Reading Time: 10 minutes

Faith at work: Are your plans surrendered to God?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: James 4:13-17

In 1870 the Methodists in Indiana were holding their Annual Conference. At one point in the proceedings, the president of the college where they were meeting said, “I think we are living in a very exciting age.” The presiding bishop asked him, “What do you see for the future?”

The college president responded, “I believe we are coming into a time of great inventions. I believe, for example, that men will fly through the air like birds.” The bishop said, “That’s heresy! The Bible says that flight is reserved for the angels. We’ll have no more such talk here.”

When the Annual Conference was over, Bishop Wright went home to his two small sons. Here they are: Wilbur and Orville.

God’s plan for our lives is always greater than any we can imagine for ourselves. I’d like us to think together about that subject: how can we know that will?

Knowing and doing the will of God is the key to living the abundant Christian life, the life Jesus died for us to experience. All of Christianity reduces to this: what is God’s will? Am I in God’s will?

Where do you need to know God’s will? If you could ask God one question, seek his guidance with one problem, what would it be?

Verse 13: “Come now those saying, Today or tomorrow we will go into this city, and we will spend there one year, and we will trade and will make a profit.”

Come now is a brusque address to get their attention, something like “listen to me!” Those saying are merchants: mariners, sea and caravan traders, and those who combined domestic and foreign trade (Adamson 178). Business travel was common; cf. Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2, 18; Romans 16:3) and Lydia (Acts 16:14; Burdick 197). As Jews left Palestine to settle in cities throughout the Mediterranean world, growing commercial activity and commerce would be familiar to James’ readers (Moo 202). What follows is apparently a quotation, something James has heard them say.

Today or tomorrow is the correct reading, not “today and tomorrow” (as in some versions; Robertson 54). The phrase beginning, we will go into this city suggests “deliberate and calculated arrogance. They would go where they liked, and for as long as they liked. Their resolve, together with the refusal to reckon with death, has a modern ring” (Adamson 179). All four verbs in the verse are in the future tense, indicating assurance about what is to come. This city is specific, as though they are pointing at a map or a city on the horizon.

Verse 14: “Who do not know of the morrow, what for your life? For it is a mist, which for a little appears, and then disappears.”

Who do not know of the morrow applies to us all, whether we are wealthy merchants or not. It is foolish to assume that life will transpire as we plan, and wise to assume that whatever happens is under the control of God (Martin 166). Proverbs 27:1 warns us, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.”

Mist is the word for steam rising from a kettle or smoke rising into the wind (Rienecker 392); both are carried away instantly and are no more. James may have in mind the Mediterranean mountain mists familiar to seafaring merchants (Adamson 180). The word expresses the simple idea that life is short. Disappears was used by Aristotle for the migration of birds (Rienecker 392).

Verse 15: “Instead of you saying, If the Lord wills, even we will live and we will do this or that.”

Now James returns to his dialogue with those in verse 13.

Verse 16: “But you boast in your presumptions; all such boasting is evil.”

Boast refers to empty boasting which is intended to impress men, extravagant claims which cannot be fulfilled (Rienecker 393).

Verse 17: “Then to one knowing good to do, and not doing it, it is sin to him.”

This is likely an independent maxim incorporated into the text (note the switch from second to third person; Martin 168). James is fond of closing his argument with proverbs (2:13; 3:18).

Knowing to do good implies that we all know good we are not now doing. James may have in mind the good which the merchants in this section could do with their material gain (Moo 208). We consider such “sins of omission” to be less significant than those of commission. James does not: it is sin to him.

Theological applications

What is your view of history?

  • Cyclical
  • Chaotic

Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5):

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing

  • Linear

Does God have a plan for us? (Jeremiah 29:11)

  • Some evolutionists say that life began as a chance coincidence, with no particular plan or purpose at all. Existentialists say that this life is all there is, and life is chaos. Martin Heidegger, for instance, wrote that we are actors on a stage, with no script, director, or audience, and courage is to face life as it is. Postmodernists say that truth is relative, and there is no overriding purpose to life. So, does God have a plan for us, or is life a random coincidence? In the words of Shakespeare, are we “sound and fury, signifying nothing”?
  • In Jeremiah’s letter God claims, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (v. 11).
    • He has a plan for where and how they should live: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce” (v. 5).
    • He has a plan for the families they should have: “Marry and have sons and daughters” (v. 6).
    • He even has a plan for the country which has enslaved them: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (v. 7).

A plan for where and how we live, the families we raise, and the country we inhabit—what is left out? God has a plan for every part of our lives, according to our text.

  • God has a plan for Adam and Eve—where and what to live. A plan for Noah—how to build his ark, right down to the exact specifications and building materials he should use. A plan for Abraham, including where he should live, how old he would be when he had his son, and even that son’s name. A plan for Joseph, using his slavery and imprisonment to save the entire nation. A plan for Moses, encompassing the very words he should say to Pharoah. A plan for Joshua, showing him where and how to take the land. A plan for David and Solomon, for their kingdom and the temple they would build for him. A plan for Daniel, even in the lion’s den.

Jesus had plans for his first disciples—plans they could not have begun to understand. He had a plan for Saul of Tarsus as he left to persecute the Christians in Damascus. He had a plan for John on Patmos. Does he have a plan for you?

Why do we presume on the future?

  • “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth” (Proverbs 27:1).
  • “So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?” (Ecclesiastes 3:22).
  • “No man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them” (Ecclesiastes 9:12).
  • “If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into” (Matthew 24:43).
  • “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there” (Acts 20:22).

How does God speak to us?

  • Intuitive
  • Pragmatic
  • Rational

How can we know his will for our lives? (Romans 12:1-2)

  • Transfer ownership of your life to God (v. 1)–total, daily, sacrificial
  • Withdraw from the world’s account (v. 2a)
    • Possessions over people
    • Popularity over principle
    • Present over eternal
  • Invest in your daily relationship with your Father (v. 2b)

Is there a sin of omission in your life? Consider these commands from Jesus:

  • “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
  • “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42).
  • “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).
  • “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuits, and made this prayer theirs:

Teach us, Lord, to serve you as you deserve,

To give and not to count the cost,

To fight and not to heed the wounds,

To toil and not to seek for rest,

To labor and not to ask any reward,

Save that of knowing that we do your will. Amen.

And amen.

Conclusion

Are you in his will today?

A great violinist was due in a particular city. The newspaper reports written in advance of his concert, however, devoted most of their attention to the original Strativarius violin he would play. The morning of the concert, the local paper even carried a picture of the great instrument. That night the concert hall filled with people, and the musician played at his best. When he concluded, applause thundered.

Then the violinist raised his instrument over his head, and smashed it across his chair. It splintered into a thousand pieces. The audience gasped in shock. The violinist explained: “I read in this morning’s paper how great my violin was. So I walked down the street and found a pawn shop. For ten dollars I bought this violin. I put some new strings on it, and used it this evening. I wanted to demonstrate to you that it’s not the violin that counts most. It’s the hands that hold the violin.”

No matter how smashed your violin may be, the hands that hold it count most. Hold onto those hands, for they are holding onto you.