January 3 – James 4:13-17
Next week we’ll kick off our series in Job, but for now we’ll turn to the Epistle of James to hear a word about all the plans and intentions we tend to make with the New Year. Whether you like making New Year’s resolutions or think they’re passé, to some degree or another we all enter into a year with some expectations. And how much more likely are we to do this with 2021, considering how rough 2020 was? But James will strongly caution against believing that your life or your expectations belong to you.
The Epistle of James is a short, hard-hitting letter from the Apostle James, who was the brother of Jesus. When we struggle with doubt, we can take comfort from James’ story, especially if you have your own siblings to compare his experience to—if a guy can come to believe that his own brother was the Messiah, then our own doubts might seem a little smaller in comparison. And lest you think James was a pushover, read his epistle and you’ll see, he was a firebrand. James also led the church in Jerusalem following Jesus’ ascension (Acts 15), and was so upright in his community he was referred to as James the Just.
And we see that passion for unilateral obedience to God in his letter, which has two main themes, the first of which is what we could call “a faith that works.”(James 2:17) James is addressing Christians who, in one way or another, profess a faith that doesn’t line up with their actions. Now, to be clear, that’s all of us. We all behave in ways that are inconsistent with the faith we confess, that’s why we keep sinning after we start following Jesus and will keep battling sin until we die (1 John 1:8). And yet James’ argument in his letter is that faith is not a static thing, like some certificate we received for praying the right prayer. No, for James faith is alive and active, motivating us to love God more and more and serve our neighbors more and more, helping us get better at dying to the sin we desire and living to the righteousness Christ offers.
That background prepares us for James 4:13-17, where James is directing his attention towards a group of people who are struggling to consistently apply the message of Jesus to their every day life: the wealthy. Specifically he talks about wealthy merchants who are planning their business dealings, saying they’ll go to such and such a town and do this or that. James tells them they ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will do this or that.” This isn’t just semantics; James’ issue isn’t with the vocabulary they use to describe their business dealings. He’s saying that their verbiage reveals what they believe, that underneath their plans they’ve forgotten who actually plans the course of human history and who the story is actually about.
James is saying that their wealth and business acumen has puffed up their pride, making them think they’re the authors of their own fate. Their error is two-fold: they forget that God has something to say about what they do and don’t do, and they’ve forgotten that they don’t have the authority to declare what will and won’t happen. They’ve undervalued God’s control and overvalued their own control. James says this is due to their arrogance and puts them in their place, reminding them, “What is your life? For you are a mist.” And this is something you and I need to be reminded of regularly. Compared to God, we are tiny, effervescent little creatures, here one day and gone the next. The control we think we have over our lives is an illusion. Everything we do have, and even some of the things we don’t have, are gifts from God.
James asks us to consistently apply our beliefs to our lives. If we believe in a God who created all things, who authored a story of cosmic redemption that includes our little lives, and if we believe that God loves us as his children and speaks to us through his word, showing that he cares deeply about minute details in our lives, then how could we approach our time, our work, our families, our possessions, and even ourselves as ours? Every single nanosecond and every last atom belongs to him. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”(Rom. 11:36) Think about this in the context of New Year’s resolutions. Almost exclusively we make our resolutions thinking about what we want to make of our time or ourselves. Losing weight, gaining achievements, self-education, whatever—we plan as if 2021 belongs to us. And yet it belongs to the Lord. A more fruitful exercise at the start of this year is not asking yourself, “what do I want out of 2021?” but instead asking, “what does the Lord want for me in 2021?” And thinking through this question should lead you to wonder how the Lord will use you in 2021 to accomplish what he wants for others.
One last perspective is worth mentioning. The second main theme of James’ letter is believers staying steadfast under trial (James 1:12). Many of us are longing for 2021 to be better than 2020. “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.”(3:14) 2020 belonged to God just as much as 2021 does. As we enter 2021, let’s prepare to receive the year God has for us and stay steadfast in our faith no matter what it looks like, lest we hope more in better circumstances than in the God of our salvation.
Questions for Discussion
• Would someone read James 4:13-17 for us?
• What stands out to you from this passage?
• What are the theological beliefs behind a statement like, “If the Lord wills…”?
• What is convicting about this passage for you?
• How does this passage apply to your desires for 2021?
• What do you think God wants for you in 2021?