Make Plans Without Playing God | James 4:13-17

  • Home
  • Resources
  • Sermons
  • Make Plans Without Playing God | James 4:13-17
  • George Bernard Shaw visited the studio of sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein. The famous playwright noticed a massive block of stone in the corner and asked what it was for. “I don’t know yet,” Epstein answered. “I’m still making plans.” “You mean you plan your work,” said Shaw. “I change my mind several times a day!” Shaw replied, “That’s all very well with a four-ounce manuscript, but not with a four-tone block.” 

    It is good, wise, and right to make plans. The weightier the goals, the weightier your plans. “If you fail to plan,” said Benjamin Franklin, “you are planning to fail.” That old and famous axiom is true. The Bible teaches us to walk by faith and not by sight. Yet the life of faith does not exclude making plans. Scripture does rebuke the pride and presumption that makes plans without factoring in God. That is the message of James 4:13-17.

    James is the most practical letter in the New Testament. It is the New Testament counterpart to Proverbs. James teaches us to talk the talk and walk the walk. It is to that end that James writes our text. He explains how we should make plans as people of faith. His practical instruction makes a spiritual point: Factor God into all your plans. How can I factor God into all my plans? James 4:13-17 teaches three ways to factor God into all your plans. 

    Be Wise.

      Verse 13 begins with an abrupt and arousing interjection: “Come now.” “Come” is an imperative, not an invitation. “Now” adds urgency. It is a statement of disapproval that could be stated in opposite terms: “Get out of here!” This stern rebuke is addressed to “you who say.” James confronts a lack of faith expressed in our words throughout this letter. The scenario depicted in verse 13 involves merchants planning business. But the warning is to all who foolishly plan and presume. 

      Foolish Planning Revealed. Verse 13 says, “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.” This detailed itinerary contains five agenda items:

        • The timing: “Today or tomorrow.”
        • The place: “We will go into such and such a town.”
        • The duration: “Spend a year there”
        • The activity: “And trade.”
        • The outcome: “And make a profit.” 

        This vision board seems well-prepared. It reads as a legitimate, strategic, and profitable business plan. The start date is established, with a sense of flexibility. The general language communicates a specific destination. The time frame is carefully scheduled. The merchant plans to do business and not waste time. And he fully expects a return on his investment. James condemns the one who talks this way. But he does not take issue with anything in the plan. He criticizes the plan for what it leaves out.

        Here is the difference between folly and wisdom. The foolish person travels with a single-minded concern for getting from point A to point B. The wise person also wants to get from point A to point B but factors in speed limits, traffic patterns, and pedestrian crossings.  

        Foolish Presumption Rebuked. Verse 14 rebukes two presumptions. 

        Don’t presume what tomorrow will bring. James says, “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.”The problem with the plan in verse 13 is that it is based on a foolish presumption. The tradesman talks big about what will happen a year from now. But he cannot predict the future. Tomorrow may go according to plan. Or tomorrow may turn his plans upside down.

        Proverbs 27:1 says, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” The future is uncertain. You may envision, forecast, guess, predict, or speculate. But you do not know what tomorrow may bring. For that matter, you do not know what today may bring. Matthew 6:34 says, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day its own trouble.”

        Don’t presume you will live to see tomorrow. Verse 14 asks, “What is your life?” Is there a more important question than this? You will inevitably make bad decisions about school, work, or love if you do not know what your life is. James answers his own question: “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” This is a graphic picture of the brevity and frailty of life. You only have “a little time.”Psalm 90:12 prays, “So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” We make a big deal about our birthdays. But the Bible teaches us to number our days, not our years.  

        A merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the market, where he bumped into Death, who made a threatening gesture at him. The servant asked his master to borrow his horse to flee to Samarra. The merchant went to the marketplace and asked Death why he made the threatening gesture at his servant. “It was no threatening gesture,” Death replied. “I was just astonished to see the servant in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra. Each of us has a date that cannot be avoided, canceled, or delayed.  

        Trust God.

          To make wise plans, trust God, don’t play God. Proverbs 3:5-6 answers: “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 straight your paths. To trust in God is to live contingently and confidently.

          Live contingently. Risk management involves making contingency plans to avoid catastrophic failure. What’s supposed to happen may not happen. So a course of action is prepared to face that eventuality without tragic consequences. It is commonly called a “Plan B.” Similarly, the Bible teaches us to live contingently. The technical term for it is “faith.” It is not plan B; it’s plan A. Verse 15 reads: “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 

          Note the tension between verses 13 and 15. 

            • “Come now, you who say…” 
            • Instead you ought to say…” 

            Contrary to popular belief, our words do not create reality. But talk expresses trust. The person who trusts in himself plans foolishly, presumptuously, and self-sufficiently. The person who trusts in God submits all his plans to God’s will. 

            Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” There are things God has revealed to us in scripture. There are also secret things God has not revealed. To trust God is to live contingently, welcoming any divine interruptions to our dreams, desires, and determinations. Jesus shows us the way in Matthew 26:39: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass for me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” 

            Live Confidently. There was a time when people ended their letters by writing “D.V.” – an abbreviation for “Deo Volente.” The Latin phrase means “God willing.” It is suspected the term was derived from James 4:15: “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” Prosperity preachers claim it is a lack of faith to talk this way. The Bible says this is what we ought to say. James is not instructing us to say “God willing” over every decision superstitiously. He is teaching us that how we talk reveals who we trust. We should think, plan, speak, act, and live with confidence in God. 

            God controls the duration of life. Verse 15 says, “If the Lord wills, we will live.” “We will live” is a confident assertion. But it is God-confidence, not self-confidence. Your life is not in your hands. It is in God’s hands.

            The Parable of the Rich Fool tells of a man who had a bumper crop. He was so blessed he didn’t know what to do. He finally decided to tear down his barns to build bigger ones. He could eat, drink, and be merry, having goods stored up for many years. Luke 12:20 says, “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Luke 12:21 states the point of the parable: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” 

            God controls the details of life. Verse 14 says, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”Again, note the confidence assertion: We will “do this or that.” “This or that” refers to the plans you make. Nothing in this text should be taken to mean that it is wrong to make plans for your education, family, or career. Make big plans. But trust God, not your plans. The God who controls whether you will live also controls all the activities of life. This or that is in God’s hands! Matthew 6:10 is a hard but good prayer: “Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”

            Adelaide Pollard desired to join a missionary team. She could not understand why the Lord would not provide the money. During a prayer meeting, someone prayed, “It doesn’t matter what you do with us, Lord. Just have your way with our lives.” Adelaide later read the prophet’s vision of the potter’s wheel in Jeremiah 18. Adelaide was cornered. She wisely surrendered and wrote the terms of her surrender:

            Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way! 
            Thou art the potter, I am the clay.
            Mold me and make me after Thy will.
            While I am waiting, yielded and still.

            Humble Yourself.  

              James 4 warns against worldliness. Kevin DeYoung said, “Worldliness is whatever makes sin look normal and righteousness look strange.” How can I overcome worldliness? One way is to humble yourself. Verse 6 says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Verse 10 says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” Verses 16-17 teach two ways to humble yourself before the Lord. 

              Humble your words. Verse 16 says, “As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is sin.”

                Boasting is arrogant. Verse 15 tells us what we ought to say. Verse 16 begins, “As it is,” pointing back to what is said in the prideful and presumptuous plans of verse 13. Pride refuses to say, “Deo Volente.”To be prideful is to “boast.” Proverbs 27:2 says, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips.” 

                The one who boasts glorifies himself in “arrogance.” The term is plural and refers to the repeated and multiple expressions of arrogance of the self-sufficient. 1 John 2:16 calls it “the pride of life.” We boast in arrogance when we do not give glory to God. Romans 11:36 says, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” 

                Boasting is evil. Verse 16 says, “All such boasting is evil.” The world celebrates those who boast and brag. Social media provides an available and addictive platform to boast about our beauty, wealth, and accomplishments. We “clout chase” to boast about our connection to other boasters. The word of God summarizes it all in one word: “evil.” 

                Jeremiah 9:23-24 says, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.’” Galatians 6:10 says, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

                Humble your ways. A Sunday school teacher asked, “What is the sin of commission?” A student answered, “It’s a sin we haven’t committed yet.” That was the wrong answer!  

                • The sin of commission is when we do what we should not do. 
                • The sin of omission is when we fail to do what we should. 

                 Verse 17 states it this way: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” Verse 15 tells us what we ought to say. Verse 16 makes it clear that we are prone not to say what we ought to say. Now James concludes the paragraph by making it clear that sin is not just doing wrong; it is failing to do what is right. The sin of omission involves two dynamics. First, it is to know what is right. There is mercy associated with ignorance. But to know what is right makes you accountable to God. To know what is right obligates you to do it. The one who knows what is right and does not do it, “for him it is sin.” The sin of omission is a sin against the conscience. 

                If you know you should trust Christ, do it. If you know you should be baptized, do it. If you know you should join the church, do it. If you know you should quit that sin, do it. If you know you should help that person, do it. 

                • Do what is right immediately. 
                • Do what is right sincerely. 
                • Do what is right wholeheartedly. 
                • Do what is right faithfully. 
                • Do what is right completely. 

                H.B. Charles Jr.

                Pastor-Teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church of Jacksonville and Orange Park, Florida.