The book of James is so practical. And these verses are particularly practical.
They are verses which sum up the section that begins in
It is a section which challenges our arrogance and rebukes us for our refusal to put God first. We saw last week, when James says (
James 4:5) that we cannot be both friends of the world and friends of God. Someone asked me, ‘Does that mean I can’t like the world or care for the world or buy nice clothes?’ No, but it does mean that we must not make this world our reference point; we must put our desire for God before our desires for the things of this world.
It is about submission before God, ‘Submit yourselves therefore to God’ (
James 4:7). And in particular James challenges our boasting. In 3:14, he says, ‘But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth’. And now, he writes, ‘As it is you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.’( James 4:16).
It is about facing up to reality as it us
James 4:13-17 is speaking specifically to people in business, to traders. “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”. You can hear the conversation at the conference: ‘We’re going to expand here, buy up that company; I’m going to move to Liverpool to start up a new branch’. Or it could be chat in the pub, ‘I’m going for promotion; and then we’ll buy that house in the country’ It is a government speaking, ‘Growth is normal. Next year growth will increase by 2%’. It is the company saying to their shareholders, ‘We’ll pay out a dividend of 7% next year’.
And James challenges that attitude.
It is not a challenge to planning and it is not a challenge to ambition – although earlier ‘selfish ambition’ has been rebuked. Of course we need to make plans for the future. But they must be plans made in the light of God. What is rebuked here is self-sufficient, self-important planning.
But he does challenge the attitude which ignores God, which thinks that it is all down to us – to our choices and ability and hard work. And when we declare our plans for the future with no reference to God, as if it was dependent completely on us, plans become arrogant boasting. They are foolish.
And there is, in civil society, an assumption that everything is dependent on us.
1. Risk management: there is an unspoken assumption that somehow you can manage away risks. Now of course it is sensible to look at some things that can go wrong, and take some measures to ensure that things are OK. God, as part of the common grace that he has given to us, has given us common sense. But we are never going to be able to guarantee ourselves against disasters.
2. There is the presumption that when there is an accident, there must be someone to blame: in other words, it could have been avoided.
The presumption is based on the assumption that it is all under our control. The recent debate about climate change has been quite revealing. Our behaviour can, of course, make a significant difference. It has to change. But much much bigger factors are in play.
3. It is the assumption that our future is completely in our hands.
We are told to believe in ourselves, that we can be what we want to be, do what we want to do, that the only limit is the sky and our imagination. Junior Apprentice: ‘I’m good and I’m going to be a success’. And our society commends that sort of attitude.
And James confronts us with two home truths
- We do not know the future. (v14)
‘It is ironic’, says James. ‘We talk about what we are going to do next year, and yet we do not even know what tomorrow will bring.’ So how can we say, ‘Next year this or that will happen’?
Who knows? Anything, but anything can happen. Sickness, a family tragedy, discovering that someone who you trust is not quite who they say they are, a diagnosis, a car accident, unexpected redundancy
Or with a business: a competitor undercuts you, a supplier goes belly up, a government contract you depend on is cut, your market evaporates, a decision that you thought was really good turns out to be really bad.
Phil Vischer was the CEO for the company which produced Vegi-tales. They lost a $11m lawsuit, filed for bankruptcy, and have been taken over. Phil writes, ‘We got ourselves upside down financially when everything was working wonderfully. When things were doing so well, I thought that was God wanting us to expand, so we grew like crazy. Now I think it was more me having all these great ideas in my head and being so excited that I wanted to do them all at once.”
We can make great plans, but we do not know what the future holds. The chairman of BP knows that.
- Our life is like a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
Elsewhere the bible describes us as being like a shadow, or like grass.
In the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, one of the ultimate punishments was to put someone into the Total Perspective Vortex. The person sees the vastness of the universe, and then they see themselves in perspective. And they come out of the Total Perspective Vortex a gibbering wreck, their mind has been blown. They’ve seen how big the universe is and how small they are (the exception is Zaphod Beeblebrox).
We are extremely small and incredibly fragile.
We’ve been made very aware of that over the past couple of weeks. Kieran died at the age of 12 from a rare heart defect; Keziah was a youth worker at Moreton Hall and she was killed this week in a car accident.
And even if we live to a good age of 80 or 90, we still will die. And even if we do live to 90 or more, what is that in comparison to the history of the human race, let alone the history of this planet or solar system or galaxy?
Someone was saying that they were watching an advert for life insurance. The company described it as being ‘in case the unthinkable should happen’. The person commented, ‘We live in a society in which the inevitable is described as the unthinkable’.
DL Moody used to have a jar of ash on his mantelpiece. He was the Billy Graham of his time, used by God in astonishing ways. But he used to say that when he was tempted to give in to pride, he would say, ‘What is DL Moody?’ And then he would look at the ash in the jar, and he would answer himself: ‘That is DL Moody in 100 years’.
Mark Ashton was vicar of St Andrew’s the Great, in
. About a year ago he was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer, for which there was no treatment. He was given between 6 months and a year to live. He writes how spiritually the months after being told he was going to die, were very good months for him. “I can now see that much of what I have allowed to fill my life these 40 years has been of dubious value. I am not now going to gain any further reputation or achieve anything more of significance, and I realise how little that matters. As I start to clear up my effects, I recognise how I have allowed them to clutter my life and how little I have actually needed them. While I would love to have provided better financially for my wife, I know that being ‘comfortably provided for’ will be of no spiritual help to her in the years ahead.” (Mark Ashton, On my way to heaven, p5) Cambridge
And so James warns us (
James 4:15): ‘Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that”.
It is, at the least, an appeal to us to bring God into the equation. Even the words ‘God Willing’ or DV in the old days, may have become a formula, but at least they are words which recognise that life is bigger than us. There is a massive difference between saying, ‘Next year this congregation will grow to 150 because of the strategies that we are putting in place’. And saying, ‘We will do what we can to see this congregation grow to 150. But actually it is beyond us and it really is in God’s hands’
But it is more than that.
1. It takes enormous pressure off us.
When we make claims that are just beyond us the future becomes a dreadful tyrant. And if things work out as we hope, it just makes the next stage worse. We need to make further claims to justify our initial success. And at some point, the whole pack of cards is going to come falling down.
But when we recognise that actually 90% of what happens is beyond our control, it is liberating.
John the Baptist is told that Jesus is baptising more people than him. John could have said to his followers, ‘OK lads, we need to up our game. Drag them in’. But John recognises the hand of God in this. He simply says, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given to him from heaven” (
2. It leaves significant space for prayer.
You see, if it is all down to us, you need to grab what you want. It is that attitude which James exposes in
But if it is down to the will of God, you do not need to grab. You can ask God.
3. As Christians it gives us great confidence
One of my children asked me, ‘Daddy, what is your will for us?’ It was a brilliant question, even if he was only thinking in terms of money.
We can say to our Father God in heaven, ‘Father what is your will for us?’ He might say, ‘One day, all that is mine; all that is my son’s will belong to you’. He might say, ‘My will for you is that you become my children, that you become like me, ‘partakers of the divine nature’, with an inheritance kept for you in heaven. Or he might equally say, ‘My will is that you live holy and pure lives on earth; that you begin to live the life of the future Kingdom here and now’.
But whatever the answer, we know that God’s will for us is good and perfect (
If we can say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will we will do this or that’, we are acknowledging that he is in control. It does not mean that things will go well for us here and now, but it does mean that ultimately things will work out: ‘All things work for good for those who love him” (
So we might as well live in accordance with God’s will now.
And that brings us to
James 4:17 – which is a brilliant definition of what sin is. ‘So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin’, which could read, ‘So whoever knows the will of God and fails to do it, for him it is sin’
The will of God is that we should be humble and not boast
The will of God is that we should live as friends of God and not put the things of this world before God
The will of God is that we should not grab but ask God
As I said, these verses conclude the section that begins in
James 3:13. And James 3:17 tells us how we should live: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace”