I’ve said before that the book of James is a very practical book, because it’s about how we’re to live as God’s people and how we’re to regard one another and how we’re to treat one another. But as well as instructing us about what’s the right way to live as God’s people, and what’s the right way to treat one another, James has also been identifying some of ways we go wrong.
So, last week, he wrote about how we go wrong when our own sinful and selfish desires are frustrated and we start to right and quarrel with one another. And before that, he wrote about how we go wrong when we follow the wisdom of the world instead of following the wisdom that comes from above. And before that, he wrote about how we go wrong in the way we use our tongue and in how we speak to one another. We use our tongue sometimes to curse one another and to strike out at one another. And before that, he wrote about how we go wrong when we’re satisfied with the kind of faith that does not lead to good works. And before that, he wrote about how we go wrong whenever we show favouritism in the church: we welcome the rich man who comes into our church and we ignore the poor man who comes into our church. And we could go right back to the beginning of the book of James, because in every passage, he not only points out to us what’s the right way to live and what’s the right thing to do, he also points out what’s the wrong way to live and what’s the wrong thing to do.
And it’s the same in today’s passage. In verse 13 he points out what’s the wrong thing to say. And in verse 15 he points out what’s the right thing to say.
Don’t say this; say this.
Of course, what we say is normally only a reflection of what we think. So, not only is James telling us, ‘Don’t say this; say this’, but he’s also telling us:
Don’t think in this way; think in this way.
So, let’s look at this passage now where James is writing about what we shouldn’t say and what we should say about our future plans.
And verse 13 begins with the words:
We can imagine a father, taking his unruly and disobedient child aside, and saying to him:
The father is saying to his son:
Now listen. It’s time for you to stop and listen to me for a minute. What you’re doing and the way you’ve been behaving is not right. It’s not acceptable. And so, listen to me and I’ll remind you of what I expect from you.
That’s the tone James is using here, I think:
Now listen. It’s time for you to stop and listen to me for a minute, because what you’re doing is not right.
So, what is it that they’re doing wrong? James goes on to say:
Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go this city or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’
It’s clear that he’s addressing traders or merchants who are used to travelling from place to place, from city to city, to buy good in one place before selling them in another place. And, if you think for a moment of the book of Acts, and all the places the Apostle Paul travelled to, and this distances he travelled — all around the Mediterranean Sea — you can understand that traders in those days were able to travel large distants. And so, James is addressing some traders who are used to going from place to place. And he quotes the kind of thing they were saying and how they’d go here and then they’d go there and they’ll spend a year there and they’ll make some money.
We all make plans. Many of you will have made plans for next summer and you’re able to tell me where you’re hoping to go for your holiday. Perhaps you’re planning on going to the north coast where you keep your caravan. Perhaps you’re planning on going across to Scotland or England. Perhaps you’re planning on going over to France or Spain or even further. Perhaps you’re planning on staying at home. We all make plans. So, I don’t think James is condemning these traders for making plans. But if you look down to verse 16, you’ll get a better idea of what was wrong with what these traders were saying. Down in verse 16, James says to them:
As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.
It’s not so much that they were making plans; we all make plans; the problem was that these traders were boasting in an arrogant way about what they intended to do. They were so sure of themselves. They were so confident in themselves. They were so certain that they would be able to do everything they planned to do. Nothing would stop them. Nothing would prevent them from accomplishing what they set out to do, because they were so sure of themselves. So, the problem is not planning for the future; it’s wise to make plans for the future. The problem is that they were boasting in this arrogant way about their plans.
In verse 14, James reminds them of two things they seem to have forgotten. Two things which — if they remembered these things — might have prevented them from boasting like this. The first thing they seem to have forgotten is the uncertainty of life. James says in the first part of verse 14:
Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.
He’s saying to them:
Here you are, boasting about what you’ll do in a year’s time and how after a year in that place, you’ll make some money. Sure, you don’t even know what will happen tomorrow, let along in a year’s time.
And James is absolutely right. None of us knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. We know what normally happens on a Monday; and for most of us, most Mondays are the same. Life is usually fairly regular. But then, from time to time, something unusual happens. Something we weren’t expecting. Something unpredictable happens. And it’s unpredictable, because we couldn’t predict it or foresee it. It just came out of the blue. So, we were planning to go to work as usual, but we woke up, feeling unwell. We were planning to go to work, but the car wouldn’t start. We were planning to buy something in that shop, and we got to the counter, only to discover we’d left our money at home. All kinds of things can happen which we didn’t predict or anticipate and our plans are spoiled. So, James is saying to his readers:
Now listen. Don’t boast about what you’ll do next year, because you don’t even know what will happen tomorrow. Make your plans, but don’t be so arrogant as to think that everything will work out the way you planned it.
That’s the first thing they had forgotten. The second thing they had forgotten which James reminds them of is the way our lives here on earth are fleeting and flimsy and fragile. James compares our lives to a mist. When I get up in the morning, and look out of the window, very often Cavehill has disappeared. It’s disappeared. Can’t see it anywhere. Why not? There’s a mist covering it and you look out of the window, and beyond the trees there’s only this grey mist. But then an hour or two later, there’s Cavehill back in place. The mist has gone. That’s what your life is like, says James. Though we’re lulled into thinking our life is safe and secure and permanent, we need to realise that it’s not. We think to ourselves:
All my life I’ve been strong and healthy; I’m bound to keep going for another while.
But no, says James. Our life is like a mist which is here for a while and then it’s gone. These traders were so sure that this time next year, we’ll be millionaires. But they can’t even guarantee that they’ll still be alive next year. So, James is saying to his readers:
Now listen. Don’t boast about what you’ll do next year, because who knows? Your life may be over before next year. Make your plans, but don’t be so arrogant as to think that everything will work out the way you planned it.
Those are the two things James’s readers seem to have forgotten: first, the uncertainty and unpredictability of life; and second, life is fleeting and fragile. And because they’d forgotten those two things, these traders were boasting in an arrogant way about their plans for the future. So, that’s what we’re not to do. That’s the wrong thing to say and the wrong way to think. What’s the right thing to say. Well, James tells us in verse 15 and in verse 17.
Verses 15 and 17
Before we turn to those verses, let me make one point and one distinction. The point I need to make is that we believe — don’t we? — that the Lord our God rules over all things. God sustains all things; and he controls all things, including the events of history. Now, I don’t have time today to go into this in much detail, but let me point you to Ephesians 1:11 where Paul tells us that God works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will. So, Paul mention’s God’s will; in other words: what he wants to happen in the world. And then, Paul refers to the purpose of God’s will; in order words: he has a reason for wanting what he wants to happen in the world. And then Paul tells us that God works out everything — everything, not just some things — he works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will. In other words, he rules over all things and he directs all things and he guides all things so that everything he wants to happen, happens.
On Sunday evenings we’ve been studying the story of Joseph from the book of Genesis which demonstrates the truth of this doctrine. Joseph’s brothers hated him and sold him into slavery. He became a slave in Potiphar’s house, until Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him and he ended up in prison. What was going on? Why were these things happening to him? Well — you’ll know the story — he eventually became Prime Minister of Egypt and was able to prepare for the coming famine. When the people had no food, instead of dying of starvation, they came to Joseph and he was able to provide them with the food they needed so that they did not die. And at the end of the story, Joseph was able to say to his brothers:
You intended to harm me. You wanted to hurt me when you sold me into slavery. But God intended it for good.
They had their plans: what they intended to happen to Joseph. But God has his plans: what he intended to happen to Joseph. And God was able to work away in the background, working through what his brothers did, and what Potiphar’s wife did, and what other people did, to ensure that Joseph was in the right place at the right time to save all those people from the famine. God rules over all things and he works out everything according to his own plans and purposes.
And that’s lying behind what James says in verse 15. These traders had their plans — all the things they wanted to do and boasted about. We have our plans — all the things we want to do. But we all need to humble ourselves before the Lord and acknowledge that there’s a King who rules over all things and whose plans and purposes are worked out perfectly every time; and it’s not me; and it’s not you; it’s him; he’s the King. We might have our plans and all that we intend to do; nevertheless what really counts is God’s will, because he’s the one who has planned what will happen today and tomorrow and the next day.
That’s the point I wanted to make. The distinction I need to mention is one I mentioned before, but on a Sunday evening. The theologians distinguish between God’s secret will and his revealed will. His secret will; and his revealed will. What do I mean? Well, there are some things which God has revealed to us. And there are others things which God has kept secret from us.
What has he revealed to us? He’s revealed to us his laws and commandments. He’s given us his Ten Commandments, for instance. And by giving them to us, he’s saying to us:
This is my will. I want you to do all of these things. I want you to live like this.
Wat is God’s will for us? That we should obey his commandments.
But then he’s also revealed to us all that the Lord Jesus Christ has done for sinners like us who haven’t kept his laws and commandments. He’s revealed how the Lord Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins before rising again afterwards and ascending to heaven. He’s revealed that the Lord Jesus is coming again one day. God has revealed these things to us in the pages of the Bible.
And God has also revealed his willingness to pardon all who repent and believe in the Lord Jesus. Instead of treating us as our sins deserve, he’ll forgive us and give us the hope of everlasting life.
God has revealed all these things to us. But then there are other things which God has not made known to us. These things he has kept secret from us. For instance, he has not revealed to any of us what will happen tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. He knows what will happen, because he’s planned it all. But we won’t know what he has planned until it happens. So, there’s God’s revealed will and his secret will; all the things he has made known to us and all the things he has kept hidden from us.
Now, what has that got to do with James 4? Well, James 4:15 relates to God’s secret will, because in that verse, James tells us that this is what we should say. We should say:
If it’s the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.
If it’s the Lord’s will. It might be the Lord’s will that we will live and do this or that. It might be his will for us. But it might not be his will for us. Perhaps it’s his will that we’ll get to do that thing we’ve always been hoping to do. But perhaps it’s not his will for us; and we don’t get to do that thing. It might be his will for us; it might not be his will for us. But we won’t know what his will is, until it happens. And what he has planned for us might be very different from what we ourselves were planning to do.
Although James tells us that we should say ‘If it is the Lord’s will’, I’m don’t think James is telling us that the really important thing is that we use those exact words whenever we talk about some future event. You know, some Christians will always say ‘God willing’ when they refer to something in the future.
We’ll meet next week, God willing.
We’ll meet next week, DV.
DV is short for Deo volente which is Latin for ‘God willing’. However, the really important thing is not that we say those words. The really important thing is that we think in this way and acknowledge that while we might have our plans and all that we intend to do; nevertheless what really counts is God’s will, because he’s the one who has planned what will happen today and tomorrow and the next day.
But then look at verse 17, because verse 17 relates to God’s revealed will. James writes:
Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.
In the Bible, God has revealed to us all the good things he wants us to do. In his laws and commandments, he has shown us how he wants us to live. He hasn’t told us what will happen to us tomorrow; but he has revealed to us what we’re to do. God hasn’t told us what will happen to us tomorrow; but he has revealed to us how he wants us to live our lives tomorrow.
Think of Joseph again. He didn’t know what was happening to him or why these things were happening to him. Why did his brothers hate him and sell him? Why did Potiphar’s wife falsely accuse him? Why did he end up in a prison? He didn’t know what was happening to him or why. But Joseph was always careful to remain obedient to the Lord. He didn’t understand what was happening to him because God kept it from him until the end. But nevertheless he was always careful to obey God’s revealed will. And that’s what James is teaching us: In the Bible, God has revealed to us all the good things he wants us to do. We ought, therefore, to do those things.
Imagine you lived and worked in a palace. And everyday you were in the presence of the King, who sat on his throne, from where he ruled over his kingdom. Imagine that everyday you were in his presence. But imagine that everyday you ignored the King and didn’t pay any attention to him. Imagine that in his presence, you talked to the other servants about what you were planning to do, and all you intended to do with your time, without every once acknowledging the presence of the king or without ever inquiring from him what he, the King, wanted. Well, if that’s your attitude, I don’t think you’d last long in the King’s presence, because the King’s subjects are meant to serve the King and to seek to do his will.
Let’s remember that through faith in Jesus Christ, we’ve been raised with him to the heavenly realms. We’re now citizens of heaven and we live, by faith, in the presence of the King of kings. And so, we’re not to live our lives before the King of kings as if he didn’t matter. We’re not to live our lives before the King of kings as if he didn’t count. We’re not to live our lives before the King of kings as if we were the ones who ruled over all things. No, as those who have been raised with Christ to sit in the heavenly realms, we’re to bow before the King and we’re to submit ourselves everyday to his will for us. And whatever he has planned for us, we’re to seek to obey him in all things.