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.” 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. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-15
I am what you would describe as an obsessive planner. I have a plan for just about everything: what I’m going to eat when I’m at school or work during the week, when I’m going to visit my parents, when I’m going to do this, that and the other. My parents have poked a little fun at me because I seem to always have a plan for where I’m going to be and what I’m going to be doing. This may be why I naturally find this passage in James a little touchy. Very often do I make plans, but how often do I involve him in the decision-making process?
Reading this text also makes me smile a little bit because there have been moments where I have been on the totally opposite end of the spectrum. When I was getting ready to graduate high school, I was terrified of even graduating high school. I was so stricken with fear that I basically applied for one college and hoped that I would get in. Thankfully I got in to the University of Missouri, but I remember feeling very conflicted during that season of life because I felt like I couldn’t make a decision. Wasn’t I supposed to wait on God to tell me where to go and what to do? Why hadn’t he told me what I was supposed to do with my life? What if I made plans and then God changed them?
So, is that the kind of lifestyle that James is promoting? I don’t think so. He isn’t saying that planning is bad; making plans for the future makes you a responsible individual. That’s not saying that everyone has to plan for everything the way I do, but there comes a point where not making a decision makes you reckless. When I first started driving, I could barely make a decision to save my life: right or left? Faster or slower? Pass the person or idle down the highway at 40 mph? Frankly, I was a road hazard on wheels.
So what is James talking about? He’s talking about failing to take God into account when you plan for the future. “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’” James isn’t telling us to just say “If it is the Lord’s will” at the beginning of each of our plans. There’s nothing magical about the phrase “If it is the Lord’s will.” He’s telling us that God needs to be involved in how we plan our lives and if we fail to include him in our plans, we are (in a very subtle way) trying to have our own way instead of allowing God the right to veto our plans.
One of the ways that I try to check my heart when I am making plans is asking, What is my reaction if this plan of mine doesn’t come to fruition? Do I get mad? Frustrated? Or am I able to make the plan and then honestly say, “God, if this doesn’t work, that’s okay?” If I can honestly make a plan and then accept that it might not work out, then that’s when I know that I’ve put this principle into practice. If I feel myself getting really frustrated when something I have planned doesn’t come about, that’s when I know that I need to take a moment, check my heart and leave it in God’s hands.
I use that phrase – “leave it in God’s hands” – carefully because some people who are trying to follow Jesus have come to believe that we can’t make plans or decisions, that God is supposed to split the Heavens open and tell us what to do every time we come to a crossroads. If you’ll read the New Testament – and in particular the book of Acts – I don’t think that that’s the model of discipleship that we see the early Church leaders setting. Did God speak to them on certain issues? Yes. But they also made many different decisions with no specific instruction from God, though they typically gave God the right to veto their decision.
A great example of this decisional model is in Acts 1 where the disciples picked who was going to replace Judas as the 12th disciple. What did they do? They whittled it down to two men, they prayed for God’s guidance, and then they drew lots to see which of the two men it was going to be. Did God tell them to do that? No, but they did pray for God’s guidance. Their approach was balanced: they weren’t just asking God to make all of the decisions, but they weren’t just acting without giving God that right of veto.
So, this passage from James is telling us to make sure that we give God the right of veto when we are making decisions. Make your plans, make sure that they are as good as you can make them and then bring them before the throne of God saying, “Father, if it is within your will, here’s what I plan to do” and then trust that if your plan doesn’t work out, God’s got a better one in mind. So, make plans; make decisions; don’t wait for God to make them all for you; and please don’t try to plan everything out so meticulously as I do.
So, if you are trying to follow Jesus, what do you think about this passage from James 4? Do you think God wants us to make plans? What kinds of ways can we ensure that we give God the right of veto if we do make plans? When do you think God is giving you the go-ahead for a plan? What about when he is saying “no” to something you plan?
If you aren’t a Christian or aren’t trying to follow Jesus, what is your reaction to this whole model of planning and decision-making? Does it make sense, or does it just sound weird?