“The Uncertainty of Tomorrow”
Series: Living the Faith (James)
Rev. Todd A. Linn, PhD
Henderson’s First Baptist Church, Henderson
•I invite you to take your Bibles and join me this morning in James chapter 4 (page 813; YouVersion).
If you’re visiting with us we are preaching our way verse-by-verse through the Book of James and we find ourselves this morning at the concluding verses of chapter 4. When we were last together we studied verses 11-12 where James warns of our speaking evil of another brother or sister, including the sin of being judgmental, assuming we have all the information about another person to render a comprehensive and accurate judgment upon them.
But of course we are not God. There is, as James says in verse 12, one Lawgiver. We don’t really know other people as God knows them. Only God knows perfectly. So we took away from our study the importance of stopping our mouths when we feel inclined to speak negatively of another church member, of another Christian, frankly of anyone.
After the third service one of our faithful senior adult members handed me a little poem she had with her that spoke to this matter. Listen to these words:
If I knew you and you knew me,
If both of us could clearly see,
And with an inner sight divine,
The meaning of your heart and mine,
I’m sure that we would differ less,
And clasp our hands in friendliness;
Our thoughts would pleasantly agree,
If I knew you and you knew me.
Isn’t that wonderful? We don’t know as God knows. So we should always think and speak in a way that gives others the benefit of doubt. Speak as though that person were present and you will be far more likely to speak fairly and kindly. As James says in an earlier place in his letter, “So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty (James 2:12).”
What we say reveals the kind of heart we have. Proverbs 23:7 says, “As a man thinks in his heart so is he”—and we might add, so speaks he. Evil thinking within leads to evil speaking without.
James continues with this matter of evil speaking. And now it’s a particular kind of evil speaking, namely that of speaking presumptuously. To speak presumptuously indicates one has a heart disposed to self-assuredness, self-confidence, and self-reliance. To be presumptuous is to be arrogant, boastful, and conceited.
James addresses Christians who may be more self-assured and more boastfully self-reliant than they may realize. This hits home especially when we find ourselves attracted to ways we can improve our material standings, doubling our money by simply following the ABCs of some business opportunity. Listen for this and for the implications that surface from that idea as I read the passage.
•Please stand in honor of the reading of God’s Word.
13 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”;
14 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.
15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.”
16 But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
17 Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.
There is a popular idiom, a common saying, that goes like this: “Man proposes, God disposes.” Man proposes, but God disposes. The idea is that man may plan the events or the course of his life, but God who is sovereign will do as He believes best. God’s sovereignty precludes man’s presumption. So “Man proposes, but God disposes.”
If you were to Google that phrase this afternoon and do an “Image Search” of the phrase you would be directed to a painting, an oil-on-canvas painting by that same title, “Man proposes, God disposes.” It’s a painting by the English Painter Edwin Landseer.
In the painting, Landseer depicted the aftermath of a ship lost in the arctic sea and the ensuing disappearance of 129 men, men who had sailed in 1864 to explore the Northwest Passage. The ship and the men disappeared into the arctic ice. Man proposes, God disposes.
God’s sovereignty precludes our presumption. This really is at the heart of what James is teaching in these concluding verses. Most pressing in his mind is the presumptions planning of wealthy Christian merchants and what he warns here in the passage applies universally to all people in all times and in all situations: God’s sovereignty precludes man’s presumption. Solomon put it this way in Proverbs 16:9, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.”
Let’s study this passage more closely and see what it teaches and how we are to respond to its teaching; what it says, what it means, how it applies. First:
I. Life Consists of Uncertainty (13-14a)
This point is unmistakably present here in verses 13 and following. Life is full of uncertainties. Look again in your Bibles at verse 13:
13 Come now (or Listen, or Look here), 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”;
Well again, James has in mind wealthy Jewish Christian merchants or businessmen, those who traveled and traded goods and services and made money. The picture is of a man unrolling a huge map and placing it on a table and pointing out various places he will go in order to “buy and sell, and make a profit.”
Now on the surface there is nothing wrong with this kind of thinking and planning. We all plan events and give thought to the days ahead in terms of what we will do or what we hope to accomplish. There’s nothing wrong with having a day timer or using the calendars in your computers and smartphones. In fact, because God is an orderly God, there is something of our mirroring our Creator when we plan our days and structure our lives. Created in God’s image, our orderliness reflects the glory and grandeur of an orderly God.
It’s just like when we create something we reflect that attribute of our Creator God. My son baked me a cake for Father’s Day today. He took great joy in baking his first cake. What is it that causes us to have such joy and take such delight in creating? It is because we are created in the image of God and bring glory to Him when we mirror Him and share in His attributes.
So planning the future is not the problem. But what is the problem here? Well, fundamentally, it is the problem of presumption. It is the brazen and arrogant way we may plan our days as though we were in charge of everything.
See the key to understanding what is wrong in verse 13 insofar as planning the future is concerned—the key to understanding what is wrong—is not so much in what is said as in Who is missing. As you look at verse 13, do you see there any mention at all of the One True and Living God? No, no mention of God at all.
I wonder how much of our lives we live or plan without ever once giving a thought to God’s plans?
One commentator, J.A. Motyer, explains it this way: “James is not trying to banish planning from our lives, but only that sort of self-sufficient, self-important planning that keeps God for Sunday but looks on Monday to Saturday as mine.”
I believe he is right. It’s far easier to “keep God for Sunday” and do as we please Monday through Saturday. Truth is, I think Motyer is being too generous in his assessment. Many of us don’t even “keep God for Sunday.” Or we relegate Him to one moment on Sunday, one Sunday school class, or one hour of the day, one worship service, and then the rest of day is ours.
Are you guilty of living a “verse 13 kind of life?” You know, “I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that.” Look at James’ warning in the very next verse, verse 14:
14 whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow…
How can you be so presumptuous? You boast of your plans for tomorrow, or this coming week, or this fall, or next year, and “you do not know what will happen tomorrow.”
Proverbs 27:1, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.”
Who knows what tomorrow holds? Life is full of uncertainties.
Team Brazil was supposed to be back as one big group this afternoon. Well, that’s not happening. As I understand it, one or two persons may make it back this evening sometime and the rest of the group perhaps as late as sometime tomorrow night. Why? Because life consists of uncertainty.
Flights are delayed. Flights are cancelled. Plans change. Proverbs 16:9, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.”
See, the key to responding to the unplanned uncertainties in life is not to fret about or yell and curse and kick the cat or whatever. The believer in the One True and Living God of the Bible rests in God’s sovereignty. The Christian knows that God is in control of everything and that God always does what is right—every single time without exception.
The phrase in the first part of verse 14, “You do not know what will happen tomorrow” is a statement best to be taken as an encouragement. It is nothing short of a profound grace of God and mercy of God that we do not know the future.
God knows what we can handle and when we can handle it. He knows for our own good whether to give or withhold an encouraging happy providence or when to unveil a trying or difficult circumstance meant to grow us and conform us to greater Christlikeness. God knows best and always acts rightly.
Life consists of uncertainty. Second main point, number two:
II. Life is Characterized by Frailty (14b-15)
This is such a humbling truth! We are not as strong as we may think. There’s a musical from the 80s called “Fame.” And I mention it only because the main song in the musical is a popular and admittedly catchy song about being famous and it goes, “I’m gonna live forever / I’m gonna learn how to fly (high!).”
And it sounds so ambitious, you know. I’m gonna live forever! And James retorts in verse 14:
14…For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.
You’re not “gonna live forever.” Your life is characterized by frailty. Your life is “even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”
The Greek word translated “vapor” there is an old word meaning “mist.” The Greek word is “ατμος” from which we get our English word “atmosphere.”
Mist. Like the steam rising from our coffee. This week as I studied I held up my cup of coffee and looked at the steam rising. You can’t really capture steam. You can’t reach out with your hand and contain it and hold it there and say, “I’ve got it all right here.” The properties of steam seem to just come and go and then come again and go. It’s here and then it’s gone.
James says that’s like your life. How foolish that we should speak so presumptuously when our lives are so fragile, so frail.
And verse 14 also indicates the relative brevity of our lives. We “appear for a little time and then vanish away.”
I read someone illustrate it this way. He said:
Stick your finger in a glass of water, pull it out, and see what kind of dent you leave behind. The spot where you placed your finger will quickly fill in. While you may make an impression for a moment, as soon as you are off the scene, that place is going to fill right in. This is what our lives are like. We are here on this earth for a moment. The impression we make in time is only but for a moment and then time will quickly fill in as we pass on into eternity.—Tony Evans
This doesn’t mean we are to live dejected lives and consign ourselves to the fatalism of a meaningless existence. That is not what James is after here. Quite the contrary. Created in God’s image we have meaning and purpose. And we are to live our lives for God’s glory.
James is warning us against arrogant presumption, boasting in self-confidence that we are going to do thus and such and we are going to do as we please, and so on. James says, “You need to put this thing in perspective: you’re not as omni-competent as you may think. Your life is a vapor. Wise up. Live for God.”
See, James gives us what we ought to say rather than boasting of our self-made, self-determined plans. Rather than saying, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit,” rather than saying it that way, James says, verse 15:
15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord—(what?)—wills, we shall live and do this or that.”
If the Lord wills, I will be alive tomorrow. That’s a humbling way to think, isn’t it? Someone says, “Hey, want to go to Holiday World Friday?” and you say, “If the Lord allows me to live.” Sounds kind of morose, doesn’t it?
I’m not sure that James means we are to always say this every time, you know, “If the Lord wills I will be alive,” and so on. But I do absolutely positively think that James intends this thinking to be going on in our hearts. We are to be thinking this way, deep down in our hearts, knowing that our lives are full of uncertainties. We will only do this or that if the Lord permits.
The Apostle Paul thought this way. You’ll remember those times where he writes in his first letter to the Corinthians? He writes, “I will come to you shortly, if the Lord wills (1 Corinthians 4:19),” and, “I hope to stay awhile with you, if the Lord permits (1 Corinthians 16:7).”
That’s such a healthy and humbling way to think. If the Lord permits or, Lord willing. Christians of earlier generations would often conclude in their letters something of their plans and append the Latin phrase, Deo Volente, God permitting.
Our lives are characterized by uncertainty and frailty. No one knows for certain what’s going to happen tomorrow or in the next few hours—even in the context of a worship service.
It’s hard even to imagine what it was like for those worshipers at the church in Charleston, SC last Wednesday evening. Here’s a sick racist young man who opens fire and kills 9 people—after sitting among them for an hour in Bible study. Who ever could have imagined such a horrible event?
Life consists of uncertainty; life is characterized by frailty; so—and the third point is in response to the first two points, thirdly and finally:
III. Life Calls for Humility (16-17)
It is the obvious response. The cure for presumptuous thinking, planning, and living is humility before God. James says in verse 16:
16 But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
That is, rather than saying, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that,” the arrogant, prideful, perhaps even worldly successful businessman boasts, “I’m going to go and do this or that and make a profit,” leaving God’s sovereignty entirely out of the equation.
James says in verse 16, “You boast in your arrogance” and, “All such boasting is evil.”
William Barclay notes that the word translated in verse 16 as “arrogance,” in connection with boasting originally conveyed, “the characteristic of the wandering quack, [the one who] offered cures which were no cures [at all] and boasted of things that he was not able to do.”
You know that character in the old movies, like the old Westerns? The traveling salesman with his cart of wonderful cures and potions and such? He jumps up on a box and boasts of how he can fix this or fix that. And he can do nothing of the sort.
James says that’s just like you when you plan a business trip without bathing it in prayer. James says that’s just like you when you talk about what you’re going to do next year without taking into consideration God’s Word and God’s will.
So James concludes, verse 17:
17 Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.
James addresses here the sin of omission. Most of us are aware of sins of commission, deliberate sins, the outright doing of something we know to be wrong. Not as many of us may take as seriously sins of omission, the sin of not doing something we know to be right. That’s what James addresses here. He says, “If you know the good you are to do and do not do it, then that is also a sin.”
Do you do that which is right? Children, do you obey your parents? Do you keep the room clean as they have asked you? Parents, do you do that which is right? Do you pay your bills on time? Young person, you say you are going to serve God in some big way, how are you serving Him now? Do you put in an honest day’s work for your employer? Are you a good steward of your time? Do you witness? If you know the good you are to do and do not do it, you sin.
Given the immediate context, we know that James is saying, “If you fail to humble yourselves and you continue to speak and act presumptuously, leaving God out of your thinking and planning, you have sinned.”
By the way, if verse 17 does not shine a hot white light upon the hopelessness of the human condition, I’m not sure what other verse in James could prove as helpful. We cannot earn salvation and merit our way to heaven. We cannot! Even if we were able somehow to stop sinning entirely—and I know no one who believes that is actually possible this side of heaven—but if we were somehow capable of stopping our sinning if even for just a day, stopping the doing of all that we know is wrong, how could we ever hope to please God given our failure to not do all that we know is right? And the moment we stop doing all that we know is right is the moment—says James—that we sin. Verse 17 teaches this: “To him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.”
Don’t you see? There is a sense in which we are always sinning. You might say we sin by default. Sin is our default mode. Sin is native to the hardware of our system.
Life consists of uncertainty; life is characterized by frailty; so life calls for humility. Now, if we were to say, “Yes, but how? How does one practice humility given these verses?” Well, let me encourage you to write down these three ways. Write down these three action steps for meditation and practice this week. If we ask the question, “How can I practice Humility This Week?” Three statements, number one:
1) You are weak and fragile, so trust God with your life
Remember that you depend upon Him for everything. Everything. Food, clothing, shelter, rest. Our lives are a vapor, a mist, here for a moment and gone. We must depend upon God for everything. Secondly:
2) You don’t know everything, so trust God with your plans
Remember James warns in verse 14, “You do not know what will happen tomorrow.” Be humble: You don’t know everything. You don’t know the future.
Remember that not knowing the future is as much a mercy of God as a mystery of God. God knows what we can handle and when we can handle it. He knows for our own good whether to give or withhold information. He is always working, growing us and conforming to greater Christlikeness. God knows best and always acts rightly.
So don’t worry about the future and trust God with your plans.
3) You can’t keep breathing, so trust God with your soul
This is a clear and blunt conclusion given James’ teaching in verses 14 and 15. Because our lives are like the quickly evaporating steam rising from our morning coffee, we ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live…”
Ultimately, God alone keeps us living. Ultimately, God alone keeps us breathing.
I saw an image in an online news story recently. The story was about trying to revive a certain person, but what struck me was the image. It was a familiar picture: a couple of doctors or nurses and a man lying on a gurney, one of the doctors holding paddles or some such thing as though they had just tried to start the patient’s heart again. What struck me is that you could see only their faces as they stood there, gazing at the heart monitor to see whether the heart would start beating again. What struck me was that they were just standing there waiting—they had done all they could, would the heart start beating again?
It was a picturesque reminder that ultimately, God alone keeps us living and breathing.
Many of you know Chuck Lawless. He has spoken here before and he used to be at Southern Seminary. He is now dean and one of the vice presidents of Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.
Chuck tells about how a young Christian classmate in elementary school witnessed to him every morning. Chuck said when he arrived at the school in the morning, this young classmate would be there at the door and would greet him by saying, “Well, it’s a good thing you didn’t die last night or you would have gone to hell.”
In his reflection, Chuck allowed that the young man’s approach may not have been the most winsome evangelistic strategy, but it certainly got him to thinking.
“It’s a good thing you didn’t die last night or you would have gone to hell.”
Apart from Christ that is true. Many of us grew up praying a certain nightly prayer. It has changed over time. We now teach our children to pray this way:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
Guide me safely through the night,
and wake me with the morning light.
Not a bad prayer. I used it myself in teaching my boys. But as I’ve gotten older I have come to appreciate far more the prayer I was taught when I was small:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
And If I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
I think that prayer is more honest, more humble in its petition. I believe it conveys a far greater understanding of and appreciation for the God who is sovereign over the affairs of men—including His sovereignty over our very souls.
You are not going to go on breathing forever, so trust your soul with God.
•Stand for prayer.
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