April 7, 2008

Facing Tomorrow: James 4:13-17

Very few movies appeal to me, frankly. But one that did appeal to me first appeared in 1985: Back to the Future. In the film, teenager Marty McFly travels back to 1955 in a time machine invented by his scientist friend, Dr. Emmett Brown, and in doing so jeopardizes his own future existence by preventing his parents from meeting. With help from Brown's 1955 counterpart, he tries to find a way to get his parents together and return to his own time. Two sequels were produced, each a little weaker than the one before and both featuring more or less variations on the same theme: Marty McFly arranging events so the future would turn out the way he wanted.

Now that’s just science fiction . . . a fantasy. But for me it’s a kind of intriguing idea. Don’t we sometimes wish we could know what’s in the future and take control so it will turn out the way we want? Wouldn’t it be nice to know in detail events before they happen? For example, I’d really like to go back to April 1977 and buy a few shares in a little startup company with the unlikely name of Apple Computer, or to November 1978 and invest in a new and struggling little company called Microsoft. Or to September 10, 2001, and place a warning call to the FAA. Or, to get more personal, wouldn’t it be nice if we could go back to any number of dates and change what turned out to be a really bad decision?

The reality is, however, that none of us really knows the future in any specific detail. James deals with the topic of how we can plan for the future in 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.”

We should not plan for the future without seeking God’s will

That’s the point in verse 13 and the sense of the entire passage: we can be tempted to plan the future as though there will be no surprises; we want to plan it out for things to happen just the way we want, as though we are in complete control.

I think James is being a little testy here in verse 13. If he were using American English, he might say something like, “Come on now! Do you really think you are in complete control?”

See how the passage as a whole describes the process. There is a lot of truth behind his reasoning here that he does not explicitly state. His reasoning progresses, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, something like this:

It is possible to look at the future as though this life is all there is. That’s what the unsaved do. And in looking at it that way, we will focus primarily or solely on what this life has to offer. James’ examples are where we’ll live and how we’ll increase our wealth. But we aren’t in complete control, and therefore we don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. Perhaps Solomon said it best in Ecclesiastes 8:7: “Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come?” (NIV)

Then James reminds us that our life here on earth is merely a fleeting time compared to our eternal existence. He uses the term “vapor” to describe how our life on earth exists for a short time and then it’s gone. The word refers to the vapor we see on a cold day when we exhale.

The point he makes in verse 16 is that we can make our plans without regard to God’s will, and then become proud and boastful about what we will accomplish, because we see ourselves, and only ourselves, in control.

The Christian alternative is presented in verse 15. We should seek God’s will and let Him guide us into the future. In other words, I want to think of my future plans as my plans under His guidance; or, better, I want to discern His will for me and make my plans and decisions accordingly.

His emphasis is not that we shouldn’t plan. It is that we shouldn’t plan without making a place for God and His will for us.

Some “don’ts” when we plan for the future

Don’t boast about tomorrow. See verse 16 and Proverbs 27:1: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.” In our culture, there is a lot of the boasting about the future, including in Christian circles, and most of it is about wealth. I use the example of advertising a lot, because so much of it is designed to draw us into our culture’s self-centered values and become rich. Television commercials, internet popups, and the letters we get about the next hot investments (I always wonder why my name stays on lists when I never respond to the offers) all boast about how rich we can become. I can order a $40 Ebay kit and never have to worry about money again, other than how to spend it lavishly. Or buy a foreclosed property for $3.50 and resell it next week for a quarter million. So many of the messages promise I’ll be rich tomorrow.

The message of the Bible is different: don’t fear tomorrow; we are in the Lord’s care. Consider Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (Matthew 6:24-30)

Note that Jesus deals with just about all the basics of life and that He contrasts God’s promise to care for His people with the preoccupation of the unsaved with acquiring material wealth (mammon). Whenever I read this passage from Matthew 6, I am reminded of the choice Joshua announced to the people of Israel in Joshua 24:15: “. . . choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve . . .”

Regardless of the insecurities we may feel when we think about all the bad things that might happen to us in the future, the choice for the Christian is to serve God, and not the world, as our highest calling, because we can know for sure the promises of God to meet every need.

Some “do’s” when we plan for the future

Perhaps the most important truth to remember is that the past is past and step forward. Unlike Marty McFly, we can’t go back and make changes, but we can look to the future, not the past, and live as we know how from God’s revealed will.

I tend to spend a lot of time in Joshua and in preparing this message was struck by the first few verses of the book of Joshua: “Moses My servant is dead. No therefore, arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, to the land which I am giving them, the children of Israel” (Joshua 1:2). In other words, step forward. It’s the start of a new chapter. What’s past is in the past, and the eternal promise is still ahead of you.

Another piece of good advice is to make righteous decisions. Verse 17 presents the simple concept: do what is right decision by decision, step by step in life. Sometimes, we can be in the middle of a crisis or confused about what path to take. Or sometimes we are faced with alternatives that all qualify as good and righteous. In every case, taking the righteous path is the correct choice (even when it is not the more expedient or self-serving choice). James isn’t telling us here to do “good” as in “good deed.” The term means suitable, useful, excellent, morally good and approved of God, or even commendable. In other words, James is telling us, “do the right thing” or “make the righteous choice.”

We sometimes may feel out of control about the future, but we are in control of our own responses and decision-making. If James were here today, he would tell us to make those decisions and responses righteous, useful, morally good and approved of God.

Another good bit of advice is to depend on God to direct you: “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). Sometimes we experience the Holy Spirit in us pointing to the next step to take. Other times all we seem to know is which step is righteous or unrighteous. In either case, the Lord is directing our steps. This verse from Proverbs also tells me something else. The plans I make may not be permanent. I need to be ready to adjust, based on how the Lord is directing me.

And, of course, there’s the advice every pastor always gives: stay in the word. This is kind of an afterthought for most sermons that deal with making choices in life. Again I turn to Joshua: “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:8). To our western minds, the translation of that last line may be misinterpreted. So here is the literal translation that preserves the thought: “For then you will make progress and have good insight.” The sense is to “have the insight to be successful.”

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