Planning & Living According to The Lord's Will
Sermon from James 4:13-17 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: James: Living the Implanted Word
Delivered on August 7, 2016
With just a quick glance, you can see that the next two sections in this letter begin with the same call—verse 13, “Come now, you who say…” and then 5:1, “Come now, you rich.” The letter takes a slight shift in rhetoric at this point. These next two sections function like twin rebukes to arrogant rich people in particular.
The rebukes are so strong that some have debated whether James even has Christians in mind. But the contents of this entire letter suggest that both kinds of rich people are present in their gatherings, Christian and non-Christian (Jas 1:9-10, 27; 2:1-7, 16; 4:3, 10; 5:1-6). You just have to discern which rich people are being addressed more directly in each context. And even when one or the other is being addressed more directly, the message still applies to everybody indirectly.
For example, James will rebuke the rich non-Christian directly in 5:3, “Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire.” He means, at the judgment. But that still applies indirectly to the Christian by warning us, “You best not put your trust in riches and in unrighteous gain.”
In today’s passage, I take James to be addressing arrogant rich people in general, who live in pride by ignoring God for selfish ambitions. The problem that James is addressing is prideful planning and living that ignores God for selfish ambitions. Let’s read how God inspired James to address this problem, beginning in verse 13…
13Come 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”—14yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
The Problem: Prideful Living that Ignores God
Again, the problem that James addresses is prideful planning and living that ignores God for selfish ambitions. I need to be clear up front so that we understand exactly what he’s rebuking and what he’s not rebuking. By the way he starts, we could walk away thinking that it’s wrong to make plans or that it’s wrong to do business or that it’s wrong to make a profit. But we know it can’t be saying that because all those things appear elsewhere in Scripture as good things in and of themselves.
Proverbs 21:5, for example, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.” Planning, in and of itself, isn’t bad. Or, take the woman who fears the Lord in Proverbs 31—“she makes linen garments and sells them; she delivers sashes to the merchant.” Doing business isn’t wrong in and of itself. It’s also not wrong to make a profit off your business. Ephesians 4:29 says that we must “do honest work with our own hands so that we might have something to share with anyone in need.”
If that’s what the Bible says elsewhere, then what’s so evil about the attitude expressed here? “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.” What’s so evil is that these rich people are making all their life-plans quite apart from any consideration of God and their lives in relation to him and his purposes. They’re very self-confident in their plans and they lack a Godward dependence. They’re aiming to make money but quite apart from a Godward focus and use. It is prideful planning and living that ignores God for selfish ambitions.
Now, James will address that problem from at least four angles in the rest of our passage. I’m just giving you the basic summary of the problem up front. But these four angles on the problem of prideful planning and living—they also reveal how to correct the problem. They give us gospel solutions to prideful planning and living. So let’s learn how to correct prideful living from these four interconnected angles.
The Brevity of Life
First of all, we must remember the brevity of our lives. The Bible frequently reminds us of the brevity of life. Job 9:25, “My days are swifter than a runner.” Psalm 144:4, “Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.” 1 Peter 1:24, “All men are like grass…the grass withers and the flower falls…”
What follows from that teaching is that it’s rather prideful to pretend otherwise (e.g., Prov 27:1). It’s rather prideful to live your life as if it’s going to last forever here, and that what’s most important is earthly gain now. It’s prideful to live as if you determine your days instead of acknowledging that the days you have left are in God’s hands. In contrast, the humble person is one that knows his days are numbered by God, and so he lives every one of them for what’s eternally valuable.
James is picking up the same teaching and applying it to these rich people who are living without a view for the brevity of their lives. He says in verse 14, “yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”[i] So in all their planning and business endeavors they’ve forgotten the brevity of their lives.
He said the same thing in 1:10-11. “Like a flower of the grass [the rich man] will pass away…in the midst of his pursuits.” This is reality. The rich boast in their millions of dollars and their skyscrapers, but they’ll be gone soon enough. If this life is transitory, if our earthly possessions are fleeting, then our ultimate treasure must be found in Jesus and his unshakable, everlasting kingdom.
Let it sink in, brothers and sisters: our days are numbered. Every day that we’re alive is a gift from God. In comparison to his everlasting kingdom our lives are but a breath. What are we doing with this breath? Prideful living ignores that reality. It believes itself invincible, in order to keep clinging to the present all too tightly. But those walking in humility recognize how fragile we are, how fleeting our days really are, and how much every moment must be spent for Christ’s sake.
It’s like the parable Jesus told in Luke 12:15-20: “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’ll do this: I’ll tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I’ll 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.’” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
The fool is the one who spends his days living for himself, without thought that God could take him any moment, without thought of “This night your soul is required of you…” The missionary C. T. Studd wrote a poem titled, Only One Life. In it he says, “Only one life, yes only one, / Soon will its fleeting hours be done; / Then, in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet, / And stand before His Judgement seat; / Only one life, ’twill soon be past, / Only what’s done for Christ will last.”[ii]
Does the brevity of your life shape and determine your investments? Does it inform how you talk about your plans with others, and even shape what you plan for, what you want your life to be about and your children’s lives to be about and your church’s life to be about? The brevity of life confronts the sinful mind-set that presumes, “God will still give me more days after I live for myself.” The truth is that he has limited our days. They belong to him. He gives life and takes it away. So spend them all for him.
The Sovereignty of God
A second angle James takes on this problem: in our planning and living, we must acknowledge God’s sovereign orchestration of all things. Again, the Bible is replete with passages about God’s meticulous governance of all things. Proverbs 19:21 even addresses God’s sovereignty in relation to our planning: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.”
We should be aware of God’s sovereign purposes in our planning and living. James writes in verse 15, “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” A couple of clarifications are necessary here, because similar language appears in other religions of the world. Polytheists will say, “If the gods will.” A Muslim will say insha?Allah, meaning, “If Allah wills.” But there are differences.
One difference is the God James has in mind. He says, “If the Lord wills.” And if you go back in the letter you will find “the Lord” applied both to God the Father (Jas 1:7; 3:9; 4:10) and to Jesus Christ (Jas 1:1; 2:1). He’s not just speaking of God in general terms, but speaking of the Lord in Triune terms—one God in three persons. Some of our missionaries will do the same thing when ministering to Muslims—they change the language to distinguish between the God of Islam and the God and Father of Jesus Christ.
Another difference is that for most other religions in the world, a slogan like “If god wills” is very passive and fatalistic. It amounts to just going about life without a personal relationship with the god or gods, and whatever that god or those gods determine so be it, whatever will be will be.
By contrast, James has already explained how personal our relationship can be with the Lord. He has pursued us in grace—through Jesus Christ, he is our Father (Jas 1:17, 27). He brings things into our lives—even trials that may frustrate our plans—to make us more like his Son, to put our values in the right place (Jas 1:2-4, 12). He relates to us through prayer when we need wisdom about our circumstances (Jas 1:5; 4:2). It’s not passive, it’s prayerful. It’s not fatalistic, it’s fatherly.
So with those two clarifications in mind, James is encouraging us into a kind of planning and living that acknowledges that all things are in the hands of our loving Father. Sure, plan out your days—that’s fine—but not in such a way that when the Lord makes it otherwise, you’re not getting frustrated and clinging to your plans and raising a fist at the Lord for frustrating them. Again, mere planning is not the issue here, Planning without holding your heavenly Father’s hand in it all is the issue.
Paul would sometimes include language like this in his letters. He was making plans to come visit churches—he longed to be with people face to face. But in his planning, he would say things like this: Romans 1:9, “For God is my witness…that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you.” Or 1 Corinthians 4:19, “But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills”—the exact same phrase that James uses (cf. 1 Cor 16:7).
God’s sovereignty doesn’t mean that we don’t plan. But it does mean that we acknowledge his sovereign rule in all our plans. Which means that our confidence cannot lie in our plans, our jobs, our economy; our confidence must be in the Lord himself. His plans will bring all things into submission to the Lord Jesus Christ, not ours.
So if he chooses to let your car break down, or he chooses to permit an illness, or he chooses to take life or give life, or if he chooses to dissolve your job position, or if he chooses not to approve your visa into a certain country, or if he causes the stock market to fall—we must humbly acknowledge and submit to his sovereignty over it.
Part of the difficulty with acknowledging God’s sovereignty over our planning and living, is that we often doubt his goodness and his wisdom. We’re afraid to say, “If the Lord wills…,” because what he wills for us might hurt—we might suffer more, and that can’t be good for us. But the cross of Jesus Christ tells a better story.
He is loving, so loving that he gave up his only Son for us. And for all those united to Jesus, he really is working all things together for your good. His sovereign orchestration of all things in the universe will be for you becoming more like Jesus, it will be for your ultimate satisfaction with his forever glory in his forever kingdom. And when that’s in our sights, we can say wholeheartedly in all our planning, “If the Lord wills. He is good. He is wise. We don’t know everything; he does.”
The Glory of God
A third angle James takes: we must live for God’s glory not self-glory. Verse 16 says, “As it is, you boast in your arrogance [literally, in your arrogances—plural].” That is, their God-less, day-to-day planning permeates their life, and they’re okay with it. They boast in it. They love planning without God in mind. They love making money without a Godward focus. James concludes, “All such boasting is evil.”
Do you remember what the rich were supposed to be boasting in from 1:10? Where were they to find their exceeding joy? “Let the rich [boast] in his humiliation.” And we saw that meant the rich are to boast in Christ, the humiliation we have in union with Christ. Second Corinthians 8:9 tells us: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
The richest person in the universe made himself lowly to make others rich with life. Riches give us the opportunity to give and give and give away, so as to reflect the way Jesus saved us. We must boast in Christ and his humiliation for us. Galatians 6:14, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world [that rich, pride-filled world and all the accolades it grasps for] has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
When we boast in anything else except Christ and the glory God receives through our planning and living for Christ, we end up living for self-glory. And living for self-glory is evil. The gospel points to a better and more satisfying way—for the rich it is a life that forsakes god-less planning and living that makes much of us for Godward planning and living that makes much of God.
The Lord’s Revealed Will
The fourth and last angle James takes: we must, therefore, aim to do the Lord’s revealed will in all our planning and living. Many people miss that James is drawing a conclusion in verse 17. The ESV has the word “So…” at the beginning of verse 17. It could also be translated, “Therefore…” “Therefore, whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”
Church history has often made the distinction between sins of commission and sins of omission. Sins of commission are when we do what God says not to do. God says, “You shall not lie,” and you lie. Lots of Christians live as if the goal of their Christian life is just not doing bad stuff. That’s certainly part of it. But James is also teaching that there are things called sins of omission—that’s when we neglect to do what God has said to do. He says, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” He says, “Show hospitality to one another.” He says, “Bear one another’s burdens.” Not to do those things is also sin.
The Christian life is not just avoiding what God forbids, but doing what God commands. And that’s really crucial when it comes to our planning and living. If we’re planning our lives such that we do not do the very things God has asked us to do, then James is calling us out in our sin.
What have we basically learned so far? Life is short, God’s purpose rules, his glory not mine. The conclusion of those three points is this: my planning and my living must revolve around what he has told me explicitly to do in Scripture. Scripture is God’s revealed will to us. Now, it’s not going to tell you where to live and make money necessarily. But it certainly tells us how to live and what to live for where we are and what that looks like with the people he places in our lives. In other words, it’s just plain arrogant to do whatever we want and just slap on the slogan, “If the Lord wills…” The Lord works out his purposes through his people doing what he said.
So, let’s step back for a minute to get the bigger picture here. Think with me of what’s going on in this church, and you’ll see why James rebukes them. The rich are looking down on the poor. They’re pushing the poor to the side, making them sit on the floor so they can mingle with their rich buddies. The poor people clearly have needs according to 2:15, poorly clothed and lacking in daily food.
And the rich—with the poor people sitting at their feet—are planning how much money they’ll make in the next town. “You sit over there; we’ve got important trade to discuss.” God’s providential will landed them among brothers and sisters in need, and God’s revealed will is that they use their wealth to meet those needs. But what are they doing instead? Their focus is on loving their profit, not loving the poor.
James has now revealed to them the right thing to do. The right thing to do is love your neighbor as yourself. Again, nothing inherently wrong with your business planning. But there’s a whole lot wrong if you want the money while overlooking your brother that needs shoes and food. There’s a whole lot wrong if you want the comfort of financial independence while your sister is wondering where clothes are coming from for the kids. We cannot ignore God’s clear will for selfish pursuits.
What’s the solution, here? The solution is subjecting all our planning and our living to the revealed will of God in Scripture.
Vocation and money belong to Christ
So, take your job and your money, for example. This teaching means that we cannot view our jobs as just a way to make the money we need to buy whatever we want.[iii] As one writer put it, “we cannot imagine God as aloof from mundane cares of money matters.”[iv] We cannot make financial decisions without consulting Christ for guidance. America teaches us that financial security means more independence. But while you might be independently wealthy, you’re not independent from Christ. He owns you, and that means that all you are and all that you have must serve his purposes.
Isn’t this right? Life is short, God’s purpose rules, his glory not mine—means that not only is my job in his hands, but so is the money I make with my job. Verse 17 forces us to ask, “How should I plan to use my money for his sake?” Then I go to the Bible and it teaches me things like be content with food and clothing (1 Tim 6:8), take care of your family (1 Tim 5:8), show hospitality to your brothers and sisters (Rom 12:13), share with those who are in need and with those who teach the word (Eph 4:28; 1 Tim 5:17-18), help advance the gospel among all peoples (1 Cor 16:10-11), care for orphans and widows (Jas 1:27), and so on.
Then, when we plan our family budget from year to year, or our church budget from year to year, we make sure—to the best of our abilities—to mold our budgets to God’s revealed will, not the other way around. We don’t make our plans and then give God the leftovers. Rather, as we read God’s word, it becomes a grid by which we view our jobs, our planning, our money, our everything.
Retirement and Christ’s kingdom
Or, let’s talk about retirement for a minute. A lot of people plan for retirement in ways that reflect the arrogant attitudes of the rich people here. America says, “You’ve paid your dues and now reap the benefits in comfort, play, and entertainment.” Once you turn 65, you’re free to live the way you want. But if life is short, God’s purpose rules, his glory not mine—if those things are true, then we will not turn our “retirement” as a time merely to enjoy the fruit of our labor.[v]
Rather, we will take our retirement to the Bible and see what God wants us to do with it. And the answer isn’t spending myself to get better with my 9-iron. The answer is spending myself to see his church thriving and his gospel advancing. The answer is so loving your neighbor with the days you have left, that your retired, non-Christian neighbors start asking you to give a reason for the hope within you.
Some of you are already retired and you set a good example for us: Dale and Julia, Kim and Linda, Mary—you guys are helping us with your examples of leading and hospitality and service and ministry to the needy. You’re retired from your jobs, but you haven’t retired from Jesus and the work of his kingdom.
Planning around the body of Christ
Another way to apply this is how you make plans in light of the commitment you’ve made to each other in the local church. The one-another’s of Scripture are only possible when we plan our lives to include them.
Planning must account for the Lord’s will in relation to our time with his people. We can’t just determine not to show hospitality, or not to serve the church where there is need, because our schedule is so full of other stuff we want to do apart from God. Rather, we must adjust our lives to do what God has said. That takes wisdom, prayerful consideration for each family, intentional scheduling, and so forth, but if the Lord wants it from us, he will be pleased to give the grace necessary for it.
Life is short, God’s purpose rules, God’s glory not mine will lead us to give our lives wholeheartedly to his revealed will. We cannot and we will not do this on our own. Only Jesus can change us and give us the wherewithal to do this. Jesus came into the world as a man like us (John 1:14). He not only refused to do anything wrong, he also did everything right (Heb 4:15; Matt 3:15). At every turn, he entrusted himself to God’s sovereign will. Even when that will meant suffering, he prayed, “Not my will be done but yours” (Matt 26:39).
And that made him the perfect sacrifice for all our sins of commission and all our sins of omission. They were all laid on him at the cross. He died to forgive those sins and remove our guilt. He rose again from the dead to give us newness of life, and now made it possible for us to follow in his footsteps (Rom 6). By his power, we can live this way. Instead of prideful planning and living that ignores God for selfish ambitions, Jesus enables humble living in his people, where the Lord’s will determines and shapes all our ambitions. He has already implanted his word in our hearts (Jas 1:21).
We come now and we eat to celebrate his finished work on our behalf, and to look forward to the day when he comes again and makes us wholehearted participants in God’s will on earth just as it is in heaven.
[i]Or better, “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] who do not know what your life will be like tomorrow…”
[iii]Blomberg and Kamell, James, 212-13, following Barton, Veerman, and Wilson, James, 112.
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