This text has been rolling around in my head for some time now. I was thinking about this text when I visited a small church in Texas one Sunday a few months back. I was warmly greeted at the door by a woman who seemed to be made of all of our best thoughts of grandma. Her eyes lit up as she took my hand (and wouldn’t let go until our conversation was finished), and she said, “Oh! You must be a visitor.” She started to turn, still holding my hand, and I saw behind her the Visitor Welcome Kits, complete with contact card and a pen fastened to the outside of each one.
Now, I didn’t want this smaller congregation to spend such resources on me. After all, this was my last Sunday in Texas and I have a home congregation. Or perhaps my loner, introverted side wrongly assumed I could sneak into a gathering of God’s people and have some type of private worship experience and then get on with the rest of my day. In any case, I quickly told her as charmingly as I could that I was just passing through and then I said, “I won’t be back here again.”
She stopped and smiled at me and said, “Oh, you don’t know that. He got you here today, didn’t He?” Immediately I recalled this text, but before I could say anything she heaped burning coals of kindness on top of my head by opening one of the visitor bags. She insisted that I still take one because in the bottom of the bag were three homemade chocolate chip cookies! She even winked as she said, “These are for your journey.”
I wanted to explain to her that I, of course, knew that though I had made the choice among many choices to visit this particular church this day, it was not a choice made outside the sovereign will of God. I held back, though, as I did not wish to appear to be arguing with a grandmother. That is a bad idea in general and a worse idea in church. And if you’re arguing with a grandmother in church in the Republic of Texas… Well, you just may find out how very fleeting life can be.
I also knew that I had nothing to say. If I explained what I knew to be true about God and man, she could easily say, “Then why don’t you talk that way?” So I drove home, eating my cookies, repenting and asking for God’s help in this text. Let us ask God for his help now as well.
In James, chapter 4, verses 13-17, we are going to do three things. We are going to look at a problem that James highlights for his readers. Next, we will look at James’ solution for the problem. Finally, we will talk briefly about some implications for us from this text.
James says, “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…’” This way of talking is problematic for James, but it is not ultimately the problem. This way of talking is more like a symptom of the real problem. He explains the real problem further down in verse 16. James calls this kind of talk about tomorrow boasting and he says that this boasting is evil because it is rooted in arrogance and that’s the real problem.
To better understand why James is concerned with this problem of arrogant boasting, it is helpful to get some context. We know that James has addressed this letter to Christians. We see that back in chapter 1 when he says, “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:” This address appears to be a way that James points to the new church as the true spiritual Israel. We also see throughout the letter that he addresses his brothers or beloved brothers, or brothers and sisters as it could also be read. He addresses, in the letter, a number of concerns in the church. All of these things point to the understanding that James is writing to Christians. We don’t see anything leading up to these verses that might suggest he has turned his attention away from speaking to Christians.
In this section of chapter 4 he is narrowing his scope just a bit. Here he is speaking to Christians of certain means. Christians who have the means to make plans to relocate to another city for at least a year in order to trade and make a profit. I think there’s good evidence here that he’s talking to business people, but I want to be careful that we don’t read too much into it and miss important implications for us. It is notable that James does not address these people as wealthy, nor poor. We know from the rest of his letter that he doesn’t have a problem addressing issues of wealth or poverty, so the fact that he leaves it out here might encourage us toward a more general view.
Back to the Problem
So, we know that James hears these Christians, possibly business people, making plans and he calls them out and says that they are arrogantly boasting. Now, why does he do that? Isn’t it prudent for these Christians to make plans? Might these Christians pull out Proverbs 21:5 and say, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.”?
The problem is not the planning. As we will see later, when James provides a solution, he doesn’t take away the planning of the Christians. The problem is that these Christians are not talking in a way that lines up with the truth of who God is. They talk as if they are God. They make claims about the future that they are powerless to bring to fruition. They are making plans as if they have the power to control what the future holds, but this infringes on a trait that belongs solely to God, namely his sovereignty.
John Piper has described God’s sovereignty this way:
God has the rightful authority, the freedom, the wisdom, and the power to bring about everything that he intends to happen. And therefore, everything he intends to come about does come about. Which means, God plans and governs all things.
A good text from Scripture to illustrate this is Isaiah 46, where God says by his prophet:
Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,” calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.
The Christians in chapter 4 can’t do that. They can use all of their ingenuity in business and they can labor as long and as hard as their strength will allow, but they cannot guarantee the outcome. They cannot say, “I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass.” So, James wants them to see that they shouldn’t say things that are not true about God. They shouldn’t say things that do not line up with who they are as Christians. This fits with major themes throughout James’ letter. He is encouraging Christians again and again to act and speak in accord with what you believe to be true about God from his word.
James points out the foolishness of their claims in verse 14. They say that they will go to this other town for a year and James’ says, “-yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.” A year? You have no idea what may come tomorrow! And he continues, asking them to take account. “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”
I find it interesting that throughout the Bible we see a theme of reminding man of his limitations. I think there is good reason for it and in these verses James identifies that reason as arrogance. The arrogance of men and women is so pervasive and so deeply entrenched in our sinful nature that were the Bible to only extol the excellencies and greatness of God, we would read it and say, “Me, too!”
Don’t we see that with Adam and Eve in the garden? How arrogant of the creature to say to the creator, “I’m just like you. I will judge for myself what is right and wrong.” This is the arrogance that lead to our separation from God in our sin. It’s the same arrogance each of us has when we tell God, “I will decide how best to live.” Add to this arrogance a certain level of means and it is easy to see why James is so concerned that he would be so blunt, so forward with these Christians. The greater your means, the easier it is to believe that your really can control the world. If I have enough means, there becomes virtually no limit to my mobility. I can go anywhere I want. If I have enough means, I can control people. They will do what I want them to do. If I have enough means, I can get the best health care. I can live longer than anyone else. Or so I think. James is concerned that the way these Christians are talking sounds too much like this arrogance.
Here one might say, “You’re much to harsh on these Christians in chapter 4. Maybe they know that God is sovereign and they really believe it to be true. Maybe that is the underlying context behind what they’re saying and if you knew them, you would know that they don’t really mean to make themselves out to be on par with God.” That would have been my defense to the grandmother in Texas, right?
“Then why don’t you talk that way?” That was my imagined response from her. That response has biblical backing from Jesus, does it not? Didn’t Josh remind us a few weeks back of what Jesus says in Matthew 12, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” A person will know what you really believe about God and about yourself if he or she just follows you around long enough recording everything you say. James wants these Christians to confirm the faith that they would say they have by speaking rightly about God and man.
The solution that James offers is that these Christians should change the way that they talk. He says in verse 15, “Instead you ought to say…” He’s not going for behavior modification for the sake of behavior modification. And he’s not offering an incantation in order to spring a big blue “Genie Jesus” from a bottle to give us the extra boost we need in our endeavors. No, he wants them to change the way that they talk so that their speech lines up with the reality of who God is and who they are in Christ. These are Christians after all. They know the truth. This goes back to chapter 3. Fresh water and salt water cannot come from the same source. You cannot say, “God is sovereign and so am I.” James wants them to speak rightly about God in hopes that the words they use might dig deep into their hearts and uproot any arrogance.
And what should they say? What words would help? Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will do this or that?’ That would certainly help, but that’s not all he says. He takes it much further. He says, “you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live…” If the Lord wills, we will live. That’s shocking. That’s a bold statement! James says, “You live right now because God wills that you live!” How much more bold can you be in declaring that God is sovereign and you are not than saying, “If I wake up tomorrow, it is because God willed it to be so.” God has complete control over the days of our lives. Psalm 139 says, “…in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”
There is much that we can do, and should do, in order to live healthy lives. We can eat right and exercise. We can get plenty of rest and avoid unnecessary risks to our health. But everyone in here knows the percentages on death. It’s 100. 100 per cent of the people in here will die, unless God intervenes. But isn’t that the point? God control life and death, spiritually and physically. I think that is why James uses this language.
Using this language should land on Christians with a double meaning. It absolutely means that we physically draw breath, our hearts continue to beat, because God wills it to be so. But for the Christian there is also a second and deeper meaning, a spiritual meaning. I think this language is supposed to remind these Christians, and us, of the gospel. James says in 1:18, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth (or the gospel), that we should be a firstfruits of his creatures.” He’s reminding these Christians, “Be careful how you talk. Don’t talk from arrogance as if you are sovereign. You know that you did not even have the power to save yourself from your separation from God. You were spiritually dead. God made you alive with the good news of Jesus.”
Listen to how Paul says it in his letter to the Ephesians:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…
How might we as Christians live differently if we developed a habit of speaking, or at least thinking, this way throughout the day? What type of wisdom might invade our plans if we looked at the next day, week, month, or year knowing that every breath that will fill our lungs will be a gift from God? How does that change us; in our work, at home, or at the grocery store this afternoon?
James is right when he points out that our life is like a mist. It is so fragile and it seems to pass so quickly at times. We must be careful, though, that we do not equate the fleeting nature of our lives with meaninglessness. Our individual lives and our collective life as a church are not meaningless. We see this most clearly when we have a right understanding of God’s sovereignty.
“If the Lord wills, we will live…” Don’t miss this. You have a life because the sovereign God of the universe wills it! If he wills it, he has a purpose for it. Everything God does has purpose. Everything he wills carries meaning. Remember Isaiah 46, “I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.” There is no such thing as a meaningless life. God has a purpose for your life, Christian. Your purpose is to glorify God and to that end every moment of your mist-like life has meaning. It has meaning because ultimately it doesn’t begin or end with you. In Jesus, you are connected in a most intimate way to the purposes of God. We sing about it often here.
God does not just will our life into existence in a cold and removed way. No, he actually and really cares about our lives. The creator and sustainer of heaven and Earth encourages you with these words from Matthew’s gospel (chapter 6):
God Is Sovereign Over Our Lives
“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?7 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”
If God is not sovereign, we should despair. What is the point of life? We can try to invent meaning with ideas about love or the fellowship of man. We can resign ourselves to the ethos of ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.’ The trials of life will surely derail us without the God-designed purposes behind them that we talked about in chapter 1 of James. The anxieties of this life will overtake us without hope of relief. What does it matter? Who cares?
But if God is sovereign… If he wills that we live… And even more than that, if he cares about our lives… Then this life has meaning. It is worth your effort. The good times are working toward greater good. The hard times are as well, just differently. You can get up and face whatever the day may bring with the uncapsizable ballast that it has not come your way without first passing through the hands of the one who controls all things and who also cares for you.
This is no guarantee for a carefree life of comfort and success. The depression may not lift. The trials are sure to come. Jesus tells us that they will. But what does he say next? (John 16:33) “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; lI have overcome the world.” So one day, when we see all things clearly – when we see the reality of Jesus’ overcoming of the world — the life we see right now as a mist will be revealed to stretch into eternity. And the troubles that feel eternal to us now will be revealed for the light and momentary mists that they are.
Our Choices Matter
The second implication from this text is that our choices matter. God’s sovereignty does not make us to be robots without any conscious will of our own. We sometimes want to ask, “Was this my choice? Or God’s sovereign control?” And the answer is, “Yes!” We need categories in our minds for this reality and I think those categories are created best through Scripture. It is absolutely impossible for you to act outside of or effectively against God’s sovereignty. Yet, you are free to make innumerable choices each day that are completely your own and for which you are responsible. (Everybody wants autonomy until they have responsibility.)
Verse 17 points to this reality of choice. James writes, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” You know the truth about God. You have heard the gospel, God’s Spirit is at work within your heart to lead you after him and correct you when you stray. You are in God’s Word and know what you should do in keeping with your faith. What’s more, James says in chapter 1 that we can even ask God for wisdom and he will give it to us. Now you have a choice before you and you know the right thing to do. Will you do it? Your choice matters.
So we come to this table again. We have undoubtedly sinned against God this week. Perhaps our speech has not reflected what is really true of God. Maybe we have known the right thing to do and have failed to do it. Could it be that we were arrogant? We have confessed our sin earlier in the service or even now. Here, now, at the table we proclaim that while we were spiritually dead in our sin, cut off from the God who created us to reflect his glory and arrogant to the point of equating ourselves with him, God showed us mercy. He sent his son, Jesus, to die in our place for our sins, that through belief in him God might make us live. We were powerless to make ourselves live, but God gave us life in Christ. Here we glorify God by proclaiming all that he has done for us in Jesus as long as we have breath or until he returns.