by Daniel Rieke
Planning for the future is an American virtue. It seems like it’s hardwired in most of us by middle school. And by high school, we are expected to have our entire lives planned out…
Go to this college, get such and such a degree, do these internships in the summers. Meet someone by junior year, get married after graduation. Work two years in our field of choice, then do grad school for two years. Then buy a house, then think about having a kid. Then start planning for their college fund, so they can have their entire life planned out by high school just like we did.
It's exhausting to try to control our futures. And according to James 4, it's also evil.
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. (James 4:13-16 ESV)
Now, as a disclaimer, James does not appear to be saying that we shouldn't prepare for the future. That'd go against the clear teaching of Scripture elsewhere (Prov. 6:6, 15:22). He's speaking against the idea of us making assumptions about our futures and trying to control our futures, rather than trusting the Lord with them.
In verse 13, James addresses those people who confidently say what they are going to be doing in business a year from now. I don't know about you, but that's been me countless times in my life – and not just about work. I’ve made assumptions and/or tried to control my life in the area of money, friendships, marriage, children, and many other areas.
That type of mindset is usually praised in our culture as being forward-thinking and visionary. Yet, James tell us, we don't even know what tomorrow will bring (v.14). And not only that, our lives are so short that he compares them to a mist that appears and then quickly vanishes.
So what do we do with that? Are we allowed to think about the future?
James says that we are, but he corrects the way we should do so: Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that" (v.15).
In other words, we can hope and dream about the future. We can make plans. We just have to hold those plans and dreams loosely because we serve a God who orders our steps (Prov. 16:9) and is completely sovereign over all things (Matt. 10:29-30, Eph. 1).
Failing to acknowledge this important distinction is arrogant because we are essentially claiming to be “god”. We think we can control that which only God can control. And by confidently saying what we're going to do (with no mention of the Lord's sovereignty) we are boasting about our arrogance. Doubly bad. And James calls it "evil."
So let's be a people who prays for great ideas, and plans wisely for the future, but let's hold all of those things loosely, with open hands before God, knowing that He is sovereign and we are not. If the Lord wills, we will do this or that.