13Come 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”— 14yet 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. 15Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
Several years ago, I preached through James for the very first time. Few parts of it had as big an impact on me and others as this passage. We considered how older generations of believers often included the phrase “God willing” in their letters or emails. Many used the even more archaic tradition of the Latin form, D.v., which abbreviates Deo volente, “God willing.” Together, as a church family, we pondered why we are so quick to think we’re in charge of our own lives. As we listened to God’s word together, we resolved to humble ourselves under God’s hand in every area of our lives.
Lesson learned, right?
Soon after that, in March 2020, COVID-19 brought my world crashing down around my ears, as I suspect it did for yours too. After all that time coming to really believe and deeply love the idea of “God willing,” why was the loss of my daily routine such a devastating blow? How did the massive alteration of my plans come to be such a crippling shock to the system?
That’s what the pandemic was for all of us. Think back to those first weeks as shock and surprise gave way to upset and grief. We began to cross things out of our diaries, and one after another, our best-laid plans for the year and for our lives fell like pins in a bowling alley. Why were we so utterly and completely blindsided?
I think the answer is that as we move through life, the world just constantly dupes us into believing a false story. We become enchanted with a false view of ourselves and the way the world is. Our heads and our Bibles might tell us, “God willing,” but we are immersed in the oxygen of the world, which says, “Me willing.” I am in charge, and I will decide—and 2020 came like a wrecking ball into our lives to show us just how easily we believed that lie. We presume we are in charge, and so we presume we can plan.
I’m sure you can easily see the root issue here: pride. It is the attitude that says I am the master of my fate, and no one else is. So, from James 4:10 until the end of the letter, James has really only one theme: the content and character of the humble life. He has been showing us the speech of the humble person (James 4:11–12); now he is going to show us the diary of the humble person (James 4:13–17); next he will show us the wallet of the humble person (James 5:1–6); and, finally, the suffering of the humble person (James 5:7–20).1
As we consider James 4:13–17, I will drop two heavy anvils on the oxygen line of the world, which tries unceasingly to keep our pride alive. I hope what you read here plays a part in cutting off that supply line. Instead, James wants us to breathe in the truth of what God says about reality. It is very simple, even stark, but in the simplicity, wholeness is to be found.
I want it to be comforting and life-giving as we see ourselves in God’s hands.
Don’t Plan Your Life Forgetting What You Are
James begins by simply highlighting our typical diary deliberations, such as “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town” (James 4:13). These are the daily details and routine decisions we all face: where to go, what to do, when to do it; we have hopes and plans and dreams for every day. James takes us from that canvas of our monthly planners, which we all know so well, and he bursts our bubble with the one big-picture thing we always forget: “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” (James 4:14).
I need to ask you, as you sit here reading, have you forgotten what you are? You are a mist, here for “a little time.” It’s an amazing phrase, isn’t it? “A little time”? Three score years and ten, maybe, God willing. And then you will vanish. We forget this, because we presume we are more than we actually are.
Think back to March 4, 2007. Do you remember the fog that descended on your city that evening?
Neither do I.
Do you recall the dew on the grass that was there on the morning of September 13, 2015? It was fresh and sweet and new, amazing to see. Do you remember it? Surely, you remember that dew, the really special dew?
Of course not.
You probably didn’t even notice it. And now it’s gone.
Dear reader, James wants you to know what you are. A mist! Here one minute but gone the next. And when you are gone, the world will go on without you.
I saw a picture recently of skyscrapers so tall and magnificent that their top floors were surrounded by mist. It’s a good visual image of what we are like, because we live our lives getting these two things the wrong way around: we think we’re the skyscrapers; God says we’re the mist. We think we’re standing tall. We’re going to go places, be important, make things, do things. I’m an oak tree; I’m an island; I’m a castle made of granite; I’m a fortress. I want to be master and commander, CEO and partner or company director. The one in charge. The poet William Ernest Henley puts it this way:
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.2
And what does God say? You’re a mist, a vapor.
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more. (Ps. 103:15–16)
What was your great-great-grandfather’s name? What did he love? What did he hate? What did he do? What did he achieve? Few of us could say. Like the mist, he is gone.
For some of us this is very hard to understand. You’re young, and to be young is to feel immortal; you’re never going to die. Maybe you’re at school or college, or about to get a job or get married, or possibly you have just started a family. The world is your oyster. James says, in fact, that you will float through time and be gone in no time at all.
Others of us are reading this and thinking, “I just blinked, and now here I am in an old person’s body!”
James isn’t trying to depress us. All he’s trying to do is humble us. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10). The brevity of life is one of God’s greatest tools for nurturing humility in his creatures.
Do you believe that there are worse things in the world than dying? Worse than dying is living without realizing that I am going to die, not deeply accepting that I will leave this world, and the world will barely remember I was even here.
What will be different in God’s eternal kingdom this year because of what you choose to do with your time, your money, your resources?
If this makes us angry or depressed, well, maybe that is our pride rearing its ugly head. Maybe it is the creature rising up to try to be the Creator, trying to be like God, for only the one true and living God is the immortal King. To try to sit on his throne is to get way beyond myself.
In 2021, the pop star Sarah Harding made headline news with her tragic words “I won’t see another Christmas.” The former Girls Aloud singer had been diagnosed with breast cancer, which spread to other parts of her body. Her diagnosis and treatment were disrupted owing to the pandemic, and she was coming to terms with the brevity of her remaining days. She died on September 5, 2021.
As I recall her story, I wonder what difference it might make to me this year if I believed that I might not live to see next year. If I’m honest, the possibility that I might not do so rarely crosses my mind. I presume that life will continue to stretch ahead of me uninterrupted. James has written these words to wake me up and to remind me that this is no given.
Are you taking the breath in your body for granted? Friend, life is too short to waste on passing trivia. What are you going to do with your life? What of yourself—and of your possessions—are you going to give, gladly, to others? What will be different in God’s eternal kingdom this year because of what you choose to do with your time, your money, your resources?
Don’t Plan Tomorrow Forgetting Whose You Are
“Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15). James is not against planning, of course. It’s still part of the life of faith to say that we will do this or that. Planning is good. Fail to plan, then plan to fail, and all of that. But what the Bible is against is how our diaries can make atheists of us all. James is against the kind of self-sufficiency that keeps God for Sunday but not for Monday to Saturday. It is the kind of planning that means we never stop to think about what difference it will make to my plans to think they might never happen.
Notice the decisive element in verse 15. Observe whom we forget when we plan tomorrow all by ourselves. The Lord. “If the Lord wills . . .”
James is plucking us from our high horses and bringing us down low. He is aiming to drive down deep into my soul the knowledge that I am a character in the story of the world that God is writing, not the author of my own play. God is the author, the playwright, the one painting a glorious picture of all of world history. In the center of this picture is a throne, and there is a King on it, and that King is not you or me. It is the Lord of glory. The point of the world is the Lord Jesus Christ. It is for him and about him, not us.
I wonder if you know this kind of humility. Not the kind that quickly says, “D.v.,” or, “God willing,” but the kind that says it is because of the Lord’s mercies that I am not consumed. My feet touched the ground this morning as I got out of bed, and that was a mercy, and all around me today are more mercies than I can count or ever deserve.
- For a treatment of James 4:10 that recognizes its structural significance in the letter, see the excellent commentary by Daniel M. Doriani, James, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), 141–54.
- William Ernest Henley, “Invictus,” in A Book of Verses (London: David Nutt, 1888), 56–57.
This article is adapted from Radically Whole: Gospel Healing for the Divided Heart by David Gibson.
Faith without works is dead. Genuine faith always produces righteous deeds. But are we saved by them?
In all the important ways, nothing has changed about church. We are still the people of God, gathered in the presence of God, to bring glory to God.
In these circumstances, we may find ourselves wondering, Where is God? How can these things be happening if God is perfectly good and all-powerful? Can’t he stop them? Doesn’t he want to?
James is a beloved epistle, eminently practical and full of vivid exhortations to godly living.