When Planning is Prideful (James 4:13-17)
Topic: One Truth: Walk in Truth Passage: James 4:13–17
I. Planning Principles
If you were making plans to travel, or planning an event, I'm guessing you would want to utilize some key principles in order to be successful. For example, successful planning should involve good research. Know your options. Understand what's involved in getting from point A to point B. Successful planning would also involve good communication. You'll be planning to fail if you aren't talking with the other people who will be involved. Successful planning also involves good budgeting. It would be extremely sad if you had every detail arranged and every person invited, but couldn't go or do or host because you didn't have the money to make it happen. What comes to mind for you when you think about key planning principles?
II. The Passage: “You Boast in Your Arrogance” (4:13-17)
Let's think more about this topic of planning by turning to a passage from Our Bible Reading Plan. Look with me, if you would, at James chapter 4, verses 13-17. James writes,
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.  So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
If it wasn't clear from that initial reading, the issue that James is tackling here is the issue of sinful boasting. While the English word “boasting” usually carries negative connotations, the Greek word that James uses here can be used in both positive and negative contexts. For example, in James 1, this same author writes, “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation.” This kind of boasting is ultimately an example of what Paul describes in I Corinthians 1:31, that is, “boast[ing] in the Lord”. But to understand what James, in fact, what God through James, is teaching us here about sinful boasting, the first thing we need to consider is...
1. What It Sounds Like (v. 13)
For many, sinful boasting sounds something like this, “Did I mention the seven reasons why I'm so awesome and you're not?” But look again at the example of sinful boasting that James offers in verse 13: 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...” Now at first, this sounds like nothing more than an example of good planning; the kind of healthy ambition, the kind of positive thinking, the kind of 'go get 'em' and 'can do' attitude that really can make all the difference in any business venture. In fact, maybe this is the kind of planning Solomon wrote about in Proverbs 21:5... “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance...”
But notice that the plan announced here is not simply a plan to go to a particular town and do business. It's more of a statement about what will happen, specifically, that they will “spend a year”, have business opportunities, and “make a profit”. Now, in a letter that deals quite a bit with the topics of wealth and the wealthy, in a book that describes how “the rich man fades away in the midst of his pursuits” (James 1:11) this talk of going to “make a profit” should get our attention. But if this really is an example of sinful boating, look at what James tells us about...
2. Where It Comes From (v. 16)
We read about the source, the driving force behind such boasting, in v. 16... As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So clearly this is sinful boasting. James plainly labels it “evil”. But his diagnosis here points to a root cause: an arrogant heart. Now “arrogance” is an interesting word, isn't it? When we think about someone who is arrogant, we don't necessarily think of someone who is describing their business plans. For example, if someone were to say, “Tomorrow we're flying to Silicon Valley to meet with Google and Apple and many others, and we're going to make a killing”, we might admire their confidence. We might even want to learn more about their experience, their business plan, and whether or not... we could be investors.
Sure, the person speaking the words of verse 13 might come off as arrogant (the way they walk—or swagger— into the room, the way they interact with other people, the way they talk about themselves). But notice that James begins with just their words, not their walk. For James, the words, that statement, reveals something concerning about the heart. As James wrote in the previous chapter...
But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. (James 3:14)
“False to the truth”? What truth is talking about there? Well that leads us to look at another aspect of sinful boasting, specifically...
3. Why It's So Foolish (v. 14)
James exposes this foolishness by pointing out two truths about human beings in verse 14. Such people were talking about going to “such and such a town” and doing business and making a profit and yet (v. 14)... 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.
Okay. This is where the arrogance, the pride that James speaks about in this passage, this is where that diagnosis is becoming clearer. The first issue James confronts in verse 14 is the fact that human beings “do not know what tomorrow will bring”. Sure, you can add an event to your calendar or buy tickets for a show that's tomorrow, you can find out what the weather will be like, you can plan to go to work or school or wherever. But don't confuse those things with actually knowing what tomorrow will bring. You don't. I don't.
This points to the second correction James offers here to the arrogant boaster: “What is your life? [It's] ...a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” Will the sun come up tomorrow? I would bet money on the fact that it will. But I might not be here to see it. Or... you might not be here.
Or you might see it, but from a hospital bed. Not only is human knowledge limited, but human life is fragile. Acting as if you have all knowledge or all the time in the world is symptomatic of only one thing: pride. And that brings us to the most important idea in this passage. Notice what James reveals in this passage about...
4. What to Do Differently (v. 15)
What ought we to do when it comes to our ambitions and plans? James writes in verse 15...
Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
Though none of us possesses all the knowledge that can be known nor all the time in the world, there is One who does. Our Creator. The Almighty. The King over all things. Only God is eternal. Only God is omniscient or all-knowing. If the universe in which we live is truly a God-centered universe, then we ought to live God-centered lives, right? Why is that? Yes, because it's the right thing do, but also because it's the good thing to do; because it leads to blessing, to flourishing, to life. Though Solomon wrote about planning/prosperity in Proverbs, he also wrote...
Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established. (Proverbs 16:3) [similarly]
The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps. (Proverbs 16:9)
[This is true because ultimately it all comes down to this...] Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand. (19:21)
The book of James, this letter, tells us that James understood the kind of greed and pride that was infecting many in this church. He understood it was this kind of heart that stood behind the sinful boasting in 4:13. In fact, he addressed that very heart earlier in this same chapter:
You ask [God] and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.  You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God... Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”  Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded...  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (4:3-4, 6-8, 10)
That last point about humility and exaltation is key to those seeking true profit. When we make God-devoid plans to get or gain, we are foolishly missing a beautiful and powerful truth, one that James shared in the very first chapter of this letter:
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.  Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.  Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. (James 1:16–18)
The antidote or correction to sinful boasting is not only a view of God, but a right view of God; but not only a right view of God, a right view of life and human flourishing; a right view of why we have what we have, one that acknowledges our desperate need for Him; but again, we need not only a right view of these things, but also a right faith, trust that God's way is always best. It is that kind of faith that regularly declares, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
III. “Your Will Be Done”
Brothers and sisters, friends, think about the plans that you're making even now: “After church, I will go here or there... I will do this or that.” “Tomorrow I will go here or there... and I will do this or that.” Or think of those bigger and broader plans: “I will get my degree”, or “I will change jobs”, or “I will retire at this age”, or “I will meet this kind of man and have this many kids”. Is there something inherently wrong with saying things like this? Absolutely not. If there was, many people revered in the Scriptures would be guilty for talking in this way. There is nothing inherently wrong with planning. There is nothing inherently wrong with setting goals.
The issue God has brought to our attention this morning through James is the issue of sinful boasting. And as James has made clear, the source of such boasting is an arrogant heart. And this arrogant heart is far worse than the arrogance we'd label ego-inflating. This arrogance is God-neglecting. It forgets God. Or it dismisses God. Or it confines God to certain areas. People might acknowledge God in religious settings or in what they deem 'spiritual situations'. But as James has indicated, in the everyday matters like travel and business and finances, God is neglected. Why? Because down deep, we simply don't believe we need Him.
So is there something inherently wrong with saying, “Tomorrow I will go here or there... and I will do this or that”? No. But in a particular instance, such a statement, such planning, could be very wrong. Why? Because it comes from the wrong kind of heart; from a God-neglecting heart.
You see, the question is not ultimately, “Do you talk like this?” The real question is, “Do you think like this?” Is your outlook on life God-depending or God-neglecting. The pastor/commentator Matthew Henry wrote several hundred years ago about the encouragement in this passage...
“Therefore both our counsels for action and our conduct in action should be entirely referred to God; all we design and all we do should be with a submissive dependence on God.”
Are there key planning principles that you and I should utilize in our everyday? Sure. Good research, good communication, and good budgeting are just few of these principles. But the most important planning principle, the most crucial, the most critical, the most foundational is this: a good God. This is the point I hope you take to heart: the key is not to have a mouth that regularly proclaims, “If the Lord wills” or “Lord willing”. They key is to have a heart that regularly prays, “Your will be done.” (Matt. 6:10) And when our heart is shaped by that kind of depend-ence on and desire for God's will, others will invariably hear traces of that heart in what we say.
Brothers and sisters, friends, when you consider your words, when you consider your plans, when you consider your everyday, is there a God-depending or a God-neglecting heart behind it all? Please don't miss the seriousness of that final reminder in verse 17: So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. God has revealed to us this morning “the right thing to do”. The question is, will we be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (1:22)?
Finally, remember the gospel reminder we heard in James 1:18... Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. Though all of us can slip into a God-neglecting mindset, the new-creation heart God has given you, or wants to give you through Jesus is a God-depending heart. Not one of us could ever yield to the good and gracious will of God unless Jesus had first done that very thing on our behalf: “My Father, if this [cup] cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Matt. 26:42) So let us rejoice this morning, and every day, in God's perfect provision... and as we do, then let us make our plans.
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2021-2022)
October 2, 2022Visions of Jesus (Revelation 19:9-10)
September 25, 2022Why Justice is Worth Singing About (Revelation 15)
September 18, 2022How to Conquer the Dragon (Revelation 12:11)