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”— 14 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. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. (James 4:13–17, ESVUK)
We Don’t Know When God Will Call Us to Himself
In this passage of the Bible, the Apostle James turns human wisdom upside down, by showing that if our plans are different from God’s, they will fail. Nowadays, most people plan out their futures. For example, many people have an idea of what they want to study, what career to get from it, where they want to live, whether or not they want to get married and have children, etc. Some people go so far as to boast that they have their whole life planned out, and that as long as they follow a few steps, everything will go according to plan. The one key detail that people always tend to leave out, however—because no one can plan for it—is the day we inevitably die.
If money, politics, and religion are the three things secular people usually never want to bring up in conversations, then death would definitely be a close runner-up. Most people don’t like talking about death, because the average secular person is utterly terrified of dying. The prospect of one day dying, and then not knowing what happens afterwards, is certainly a chilling thought—especially since Jesus warned of the reality of eternal hellfire (Mat 5:29–30; 18:8–9), and that those who end up there will be many (Mat 7:13–14; see also Jn 10:9). Some secular people say that they’ll be at peace when they die—but the results are very often different when they’re lying on a death bed. And yet, James correctly points out that our life on Earth is only “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (Jas 4:14). When we consider the short period of our life here, and the longevity of eternity afterwards, it truly shows the folly of planning only for this life, and not for the day we meet God after death (Rom 14:12).
In addition, James adds, “you do not know what tomorrow will bring” (Jas 4:14). Have you ever considered the prospect that today could be your last day on Earth? Many people think that as long as they are in good health, they’ll live to see tomorrow. But such thinking does not account for unexpected scenarios, like the COVID-19 pandemic and the thousands of deaths it has caused, sudden heart attacks, or fatal car accidents. If you die today, what will happen to all the plans that you think you’re in full control of? As it turns out, we are in control of nothing in life. In fact, all the good things we received in life were given to us by God (Jas 1:17), even positions of authority (Jn 19:11), and God has already determined the number of our days here on Earth, and when that time is up, he’ll call us back to himself—one way or another (Job 14:5; Ps 139:16; Deut 32:39; 1Sam 2:6).
Be Sure to Factor God’s Will into All Your Plans
Planning in and of itself is not a sin; in fact, it is a necessary life skill for adulthood. What James does call a sin here, though, is boasting in arrogance that all your plans will be fulfilled in the future. To adopt such a prideful attitude is to put yourself in control, rather than God; it is to make yourself the master of your life, and to keep God out of it. James says that if we adopt a more humble attitude with our planning, by saying “if the Lord wills, we will live and do this …” (Jas 4:15), then we are acknowledging that God is our master, and prioritising our plans and life around his will, not our own. This is the kind of humble attitude which Mary, the mother of Jesus, showed towards God, when Gabriel appeared to her and gave her the unexpected news that she, though a virgin, would soon give birth to the Messiah by the Holy Spirit. In response, she immediately submitted herself to God’s will, saying, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).
On a similar line of thought, King Solomon wrote, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Prov 19:21). When we look back on the past, we can see how God used various life experiences to change and shape who we are today, and to bring us to where we are currently at. Keeping all this in mind can help us to humbly acknowledge that God is in control over our lives, that his plans are always the best plans, and to be willing to submit ourselves to God’s purposes, even if they are different from ours. Having this mindset is the only way we can truly prepare for the coming of the Lord (Jas 5:8)—either when we die, or when he returns before then to judge the world.
After criticising the act of boasting in arrogance, James then concludes this segment by saying, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (Jas 4:17). When we apply the immediate context to this, James is saying that if you know you should give glory to God when announcing your plans to yourself or others, but fail to do so, you are guilty of sin. However, since James doesn’t limit his statement here to the immediate context, it can also be applied universally. For instance: if you know that you should go to church on Sunday, to honour the Third Commandment (Ex 20:8–11; Lk 4:16; Ac 20:7) and gather as the body of Christ (1Cor 10:16–17), but fail to do so for no morally justifiable reason, you are guilty of sin.
Jesus Gives His Followers Freedom to Serve Him
Although almost everything is outside of our control, there is one thing that Jesus has given his followers control of. It is this: we can choose to love Christ, by following his commandments (Jn 14:15), or not love him, by ignoring, twisting, or disobeying them. Christ died for us and rose again to set us free from slavery to sin, so that in him we could gain the freedom to serve him willingly and joyfully (Gal 5:1, 13). Jesus said that we can only do this if we abide in him (Jn 15:4), and St Paul adds that we will not gratify the desires of our sinful flesh if we walk by the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:16), whom the Father and the Son have given to those who are baptised into the name of the Holy Trinity (Ac 2:38; Mat 28:19).
No matter how many good plans we may have set up for ourselves, fulfilling them can never give us true, everlasting joy, if they don’t involve serving the Lord Jesus. Just as our lives are but a mist, which appear for a while and then vanish (Jas 4:14), so too is everything that we love on this Earth: our possessions, our family and loved ones, our favourite activities. Everything that is transient will only satisfy us for a time, but then we will either lose them to death or decay, and thereby lose our joy, or over time become unsatisfied with them, and be left empty. But the Lord Jesus Christ is the one person we will never lose for our whole life, for he is the eternal Creator God (Jn 1:1–3; Col 1:16–17), who loves us and has paid for all our sins on the Cross (Rev 1:5–6), rose again from the dead (Rev 2:8), ascended into Heaven, and is reigning as King forever, with the Father and the Holy Spirit (Ac 2:32–33).
If we truly want to find abiding joy in this life, then we need to believe in Christ, and submit ourselves totally to his will and plans. Ironically, when we do not make ourselves servants of Christ, we become slaves to the carnal desires of our sinful flesh, and to the ever-changing trends, expectations, and opinions of our peers and society (Rom 6:16). But when we make ourselves servants of Christ, we free ourselves of those superficial ideals, find our identity in him alone, and find true, everlasting joy in obeying him who truly loves us—both in this life, and in the life to come in Heaven (Jn 5:24; 14:1). Jesus declared:
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:9–11)
To learn how to have your sins forgiven, and spend eternity with Jesus Christ, please read the following article.