Planning In Light of God's Sovereignty
As the following verses make clear, James is not rebuking these merchants for their plans or even for their desire to make a profit. He rebukes them rather for the this-worldly self-confidence that they exhibit in pursuing these goals—a danger, it must be said, to which businesspeople are particularly susceptible.
And we should guard here against another kind of misinterpretation: the idea that James is forbidding Christians from all forms of planning or of concern for the future. Taking out life insurance and saving for retirement, for instance, are not condemned by James; these may very well be a form of wise stewardship. What James rebukes here, as v. 16 will make clear, is any kind of planning for the future that stems from human arrogance in our ability to determine the course of future events.
This is what we often call the sovereignty of God. Everything that happens in the world comes from him. He is the one who sends rain, thunder, and lightning (Pss. 65:9–11; 135:6–7; 147:15–18). He makes things freeze, then melts the ice. The smallest details of nature are under his control: the falling of a sparrow, the number of hairs on your head (Matt. 6:26–30; 10:29–30). And the events that we call random, that we ascribe to chance, are really God at work. Look at Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” Just roll dice. Whether you get a six or an eight or a twelve, the number comes from God; it’s God’s decision.
God rules not only the little things but the big things, too. How could it be otherwise, since the big things are combinations of little things? He determines what nations will dwell in which territory (Acts 17:26). He decides what king is to rule, when, and where (Isa. 44:28). He decides whether the purpose of a nation will stand or fall (Ps. 33:10–11). And he decided, once, that wicked people would take the life of his own dear Son, so that we, we sinners, might live (Acts 2:23–24).
God rules not only the important events of human history but also the lives of individual people like you and me. He knits us together in our mothers’ wombs (Ps. 139:13–16). He decides whether we will travel or stay home (James 4:13–17).
James is asking, in effect: How can you, being the kind of creatures that you are, presume to dictate the course of future events?
But whichever word we choose, the point is clear enough: human life is insubstantial and transitory, here one minute and gone the next. Illness, accidental death, or the return of Christ could cut short our lives just as quickly as the morning sun dissipates the mist or as a shift in wind direction blows away smoke.
It is not enough, James suggests, to recognize that one’s own life is uncertain and transitory (v. 14). Such a recognition, after all, is not even specifically religious. What these merchants need to go on to reckon with is that their lives are also in the hands of God. This world is not a closed system; what appears to our senses to be the totality of existence is in fact only part of the whole. This life cannot properly be understood without considering the spiritual realm, a realm that impinges on and ultimately determines the material realm in which we live day to day.
Appropriately in the light of James’s reminder that our lives are a “mist” (v. 14), James thus makes the continuance of life itself contingent on the will of the Lord. But he also, in light of v. 13, reminds us that our plans must also be subject to the same condition.
And, more significant yet for James’s background, Jesus himself exhibited the same submission to the Lord’s will at the great crisis of his own life in Gethsemane. However, as Calvin pertinently observes, Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles do not always state this condition when they plan for the future. What was important is not the verbalization but that “they had it as a principle fixed in their minds, that they would do nothing without the permission of God.”
But the problem, as James now makes clear, is the attitude underlying this planning. As it is (Gk. nyn, “now”) brings us back to James’s own present and to the problem that he is addressing. And the root problem is arrogance: you boast and brag.
It combines the ideas of “put confidence in” and “rejoice in,” with the slightly archaic “boast” still probably the best single English equivalent.
It combines the ideas of “put confidence in” and “rejoice in,” with the slightly archaic “boast” still probably the best single English equivalent. The point of importance here is that “boasting” is not itself a negative activity or attitude: the question is what it is that one is boasting in (see the notes on 1:9).
And so James must qualify the verb to indicate that he uses it to depict a boasting that arises from misplaced pride in one’s own ability to chart the future.
Phillips captures the meaning that results from this interpretation very well: “ ‘you get a certain pride in yourself in planning your future with such confidence.”46
It is this “pride of life,” this arrogant sense of self-sufficiency so characteristic of the world, that James condemns in this passage. All such boasting is evil, James concludes.
People not only leave God out of account in planning their lives; they brag about it as well, proclaiming in effect their autonomy and independence from the Lord.
He warns, therefore, of the tendency of the world to “press us into its mold” by leading us, perhaps very subtly, to begin assuming that we control the duration and direction of our lives. Such an attitude is simply inconsistent with a Christian worldview in which there is a God who sovereignly directs the course of human affairs.
So probably we are to posit a more general connection between v. 17 and what James has commanded us to do in v. 15. He has urged us to take the Lord into consideration in all our planning. We therefore have no excuse in this matter: we know what we are to do. To fail now to do it, James wants to make clear, is sin. We cannot take refuge in the plea that we have done nothing positively wrong.
As Scripture makes abundantly clear, sins of omission are as real and serious as sins of commission. The servant in Jesus’ parable who fails to use the money he was entrusted with (Luke 19:11–27); the people who fail to care for the outcasts of society (Matt. 25:31–46)—they are condemned for what they failed to do. Another teaching of Jesus reminds us very forcibly of James’s words here: “That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows” (Luke 12:47).
For we have a tendency, when we think of sin, to think only of those things we have done that we should not have done. I know my own confessions before the Lord tend to focus on these kinds of sins. But I should also consider those ways in which I have failed to do what the Lord has commanded me to do. Perhaps I did not reach out to help a “neighbor” in need; or perhaps I failed to bear witness to a co-worker when I had the opportunity. These also are sins for which I must seek God’s forgiveness.47
Notwithstanding, we do not condemn the means whereby the providence of God works as though they were unprofitable; but we teach that we must apply ourselves unto them, so far as they are commended unto us in the Word of God. Wherefore we dislike the rash speeches of such as say that if all things are governed by the providence of God, then all our studies and endeavors are unprofitable;