Written by Paul J. Bucknell on May, 25, 2020
James 4:13-17 Three Essentials to Good Planning
A godly life is shaped by regularly considering what God has for one’s life and making life and daily decisions consistent with God’s desires. Closeness to God protects one from harm and enables one to make wise decisions not just for this world but for the next.
4:13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” 14 Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.” 16 But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. 17 Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin. (NASB)
Jame’s advice steers us away from life’s dangers into the safety zone of God’s will. Thoughts from James 4 help us better grasp how to do this. We can renew our minds and work through life’s interruptions. It seems like this message is too late. Covid-19 has, like a gigantic global brake, already disrupted our lives. The truth from God’s Word, if relied on, will make us strong and able to endure these changes.
Perhaps, you can do this exercise with me. Remember the last time when you were going forward and then abruptly stopped. If I stood on a bus when that happened, holding one of those handles, my body swings widely forward, my fist tightens, and my body swings backward. This jarring STOP to our society will go down in the history annals. As families, churches, and individuals, we still haven’t adjusted back.
God’s interruptions of our life-plans indirectly help us to tailor our plans to fit His will for our lives. By observing God’s oversight of our life events, we gain a genuine humility that helps us to trust Him as we pursue His will daily. Without taking into serious consideration what God wants for our lives, decision-making is foolish. It causes poor choices, resulting in messed-up lives and dangers on the Judgment Day.
Perhaps, we can answer the question, “What makes for wise planning?” There are three essentials for good planning. James starts by identifying the problem with our typical secular plans.
1.) Recognize Our Bad Planning (4:13)
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” (James 4:13)
If we don’t read the full context carefully, it is possible to draw one or two wrong conclusions regarding such planning: (1) Planning is unspiritual, and (2) Making a profit is unspiritual. But those conclusions are based on a superficial understanding of verse 13. We only need to read verse 15 to reaffirm that planning is okay. James is speaking about proper planning rather than planning in general. However, James definitely casts light on a common problem among Christians, allowing us to get caught into ‘evil’ planning (17).
Godly planning, however, is important, helping us consider who we are, where we are placed, and God’s purposes for our lives. They help us recognize God’s purposes for our lives. God, Himself, made eternal plans to save us in Christ (Eph 1:3-4). But our planning can take wrong turns, and this is what James is targeting in James 4:13.
What is life for? Our life is not to seek our best, but God’s will. This is what we see absent from those James describes in verse 13, “Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.”
Did you notice that these planners did not, at any point, bring God into their plans? This secular mindset is far too common today. Our Christian parents might even encourage us to live this kind of life. No-one but James seems to see anything wrong with it. James is not criticizing planning but unspiritual planning. It looks responsible but is faulty. God is Lord, and we are His servants, therefore requiring another mindset.
- The when—Today or tomorrow”
- The where—to such and such a city”
- The period of time—“spend a year there”
- The what—“engage in business”
- The purpose—“to make a profit.”
The problem revealed in this passage is its noticeably secularistic mindset—a mindset that excludes the notion of God or God’s will. This secularistic viewpoint is common, even among Christians. People, even religious ones, tend to plan their lives without the Lord. James wrote this letter to those professing to be Christians. They go to church regularly, but, somehow, they treat a vital part of their lives apart from God.
Of course, we desire God to bless our efforts towards success. This blessing is not wrong, in and of itself, but the way we think of it or seek to procure it can be wrong. James addresses this problem by assuming that we can or should secure a good, successful life apart from a close relationship with God. God is not the patron goddess that we give an occasional nod and donation. These same people can often be noticed by the way they go on and on, speaking or dreaming about their plans. Their confidence is not in God but in their plans.
Interruptions are normal
Life interruptions are a normal part of life.
With this Covid-19 virus, however, we all have faced an enormous upheaval in our plans. Typically, it is a few of us at once suffer hardships. Today, however, around the world, we together share these interruptions to our plans. As a speaker, I had to stop traveling and speaking to groups. Like many others, I have learned to talk through Zoom and hold virtual meetings. Something has interfered with our plans for university studies, jobs, surgeries, weddings, etc. One of our church couples recently got married through Zoom!
- Some have their lives cut short.
- Others get sick.
- Various unseen factors intervene with our plans.
Most of us have never experienced such drastic interruptions. I’m not sure how you have been responding. It’s difficult. The illustrations are seen everywhere.
Some face great difficulties with life’s upsets. And whether it involves great plans or the loss of money, we need to recognize it’s because we do not start with a biblical mindset.
- Some parents suddenly are homeschooling—quite unprepared.
- Students are thrust out of their classrooms into the unexpected.
- Graduates, including my senior high school daughter, missed all the senior events and even graduation walk.
- Church services and even youth groups can’t meet together—all have gone virtual.
Our worries and stress reveal that we have strayed in our souls. Stress mostly comes from poor planning without God. If you see signs of this stress in your lives, simply confess it and ask God to teach you how to plan with Him.
2.) Understand Our Brief Lives (4:14)
“Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” (James 4:14)
Fortunately, James has not only diagnosed the source of our worries and fears but gives us a biblical mindset that operates behind all our planning. (Think of it as a hidden operating system functioning behind your main programs—in computer language.)
James’ two statements point out the real facts of life that we, especially the young and naive, tend to ignore.
These truths are not often outwardly denied but not integrated into our thinking. James is not trying to cause fear but provides clear guidance. By highlighting our inability to know what is happening next, James shows us that this kind of secular planning is improper. “Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow” (4:14). Our plans do not—can not—take into consideration all the important factors of life. Again, this Coranavirus brought sudden economic and social results. It threatens to steal the very things we enjoy the most. We like being with our friends and family, eating great meals together, or just meeting at the coffeehouse.
- We do not know the future (14a).
- Our lives are very brief (14b).
Before this event, we might belittle James’ words, but I think most of us can now appreciate them. Who could foresee our businesses, schools, homes, churches, closing or limping along?
But the temptation is great if things normalize, if we are fortunate enough to retain a job and have some cash, we still might make the same mistake with our plans after normalization. I can even catch myself thinking, “Oh, I’m going to visit my family up in New England this summer.” With this crisis, even with the instruction of the Word of God, I am cautioned not to say, “I’m going,” but, “God willing, I will visit my family.”
Secular man has become so prideful. From afar, he can control the temperature of his house, dim the lights of a room, instruct his robotic vacuum to make a round, etc. This delusion of control easily gives us overconfidence in the future. Once you or I gain a measure of freedom, then we think we can control our future. Again, James is not criticizing planning or even possessing the hope of success. He rebukes the arrogant secular mindset that asserts, “I know best; I can handle it.”
James calls us to rethink success. Proverbs instructs us that success is not securing our biggest wishes but gaining wisdom and compassion to love God and pursue His will for our lives. If we make worldly success our goal, then we will make horrible mistakes with the way we treat people around us—our friends, mates, employees, etc. Some spouses or children, no doubt, can attest to that. (James continues this theme of poor treatment of people in chapter five.)
Many of us go along in life without any reliance on God. James challenges us not to think this way for two reasons: first, what we already have addressed—our lives will be interrupted. At the end of the verse, he moves on to the second reason—the temporariness of life.
“You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.”
One of our doctors in our church said, with his need to visit coronavirus patients, that he and his wife, as parents, needed to plan for the possibility that they will not raise their two young children. They confess that this possibility had not come to them before.
Life is fleeting away. Think of your whole life like a flight of a bird, which, at this moment, is perched on top of a pole. Once the bird lifts off, its flight soon ends. Our lives are abruptly brief. No bird flies forever. They fly from this pole, perhaps, to that branch on that other tree. That is your whole life on earth!
15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17)
This proper perspective of our brief lives on earth humbles our heart before God to seek His purposes for our life. We begin to ask what He wants to do in and through our lives. This sets us on a whole different journey than the assumption that our lives go on for an indefinite period.
Summary of James 2:14
Assumptions and attitudes lay behind bad or good planning. James speaks about two unbiblical mindsets here. When we think of the future as sure, we grow in self-confidence—rather than God-confidence. God tells us not to lean upon our own understanding. The other faulty and misleading assumption is to not think of our brief life. It’s critical to identify and reject such false assumptions, replacing them with biblical mindsets.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He will make your paths straight.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
Fear the Lord and turn away from evil. (Proverbs 3:5-7)
An unbiblical mindset misleads us. Some Christians, because of this, live more like the world! James’ picture of a brief life can help us regain a God perspective so that we can embrace God’s purposes for our short lives on earth by resetting our priorities. Do you share this biblical mindset? If not, repent from your arrogant and incorrect view; it only perverts your planning. Let’s move on to the third essential point to good planning. God’s ways are always greater and better!
3.) Seek Our Life’s Purposes (4:15-17)
15 Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.” 16 But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.” (James 4:15-16)
James, fortunately, has already stated the biblical mindset needed in verse 15. Here, he even gives us words to put in our mouths—“If the Lord wills.” When young, I remember seeing people signing their letters or saying, “If God wills” quite regularly. Perhaps you have seen the D.V. at the end of a letter. This refers to the Latin phrase “Deo Volente,” meaning, “God willing.”
Now, it might appear that James, by this phrase, only means God’s permissive will. Does God allow it? But with the previous verse, we can see that the phrase “if God wills” calls us to use our brief life-flight to discern God’s will, gain strength from Him, and complete His purposes for us. It’s only then that we begin to seek His will, the very purpose for which He made us.
This is not just a problem for those in this modern age, filled with technological gadgets. James, the brother of Jesus, the leader of the Jerusalem church, was writing to first-century believers. Its braggadocio, delusional mindset is typical of people across the globe and throughout time. We are all susceptible—even if we are believers!
So, what is happening to us, then? Let’s check out Jame’s advice.
“If the Lord wills…”
With this phrase, we realign ourselves from seeking what we prefer to what God wants and deigns all-important. By saying this, it does not mean that what we prefer is bad. It might be—that we always need to be careful of. Lust, for example, is always bad as it demands its preference over the needs of others.
We only have one short life to live. In that time, we must seek God’s will and drive ourselves to fulfill it.
Knowing the right thing (James 4:17)
“Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin.” (4:17)
What does James refer to here? Is he addressing their response to his challenge to humble their hearts? Or is he speaking of a general principle on how to discern one’s sins? The context seems to demand the first.
My paraphrase goes, “Come on. Don’t get carried away with your plans for success. Even if it is good, it does not mean that God is seeking those things for your life.” The disciples objected to Jesus’ death, and yet, it was God’s will for the death of Jesus the Messiah. We can’t assert our wills, no matter how noble they seem, to be better than God’s will. Instead, with our brief lifespan, we humble our hearts to seek His will and through His strength fulfill His plan for our lives.
An Example of Seeking Vision
For example, what if some person or group had this dream for God. They want a bigger center to reach out to the lost. This seems Spirit-inspired. People are willing to give of their time and monies to build a center to reach out to the lost. However, what if others in the group disagree. They do not see this as God’s will. We could dismiss the later group as unspiritual, but is it not possible, that their hesitation is from the Lord. You see, if we have this “Our plans are God’s plans” mindset, then we will interpret other responses as inferior and prefer ours. This arrogance leads to our stubbornness and inflexible ways. Our pride over our plans can blind us to what God’s purpose or timing is.
Our plans for success and a God-growing kingdom are not bad. But it might not be the right approach or timing. I have found it essential to instantly slow down when I see or hear the objections of others. It is difficult to do this when we are convinced our plan is best. However, this self-confidence, though admirable in its leadership qualities, can interfere with God’s subtler purposes. Self-confidence leads to boasting. This boasting can take different shapes in various cultural settings, but if we approach business, church, or marriage plans with this self-confidence, we need to be very wary. The reason James speaks so forthrightly is that these problems come up regularly. The world breeds self-confidence. Satan weasels his ideas into us to manipulate us.
David’s Illustration (2 Samuel 7)
What is the proper way to handle these differences? Quite clearly, it is when we have humbled our hearts to seek His will first (Mat 6:33). Do you remember when David had these wonderful plans to build a nice temple for God? He had built a house for himself and thought it would be necessary to build a house for God.
“Now it came about when the king lived in his house, and the Lord had given him rest on every side from all his enemies, 2 that the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells within tent curtains.” 3 Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your mind, for the Lord is with you.” 4 But in the same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, saying, 5 “Go and say to My servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Are you the one who should build Me a house to dwell in?” (2 Sam 7:1-5)
Up to that time, the ark rested in a tent. When David made his plans known to Nathan the Prophet, Nathan immediately encouraged him. “Yes, this is God’s will!” But Nathan was wrong. God told Nathan to return and tell David that though the plan was good; it was not His way. True, David had his house, and God greatly blessed him by giving him rest from his enemies. He had time, resources, purpose, and the inspiration—and yet it was not time.
Now don’t forget David was king. At other times, he went against the priest or prophet and found terrible consequences (e.g., 2 Sam 24). This time, however, David humbled his heart; he had the heart of a learner. God told him the plan was good, but he was not the one to do it. “Are you the one…?” Sometimes our plans are good and noble, but when God has otherwise planned, we submit to his preferences. His will is always wise and best. We only can submit when our hearts rightly seek His will. David was okay with not proceeding with his plans.
I have been managing the BFF ministry now for twenty years. I have a lot of ideas about how God could do greater things, but I must remind myself that His way is perfect. Self-confidence is not what I need because it blocks me from seeking God’s will. I would become prideful and value success over His ways.
In the end, James comes down and nails down the seriousness of such arrogance. It is sin. So yes, if we pursue what we think right—and perhaps in another situation is good—it is sin. This Greek word for sin means “to miss the mark.” Worldly self-confidence insists it’s right on the mark, but in God’s book, it misses. This kind of sin fights against God’s subtle way of doing things.
The world in us sometimes tramples down God’s will. The husband takes a large sum of money and invests or does business, risking his family and not speaking to his wife about it. He just does it. Church leaders, likewise, can look spiritual in their decisions but be insensitive to what God wants. We must counter this inflexible, non-learning attitude.
Delighting in God’s Will
Romans 12:2 says God’s will is “good, acceptable, and perfect.” Shouldn’t we train ourselves not to put our preference ahead of God’s ways? Can we not start to use genuine prayers to seek God’s will rather than only seeking His blessing on our plans? James warns us how pride can usurp the place of God’s will. Just because we think of it, it does not mean it’s God’s will. This is precisely what James warns us.
Let me focus on positive steps here for a moment.
- Realize what you deem as success is not necessarily the same as God’s will.
- God’s will is always the best, even if God says “no” for we are to wait.
- Sometimes, what we seek is not from good motives; sometimes, it is.
- I will pay attention to the response of my plans from those around me for confirmation (wife, others)
- My will is not to seek my own but to have my will be His will
So let’s practice this in various areas of our lives. If God wills… Remember, God’s will is always best. Not maybe, but truly.
The list continues on and on. You can be a family that chooses to follow God’s will. You can be a single that puts God’s will first. You can be a church that sets to do God’s will. There is nothing to stop you if, in the trust of God’s good and perfect will, you are willing to put your plans to the test, “If God wills.” True, this question will often lead us down unexpected pathways as we try to define better “what God’s will is,” but that is a pathway that is well deserved by those who profess the name of Jesus and to be His disciples. Jesus always sought His Father’s will.
- Not if “I want to buy a house” but, “If God wills I buy a house.”
- Not if “I feel like going to church” but, “If God wills that I go to church.”
- Not if “I want children” but, “If God wills I have children.”
- Not if “I want to homeschool” but, “If God wants me to homeschool.”
- Not if “I should offer to get up to help my wife” but, “If God wills I will get up to help her.”
- Not if “I should buy that car” but, “If God wills, I buy that car.”
Bible Study Questions on James 4:13-17
James begins this new section with the words, “Come now” and yet continues to expose the foolishness of worldly attitudes and actions. What worldly attitude does James condemn in verse 13?
- Take a close look at verse 13. Do you think James thinks it is wrong to plan?
- Do you think verse 13 could be likened to a graduating student getting a good job far away but in his/her plans never even thinks about getting committed to a body of believers? Explain.
- In what two ways does James attempt to bring the readers back to reality in verse 14?
- Pick out two areas of your life to see if you are susceptible to think about your life without God. One way to check is to see how prayerful you are about different parts of your life (e.g. job, a place to live, spouse, church life, etc.).
- What does verse 15 say about the right way you should think about life? What does it mean?
- Older letters used to end with two Latin letters D.V. commonly. What are they?
- Do you think, “Lord willing” means, “I hope God does it” or “I only want it if God wants it”?
- How is saying, “Today or tomorrow I will…” become a form of boasting (v. 16)?
- What does James mean by verse 17?
Advanced Discussion Questions:
- Secularism, whether atheistic or religious in nature, tends to fall into certain attitudes that James points out here. Review them as you go on.
- What advantage is it to take the Lord into all your plans such as marriage, studies, work, place of living, etc.?
- Why does wealth often lead believers and unbelievers away from the Lord?
- What are the ways one makes plans with God? Consider David’s example.