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.”

17 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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  6. Whenever I read James 3:13-17 I am reminded of how fragile life is, but then I get thinking in circles and fall into the Ecclesiastical mindset that “everything is meaningless”. This tempts me to dismiss the experiences of this life because after all am I not just “… a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14 ESV)? I struggle with this verse even though I can see it referencing God’s planning and timing ass being eternal and superior over my own. I understand that God is not limited to the same time bearings that we are, but how can I consistently and authentically trust in his will if everything I am and do is temporary? While I am currently caught up in the uncertainty that life brings,Long (2018) summarizes and encourages that, “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)”. The difference between how we read this passage and the application we pull from it for our daily life is the attitude we bring to the reading. If you read it with a feeling of doom surrounding your life and have a negative perspective, you will be discouraged that you have no control over your future. However, if you come to the passage seeking God’s clarity and sovereignty and intentionally choose to see his plans and hand in your life, you will find the motivation and confidence to persevere through the storm that could have easily whisked you away.

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  7. I believe this to be my favorite blog post thus far because I the comparisons the reader can begin to make in their life to the post. In today’s society anxiety is a hot topic. People are continuously anxious, worried, and hesitant. For some cases people are so anxious they are unable to function within society. I agree with your statements that it is important to be smart and be prepared to live a life that is comfortable and enjoyable, but some people obsess. I am guilty of this as well. Over-preparation can lead to lack of faith. We are constantly anxious or preparing for something that may not even be in God’s plan. I believe many Christians turn to prayer for relief of their anxiety which is good. But it has been decided. It can be difficult to trust God’s decision that everything will be okay. At many times in scripture it states, do not be anxious, cast all your worries on God, etc. Which is comforting, but yet we all struggle with this. The idea of not having control over our lives is scary unsettling. I really appreciated the scripture that another student used in their post. Proverbs 3:6 says, “Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take”. This out of anything can give us comfort. It is in our control to seek God. And by doing this, He will guide us in the direction we are to go in. When we do the things that are in our control, we are able to let the things go that we do not have control over.

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  8. In a different class, we just talked about cultural idioms and I specifically looked at those Christian sayings that we think will fix the issue, but do not do anything. It is interesting to think that we as Christians use these words to fit God into our difficult situations or just sound spiritually superior. We cannot control our circumstances, God knows all and has worked out our futures for His good. When we look at making wise decisions we look to making God the center of those decisions. This does not mean that we neglect all care to plan for some of our future. Of course, we still need to save money for the unknown that will come about like a flat tire or a fire in your house. The balance comes in knowing how we serve God and keep Him the center of our finances, but also being responsible for the future. We have to understand that our whole lives can change with one phone call, one look away from the road, or one fall. Through any circumstances, we have to praise God. Life will come to sweep us off our feet, and sometimes it will be good things. That moment a phone call comes and we hear the worst thing possible, it is our choice to how we respond to God. We can choose to praise Him or reject Him. I think of the hymn “It is well,” it has been a constant reminder that whatever comes my way, God is still my rock, it is still God because God knows what He is doing. Our response is our responsibility. We can choose to love and praise Him because of His faithfulness and unconditional love.

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  9. I found the idea of “making arrogant plans for the future” rather interesting. To me, it is rather tough for an “arrogant” plan to be quantified or defined, and I struggle with understanding this idea. Is an arrogant plan one that comes from a disregard for the fickleness of life? If so, could the very same action or plan be considered not arrogant if someone makes it yet understands that life can end at any time? I am unsure that there is such a thing as an arrogant plan but rather an arrogant person that makes the plan itself. I think the context of the situation and the individuals involved needs to be considered. When I read James 4:14-16, I feel that what is meant by “arrogant schemes” are those plans which lack the consideration of God’s will thinking we are in control and not God.

    Changing gears a little bit, I found what you said about the attitudes and actions accompanying phrases such as, “if God wills” and “thoughts and prayers” all too common and not genuine. I think this comes from a lack of respect and complacency, taking for granted the power of prayer and God Himself. I feel that many people use prayer or the phrases above to sound ultra-spiritual and make themselves feel like a good Christian. In many ways this is very similar to the Pharisees discussed throughout the New Testament (Matthew 6:2; Luke 11:39).

    A good understanding and true belief in the power of God makes one not simply say “if God wills” or “thoughts and prayers”, but rather causes them to act these beliefs out, living in a way that shows the belief in this power. This connects back to the idea of planning for the future. When we understand that God’s will may differ, and most likely is different, from ours, the way we plan becomes different and we become followers of God’s will. We won’t boast in our own plans (vs. 16) but rather we seek God’s.

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  10. On the topic of prayer and not praying when you say you are going to, I was meeting with a student to talk about a project for my internship and we started talking about prayer. They were feeling unworthy about their ability to participate in ministry. This led to a conversation about their inability to pray on behalf of people. So we began to discuss our worthiness in Christ. When people ask for prayer we need to be willing to pray for them when they ask for it instead of hiding behind pride and “waiting to do it later.” A lot of the time, we choose not to pray for people because we do not have the time at the moment or we may be embarrassed to pray where we are at but the truth is when a brother or sister asks for prayer we need to be willing to do so. We are worthy to pray on behalf of others because our worthiness is in Christ. We just have to be willing. He does not call the qualified, He qualifies the called. This is true with the future and what James writes about in chapter 4. We can prepare and make plans but we need to have an openness and willingness if God shifts or changes his plan. His will is going to happen whether we plan for it or not. One goal to have in this Christian life is to have complete reliance on the Lord. Whether he gives or takes away he is still in control and still sovereign (Job 1:21). Those that truly follow the Lord know that their own wealth and comfort are not theirs. This is a gift given by the Lord that can be used to glorify him just like anything else.

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  11. P. Long’s post on James 3:14-16 was an insightful and convicting blog that off the bat reminded me of God’s sovereignty and the fact I am a mere human who does not know when my earthly life will end. P. Long brought up the aspect that Christians may throw around the phrase “I will pray for you” and or “thoughts and prayers”, correlating this aspect of 21st Christianity with how James is addressing those who throw around the phrase “if God wills”. Jobes states that James is identifying the rich as those love the things of this world and thus make their own plans of increasing their own wealth without consideration of God or His plans (Pg. 228). How foolish are we as humans to not seek God and His will for our daily decisions. P. Long contrasts this point from James writing that those who boast in things they can not control are extremely foolish. Rather we ought, as James writes in James 3:15, to do everything in light of God and His will. I appreciate the conclusion of this blog, bringing to attention Job’s statement of the Lord blesses, the Lord is takes away, blessed be the Lord. In this way Job exemplifies an understanding that God is always in control and we need to seek His will out.

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  12. Lately, I have been reading a lot about what the Christian thing to say or what not to say and it has a lot to do with what this post mentioned. It is a convicting topic to talk about because there is exposure and vulnerability when people find out that we do not pray like we say we do. Also saying “thy will be done” when we just say it to say it and not actually believe it when we say it. But P. Long makes a good point of God’s will is always done regardless if we say it or not. Our time here is limited and we need to treat it as such. Matt. 6:34 mentions to not worry about tomorrow for it worries about itself. We do not know how much time we have left on this earth, and we should not waste our time worrying about it. We should look to God for all of our answers and seek him first before anything in our lives. If it is the Lord’s will to bless, he will; if it is to take away, he will; we just have to be obedient to his word and have the attitude of Job.

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  13. Reading through this post it seems very dark and scary, but in this post, it speaks some truth. The wisdom of Solomon piece that was in there really hit me and made me think about my life now and how I would be remembered. Reading pieces like that really makes you think and wonder what you can do better while you are here on this earth. We aren’t granted endless amount of time here on earth and I think that it is important to remember our goal and mission while we are here. Everyone has a purpose here and we all know that, some people will be remembered longer, and some will be remembered for the number of things that they have done but as the verse says over time we will be forgotten. I think that is crazy relating this to Christianity. Jesus has been remembered for generations for the sacrifice that he did for everyone. Even those that don’t believe in him may have heard this story. I just find that crazy that someone like Jesus although was fully God was still a man walking this earth and the fact that his life is remembered must be a reason why. It also makes you wonder why you doubt at the end of it, why you doubt about faith. Although we will never be able to live up to the life Jesus had here, we still can go spreading the stories and life that Jesus had done while he was here.

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  14. When I think of how many times I have asked someone to pray for me and was given, “I will.” I do wonder how often people actually pray. It is true that prayer is extremely powerful, I have witnessed it many times and so it is frustrating when “I will pray for you” is thrown around as if it means nothing. Prayer should be meaningful and it should always be intentional and it should always be real and taken seriously. I always wanted to touch on the idea of control from this post. It said, “the person who believes they are in control of their lives are arrogant, boasting in things they have cannot control.” I have seen Christians believe that they are still in control of their own lives and I have too subconsciously thought I could control my life. I think as Christians we should not want to be in control, we should want to give up that control to the Lord, which is really what we do when we’re saved and accept Christ, we hand over our lives to God. So, I think giving up control and realizing that God has a plan and God is in control is apart of being a Christian and it’s important that as Christians, we do that.

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  15. I love the message that this passage is getting at. The topic of how to live out our lives as Christians has really captivated me during the past year or so. There are many ways to both live in honor of God’s will and to also responsibly plan for the future. Like Dave Ramsey puts it, financial literacy is an important aspect in our lives. There are many examples of how we can plan for our lives and for our future, but where does the line cross in order to give God complete control over his plans for us? We should plan for retirement and for our kids, but what isn’t necessary is planning for much else. God;s plan for each of us is different. We need to embrace the fact that his will, will be done. If we plan for things that haven’t happened, then you arent’ really respecting the current God we serve.
    I Like what you stated above, that people often get caught up in the words that they say. There are some phrases we all say from time to time, like “My thoughts and prayers are with you.” Do we actually do this every time we say it? James warns us against talk like this.

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