do whatever we plan to do tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or next year. We need to take advantage of what we have today. You do not know that you have tomorrow. So what does James want us to do? We do not know what will happen tomorrow and we do not have power over tomorrow. Further, our lives are just a mist and we do not have the power to keep our lives going. So what does James want us to do?
A New Attitude (4:15-16)
Verse 15 expresses what we are to do now. James says that we should now say, “It is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” If you have grown up in the pews, then you know have heard this teaching. You have probably even heard this in public prayer. But the point is not that we would continue thinking how we think and acting how we act but just tack on the phrase, “If it is the Lord’s will.” That is not the point James is making at all. “God willing” is not to be a slogan. It is not just something we say. God wants us to believe these words. We see the apostle Paul regularly saying, “If it is God’s will” (cf. Acts 18:21; 1 Corinthians 4:19; Romans 1:10; 1 Corinthians 16:7; Philippians 2:19,24; Hebrews 6:3). We see Jesus saying this with the intensity of his prayer just before he is going to be arrested. Jesus said, “Yet not as I will but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). “If it is the Lord’s will” is not just a phrase, but is to be the constant way of thinking for the Christian. The Christian understands that everything in life is by the will of God and by the power of God. Look carefully at what James says.
First, if it is the Lord’s will, we will live. It is only by the Lord’s will that you and I are living today. We do not have power over that. We know that we do not have power over that. Have you ever tried to exert power over your own life? Let me give you an example: have you ever tried to breathe? Have you notice that when you start trying to think about breathing, then your breathing messes up? Do you have to will yourself to breathe while you sleep? No, you do not even think about it. Breathing works when you aren’t thinking about breathing. Can you make your heart take its next beat? Can you keep it in rhythm? God has made your body and has power over it. It is only the Lord’s will that we will take another breath.
Second if it is the Lord’s will, we will do this or that. God has completely reset our lives so that we would see that we really had no control over tomorrow and what you were going to do. Now we are able to appreciate how much life is completely by the will of God. If it is the Lord’s will, I will be able to take vacation time in 2020. If it is by the Lord’s will, we will continue to have wealth. If it is the Lord’s will, we will be able to carry out whatever plan we make. This is the attitude that God wants from us. When we act like we are sovereign over our lives, we will lack humility. When we think we have control and have power, then we will lose our humility. Humility realizes that we do not have power over the next breath we take. Humility realizes that only God will allow any plan we make to come to pass.
Saying, “If the Lord wills” was not to mean that we will do what we want as long as we are alive. Sometimes the phrase was used that way. I am going to do what I want assuming God keeps me alive. But that is not the point. God can wreck your plans. Think about how God wrecked the life plans of Joseph to carry out his own purpose. We are not sovereign over our lives. God is sovereign over all people. So we are not doing what we want to do. We are doing what we are doing if God allows it. This verse is trying to get us to realize and accept our complete dependence on God.
We see this point strongly made by James in verse 16. “As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” What does James mean to tell us that we are boasting in our arrogance? We boast in our arrogance we think we have the power to carry out our plans. We boast in our arrogance when we think that we have power over our lives. We boast in our arrogance when we think that we can dictate the terms of our lives. Jesus gave a warning about this kind of thinking with the rich fool in Luke 12. Listen to what Jesus says in the parable.
And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’” (Luke 12:16–19 ESV)
He thinks too much of his own power and ability and therefore arrogantly makes his plans. Notice what Jesus says next.
But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20 ESV)
He thought he had control over his life and his plans and he was completely wrong. Pride thinks that our actions are independent of God and his power. We think too much of our power, making our plans arrogantly is what James is telling us. All plans are to be made with the recognition that such a plan can only happen because God allows it to happen. It will only be because God gives us breath and allows us to do what we desire.
What Should We Do (4:17)
So how is thinking supposed to change our way of life? We are living in a time right that has opened our eyes to the truth of what James taught. We do not know what tomorrow will bring. We do not know about our life because it is just as mist. So what are we to do?
First, look at verse 17. Whoever knows the right thing to do and does not do it, it is sin. This means you need to do right today because you do not know that you will have the opportunity to do right tomorrow. We must live righteously before God today because we do not know that we will have tomorrow to do so. We need to live rightly with our spouses, children, families, and friends because we do not have tomorrow guaranteed. We cannot and will not say in our hearts that we will do better tomorrow. We need to do better today. You may not be here tomorrow. Other people may not be here tomorrow. Life may not be what we think tomorrow. Live right today. We must live with reference to the will of God always.
I want to take a moment and challenge a common thinking today. The big question of life in the world today is when we are going to return to normal. When will be go back to normal? When will things go back to the way they were? But I want us to think about this desire for a moment. Do we really want to go back to a normal where we took life for granted, made plans arrogantly, and assumed upon the blessings of God? Do we really want to the world to return to a time when it ignored God, hated God, rejected God, and showed disdain for God? Do we want to go back to a time where we assumed that we would always have good health and that nothing could hurt us because we have medical technology? Do we want to go back to a time where we thought our prosperity and wealth would never end because we live in the United States of America? Do we really want to pray for going back to that kind of arrogant living? So maybe God does not want us to go back to the way things were. We should not want to go back to that normal where God, life, and his blessings were simply taken for granted. We must always live with reference to the will of God where we acknowledging every breath and every blessing and every plan is granted to us by God. That should be the normal life for the Christian. We want to go forward with a new life that is God-centered and God glorifying. We want hearts that realize life is about the will of God.
Second, this will lead to thankful living. Paul declared to the Colossian Christians, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2 ESV). Now I will be thankful for each day I receive because I know that it is only God’s will that I make money, have rest, take vacation, enjoy family, buy food, and everything else that I am able to do. We will experience a greater amount of thankful living today when we see that it is all only because of God’s will. Further, how grateful to God should we be for all of the blessings we did experience leading up to today? How grateful should we be for the wealth we did enjoy, the vacations we took, the freedoms we had, the work we did, the food we enjoyed, and so on and so on. Rather than looking longingly for the past, let us look to God thankful for the past that we experienced.
Finally, understanding that we do not know what tomorrow will bring allows us to live calmly while trusting God. Tomorrow does not have to be like today, whether good or bad. Right now we truly do not know what tomorrow will bring. Will life get better? Will life get worse? Only God knows so we trust him, living calmly in today, not worrying about tomorrow. God will control tomorrow. We will live for today, doing what is right toward God and toward others. God has tomorrow. God controls the future. Let us enjoy what we have from God today. Acknowledge God in your plans for tomorrow. What is God teaching us about how we looked at life and how we looked at our plans?