Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that town and stay there a year, doing business and making money.” You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? 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. Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and doesn’t do it, sins.
Psychics, astrologers, palm readers, and others claim to have the ability to see what lies ahead, but the Bible categorically condemns such practices. Does that mean God does not want us to plan for the future? Of course not. The Scriptures encourage us to make plans, but there is a right way and a wrong way to do that. Sadly, most of us choose the wrong way to plan.
The fourth chapter of James tells us how to face the future in a God-honoring way, and uses a hypothetical business discussion to make the point. Imagine yourself seated at a cafe in downtown Jerusalem and overhearing a conversation at the next table between two business partners. One says to the other, “Today or tomorrow we will go to a certain town and stay there a year, doing business and making money.”
Most of would shrug our shoulders and say, “No big deal.” Two entrepreneurs making plans. They covered the important areas of where and when. They discussed the parameters of the work (a one-year venture) and how profitable it would be. The plans sound harmless enough; so why does James rebuke the men? Because, despite their careful calculations, they made a colossal mistake–a mistake you and I often make when planning for our future–they did not include God in their plans. They presumed that they had everything they would need to succeed.
Things haven’t changed much. We still tend to rely on our own abilities and resources when making plans. We assess the pros and cons of our choices and make our plans. If we do think to include God in the process, it is usually as an add on. Christians will sometimes pray, “Lord bless my plans,” but James says what we should say is this: “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (verse 15). Why? Because life is unpredictable. We do not and cannot know the future (verse 14), and it is presumptuous to pretend we do. And not only is life unpredictable; it is also brief. James likens life to a mist that rolls in during the morning and is burned off by noon. Some other descriptors the Bible uses to describe life: “fleeting… a breath… like smoke… like the evening shadow… like grass… like a flower of the field.”
Life is both brief and fragile. To say it is otherwise, James says, is arrogant boasting. We are to acknowledge the fragility of a life that will soon pass and use what time we have to serve God. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option. “Anyone who knows the right thing to do, but doesn’t do it, sins” (verse 17).
Most of us define sin as “doing something wrong,” but sin is not limited to our actions. Sin can also be the result of inaction. Jesus once told a story about a landowner who left the care of his property to three servants. When the owner returned, he discovered that two of the three had done well. The third servant had an explanation: “Master, I knew you were a hard man to please… I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is–all of it safe and sound.” But the master replied, “You wicked and lazy servant!” (Matthew 25:24–26).
What did the servant do to earn the title of “wicked”?
Nothing. And the Lord calls this wickedness and sin.
We tend to think of sin as “doing something that is wrong,” but according to Jesus and James, there are sins of omission as well as sins of commission. I confess that for a long time I had the tendency to ask God’s forgiveness for the sins I had committed, but I rarely mentioned (or even considered) the times in my day when I had failed to do what Jesus commands his apprentices to do. The opportunities I had to share an encouraging word with someone who was hurting, but kept quiet. The times I saw my “neighbor” in need and kept on walking. The times I harbored hostile thoughts toward my enemies. The many hours of the day I was oblivious to God’s presence. The energy I wasted by worrying about the future or nursing and rehearsing the past. The times I was prompted by the Holy Spirit to say or do something, but procrastinated.
The list of my sins is long, but here is a valuable lesson I learned: In the evening when I reflect on both sides of my day–what I did and did not do–I am able to have a more honest conversation with God about what tomorrow might look like.
This week, carve out five minutes or so at the end of every day to spend with God. Tell Him about your day. The things you were proud of. The things you would like to do over. Words you said (or didn’t say) that made a difference in someone’s life. Things you thought about and worried about. Your fears. Things you are procrastinating on.
This week, spend time every day reflecting on what you did (good and bad) and did not do (for better or worse). Ask God’s forgiveness for today’s sins and celebrate any victories in Christ; then ask the Lord for wisdom and strength for tomorrow.