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.”
Planning is a big part of what missionaries do. Here in the Maranhão field Itacyara and I have worked closely with our area pastors and churches to determine what are the best ways that we can serve the local body of Christ. Among these ways are the Mount Zion Baptist Camp, and the Maranhão Baptist Bible Institute. We have short-term and long-term plans for each of these projects, based on what we hope are sufficiently ambitious and at the same time reality-based objectives.
On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this. And yet, James offers us some strong words of caution. Our plans – even plans for the advance of the Kingdom of God – can become sinful if we let two errors into our thinking.
And what are these two errors? I’m glad you asked.
An elevated view of man
James begins by addressing those who make plans without taking into account one important factor: the uncertainty of life. “What is your life?” he asks. Then he answers: “It’s a vapor that appears for a little time and the vanishes away.”
As is his custom, James wastes no time with niceties. His argument against these hypothetical travelers is not “you might get a flat time on the trip” or “you might run into traffic” or “Google Maps might send you down a wrong road.” No…he goes for the worst case scenario: “You might die!”
But he has a reason for doing this. You see, when we leave God out of our plans, it indicates an elevated view of our own control over our lives. So James reminds us that, in the grand scheme of things, we’re just so much steam. Now you see us, now you don’t.
I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that as James wrote this, his mind went back to a parable Jesus told, recorded in Luke 12, about a certain rich man who invested in bigger and bigger barns, only to have God tell him
“Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?”
A diminished view of God
This second error that distorts our planning is arguable the more serious of the two. Failing to recognize our weakness is one thing. Failing to recognize God’s sovereignty…that’s quite another. James prescribes a corrective here, one that I and many other believers throughout history have attempted to include in our daily speech patterns. In medieval times Christians employed the Latin term “Deo volente” – if God wills. Today we say “Lord willing” or, in the Brazilian Portuguese of my context, “se Deus quiser”.
But it’s important that this be more than a phrase tagged on to our plans as a quasi good-luck charm. James is telling us that we need to actually take the sovereignty of God into account in our planning. And in the next verses, which we will tackle in our next study, he will highlight the importance of this.
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