James is known to be notorious for his proverbial pronouncements and his black and white wisdom. Even at the exegetical level, James is tricky for the most skilled commentators. The reason is because James seems to jump from subject to subject even in a random fashion without any seemingly logical connection to the previous or following context. But this does not mean that James left us with an unintelligible book. Quite the contrary, the book of James is full of indispensable truths for the Christian life.
James could be rightly called the New Testament’s no-nonsense counselor who refuses to coddle us in our sin. Here is a sample of some of James’ hard-hitting wisdom-words:
James 1:7–8 7 For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, 8 being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
James 1:19 19 This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger;
James 1:26 26 If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.
James 2:17 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
James 3:1 1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.
James 3:6 6 And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.
James 3:14–16 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. 15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.
James 4:4 You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
James 4:7 Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.
James 4:17 Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.
James 5:1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you.
James 5:9 Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.
James 5:12 But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.
When it comes to the issue of planning, James wants to remind us that our vision for our lives must be subordinate to the greater vision of God‘s will. While many plan “ahead,” James reminds us of the more important priority of planning above.
James 4:13–16 13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will 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 will live and also do this or that.” 16 But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.
I live in a thriving area of North Dallas, construction is everywhere, everything from home building, shopping plazas, new highways, and hotels are going up all over the place. It is a wonderful place to minister of the gospel. But planning and projecting into the future is a constant objective here. Part of the impetus for this post is the sense of normalcy we are all chasing after the crisis of Covid-19. Dallas seems to be full steam ahead in this desire for the way things used to be. There’s a feeling in the culture today that we are in fact returning to certain levels of normalcy. Masks are now optional, travel is resuming, people are returning to work and leisure. Naturally, this brings a certain energy and optimism to people’s lives. People resume business plans, business ventures and personal projects. But remember, it is in the hustle and bustle of life that James speaks to us a clear word of wisdom.
If Covid taught us anything, it taught us that life can change in an instant. Truly, “you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow.” The pandemic taught us that life is fragile, and like the vapor of a breath, we can be gone. Of course, those are reasons enough to make our plans beneath the humility of knowing that God is sovereign. For James, pursuing our plans in a godless fashion that does not take into account the absolute sovereignty of God and the volatility of life is evil. It is not just poor planning, it is evil. It is a moral issue, a religious issue and an issue of whether or not we are going to live for the glory of God as we contemplate our futures on a daily basis. Whether its ministry, vacations, our children’s schooling, financial goals, vocation and career; nothing in the believer’s life can be planned without prayerfully acknowledging our absolute dependence on God’s mercy and grace.
A further observation can be made about James’ wisdom here. His words remind us that the twists and turns of life are not random. They are not the result of economic trends and social upheavals or personal health and well-being; these are all under the control and direction of the meticulous sovereign hand of God in the world. His Providence guides all things (cf. Nehemiah 9.6; Ps. 104.27; 145.15-16). Every sparrow that falls, every hair on our heads, every day of our lives, every morsel that every creature eats, every atom and every molecule in the universe; nothing lives of itself (cf. Acts 17.25-28). God alone is independent of something greater. Got alone is self-sufficient, self-contained, and self-existent. This is the Creator/creature distinction. He needs nothing, we need everything. He is unchanging, we are ever-changing.
Remarkably James speaks to this exact point in perhaps one of the most penetrating theological statements concerning the self-sufficient and immutable nature of God:
James 1:17 17 Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.
In a real sense, to plan rightly, to plan with wisdom is to confess that we are not God. There’s also the very practical issue of devotion, attachment and identity. When we plan in a God-centered way, beneath his sovereignty and always in acknowledgment of his divine providence. We are reminded of the words of the apostle Paul, namely that we not make full use of this world (1 Cor. 7:30-31). This is especially relevant to us who live in a world in any kind of culture that is constantly telling us how to make full use of everything around us. From our technology to our homes and our smart cars; our culture is obsessed with customization all for the purpose of maximizing our experience of our things and for our pleasure.
This is important because for most of our lives we spend it seeking identity in the things that we possess, and the people that we know, or in the things that we do. But James is reminding us that everything can be taken away from us at an instant because our own life quickly “vanishes away” (cf. 1 Pet. 1.24). For James, like Peter, he views all of life as a great pilgrim journey (cf. 1 Pet. 1.17; 2.11-12). In this sojourn of ours we cannot grow too attached either to our things or to the course of this world in general which is passing away (cf. 1 Cor. 7.31; 1 Pet. 4.7; 1 John 2.17). Just when we think we have gotten a hang of things in this world, James cautions us- be careful!
When God says “I do not will”
A Puritan once said, ‘we are most like God when we are content.’ Here’s another aspect of the wisdom of James. When we live our lives under the great conditional statement, “if God wills,” we will be far less disappointed when our plans are not realized. Instead, we would have already confessed that we are not in control, that our plans are one thing but God’s decree is another. This great conditional statement is therefore not a Christian lucky charm or a religious spiritual mantra, it is the Christian life brought beneath the reality of God himself.
In this reality we find our contentment. We come to realize our plans are not ultimate and that God’s will for us is best despite if it runs contrary to our own notion of what should be. In this contentment there is also a remarkable liberty and freedom in knowing that providence having been revealed, we can now ironically, plan accordingly to the glory of God. Thomas Manton wrote:
The sovereignty and dominion of providence: the Lord can blast your enterprise, though managed with never so much wisdom and contrivance; he can nip it in the bud, or check it in the very article of execution; and I have observed that usually God is very tender in his honour in this point, and usually frustrateth proud men that boast of what they will do, and conceive unlimited purposes, without any thought of the check they may receive in providence.Thomas Manton
In a world where “unlimited purposes” and personal potential is presented as the very essence of authentic humanity, happiness and freedom, the Christian has a very serious decision to make- will we listen to the wisdom of James or will we wait to be checked by providence? May God give us insight for the former.
1 Thomas Manton, A Commentary on James (Banner of Truth Trust, 1998) 393.