Life is Uncertain – James 4:14-16

James reflect a common image from both the Old Testament and philosophy that life is short and no one can know what the future will hold (v. 14) The real problem with making arrogant plans for the future is no one knows the length of their life.

Borrowing a common metaphor from the Old Testament, James describes life as a mist. An early morning fog can seem substantial, but it will be gone as soon as the sun rises.

Hosea 13:3 (ESV) Therefore they shall be like the morning mist or like the dew that goes early away, like the chaff that swirls from the threshing floor or like smoke from a window.

Wisdom of Solomon 2:4–5 (NRSV) Our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will remember our works; our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud, and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun and overcome by its heat. 5 For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow, and there is no return from our death, because it is sealed up and no one turns back.

Rather than despairing over the brevity of life, James says everything ought to be done in the light of the will of the Lord (v. 15). This sort of phrase is so common to modern Christians we hardly think about saying “if it be your will” during prayer. But as Sophie Laws points out, this phrase does not have any real precedent from the Hebrew Bible. Everything that happens is God’s will, so there is no wishing that God’s will happens (or not).

Rather, Laws says “the lord wills” is “is part of Graeco-Roman idiom from Socrates’s commending of it to Alcibiades (Plato, Alc. i. 135d)… it was a knock on wood phrase in ancient cultures” (Laws, James, 192). A Roman might say deo volente, “God wills” as a kind of “if-all-else-fails” hopeful saying when beginning a task that need some luck (McKnight, James, 37). Paul uses a similar phrase in connection with his travel plans in 1 Corinthians (4:19, “I will come to you if the Lord wills;” 16:7 “I wish to spend some time with you if the Lord permits”) and in Acts 18:21.

The recent secular reaction against the phrase “thoughts and prayers” after a disaster is a sobering reminder that Christians throw out phrases without thinking. So many people say things like “our prayers are with the victims” after a disaster, but I have often wondered if they news reader really prayed for anyone (ever). Aside from a general misunderstanding of prayer and a cynical reduction of one’s piety to the occasional “moment of silence,” the criticism is coveting to me since there have been many times someone has asked me to pray for them about some specific issue and I have failed to pray, or even remember the request. The phrase “I will pray for you “becomes a nice thing to say even if I do not actually pray.

I think most Christians I know really do understand what prayer is about and do in fact pray for victims and their families at the time of a disaster. But too many people use the phrase “thoughts and prayers” like a Roman might use “if god wills.” It is a knock-on-wood phrase with little meaning, This is what James is upset about, people who make their plans and toss a quick “if God wills” into the mix to make it sound spiritual.

The person who believes they are in control of their lives are arrogant, boasting in things they have cannot control. The merchant’s boasts are pretentious. The noun ἀλαζονεία is used to describe the pretentious boasting of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (2 Macc 9:8). The merchants are foolish to boast in their planning, shrew business sense, and amazing profits because it was God who provided it all to them in the first place.

How do we live life guided by the will of God, yet responsibly plan for the future? As modern Americans we always plan for the future (retirement plans, for example, college savings for children, etc.) There is a balance between making wise plans for the future and knowing the future is uncertain. It is important to get a job in order to provide for your family, to save money to provide for yourself when you retire, all the Dave Ramsey things. But the wise person does not hold on to that accumulated wealth too tightly since circumstances may destroy all your saved wealth.

This kind of wise attitude toward preparing for the future has to be balanced with a clear understanding that everything can change in an instant. Some disaster could change everything so that your plans have to change in order to survive. As with Job, our attitude has to be “the Lord blesses, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

7 thoughts on “Life is Uncertain – James 4:14-16

  1. I really enjoyed reading this specific blog. I know I mentioned this in a different blog, but I feel it can be used here. Granted, it is a pretty scary thought that we have absolutely no idea as to what is going to happen on a given day. What is key is that we cannot worry and focus so much on we have to do this or we have to do that, just because the world around us is telling us to. There was something in the book that really caught my eye and it is true and crucial to think about. For how we live today depends largely on what we believe about the future, for those beliefs shape our priorities and motivations (Jobes, 225). Joshua 1:9 NIV says that, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” We are all commanded to not worry about what the future holds. We all need to be more trusting in the fact that once we give up full control to God, no matter what we “plan” on doing in our lives, everything will be so much better.

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  2. I think that when people pray that God’s will, they still know that God is in control but they are acknowledging that it is in God’s hands. I think the same thing could be said for those who ask forgiveness for their sins. Jesus has already died for their sins, if they have accepted Jesus’ sacrifice as their own, for them to keep asking for forgiveness just shows that they are acknowledging that without Jesus there would be no way to have their sins forgiven. I get that the point that is trying to be proven is to not say ‘let God’s will be done’, just casually or carelessly means nothing, but I feel that if the person saying it is saying with reverence then it is a different situation. When praying that it is important to remember that what ever happens, that it is all God’s will, whether good or bad.

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  3. There is truly no known way that we can predict our future. In the business world, all of the numbers and projections are based solely on the current conditions happening at specified times. No formula or amount of time spent can predict what amount of money you get and what amount of commission you made. Just as it is in the business world, the Christian walk is the same. God doesn’t promise tomorrow, and we surely can’t predict when we meet our Lord an savior. Jeremiah 29:11 is a good reassurance passage where all of our fear an anxiety about the unknown come to a halt. God knows our plans and our plans that he sees as prosperous. When people make those comments, I can openly admit to saying that they won’t pray for them. I make the assumption because, like the article states, nobody really prays for them and just makes the comments to make them. One thing to keep in mind, is to always take each day like a blessing from God. It truly is a gift to be here on this earth as a child of God and enjoy his beautiful creation.

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  4. The issue I find concerning this subject matter is trying to map out a plan for my life. At the same time, I have to remember that the ways of God are not the ways of man and He planned all my days before one happened. (Psalm 139:16) The way I view this situation is by realizing that I can have a view of what my dreams look like but it is up to God whether or not those fall within the plan He has for my life. This pull towards desiring to follow my own desires is similar to what Jobes writes about the “dipsychos person”. (Pg. 222) I find myself at times longing to adhere to the “evil impulse” which is the wisdom of the world. (Pg. 223) Society has determined that those who do not plan are either immature, stupid or foolish. We can be tempted to assume things about what the next day will bring when we must realize that is outside of our control. As Proverbs 3:6 says, “Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take”. This can keep us from being disappointed when an ill-fated plan of ours inevitably fails.

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  5. One thing that people can relate to are the uncertainties that we come across about our futures. We come to college thinking that in order to “have a good life” we need a degree. To receive a degree in something we have passion. Throughout the process, to go to college for four years then off in the real world. But in reality, life doesn’t work like that. We don’t know if we ever going to use the degree that we are pursuing right now in the future. We can’t predict what lies ahead for us. The only thing we can know for sure is that God will love us whichever direction we head. If we are spreading his word and living an example for others that need guidance then we are doing our job. God knows the card that is dealt with us, we have choices to make. There will be decisions that will lead us to different avenues in life. We don’t know what the next step in our life will be. Matthew 6:34 states: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own”. Never know if there will ever be a tomorrow, so focusing and applying yourself every present day will benefit you as an individual.

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