James 4:11-17: If the Lord Wills
Your life is the sum total of things you don’t control.
I shouldn’t have to convince you of this. The same time of year, every year, your Facebook newsfeed testifies to this fact. Around New Year’s Eve, you’ll probably read hundreds of memes mocking our broken resolutions. Last year, I saw a greeting card with a smiling middle-aged woman holding a wine glass in a toast with these words printed on it: “Sorry that statistically speaking, you won’t fulfill your resolution.” And my favorite meme from New Year’s Eve last year was one that read: “My goal for 2017 is to accomplish the goals of 2016 which I should have done in 2015 because I promised them in 2014 and planned them in 2013.”
And no, the early church was probably not celebrating New Year’s Eve by making vain resolutions of personal self-improvement and fitness goals, but the deeply human tick to make optimistic resolutions was still present. Upon this tick, the rebuke of James falls heavily:
“Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? 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”— 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. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:11-17).
Why such heavy rebuke, Pastor James, for those 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”? Here are two reasons, though there are probably more:
- Not all imitation is good imitation: Brace yourself for this radical nature of the following sentence. There is a type of imitation of the Lord that is evil.
One of the most important attributes to define with clarity is the attribute of sovereignty. One of my favorite living teachers on the doctrine of sovereignty is John Frame, who gives us a simple grid for a complex subject by providing us with three cornerstone buzzwords: power, presence, and control. To say that the Lord is sovereign, in other words, is to say that events happen by his power, that he is present everywhere, and that he controls everything. As many wise Christians have said before: “you can’t promise anything unless you control everything.”
This is what makes the attribute of God’s sovereignty utterly unique: it is exclusive. In theological textbook jargon, it is a non-communicable attribute.
A little more on that: most of the Lord’s attributes, like mercy, are meant to be imitated and integrated into our day-to-day lives for the glory of God. For instance, we are not simply to worship God for his mercy, our lives are also to imitate his mercy and in these demonstrations God is glorified. But sovereignty is different. Yes, we are to worship God for his sovereignty but when we wrongly attempt to integrate it into our lives, it becomes an attempt to diminish God’s glory by pilfering what exclusively belongs to him.
God is not magnified by control-freaks.
This is why James calls this type of speech “boasting” and “evil.” The early church is making grand and extravagant claims about the future. In arrogantly boasting about these resolutions, the early church is pretending to have a type of power, presence, and control that creatures cannot have. This is the old, idolatrous exchange of the creator for the creature. Some things, like the tree of knowledge and sovereignty, God doesn’t share.
- Not all planning is good planning: If we carefully move beyond James’ rebuke and listen closely to the linguistic contours of his application, we sense a second reason for why his rebuke was so heavy: “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’”
The four words that make up the first clause of James’ example response are extraordinarily important: if the Lord wills. If we make a basic hermeneutical assumption, that we can assume the command is present because its presence is absent (or: James wrote this command because the early church needed to hear it), then we learn the following: these decisions to move to certain places, perform certain trades, and make certain amounts of money were decisions made without the will of the Lord carefully considered.
This is interesting: this sin of the early church was something said wrongly and James’ correction is to say something rightly. His rebuke: “Do not say…” His correction: “Instead, you ought to say…”
The way we talk about our day-to-day plans is deeply theological. Yes, even how we talk about what we’ll do in the future, where we’ll go in the future, how much money we’ll make in the future, these are all little micro-revelations of our doctrine. To speak highly of what we plan to accomplish is to speak lowly of what God plans to accomplish. To infer that you have a sense of control over the future is to hint that you believe there’s a sense of control God doesn’t have over the future. High-talk of your willpower is low-talk of God’s willpower.
Were James still alive in the year 2017, I think he might be one of those Facebook users posting satirical memes mocking us for making resolutions we are unable to keep. It is not only statistically unlikely that we will keep our resolutions, it’s even theologically ill-advised to make these resolutions. Regardless, I do think James would be happy with this particular response of Old Jack, a character in a play written by Wendell Berry entitled The Bringer of Water, who says: “The world’s curse is a man who wants to be somewhere else.”
Dead Men readers, stop talking about the next day, the next job, the next place like it’s superior to the present. As a probable millennial, you have been systematically trained by your experience to do this very thing. You have mostly passed your days by worshiping “the next thing” and every “next thing” has become a “past thing” leaving you cyclically longing once more for “the next thing.” When you were little, you looked forward to your birthdays, and this left you in tears the day after your birthday. When you grew up, you looked forward to a boyfriend or girlfriend and when you finally made it official, they didn’t complete you. In high school, you longed to graduate and get out of your hometown, but now you find yourselves nostalgic about your roots. Almost every new day, new place and new task that has made the promise of satisfaction has left you dissatisfied. You have grown bitter, jaded, and emotionally paralyzed; Old Jack would call you “the world’s curse” and James would rebuke you to stop talking about the “next things” in life.
Jesus is absolutely clear to not worry about tomorrow, and James is equally clear to not idolize tomorrow. Where you are today, what you’re doing today, what money you’re making today, these are concrete fruits of God’s sovereign will and much of the Christian life is the fight to enjoy these things. If not, you will find yourself growing more bitter, jaded, and emotionally paralyzed by your attempts to make plans “as Lord Cole wills” or “as Lord self-wills.” These four words are a curse.
But praise be to God the Most High, for your life, present, and future, is always to spoken of alongside these four precious words: if the Lord wills.