By Bob Wilkin
Response #1—If the Lord Wills (James 4:13-17)
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin (Jas 4:13-17).
It has become popular in sports, business, and politics for people to guarantee that they will win and be successful. Such guarantees often energize the team, the company, and the voters. Guarantees like this sometimes help lead to a victory. But is this right? Does God want us to make bold guarantees that we cannot be certain of fulfilling? Doesn’t such boasting fall under the category of something God hates, arrogance?
James was the first NT book written. It was probably written within one year of the Lord’s resurrection, in AD 33 or 34. He speaks of a church that is still exclusively Jewish. He is writing to Jewish believers about the need to put their faith into practice.
The outline of the book is given in 1:19. The first section concerns being quick to hear. That covers 1:21 through the end of chapter 2.
The second section deals with our need to be slow to speak. That is chapter 3.
The final section covers James’s exhortation to be slow to anger.
One major theme running through the book is that life is a vapor, exceedingly short, and that we need to make the most of this short life so that when Jesus returns, we will have maximum opportunity to serve Him in the life to come.
This section surely deals with the fleeting nature of our lives.
The verses before us fall in a section that covers 4:6 through 5:6. Wrath, James says, is cured by humility. In 4:13-17 we see that humility is very important in the Christian life, and it is directly related to our planning and predicting. True humility brings a reluctance to boast. Stated oppositely, boasting is an expression of hubris, not humility.
If I know that I don’t control when my fleeting life ends, then I know that whatever I hope to do is always contingent in part on whether God lets me live that long.
The Boast (4:13)
These are Christians making this boast. They are speaking of going to a city where they plan to do business for one year. Here’s what they are promising:
• They will make the trip successfully.
• They will do business in the city.
• They will complete their venture in one year.
• They will turn a profit in that time.
Frankly, nothing sounds wrong with that in light of the way we speak and think today. But four words are missing. Those four words are found a few verses later. There are many things that could go wrong and would mean that such a boast would not come true. They are making promises they can’t possibly be sure of completing. James goes on to tell them why such boasting is wrong.
The Problem with the Boast (4:14 )
They don’t even know what will happen tomorrow, let alone for the next 365 days.
Life is very fleeting. It is like the vapor that comes up off a lake in the morning. It is here and gone.
We live “for a little time and then [we] vanish away.”
These Christians couldn’t be sure they’d even be alive for the whole next year. For one thing, the Rapture could occur. For another, they might die. Or they might become ill or injured.
• Colleges, schools K-12, restaurants, health clubs, all closing.
• Conferences cancelled or postponed.
• All sporting events postponed or cancelled.
• People losing half of their retirement savings.
• MCAT testing that people have planned for a year now cancelled.
Who would have foreseen any of those things a year ago or even 3 months ago?
Only God knows what the future holds. Only He knows when something like Covid-19 will strike and what the ramifications will be. Only He knows the day of our deaths.
That is why we shouldn’t be boasting. We are not in total control of our lives. Such boasting puts us in a godlike position, where we no longer depend on Him and His sovereign actions in our lives.
The Alternative to Boasting (4:15)
The alternative involves saying something different. We need to add four words: If the Lord wills. Then the rest of the statement is no longer a boast, but a plan subject to the sovereign intervention of God.
The will of God here is not His moral will. Nor is it some ambiguous desire God has that He conveys to us by impressions or the like. This is the secret sovereign will of God. The context makes this clear.
The sovereign will of God is everything that actually happens. But before it happens, we don’t know what will occur.
Many Christians go about trying to figure out what car God wants them to buy, what house, what job, what mate, etc. Some go so far as to try to pray for the right clothes, the right foods, the right toothpaste, whatever.
God gives us principles in His Word to guide us on many choices. Some things are out of bounds. But on in bounds things, we have freedom which is only restricted by God’s sovereign intervention. That is what James means here by “If the Lord wills.”
Note that two things are dependent on the sovereign will of God: 1) us living and 2) us fulfilling our plan (doing this or that).
First, we might die. That would surely stop the fulfillment of our plan.
Second, we might live, but still not complete our plan due to circumstances beyond our control, such as the coronavirus.
Boasting Is Arrogant and Evil (4:16 )
If we leave the Lord out of our plans, we are arrogant and even evil.
• Countries shouldn’t guarantee victory in wars.
• Companies shouldn’t guarantee a rosy future.
• 9/11 and Katrina and the coronavirus should remind us we don’t hold the future in our hands.
Even countries and companies should say, “If the Lord wills, we will do well.”
“If the Lord wills” should always be part of our thinking.
It’s Sin to Fail to Do What God Commands Us to Do (4:17 )
Sin is not merely doing the wrong thing. Those sins we call sins of commission. Sin is also, as James points out here, failing to do what we know we should do. Those sins we call sins of omission. In context, of course, boasting is a sin of commission, and failing to say or at least imply “if the Lord wills” is a sin of omission. In his commentary on this verse Hodges writes,
Sin, therefore, can occur not merely as a wrong act, but also as a right act which remains undone. Accordingly, we dare not omit from our conversation the recognition that not only our lives, but all of our activities, are as fragile as a wisp of smoke. We must acknowledge that God alone can enable us to do whatever we hope, or plan, to do (The Epistle of James: Proven Character Through Testing, p. 102).
Response #2—I Can Handle This with God’s Help (Philippians 4:13)
…I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things, I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Phil 4:11b-13).
Philippians 4:13 is a much misunderstood and misapplied verse. It does not mean that any Christian can do anything.
I can’t play in the NBA.
I can’t become an Olympic champion. A man can’t give birth to a baby.
Pete Rose can’t get into the Baseball Hall of Fame unless he is reinstated by the commissioner.
That is beyond his control.
Here is what Phil 4:13 means. Notice the verses before it. It means:
• Christians can handle prosperity through the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
• Christians can handle poverty and adversity through the work of the Spirit in their lives.
The expression “all things” in Phil 4:13 refers to the good and the bad. Notice the emphasized words above.
Of course, both extremes are potentially trouble for Christians. But I can do all things, including handling the loss of much of our retirement savings, including not being able to buy toilet paper, including having trouble getting groceries, including fear of getting the coronavirus, including social unrest, including a major recession, etc. Whatever God allows to happen, we can handle it in the power of the Holy Spirit. How does the Holy Spirit enable us to handle both prosperity and adversity? The answer is in mindset. See Rom 8:6; 12:1-2; 2 Cor 3:18.
We don’t know when social distancing for this virus will end. As I write, social distancing has been extended for another month, and the current restrictions might continue for many more months to come. We are not in control. You may have lost a significant portion of your emergency funds and your retirement savings. You may have been furloughed or lost your job altogether. You may be concerned about what our country will look like after this is over. But as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we know that God is in control. This virus has not taken Him by surprise. It is part of His sovereign will. We can be calm during this storm because the One who stills the storm is in the boat with us. We have a chance to shine as lights in the darkness. If people see in us both a healthy respect for the dangers of the virus and yet also boldness that we can do all things through Christ who strengthen us, then they will be encouraged in their faith, or drawn toward Christ if they are unbelievers. We may not anticipate the next big thing that comes our way. But, as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we can be sure that 1) God is in control, and 2) we can handle whatever happens by the power of His Spirit within us.
Bob Wilkin is Executive Director of Grace Evangelical Society. He lives in Highland Village, TX, with his wife of 43 years, Sharon. His latest book is Turn and Live: The Power of Repentance.