Lord Willing
by Jack Wald | January 19th, 2014

James 4:13-17

On the bulletin cover is a picture of Erik Thomas who has a motivational video. As the video shows him doing an impressively, aggressive workout, he tells a story of a guru who took his disciple to the beach. He said, if you want to be successful, go out into the water. They went out with the waves hitting their knees and the guru said, “Come deeper.” The disciple protested he could not swim, but they went out chest high in the water and the guru said, “Come deeper.” With just their heads above water, the guru pushed his disciple under the water and held him there. A minute went by. Two minutes. And finally he pulled his disciple up, gasping for air, and told him, “When you are as desperate to be successful as you are to breathe, then you will be successful.”

On the plane coming back from Thailand I watched a movie about Formula 1 and the rivalry between Nikki Lauder and James Hunt. These men raced around tracks at 300 kilometers an hour with just centimeters separating their race cars. Lauder was world champion in 1975 and then in 1976 he had a terrible accident and suffered severe burns. He had to have his lungs repeatedly vacuumed, a very painful procedure. A priest came to give him the sacrament of last rites, but to the amazement of everyone, just six weeks after this accident, despite tremendous physical and emotional pain, he came back and resumed his racing. The two races he missed while recuperating in the hospital cost him and he finished second that year. But then he was world champion in 1977 and world champion once again when he came out of retirement in 1984. In the telling of his story it is clear he was willing to sacrifice everything: his relationships, his life, everything, in order to be successful.

The football players I have met here in Rabat are determined to be successful and they hold on to their determination as the most precious asset they have. They believe that if they ease up in any way, they will not make it. There are a lot of football players with skill, but what matters is how determined they are to be successful. This is how they view their lives.

This determination to be successful does make a difference and it is true that what separates many highly successful people from less successful people is the determination to succeed. But is this the example followers of Jesus should hold on to?

In contrast to highly successful men and women who sacrifice everything to be successful, there are Christians who are paralyzed by indecision, who cannot be decisive because they fear they might make the wrong decision and displease God. They pray, ask friends for advice, read the Bible, hoping to find some direction, and still they are afraid of making a wrong decision. So they wait and wait and sometimes the decision is made for them because they run out of options.

So on the one hand there is the person who has a fierce determination and will sacrifice everything to be successful and on the other hand the Christian who is stuck in indecision and lets opportunities pass by.

Neither of these is an attractive option for me and the text for this morning, James 4:13-17, holds out wisdom that avoids either of these scenarios.

James 4:13–17
13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. 17 Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.

James is addressing followers of Jesus who were wealthy merchants. Next week, in chapter five, we will look at James’ warning to wealthy oppressors, regardless of their faith or lack of faith. But this week he has a more focused target for his exhortation. Among the Jewish followers of Jesus in Palestine, who were the audience for his letter, there were wealthy merchants who operated within the Decapolis, the ten Greek-speaking cities in the region.

These wealthy merchants did not become wealthy by accident. They planned and strategized. They made the right relationships that would benefit their business. The knew when to buy and when to sell. They knew how to negotiate. They were skilled businessmen. They had plans for the coming season and plans for the longer term future. They knew where they were going and were determined to get there.

Why is James critical of them? Anyone in business knows you have to plan and think far into the future. Companies that made typewriters went out of business because they failed to plan into the future. They mistakenly thought they made typewriters, but what they really made were communication devices. When they saw the shift to computer technology, they should have adapted instead of holding on to a product that had less and less demand. In the business climate of today, when technology is advancing so rapidly, companies that fail to look ahead and swiftly adapt are left behind.

Is James speaking against this? I don’t think so. The Bible reveals God to be someone who values planning, strategy, competency, and skill. God instructed Moses to get skilled craftsmen to build the tabernacle and make the clothes for the priests. Paul referred to himself as an expert builder of churches. In the parable of the talents, the landowner gave praise to those who used the talents they were given. We are to work hard and develop our skills.

Part of our witness as followers of Jesus is to be skilled at what we do. When we use the ability God gave us and use it well, we have a platform from which we can speak words of truth. Competency is a good thing.

Planning is also a good thing. Jesus had a strategy and made plans. He waited until John the Baptist was in prison before he began his ministry. Jesus had a strategy for training his disciples to do the work he was doing. He showed them how to do it; he had them do it while he watched; and then he sent them out to do it while he supported them from a distance. Jesus tried to avoid confrontation with the religious authorities, telling people not to say anything about their healing or deliverance, and then when he knew it was time, he turned his face toward Jerusalem and went to accomplish the purpose for which he was sent into the world. Jesus planned and strategized.

Paul had a strategy and made plans. When he went to a new city, he went first to the synagogue and then to the public places. He sent his disciples to cities he could not reach. He wrote letters when he could not go in person. And when he had accomplished what he wanted to do in the area of Greece and Turkey, he made plans to go to Rome as a stepping stone to the Iberian Peninsula, modern day Spain and Portugal.

So it is not planning and strategy that James is speaking against; it is the arrogance of those who made plans without consulting God and without relying on God for direction in their lives. These wealthy merchants thought they were masters of their universe and that is what James is critical of.

Let me present the reality of our lives and then the benefits of living with an awareness of that reality.

As I said, there is nothing wrong with making plans. There is nothing wrong with saying, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” The problem goes deeper to the heart level and it is the arrogance behind that statement that is the problem.

James refers to the teaching of Jesus more than any of the other letters in the New Testament and in this case he is referring to the parable Jesus told about the rich fool. A rich man reaped a good crop and had no place to store it. So he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. Then, he thought to himself, he would have an abundance and could relax and enjoy the rest of the years of his life. He could “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”

20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

James tells his readers:
14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

Life is far more fragile than we think it is. We think we are immortal when we are young, but as we age, it becomes more clear that there will come a time when we die. As a 63 year old, I am much more consicious of a time coming when I will die than when I was in my 20s, 30s, and 40s. When I was in high school, I sat next to a boy who died one weekend in a sledding accident. Another classmate died in an automobile crash. Over the past few years, two of the university students died because of illness. These deaths come as a shock and they should help us see the reality of life and death in this world.

In the next five years it can be expected that someone sitting here this morning will die. In the next 25 years it is certain that some of us sitting here will be dead. In 50 years half of us will be dead and in 100 years there may be a few of the children up in the nursery who are still alive, but the rest of us will have died. This is the reality of life and death in this world.

We simply don’t know what will happen next. So we read from the wisdom in Proverbs 27:1
Do not boast about tomorrow,
for you do not know what a day may bring forth.

James says we are like a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. This is the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. (Ecclesiastes 6:12)
12 For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?

God instructed Isaiah to prophesy: (Isaiah 40:6–8)
“All men are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.
7 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God stands forever.”

In light of this teaching from the Bible, Saint Benedict, who founded the Catholic order of Benedictines, had 73 rules for his monks and rule 47 was: “To keep death before one’s eyes daily.”

That is the reality of our lives and so James exhorts us:
15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

It is because of this verse that people say, “I will do this or that, God willing.” We live in a culture where “inshallah” is part of the daily vocabulary. But there is a huge difference between following the cultural pattern of “God willing” or “inshallah” and living your life with the understanding that we are like the mist and may not be here tomorrow.

Paul lived his life with this awareness. Paul was constantly in prayer about what his next steps should be. He told the elders in Ephesus: (Acts 18:21)
“I will come back if it is God’s will.”

He wrote to the church in Rome: (Romans 1:10)
I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.

And to the church in Corinth: (1 Corinthians 4:19)
19 But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing,

This was not only the vocabulary of Paul, it was the way he lived his life. Paul planned, he strategized, and he prayed, seeking God’s direction for his life.

This is the reality of our lives. We are not masters of our lives and need to live in submission to God, seeking his guidance as we make our way through life.

Now let me share the benefits of living life this way.

The first benefit of living with an awareness of our coming death is that working to be successful at all costs, determining our own future, is an empty pursuit that will lead us nowhere.

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes uses the example of Solomon who amassed wealth that staggered the imagination, who had a list of accomplishments that put him at the top of the world, and who experienced pleasures most people only dream of. And yet he found they did not satisfy him.

Ecclesiastes 2:11
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.

There is something worse than being poor, and that is to be rich and successful and realize you have nothing.

The pursuit of success is a dead end.

A second benefit of living life with an awareness of our coming death is that it allows us to live our lives without giving work and possessions ultimate importance.

The resources and opportunities of the world are limited. We compete as students for the best grades, for the best scholarships, for the best graduate degree programs. We compete with our colleagues for raises and for promotions. The higher you go in the organization, the more limited the opportunities for advancement and the more fierce the competition. As parents, we want out children to be in the best schools. We want our children to have the best music teachers, art teachers, and sports instructors. Depending on the family, when our parents die, we discuss/argue/fight over who gets what part of the estate.

If this life is all there is, then it makes sense to put everything else aside and make whatever sacrifices are required to get what you want. And because you are sacrificing so much, the prospect of not getting what you want produces enormous stress which gets directed to even more sacrifice. Unethical behavior is unleashed to get as much of the pie as possible.

But when you realize that you will die someday, perhaps a long time from now and perhaps sooner than that, the importance of what everyone is fighting for becomes less important.  John Ortberg said, “When the game is over, it all goes back in the box.” All our promotions, all our accomplishments, all our possessions get left behind when we die.

You can fail your exam. You may not get to study in the field you wanted to. You may never get the position in your organization you want. You may lose your job. You may not achieve the success you dream of, but you can still live your life in a way that will cause you to be greeted at the end of your life by Jesus who will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” The doctor and street cleaner will both stand before Jesus to be judged. Their accomplishments will not be significant. There is great wisdom in knowing this.

When my father died, my sisters gathered to distribute our parents’ possessions among the six of us. I was not there and there are some things I would have liked that I did not get a chance to speak up for. But I realized that whatever I inherited would be mine for a few years and then I would die and leave them behind. So what’s the point of getting too energized about who got what?

When we keep an awareness of our mortality and future destination, it takes the emotional edge off our pursuit of schools, jobs, promotions, and possessions. It is possible to work hard, develop skills, and not get consumed by your school or work. When you know that at the end of the game, it all goes back in the box, you can live with the peace of Christ, even through the most difficult disappointments of life.

In verse 15 James tells us:
Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

This raises the question, “How do we know what the Lord’s will is?” In the second scenario at the beginning of this sermon I talked about Christians who are passionate about doing the Lord’s will and are afraid of making a wrong decision. So they sit and pray and wait, wait and pray and sit, paralyzed by indecision.

Knowing the Lord’s will begins with submission. When I am able to pray from the depth of my heart and tell God I am willing to do anything he wants, go anywhere he wants me to go, then I am ready to seek his direction. I have specific memories of doing this at various points in my life. These were life-changing moments for me. When we submit to God, we head off in a good direction.

There are some people who are afraid of hearing from God because they are fearful God will tell them to do something they do not want to do. If this is the case, then there is no purpose in going further in seeking God’s direction. In this case there is a struggle between my will and God. Who is going to be lord of my life? Me or God? Before I can seek God’s direction, I have to be ready to do what he tells me to do.

When I was in university I was planning to apply to medical school. But a friend asked me one September if I had ever asked God what he wanted me to do with my life. I told my friend I assumed God could use a doctor but I did pray and I knew, right away, that God wanted me to go to seminary. I resisted for three months and I tried to make deals with God but finally I came to the point of submission and told God I would apply to go to seminary. Wen we open ourselves to hear from God, he will speak to us if he wants us to go in a different direction.

When I am in submission to God, ready to hear from him, then I can seek his direction. I shared this past September five ways God speaks to us. These are taken from Nicky Gumbel in the Alpha Course. Let me share them with you again.

Nicky Gumbel calls them the five CS’s: Commanding Scripture, Compelling Spirit, Common Sense, Counsel of the Saints, and Circumstantial Signs.

We are led by Commanding Scripture. Scripture leads us in many cases into what we should do. If I am so angry I want to kill someone, the Bible clearly tells me I am not to murder someone and in fact I need to learn why it is I am so angry and forgive the one who has offended me. There is a lot about my Christian life that I learn from what the Bible has to say.

We are led by a Compelling Spirit. There are many things in life about which the Bible does not speak. Choosing a college or job is not something the Bible speaks about. To take a train or drive to Marrakech is not a choice the Bible will help you with. But the Holy Spirit speaks into our lives and guides us. The tragedy is that most of the time we are not listening. But even so, the Holy Spirit continues to speak to us, encouraging us to follow a path that will lead to God. We can receive a sense that a particular decision is the right decision for us to make.

We are expected to use our Common Sense. God gave us a mind and we are expected to use it to make good decisions. We can make a list of pros and cons for the choices we face and come to good conclusions. God gave us a mind and expects us to use it.

We are expected to seek the Counsel of the Saints, which means asking for advice from other Christians. There is a wealth of experience and knowledge in the body of Christ. Your brothers and sisters in Christ have learned a path of obedience and can help you as you make your way.

And Nicky Gumbel says, we are to pay attention to Circumstantial Signs. God uses circumstances to lead us and direct us. If you think you should marry a certain woman but she says no, that is a pretty clear sign. In less direct ways, circumstances also guide us. Daniel Defoe in Robinson Crusoe said we need to pay attention to the little details of life because that is how God often leads us.

When you are in submission to God and seek his direction in these ways, then you can make a decision with confidence. You do not need to wait for a sign in the sky. You can be decisive.

Here is what I would ask you to do this week. Take some time to sit and be quiet. Trust God enough to submit to him, asking that he reveal to you what he wants you to do with your life. Bring before him any decisions that are upcoming. Bring before him your current job, or course of study and ask him to let you know if you are on the wrong track. If God has another plan for you, he will let you know. You will sense his direction if you are off track.

Because my parents had a volatile relationship, in particular, because I heard my mother yelling at my father at too many dinners, telling him she would get divorced as soon as we were out of the house, I was anxious about getting stuck in marriage with the wrong woman. So I prayed a lot, asking God to let me know if I was making a mistake. The morning I got married I prayed, telling God it was not too late to let me know if I was making a mistake. But God said nothing to me. Why? I was not making a mistake and I married the woman he wanted me to marry.

When I asked what God wanted me to do with my life, I knew immediately that I was supposed to go to seminary. So as long as you are living in submission to God, when you pray and God does not speak to you, go forward with confidence that God is leading you. As you move through the years of your life, don’t be presumptuous and make decisions without praying and asking God for his direction. Live your life being led by God.

Let me conclude by praying a prayer written by Scotty Smith. This is a prayer about decision making and the will of God. The prayer is preceded by Proverbs 16:9
In his hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.

Sovereign Father, O, the immeasurable peace, humility, and joy this one verse brings me! No more paralysis of analysis. Goodbye to obsessing and second guessing every decision. So long to the faith denying fear of being outside of your will. To know that you’re vitally engaged in directing every one of our steps, as your children, is incredibly freeing.
You are the all wise God who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of your will (Eph. 1:11). You the loving Father who is working in all things your glory and for our good (Rom 8:28-30). You are the mighty Lord who opens doors no man can shut and who shut doors no man can open. Indeed, you’re no mere life coach; you’re the Lord of all things—including me.

Many years I labored under the arrogance and anxiety of assuming that if I prayed hard enough and long enough, that if I was really filled with and “tuned into” the Holy Spirit, I could know the specifics of your will for my life well in advance of any decision that needed to be made. Of course, my assumption was that if I was in your will, life would be enjoyable, pleasant, and hassle free.

If I bought the right car, it would never break down. If I bought the right house, the roof would never leak. If I married the right person, we would never disagree. If I went to the right college, I’d get the right job and life would be all right. If I sent my kids to the right school, they would never act out and would end up on the mission field. If all my decisions were good and godly, I’d never suffer. If all of this was true—if this was the way life really works, I wouldn’t really need you, Father.

You’re certainly honored when we work hard to make good plans, in keeping with our understanding of the Scriptures. And it’s important for us to seek and heed the wise, prayerful counsel of good and godly friends.  But help us to live with more confidence that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, not a consulting partner; a very present Lord, not an absentee landlord; the reigning King, not an impotent bystander.

Because of Jesus, I’m confident your will is being done, on earth as it is in heaven. Because of Jesus, I’m humbled to know that you will redeem the less-than-wise decisions I make. Because of Jesus, I enter this day palms up, with gratitude and surrender, for you are making me like him—the centerpiece of your will and glory. So very Amen I pray, in Jesus’ exalted and praise-worthy name.