As you’re being seated, please turn in your Bibles to James chapter 4. You’ll find this on page 1013 if you’re using a pew Bible. James chapter 4. It’s been a few weeks since we’ve been in this book together; we’ll pick it up at verse 13. Before we listen to God’s Word, let us pray and ask His blessing upon it.
What more can You say to us, Lord, than You have said in the inspired and inerrant Word You give us to listen to this evening? Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, through Jesus, in the power and in the demonstration of the Spirit, for the glory of Your great name alone? For we pray in Jesus’ mighty name, amen.
James chapter 4, beginning at verse 13. This is God’s Word:
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For 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. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”
The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of the living God shall stand forever and ever. Amen.
A 1989 movie, Casualties of War, which starred Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn, told the story of a group of soldiers during the Vietnam War who committed a horrible crime, and one of the soldiers, played by Michael J. Fox, Private Eriksson, witnesses this crime but doesn’t participate in it and doesn’t do anything to stop it. And there’s this scene in the movie where his conscience begins to gnaw at him and he says these powerful lines. He says, “Just because each of us might at any second be blown away, we’re acting like we can do anything we want, as though it doesn’t matter what we do. I’m thinking it’s just the opposite. Because we might be dead in the next split second, maybe we’ve got to be extra careful what we do because maybe it matters more. Maybe it matters more than we will ever know.”
That’s James’ message tonight. Maybe it matters more. So often in our lives, we live like those soldiers. Don’t we? Just because we know that dread reality is certain, that life can end at any second, we live how we please; we live the way we want to live. And James says it matters more than we can ever imagine. That’s what he’s going to teach us tonight. And the solution to the brevity of life is not then to live as though it doesn’t matter because it matters more.
Now the context again here where we are in chapter 4, James’ main concern in this epistle is genuine faith; not just faith in the outward expression by our lips but faith that is real. And that’s his concern over this whole letter. And in this last chapter particularly, he’s been concerned to point out for us that genuine faith works itself out in a lifestyle of humble repentance. And then we’re in this section now, actually really three sections here – beginning in the latter part of chapter 4 and coming to a head here in chapter 5 verses 1 through 6 – three separate teaching sections, the main theme of which is the greatness of God – themes rather – the greatness of God and the weakness of man. The greatness of God and the weakness of man. And what James will show us tonight is that the only solution to the uncertainty of life and the problem of sin is to trust in the sovereign grace of God. The only solution to the uncertainty of life and the problem of sin is the sovereign grace of God. And we’ll look at this text under two headings. In verses 13 to 16, the uncertainty of life. And then in verse 17, the sin of neglect. The uncertainty of life and the sin of neglect.
The Uncertainty of Life
Look with me back there at verses 13 to 14. “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” The problem James addresses here is not very different from what we struggle with today as well. These wealthy merchants were acting and living as though God didn’t matter. They were acting and living as if, “Whatever we plan to do will certainly get done.” They were living as practical atheists. They were presuming upon God. We do the same thing. Don’t we? We plan and we pursue our goals and we can go two or three weeks and realize we haven’t prayed about a lick of it. And James is bringing us back to reality here. He’s reminding us that life is not ours to do with as we please. He’s saying we can go on and on and live as functional atheists in our day to day lives and then he says something that pierces to our hearts. He says, “What is your life?” It’s a mist.
Now I wasn’t a Christian when I saw this, but it came home to me when I was studying for this and I remembered working for my wife’s uncle on one of his horse farms the summer we started dating. My Laban-like service for Callie. She was worth it! But her uncle owned this horse farm and I had all kinds of duties to do and I had to be there by about six-thirty in the morning. On those summer mornings, in Kentucky, the grass really is blue. And I drove down at the time to get to his farm what has been voted the most scenic road in America. And there are these three-hundred-year-old cut stone fences and I’d pull my truck off to the side of the road and you could see for miles over the rolling bluegrass hills of Kentucky. And you’d see the oak trees and the thoroughbreds – just chamber of commerce type pictures. And the mist that would settle there over the bluegrass was just beautiful to behold. By the time I got to work, got to the stables and came out leading out the first horse, the mist was gone – ten minutes later; all of it. And the hot Kentucky sun began to burn on the bluegrass.
James says our lives are like that mist. They vanish in a second. And the uncertainty of life causes us so much dread. We all know it’s true and we do our best not to face the grim reality that this time next week the people we are sitting next to might be rearranging their schedules to attend our funerals. That’s what James is saying. It can happen that fast. It can happen without any notice. What is our life? It’s a mist!
A Warning Against Presumption
And then he goes on to say this. “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” And then verse 16, “As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” This is the only time this word for evil is used in the New Testament. It’s a very strong word. James doesn’t mince words with us. He says if we live this way, if we presume upon God, if we say we can do as we please and we will make our plans taking no thought to God, taking no thought to prayer, taking no thought to seek His guidance, if that’s how we live, we live as practical atheists and we boast by our lifestyles.
And that’s the boasting problem all of us face. Isn’t it? We’re all boasters in something. Paul tells us that. He says, “God forbid that I should boast, save in the cross of Christ.” The prophet Jeremiah before him said, “Let him who boasts, boast in this – that he knows Me, says the Lord.” And yet the boasting problem that all of us has, works itself out like this. Here’s the question to ask yourself: What do you reassure yourself with when you’re insecure? When you walk into a room, when you feel insecure, and you wonder, “Am I going to measure up to these people? What do they think about me?” What do you reassure yourself with? That’s what you boast in. Do you reassure yourself by saying, “I’m a pretty good looking person? I’ve got a nice bank account. I live in the right zip code. I vacation in the right places.” That is our boast. Whatever we reassure ourselves with, and James says, when we boast that way, when we make much of ourselves and much of our plans and forget God out of all of it, it’s evil. Again, a particularly strong word for evil.
Our Illusion of Control
And then, what he’s telling us here, he goes on there in verse 15 and gives us this big, “instead.” He says, “You ought to say this, ‘If the Lord wills.’” Death is the great shatterer of our illusion of control in our lives. Death is the great equalizer; it’s the great reminder that what James is saying is true. And when we realize that, uncertainty can come to grip our lives. This kind of uncertainty creates and fuels so much anxiety and we do our best to get rid of that. So how do we do that? Two common strategies are seeking more control. Never forget that the main virtue of modern life, especially here in the West, is control. Think about it. Every advertisement you’ve seen this week, it’s all about more control – through an app, through a diet, through a home security system. And the great reality is that we can have all those apps, we can have the best security system, and we can still suffer loss, suffer tragedy, suffer death, James says. We’re always seeking after control. That’s one way we try to deal with this anxiety.
The other way is self-medication. Maybe it is dieting. You say, “If I can just get control of food.” As one Christian counselor put it, “If you ever want to understand the mind of an addict, try to diet.” Try giving up sugar. And then, maybe it’s buying something. Maybe when you get depressed, maybe when you feel that life is uncertain and things are out of control, you seek control by that “Buy Now” button on Amazon. That’s what makes you feel good and powerful and in charge. Whatever it is, when this uncertainty of life begins to really hit home to us, we become terrified. And it’s kind of tragic in its comedy, isn’t it? We understand life is uncertain, we know how brief it is, we know it can be snuffed out at any second, and yet we will do anything to maintain the illusion of control. And James says, “I want to show you a better way. And it doesn’t look like a better way at the outset.”
What Fuels Our Anxiety
You see, everything about uncertainty, everything in our lives that fuels this anxiety, turns on our view of those two little letters in our text – “If.” “If” is what fuels our anxiety, isn’t it? “What if?” How many “What ifs” have cost you sleep this week? How many decisions do we make based on “What ifs?” “If” changes everything! And the cure for uncertainty, according to James, seems to be the very height of uncertainty – “If.” But it’s what follows that makes all the difference. He says, “What you ought to say is, ‘If the Lord wills, we will do this and that.’” In other words, every “if” of your life and of mine, is in God’s hands. He’s focusing, riveting our attention on the fact that God is totally sovereign, that when we make our plans the correct posture for us, as he’s talking to us about the greatness of God and our inherent weakness as frail, sinful creatures, the best posture for us to take is to not say, “If,” and then be terrified. It’s to say with utter confidence, “If the Lord wills, we’ll show up to church next Sunday; we’ll wake up tomorrow morning; we’ll take another breath.” The only “if” that matters is the “if” James tells us about here. God, the God of the Bible, is the God of “if.” Every “if” is in His hands, therefore you can trust Him. Therefore, the uncertainty of life does not need to wreck you, does not need to make you crumble, does not need to lead us to more self-medication, less prayer, less Jesus, less Bible. No, James says if you say this if you understand this, this “if” changes everything and rids us of that uncertainty.
The Sin of Neglect
And then we have verse 17 hanging here kind of out of the blue. Look there. “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” James turns our attention then to the sin of neglect. Is this just kind of James being random and unorganized? I don’t think so. I think what he’s doing here is giving us a summary of what’s come before and a bridge to the next section. It’s a summary in a sense that James is telling us what the main problem that he’s been focusing on for the past sixteen verses really is. They are sins of omission. There are two different kinds of sins the Bible gives us. Sins of commission – things we do that God tells us not to do. But then there are sins of omission – things God has commanded us to do that we fail to do. And James says that’s the problem here. That’s the overarching problem. And then he’s going to unfold more of that in chapter 5 verses 1 through 6. He’s going to show us more of the consequences of practical atheism.
It reminds me of where I grew up in South Carolina. My dad bought an old house and when somebody asked him, “Roy, why did you buy this old house?” he pointed to me and my brothers and said, “Free, cheap labor!” And that’s what we spent our summers doing, was fixing up this house. And every day before my dad left for work he would leave us a work detail. And he had expectations for each of my brothers, tasks for each of us to do, and it didn’t matter how long it took us to get them done. If we finished by noon, then we could do whatever we wanted. If we were working at ten, that’s fine! He just set out those details for us every day. This is what he expected of us. We could never plead ignorance and say, “Dad, we didn’t know.”
And that’s James’ point here. We can never look at God and say, “Dad, I didn’t know.” He says, “Whoever knows what to do is right.” And what is he talking about? We know that pride is wrong. We know that worldliness is wrong. We know that the things that he’s been describing here from chapter 3 onwards are things that are wrong, things that we are not supposed to be doing. And we know, he says, that we fail to do what God has called us to do. And that raises the question, “Is there any hope for people who fail like us?” Why does James put this here?
Our Complete Hopelessness
And I think what he’s doing is, once again, reminding us of what he’s been so concerned to do from chapter 1 onwards. And that is this. Remember he called us at the beginning, we are “slaves of grace,” that the only hope we have when we realize that we are undone before God, that for him who knows what the right thing to do and fails to it, it is sin – is that not a perfect description of your life and mine over the past week? Or as an article, I read recently put it, “What do I pray when I know I’m going to sin again? When I know I’m going to fail what God has called me to do?” Is there hope for us? And James says yes! But the way for us to know that hope, the way for us to experience that grace that he’s so concerned for us to experience, is by a route that does not look common or familiar. The way up is first down; it’s first to admit your helplessness and your hopelessness. That is one of the scandals of the message of the Gospel. You and I are helpless and hopeless and that posture destroys the illusion of control that we all so desperately crave and so desperately cling to.
When it comes down to it, what James is saying is this – “Your life is a mist! You have no control.” Why? Because we’re helpless, hopeless sinners who know what we’re supposed to do and fail again and again and again and we don’t do what our Father tells us we are supposed to be doing. That’s where you’ve got to start. When we sit and sing and when we stand and sing about the glory of the grace of God, that grace will make no sense to any of us until we understand our beginning point, our true nature, the real situation that we find ourselves in as frail creatures of the dust like mist on the morning who also are helpless sinners. That’s the starting point of grace.
The End of Our Excuses
My friends, the simple question from James to all of us tonight is, “Have you been brought down? Do you know you’re helpless? Do you know you’re hopeless?” Christianity is for everyone. You can come and be a follower of Jesus tonight if you’re not one. You can be saved tonight. You can become a Christian. And the only thing it’s going to cost you right now is your pride. It is giving up the illusion of control. What a small price to pay for the glory of eternal life. Have you come here yet and understood that we are helpless and hopeless? You see, when we get to the end of all of our excuses for ourselves – isn’t that what we do? When our conscience is pricked, we see our sin and what do we do? This is what I do. I am a classic defense attorney. I don’t have a JD, I’m not a lawyer, but in my own mind, I am the best defense attorney for my sin. I can give every excuse possible for why I can rationalize this one sin. And when we do away with all our excuses, when we’re finally done with that and we’re scared to get to the end of our excuses because we’re scared of who we will find at the end of our excuses, the reality and the goodness of the Gospel is that the God that we find at the end of our excuses is the One who’s been drawing us to Himself the whole time with open arms. That’s the beauty! You don’t have to be afraid to get to the end of your excuses because the God you find is the God of grace who says, “Don’t worry! I’ve got you and I love you and I’ve paid for those sins!”
Remember Who You Are!
What do we do with this? Let me say a couple of things here. But first, let me be brass tax, I hope practical and applicatory with this. This text tells us how to plan well. One of the problems we have in modern life is either we are tyrannized by our schedules or we just give up and don’t have them. We just kind of fly through our days by the seat of our pants and whatever comes, comes. Or, we cannot mess with the almighty schedule! How do we plan well? James tells us two keys to planning well here. He says, first of all, remember who you are! When we sit down with a calendar, “Realize,” he says to us, “that that calendar could be null and void in forty-eight hours. You might not be here. Those appointments might not get kept.” That’s got to be your starting point. But if you end there, if you say, “Oh great! Now I’m really shaken; now I’m really uncertain because now all I’m going to do is look at the calendar on my phone and go, ‘I’m going to die! I’m going to die! I’m going to die!’” That’s not what James is saying! He says, “Remember who you are!”
Remember Who God Is!
And then he tells us here, “Remember who God is.” Isn’t it amazing when you read the New Testament to look at the schedule of Jesus if I can put it that way? Did you ever notice that he’s never hurried? What do His disciples say to Him? They’re not so different from us. “Jesus, we’ve got somewhere to be! Hurry it up!” “No, let’s wait here three more days. There are other things I have to do.” They find Him early in the morning, “Jesus, the whole village is looking for you!” What does He say? “Come, let’s go.” But what was He doing? “I was praying,” He says. “I am communing with my heavenly Father.” His schedule; He’s never hurried. And that’s the life He desires for us in a frantic, restless society that cannot do anything but measure worth and productivity by busyness, Jesus calls us aside and says, “Recognize that you can be the busiest person on the face of the earth and when God’s time comes, it all ends.” Having that perspective, James says, frees you from the tyranny of the schedule and it frees you to plan well because you know who you are and we know who God is. He says, “No matter what happens to your plans, trust Me. I’ve got the final red pencil on them anyway! The blueprint for your life will not look like what I have planned and it’s okay,” He says. “Trust Me! You would do exactly what I’m doing if you knew what I knew.” That’s what God tells us.
Do you know how – it’s almost comical that I’m saying that – this is what I think part of what David was talking about so wonderfully this morning about the preaching of the Gospel being foolish. Part of that foolishness is He calls people, men, frail sinners, to proclaim this Word who struggle with things like this. I want my life to be orderly, neat, according to plan and according to schedule and I hate it when anything messes that up. And God loves us too much to give us the illusion of control. He will be God. He will be God in our lives. Recognize who you are and recognize who God is.
The Lord Who Wills Is the Lord Who Dies
And that takes us to the heart of this text. James – some commentators will say, “Look, there’s not a whole lot of Gospel in James.” Most famously, Martin Luther, as we talked about at the beginning, called this “a right strawy epistle!” Did not think it was part of the canon. And that goes to show you that even the brilliant minds of the church history are men of clay and make mistakes. And commentators today still say, “Well, there’s not a real high teaching of Jesus here.” And yet what has James told us in chapter 2? That Jesus is the Lord of glory. And here he says, “If the Lord wills.” That “Lord” title is the most common title for Jesus in all of the New Testament. And I think what James is saying to us is when he tells us it’s the Lord who wills, he’s telling us that the Lord who wills is the Lord who dies. The Lord who wills is the Lord who dies for us.
God’s Absolute Sovereignty
That changes everything when we think about the doctrine of God’s sovereignty because so often this doctrine is caricatured as God being some kind of a manipulative tyrant, a puppet master who makes us little more than robots who have no choice in the matter. And the Bible never does that. The Bible says that the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty – and let’s be clear about the absoluteness of that sovereignty – it goes down to the hairs of your head Jesus says. Not one of them fall. You lose millions of them every year. Jesus says God knows all of them, all of them. It goes down to the very molecules that comprise the physical reality that we see and touch and taste. He’s over all of it. It is complete in scope. It is inexhaustible in its wideness. It is absolutely unalterable. It is fixed. God has planned it all. That’s the message on every page of the Bible.
God’s Desire to Save
But if you stop there, if you just have the Lord who wills and that’s what you’ve got in your mind and you think this tyrant God, not a God of love but a God of tyranny, James corrects our vision tonight. You see, at the same time that the Bible tells us about this sovereign God, it tells us that this sovereign God desires to save people, to plan all their circumstances for their good and His glory. Aren’t you looking forward to the day when you stand in the righteousness of Jesus before God and you look back, as the old hymn put it, “over life’s finished story,” and what you see in all of the tangled threads of your life, all of the sin, all of the hurt, all of the failure, all of the buried dreams, all of the things you had to give up, all of the times you said, “I never thought it would turn out this way,” and you look back over that and you see glory written across all of it. God’s glory magnified in every aspect of our lives because the Lord who wills is the Lord who dies. And that’s the price you pay for true control.
Give Up Control!
Here’s the deal. If you want true control of your life, the Gospel tells you, you have to give up control of your life. The Gospel tells you that tonight is the night to stop grasping after control, to realize the true nature of things – that we never were really in control anyway. And as it invites us to do that, as it invites us to give up the illusion of control that causes us heartburn and ulcers and sleepless nights and stress and heart attacks and early graves, as we give up that, as God invites us to trust Him completely, He says, “Then you will realize true control.” And it never rests with us. It rests with the One who sent His Son to die. It rests with the One who controls every circumstance of our lives. Think about that tonight! Think about that everything, everything, for our good and His glory. And if we could see what He sees, we would do what He does. That’s what He tells us!
It reminds me of a story I read in a Jim Dobson book not too long ago. He told the story of a young associate pastor named Cliff in the 1940s. Cliff had just been married and as an aspiring pastor, just starting out at his first call, he and his new wife didn’t have much money so they scraped some money together for a honeymoon. They booked this hotel, traveled there in California, got to the hotel, and realized that the place had been turned into a rehab center and their reservation had been canceled. So not having any other means of transportation, they had taken a bus to get there, they hitchhiked to a local grocery store right down the road and the owner there took pity on this poor couple and said, “Look, there’s a room above this store. You can stay there!” Well the owner kind of started talking to them a little bit and they took him up on his gracious offer, and as he began to talk to them he realized they were Christians and he was a believer. And he said, “Listen, stay here tonight, but I’ve got a friend though who’s got much nicer accommodations. Let me call him and see if y’all can stay with him?”
So he calls his friend and sure enough, the friend said, “I’d be delighted to have Cliff and his wife!” So they made their way to his friend’s house and his friend said, “Hey, I’m going to a youth rally tonight. Do you guys want to come and accompany me?” And they said, “Sure! We’d love to. We’d love to worship with you!” So they went to this youth rally and upon arriving there this host said to them, “We’ve had this song leader every night but he’s sick. Do either one of you sing?” And his new wife said, “Cliff sings! He’s a really good singer.” He said, “Would you lead us in song, please?” So without any preparation, he stood up and began to sing. And then he took his seat. And a young evangelist named Billy got up and began to preach. And for the next fifty years, Cliff Barrows and Billy Graham set the world on fire, by God’s grace, with Graham’s crusades, Cliff Barrows leading the music for that. All because a honeymoon got spoiled. All because God rearranged their plans.
And what that reminds us is that we never know what God will do when He changes our plans, but what James tells us tonight is that we know the Lord of “if” and that is all that matters. We can trust Him! We are safe! Let’s pray!
Father, I want to believe everything I’ve just preached. Please help all of us to do that, in as so far as it accords with Your Word. Help us to believe that You are doing us good when we are under the storm clouds of life. Help us to believe that You are good in the sunny days and in the bad days. Let us cling to Your absolute sovereignty over our lives because You love us and You sent Your Son to die for us. We pray in His mighty name, amen.
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