We’re continuing our James’ series this morning. It’s called This Is the Life. When a loved one falls into some kind of life-destroying addiction, family members may arrange an intervention. This is a kind of in-your-face, come-to-Jesus attempt to get the addicted loved one to face reality and seek help. As we’ve tracked through James, it feels kind of like an intervention—an in-your-face, come-to-Jesus attempt to awaken believers to the reality of what it means to live the Christian life and give direction on how to live it. It feels a little harsh sometimes. It feels less like a love pat and more like a 2 X 4. James doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t put down pillows to soften words. He speaks truth. He does that again today. I invite you to open your Bible to James 4:13-17.
Sometimes people say things that should be filed under the tab: “But then again, what do I know?”
- Before it launched in 1912, Phillip Franklin, vice-president of the White Star Line, which produced the Titanic, stated, “There is no danger that Titanic will sink.” On April 15, of that year, Titanic hit an ice berg and down she went. Lot of people died.
- On October 26, 1929, economist Irving Fisher declared, “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” Three days later the stock market crashed, and America plunged into The Great Depression.
- In 1962, an executive at Decca Records told The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, “The Beatles have no future in show business.” Did you know that The Beatles hold the top spot in the best-selling bands of all time?
- In 1977, Ken Olson, founder of Digital Equipment Company said, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” As of 2016, 85.1% of American homes housed some kind of computer.
See what I mean? File every one of those under the tab, “But then again, what do I know?”
And file these under that tab too …
- When I was in third grade, I planned that my mother and father would work things out, get back together, and we could be a happy family again … but their marriage ended in divorce.
- When I was in eighth-grade, I pretended to be Bill Montgomery in backyard football games and planned on becoming the quarterback for the Arkansas Razorbacks … but I never developed the size or skill.
- When Dayna and I had children, we planned on being with them when they put their trust in Christ and were saved … but our son was saved in his class in a mission VBS we were leading in an inner Kansas City church, and Kristen put her trust in Christ in the privacy of her bedroom without involvement from her mom or me.
- When we moved to First Baptist, Hot Springs, in 1995, I figured we’d be here maybe a few years … well, we’ve been here more than a third of my life.
But then again, what do I know? I’m not sure who said it, but it is the truth: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” God must be laughing all the time. And that other laughter you hear in the background? That’s James. Hear the word of the Lord through his letter … (read the text).
James is highlighting a sin to which we are often blind: presumption. Presumption doesn’t sound so bad. It’s not murder or adultery or stealing. Nobody gets hurt by our presumption. So is it really that big a deal? James calls us out on it. Presumption is the assumption that life will be as I plan it to be, that life depends on me, on my plans, and on my ability to bring my plans to fruition. Presumption forgets God, his sovereignty, and his providence. Presumption is our attempt to play God for our own lives: “I’m going to do this or that.” And presumption is our attempt to play God for the lives for others: “Now listen up, son (daughter, aging mom): here’s what you’re going to do.” Presumption has its roots in pride—in the I-disease we talked about last Sunday: “I am captain of my fate, king of my world, lord of my life.” And while you may not be willing to say it just that way, you live just that way. Presumption.
We presume upon time. Look at v. 13: “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there ….” I doubt if there’s a person in this room who doesn’t presume upon time. Kids count down the days to Christmas or till they can drive or go to college or get married. Adults chart a career path: “Clerk today, supervisor in three years, vice-president of the company in seven, CEO in fifteen.” Adults also chart an economic path of upward mobility: “We’ll start in this 3-bed, 2-bath, 1500 square foot house for a few years until we can move to that 3000-square foot house in the gated subdivision. We’ll drive Chevy for now, but we’ll keep buying up until we have a BMW in our 3-car garage.” We presume upon time: today, tomorrow, next month, in five years. We see “life itself as a continuing right rather than as a daily mercy.” We don’t mean anything by it. We just do it. And in presuming upon time we forget that God is Lord of time, that only God knows what tomorrow holds, and only God knows if we will even be here when tomorrow comes. We presume upon time.
We presume upon choice. Again in v. 13: “we will travel to such and such city.” James is not belittling making plans. He’s challenging the attitude in so many of us that presumes the choice is all ours: “It’s a free country. I can go where I want, do what I want.” Really? I remember a flight back from a mission trip in France. We were supposed to fly from Paris to Dallas to Little Rock. Instead, we went from Paris to Chicago to Detroit to Little Rock and had to spend a night in Chicago. Anybody who’s been on a plane that gets diverted knows we don’t always get to make our own choices. And it applies to more than travel. In Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to Peter in John 21, Jesus foretold Peter’s death, “Truly I tell you, when you were younger, you would tie your belt and walk wherever you wanted. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will tie you and carry you where you don’t want to go” (Jn. 21:18). We make some of our choices, but we don’t make them all. Who chooses cancer? Who chooses a car accident that kills someone? Who chooses a tornado to destroy their home? Who, in his 20s, plans on moving into a nursing home in his 80s? We make some of our choices, but we don’t make them all. Other people make choices that impact our lives. And God is at work under all of that in ways we don’t always see. We should be humbler here. We presume upon choice.
We presume upon ability. The end of v. 13: “do business and make a profit.” “Hey, I’m pretty sharp, you know—track record proves it. I can make it happen. I’ve got the smarts, the savvy, the connections, the network. If it can be done, I can do it.” Listen to the way we talk: I can make a killing in the market. I know there’s oil on that land. If I marry him, I’ll get him to change. Let me at that Sunday School class; I can make them grow. And while we are sometimes right; we are wrong as often as not. We presume upon our abilities. But where did you get those abilities? Did you birth yourself? Did you pick the family, the country, the culture in which you were raised? Did you learn without the benefit of teachers? Did you create every opportunity that’s come knocking at your door? How does God fit into the abilities you possess? Did God not give them? We presume upon abilities.
This sin of presumption reaches long and far into our lives. James shines a light on a sin we rarely notice. Alec Motyer, who has helped me a lot with this passage, put it this way:
We speak to ourselves as if life were our right, as if our choice were the only deciding factor, as if we had in ourselves all that was needed to make a success of things ….
Presumption is a dangerous sin. It’s sneaky and pernicious. It sets us up for a fall. It sets us up for failure. It opens the door to disaster. It forgets God, or at best, tries to co-opt God to get behind our personal agenda. James does us a favor by exposing presumption and its reach in our lives.
But James doesn’t leave us there; he shows us how to guard against it. He makes three statements in vv. 14-15 that stand like armed sentries at the gate through which presumption must enter to get a foothold in our lives. Remembering three little things will chase our presumption away.
Remember that you are ignorant of the future. Look at v. 14: “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.” James describes a businessman who makes big plans about tomorrow and next year and making money. And in the midst of his big plans and bold boasts, James inserts a little reminder, “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.” Ignorance. We don’t know. How can we know? We can make informed and educated guesses, but in the end, they are just guesses. Do you know the mind of God and his sovereign plans for your life? Only God sees the future. Only God knows the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10). We are largely ignorant of it. We know what we want to happen, and think will happen, but whether it happens doesn’t depend entirely on us. We can’t know for sure what tomorrow will bring. So remember that you are ignorant of the future.
And remember that you are frail. Again v. 14: “you are like vapor that appear for a little while then vanishes.” Shortly after I got married, an insurance salesman made an appointment to talk with me about life insurance. I was 21 at the time. Part of his sales strategy was reminding me of the potential brevity of life. He showed me three or four pictures of car wrecks and told me the sad story of the young husbands and fathers that died in those wrecks. That’s what James is doing in this verse: he’s showing us pictures of car wrecks in which young people died before their time. “You are like vapor.” If you walk out on a cold morning and blow air out of your mouth you will see steam. But you better look quick because it disappears about as fast as you see it. “You are like steam,” James says. None of us knows how many years God has measured out for us. In this year alone, I’ve buried people who were 42, 52, and 2-days old. “You are like vapor.” According to Sam Allberry, a good title for anyone’s biography would be Vapor—born, lived a while, did a few things, died, gone with hardly a trace. Vapor—here today, gone tomorrow—because that is what we are. Raise your hand if you know you both of your great-grandfathers’ first names … how about your maternal great-grandmother’s maiden name? Not a lot of hands. Of course not, “You are like vapor”—here today, gone tomorrow, just a name in a family tree or on a gravestone in some cold and dusty cemetery. Remembering you are frail will keep presumption at bay.
And so will this: remember you are dependent. V. 15: “Instead, you should say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” There is but one God. You are not God. I am not God. Only God is God. Only God is sovereign. The psalmist reminds us of this in two ways …
- Psalm 31:15 – “My times are in your hands ….”
- And Psalm 139:16 – “Your eyes saw me when I was formless; all my days were written in your book and planned before a single one of them began.”
God is sovereign. We are not. We are dependent on God. Who gives you today? God. Who gives you the breath that you breathe? God. Who can snuff out your life anytime he chooses at the snap of his fingers? God. Who can spare your life from what looks like a certain death? God. We are dependent. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are dependent on God. Remembering that will keep presumption from setting up shop in our minds and our plans.
But speaking of plans, don’t misunderstand James here. Don’t rush home to pitch your calendars in the trash and delete the calendar app from your phone. James is not opposed to planning; James is opposed to presumption, which is planning life and living life like you are God. The Bible calls us to be good stewards of our lives and our resources. Paul challenges us to “make the most of the time” (Eph. 5:16). That’s wise. Making the most of our time requires planning. James is calling to task only our “self-sufficient, self-important planning that keeps God for Sunday but looks on Monday to Saturday as mine.” Wise and prayerful planning with the awareness that God could change things at any time is healthy and even spiritual. This is not a categorical prohibition against planning.
Nor is it James’ intent for us to turn the phrase “if the Lord wills” into some kind of magic formula. “If the Lord wills” is not a formula; it’s an acknowledgement. It is a conscious acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty and our humility. God is in charge of the world. God is in charge of my life. I don’t have to control my life; God is in control of my life. I can make my plans. I can anticipate this or that. But in the end, what matters is not my plans but God’s will. “If the Lord wills.”
- Adopting this humble posture will reduce the stress you feel about having to manage and control your life and the lives of others. So give it a rest, control freaks. You make God laugh and you annoy the people whose lives you’re trying to control. Here’s a better approach: “If the Lord wills.”
- Adopting this humble posture will teach you to see that the interruptions in your schedule that drive you nuts are often Divine appointments that move the ball down the field in the kingdom of God. “If the Lord wills.”
- And adopting this posture helps you remove the word coincidence from your vocabulary. If God controls the world, there are no coincidences, no happenstance meetings, no lucky breaks. Someone aptly said, “A coincidence is just God in disguise.” “If the Lord wills.”
It’s not a magic formula; it’s an approach to life—an approach that receives life on God’s terms rather than our own: “If the Lord wills.” Proverbs 16:9 is a good commentary on this James text: “A person’s heart plans his way, but the Lord determines his steps.” “If the Lord wills.” It’s not a magic formula.
And it’s not a challenge to figure out what God’s will might be. We can make that a self-serving game in which we are really chasing our will and figuring out how to assign it to God.
Like the guy on a diet who showed up at work with a dozen donuts. “I thought you were on a diet,” said a co-worker.
“I am,” he replied. “But I was really feeling like donuts this morning, so as I approached the donut shop, I prayed, ‘Lord, if it’s your will for me to have a donut, please let there be an open parking place at the front door.’”
“So I guess there was a parking place at the door?”
“Yeah. It took me eight trips around the block before it opened up, but there was a parking place at the door. God’s will.”
“If the Lord wills” is not a game. Like the lady who was trying to decide if she should drive or fly to Arizona for a planned trip. “When I woke up that morning, I looked at the clock and it said 7:47. A 747 is a kind of airplane, so I knew it must be God’s will for me to fly.” As one observer said, “I’d have been more impressed of it being God’s will if it the clock had said DC-10 or MD-88.”
“If the Lord wills” is not a game. That posture is not so much about finding God’s will as trusting God’s will. It’s an attitude that learns the peaceful, Christ-centered, “if the Lord wills” life is not about getting what you want but wanting what you get. “If the Lord wills.”
Adopting a God’s-will, God’s-in-charge approach to life can keep us from the sins of those who think they’re in charge. James has talked about presumption. In vv. 16-17 he mentions a couple of sins that are kissing cousins to presumption.
We see in v. 16 that one of those sins is boasting. “Look at me. Look what I’ve made of my life. I’m a self-made man. I am woman, hear me roar. I am captain of my fate, queen of the world, lord of my life. I’m in charge of me.” Boasting. “All such boasting is evil,” writes James. If you take a God’s-will, God’s-in-charge approach to life you won’t live boastfully, you’ll live humbly. You’ll avoid the sin of boasting.
And as we see in v. 17, we can avoid sins of omission. Sins of omission are not the sins we haven’t committed yet. Sins of omission are sins of knowing the good God want us to do and not doing it. If we forget how dependent we are and act in self-will, we’ll eventually ignore almost everything God has to say. We won’t seek his will in our plans. Why do we need to do what God wills us to do? We’ve got plans of our own. That’s sin, writes James. But if you take a God’s-will, God’s-in-charge approach to life you won’t commit these sins of omission. You’ll seek to know what God wants you to do, and do it.
That’s what Jesus did. The night before the cross, he prayed in agony in Gethsemane. The shadow of the cross loomed large and dark upon his future, and he had to steel up his courage to take it on. He prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup (this cross) away from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done” (Lk. 22:42). No presumption, no boasting, no sins of omission on Jesus’ part. He lived an “if the Lord wills” life and did what the Father willed him to do.
Jesus knew that even when the Father’s will is hard and painful to bear, the Lord’s will is good, acceptable, and perfect (Rom. 12:2). We may not see that now, but one day we will. We will see how God redeems brokenness and folds it into his will for our lives in ways that grow our faith, advance his kingdom, and bring him glory. For every cross God will make, sooner or later, a resurrection. And on the other side, all those broken moments in this life where God seemed a million miles away, will be, as C. S. Lewis suggested, like a long night in an inconvenient hotel. Trust the Lord. Trust his will. Follow it when it’s clear. Patiently submit to it when it’s not. Jesus lived that way. He models it for us and empowers us to live that way too.
Embracing an “if the Lord wills” life leads us to do God’s will and keeps us from the sins of the presumptuous, the sins of those who think they’re in charge.
In one of his many tales from Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor tells the story about the death and funeral of his cat, Pinky. Keillor remembered:
Then we stood around the hole, put the cover over Pinky, set the box in the hole, and knelt, gently pushing handfuls of dirt over him. We patted the dirt into a mound and laid a half-slab of sidewalk on it, and wrote, in orange crayon, “PINKY our cat 1950 A.D. We love you. R.I.P.” and went in and had macaroons and grape nectar on the porch. We sat in a circle and conversed as people do after funerals. “How is your mother?” I asked Maryls. “She is fine, thank you,” she said. “Is your family planning a vacation this summer?” “Yes, we plan to visit the Black Hills in August, Lord willing.” “Lord willing” was a phrase learned in church, denoting the uncertainty of the future. It seemed appropriate after burying a cat.
Hey, it’s appropriate every day, every moment of our lives. Go ahead and make plans—there’s no sin in that. Just don’t be presumptuous. Remember that our best laid plans, our very lives, are vapor—here today, gone tomorrow. And remember that you’re not in charge of your life; God is. So even in the midst of your plans, cultivate the spirit that says, “If the Lord wills we will live and do this or that” … if the Lord wills.
Preached: November 5, 2017
First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, AR
John Scott McCallum II