Grace For The Journey
Beginning the early part of March we encountered startling events that caused us to quickly realize that we are not in control of what happens to our lives and even with all the future plans we make we can’t count on carrying them out. Our lives have been turned upside down. Many have learned in these days that is God who is sovereign and not us.
Have you ever heard this phrase: “Man proposes, but God disposes?” The phrase is centuries old, apparently occurring first in Thomas à Kempis’ 15th century classic, The Imitation of Christ. And you will find it in a number of other places. In fact, if you do a Google Image search on this phrase you will be directed to a photo, a 19th century oil-on-canvas painting by the English Painter Edwin Landseer.
In the painting Landseer depicts the aftermath of a ship lost in the arctic sea and the ensuing disappearance of 129 men, explorers who had sailed in 1864 in search for the Northwest Passage. The ship and the men disappeared into the arctic ice.
The idea of this phrase is that man may plan the events or the course of his life, but the God who is sovereign will do as He believes best. Even the JB Phillips paraphrase of the verses of our study contains this heading above the verses: “It is still true that man proposes, but God disposes.” Here is how the Bible states it in James 4:13-17, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that. But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.
God’s sovereignty precludes our presumption. This really is at the heart of what James is teaching in these verses. Most pressing on his mind is the presumptuous planning of Christian merchants, but his warning applies universally to all people in all times and in all situations: God’s sovereignty precludes man’s presumption. The Bible puts it this way in Proverbs 16:9, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.”
In today’s blog, let’s look at James’ text and examine it more closely, noting no fewer than three facts about life.
1) Life Consists of Uncertainty
This first point is unmistakably present in the words of James. He cautions: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit…”
James has in mind primarily Christian merchants or businessmen, men who travel and trade goods and services for profit. We may picture a man unfurling a huge map, flattening it out on a table and pointing to various places of interest where he hopes to go in order to “buy and sell, and make a profit.”
On the surface there is nothing wrong with this kind of thinking and planning. We all plan events and give thought to the days ahead in terms of what we will do or what we hope to accomplish. There’s nothing wrong with having a day timer or using the calendars on our computers or smartphones. In fact, because God is an orderly God, there is something of our mirroring our Creator when we plan our days and structure our lives. Created in God’s image, our orderliness reflects the glory and grandeur of an orderly God.
Planning the future
Is not the problem.
What then is the problem?
Fundamentally, it is
The problem of presumption.
It is the brazen and arrogant way we may plan our days and events as though we were in charge of everything and that everything we plan will come to pass.
A key to understanding
What is wrong in verse 13
Is to consider not so much
What is said but
What is not said.
The key to understanding
What is wrong with
The speaker’s presumptive boast
In verse 13 is to
Consider what he leaves out
– Or better, who he leaves out.
How much of our own lives do we live or plan without giving so much as a thought to God’s plans?
When you read verse 13, do you see any reference at all to the One True and Living God? No. There is no mention of Him. And lest we become too critical, how much of our own lives do we live or plan without giving so much as a thought to God’s plans?
The futility of presumptuous planning is especially proven by the next verse: “whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow…”
James sounds a bit like Solomon, when he writes in Proverbs 27:1, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.”
Who knows what tomorrow holds? Life is full of uncertainties. This truth can actually . . .
Liberate us from so much
Fretting about and
Losing our temper
When things don’t go “our” way.
Belief in the sovereignty of God –
That God is absolutely in control
And is overseeing all events
For His glory and our good
– Means we may rest assured
He is doing what is best.
The Christian can rest in knowing that God always does what is right, every single time without exception.
Frankly, the fact that we do not know what tomorrow holds is nothing short of a profound mercy of God. I’m not sure I want to know the future!
Thankfully, God knows what we can handle and what we can’t handle. He knows for our own good whether to give or to withhold a happy providence. He also knows exactly when to unveil a trying or difficult circumstance meant to grow us and conform us to greater Christlikeness (Romans 8:28). God knows best and always acts rightly.
Life consists of uncertainty. The second fact of life:
2) Life is Characterized by Frailty.
This is such a humbling truth! We are not as strong as we may think. James asks and then answers a question worthy of sober reflection: “…For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a time and then vanishes away.”
The Greek word translated “vapor” here is an old word meaning “mist.” It’s the word from which we get our English word “atmosphere.” Our lives are like that misty steam rising from our morning cup of tea or coffee. We see it but for a moment and then it is gone.
How foolish that we should speak
So presumptuously about
Our plans for the future
When our lives are so
Fragile, so fleeting, so frail.
This does not mean we are to live our lives dejectedly, consigning ourselves to the fatalism of a meaningless existence. That is not what James is teaching! Quite the contrary:
Created in God’s image
We have real
Meaning and purpose.
God has designed us
To live our lives
For His glory
And when we
Live for Him
We experience life
On the most
Joyous level possible.
James gives us what we ought to say instead of boasting of our self-made, self-determined plans. Rather than saying, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit,” James argues, “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’”
“If the Lord wills.” That’s how we are to speak: “If the Lord wills, I will be alive tomorrow.” This is sounds different than our normal response and it is pretty humbling too! Someone invites you to go somewhere, imagine you reply: “If the Lord allows me to live.” Sounds kind of morose, doesn’t it?!
I’m not sure that James actually means we are to say these exact words every time,
But . . .
I do believe He wants us to
Think this way every time.
We are to be thinking this way,
Deep down in our hearts,
Knowing that our lives
Are full of uncertainties.
We will only do this
Or that if the Lord permits.
The Apostle Paul thought this way. We see evidence of it in his first letter to the Corinthians. He writes, “I will come to you shortly, if the Lord wills” (1 Corinthians 4:19), and, “I hope to stay awhile with you, if the Lord permits” (1 Corinthians 16:7).
This is a healthy and humbling way of thinking: “If the Lord permits” or, “Lord willing.” Christians of earlier generations would often conclude their letters with something of their plans and then append the Latin phrase, “Deo Volente,” God permitting.
Our lives are characterized by so much uncertainty and frailty. No one knows for certain what’s going to happen tomorrow or in the next few hours. This truth takes us to the final fact of life:
3) Life Calls for Humility
It is the obvious response. The cure for presumptuous thinking, planning, and living is humility before God. James is saddened to hear of the lack of humility in his hearers: “But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”
Rather than saying, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that,” the arrogant, prideful, if even “successful” businessman boasts, “I’m going to go and do this or that and make a profit,” leaving God’s sovereignty entirely out of the equation.
James says in verse 16, “You boast in your arrogance” and, “All such boasting is evil.” The man who does this is like the popular intinerant medicine peddler portrayed in old Western movies. You know the character: he’s the fellow who has a cart full of various elixirs, nostrums, and potions. He jumps up on a soapbox and begins to boast about how he can cure this and fix that. And he can do nothing of the sort. He’s a charlatan.
We are no different when we “boast in our arrogance,” and plan the business trip without bathing it in prayer, seeking contacts and profits without seeking God first, or preparing for a career without ever considering how God may be glorified in it. “All such boasting,” warns James, “is evil.”
James concludes by saying, “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.” He is addressing what is frequently called a sin of omission. Most of us are aware of sins of commission – deliberate sins – doing of something we know to be wrong.
Sins of omission, on the other hand, are those occasions where we remain passive, leaving undone the things we ought to do. Given the immediate context James is saying, “If you fail to humble yourselves and you continue to speak and act presumptuously, leaving God out of your thinking and planning, you have sinned.”
Life consists of uncertainty and is characterized by frailty. Therefore, life calls for humility.
Let us conclude my blog by asking a practical question: “Given what James teaches in these verses, how can I practice humility this week?”
Consider three ways:
a) You are weak and fragile, so trust God with your life
Remember that you depend upon Him for everything. Everything – food, clothing, shelter, rest, etc.
We are not in control
And don’t do the best job
When we are in charge
Our lives are a vapor, a mist, here for a moment and gone. We must depend upon God for everything.
b) You don’t know everything, so trust God with your plans
Remember James warns: “You do not know what will happen tomorrow.” Be humble: You don’t know everything. You don’t know the future.
God knows what we ca it.
Never forget that not knowing the future is as much a mercy of God as a mystery of God. He knows for our own good whether to give or withhold information. He is always working, growing us and conforming us to greater Christlikeness. God knows best and always acts rightly. So, don’t worry about the future and trust God with your plans.
c) You won’t live forever, so trust God with your soul.
This is a clear and blunt conclusion given James’ teaching in these verses. Because our lives are like the evaporating steam rising from our morning tea or coffee, we ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live…”
Ultimately, God alone keeps us living. Ultimately, God alone keeps us breathing. How foolish we are if we do not trust Him with our soul and live for His glory.
I saw an image once in an online article that gripped me. The story was about efforts to revive someone whose heart had stopped beating. What struck me was the image: a couple of doctors or nurses standing over a man who was lying motionless on a gurney. One of the doctors was holding defibrillator paddles above the patient as though he had just tried to shock the patient’s heart into beating again.
What was so gripping about the image was the look on the faces of the doctors as they stood over the patient. They stood motionless, their eyes fastened to the heart monitor, waiting to see whether the man’s heart would start beating. Their frozen posture indicated that they had done all that was humanly possible to revive the man. There was nothing more they could do except watch to see whether the man’s heart would beat again.
That image is a vivid reminder that ultimately God alone keeps our hearts beating. God alone keeps us living and breathing.
Many of us grew up praying a certain bedtime prayer. The words have changed a bit over time. We now teach children to pray it this way:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
Guide me safely through the night,
and wake me with the morning light.
It’s not a bad prayer. I used it myself when raising our girls. But as I’ve grown older, I have gained a greater appreciation for the prayer I was taught when I was small:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
And If I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
The purpose for changing the last two lines of the prayer was to make it seem less morbid. But I think that the purpose for those lines is to remind us of the brevity of life and our accuntibility to God. I think that prayer is more honest and more humble in its petition. I believe it conveys a far better understanding of, and appreciation for, the God who is sovereign over the affairs of men – including His sovereignty over our very souls. It is important to make plans to keep organized to keep us moving forward; but it is more important to understand that we are accountable to God and we must follow the plan in John 3:16 that He has laid out to prepare to stand before Him . . .
- Realize how much He loves us (“For God so loved the world …”);
- Recognize what His love caused Him to do (“… that He sent His only begotten Son …”);
- Repent of our sin and turn to Him (“… that whosoever believes in Him …” – the word “believe” means: (1) To agree with God about your sin; and (2) look to Him as your only source of salvation;
- Receive Jesus as your Savior and Lord – “… should not perish, but have eternal life” … “To as many as received Him to them gave He power to become children of God.”
That is the first step to trust your soul to God … and that decision will be the fuel to keep you trusting in and surrendering to Him.
This is God Word …
This is Grace for your Journey …
Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!
Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”
Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
2 Corinthians 4:7, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed.”