Passage – James 4:13-17
13 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”— 14 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. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
Can you think of good advice that you applied out of context, and it became a burden instead of relief? Maybe you’re frugal and, “A penny saved is a penny earned,” robbed you of the emotional freedom to enjoy the fruit of your labor. You might be more spontaneous and found in, “Fortune favors the bold,” the license to act when forethought would have been wiser. Perhaps even a Bible verse like Proverbs 4:23, “Above all else guard you heart, for it is the wellspring of life,” lead you to be suspicious towards people who merited trust.
The end of James 4 is a portion of Scripture that is easy to decontextualize and random statements of good advice. If we pick up these verses and read them by themselves, we might mistake them for a heavy-handed warning against presuming on the future. But, in context, this passage has much more to say, and the moral weight of its warnings feel less like an over-reaction.
Change of Style: For these verses, this section of commentary will use a different format. Instead of using an outline to explore chunks of text at a time, we’ll go phrase by phrase through this passage. This will force us to slow down, consider the passage in context, and pick up the flow of logic that is easy to miss.
“Come now.” This transition phrase connects this passage about planning to the previous passage about conflict. It is not that these church members were fighting over their plans – like where to get lunch after church. Instead, the connecting concept is pride. It is pride that fueled their conflict and pride that led to their problematic approach to thinking about the future.
It can be helpful to realize that the same character concern – in this case, pride – can manifest in different areas of life. This makes character change more accessible than other forms of change. If you want to improve how you engage conflict, you just wait for a tense moment. But, if you identify the character concern that undergirds your poor approach to conflict, you can work on that aspect of your character in a variety of settings throughout your day.
“You who say.” The plural you (i.e., Greek equivalent of the Southern “y’all”) in this passage indicates that James is addressing a prevalent pattern in the church. What likely began as a bad habit of a few individuals became the church’s culture. In this, we see one of the limitations of counseling. Because counseling is a matter of private conversations, it is not effective at addressing concerns that have become prevalent within a larger population. In those cases, public preaching or teaching, like this letter, is needed to be effective.
“Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.” At first glance, this statement seems pretty benign. Many of us likely read it and think, “Does this really merit being addressed in the Bible? So, they were writing in their day planner with ink instead of pencil, is that a big deal?”
Remembering the context of the original reader helps us see this statement differently. This was escapist thinking. These believers had already fled (legitimately) from Jerusalem to their current cities. Lack of social connection and navigating life in their second language was severely hampering their ability to earn a living. Moving to another city in the Roman Empire wouldn’t change that. If they could start a profitable business there (new city), they could start a profitable business here (current location).
James focuses on how this statement reveals pride. This helps us identify a side-effect of pride. Pride makes us foolish. Think about it. These believers are impoverished. They don’t have goods to trade. Their “plan” (if you can call it that) is a daydream in which both God and reality are absent.
Notice that James isn’t just addressing their private thoughts. It’s not that they’re wasting time in wishful thinking (which was probably also true). But they are participating in each other’s foolish daydreams. Instead of replying, “If your business idea would work there, wouldn’t it work here?” and, “Can I help?” they daydreamed along with their friend, “Yeah, someday that’d be awesome.”
Notice the generic “today or tomorrow” timeframe of this statement. That is further evidence that these believers are not praying toward a viable plan. No one is asking, “How has God instructed other believers in exile to live in foreign lands?” If they had, they would remember passages like Jeremiah 29:7 and realized that their idea of starting a business to bless a city is precisely what God called them to do. Instead of passively bantering, prayer would have led to a business plan and implementation strategy.
“Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.” James begins deconstructing their approach by focusing on their inability to know the future. Part of what reveals they are just daydreaming is what they’re not saying. They aren’t saying, “I want to start a lawncare business and the best time to do that is in the Spring.”
Some Christians over-apply this passage and take it to mean that we can’t know anything about the future. But Proverbs 6:6-11 uses ants as a positive affirmation for planning based upon the seasons. In I Corinthians 16:5-9 Paul explained how he planned his missionary travels based on factors like predictable weather patterns, financial support, and where ministry was currently being effective. This passage isn’t against planning.
James is confronting their escapist approach that is so daydreamingly vague they don’t even know what they would need to assess to make their fantasies a reality. They’re not prayerfully moving from dream to reality. They are wandering around in their imagination to distract themselves from their circumstances.
“What is your life?” This is a rhetorical question. It is meant to generate a felt sense that, “Life is too short to live this way.” Even in a letter that is staccato – brief and addressing a variety of subjects – we see James trying to lead his readers to God-honoring responses rather than immediately telling them how to think (which he does, eventually, do).
It is not enough for these readers to feel bad about their immaturity. They need to long for maturity. Well-crafted questions, asked at the opportune time, are a way of cultivating greater motivation to change. James is trying to shift their thinking from “What are your circumstances?” (i.e., hard) to “What is your life?” (i.e., short). This shift cultivates the urgency that makes the changes he proposes more appealing.
“For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” James combines his rhetorical question with a metaphor. James isn’t content for his readers to understand his point. He wants them to see and feel his point.
These readers can see and feel their adverse circumstances. If change is going to be enacted, a godly perspective needs to feel as viable as their suffering feels real. If life is only felt to be hard and the system rigged, “Why try?” But if life is also felt to be short, “Why wait?”
As we come alongside those we counsel, we want to help them see their life in a way that makes godly responses seem more reasonable than folly. That means our counsel needs to be vivid, not just practical and clear.
“Instead you ought to say.” James isn’t satisfied to just be vivid. He is also practical. In this case, he offers a tailored alternative to the problematic pattern of speech. It is worth asking, “Why?”
Habituated sins need clearer replacements than episodic sins. Countering engrained habits takes more work than changing simple choices. When something is habituated it becomes near mindless; like a child of 70’s saying “totally” or “far out.” The more habituated a behavior – in this case, a pattern of speech – the more concrete the plan of replacement needs to be.
For instance, it takes greater intentionality to change your morning routine of getting from bed to work or school than it does to follow your GPS to a destination you’re going to for the first time. The first is mindless. If you’re not careful, you’ll fall into habit. In the second, you are required to be attentive to each choice. Because James is addressing a pattern of speech that has become deeply engrained, he gives a clear verbal formula to serve as an alternative.
“If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” Again, we must battle against the habit of reading this passage out of context. This phrase is not primarily prayer instructions. This is not a God-ordained phrase that, when spoken in prayer, increases the probability of getting our desired outcome.
There are two parts to James’ alternative. The first half addresses the foolish pride of their daydreaming; the second half addresses their mindless passivity. “If the Lord will,” gets God back in the equation. The absence of God in our plans is an indication of pride. It reveals that we’ve lost touch with the reality that apart from God we can do nothing of eternal value (John 15:5). Godless planning reveals that we’ve settled for menial living.
“We will live and do this or that,” moves the thinking process from vague to concrete. If they are thinking about starting a business, praying for God’s direction forces them to consider: what kind of business, when, what will they need, etc.? With customers increasingly wanting to make cashless payments, having the cheapest card payment machine has also never been more important.
Prayer is not inarticulate feelings emoted in God’s direction. Prayer is a conversation. Two things can be true about prayer at the same time: (a) prayer changes things because God responds to prayer, and (b) prayer changes us by bringing us into a more God-centered active demeanor towards our challenges.Prayer is not inarticulate feelings emoted in God’s direction. Prayer is a conversation. Click To Tweet
“As it is.” This phrase is the equivalent of James asking, “Can you see the difference?” In writing, we use phrases like this to invite the reader to pause and reflect. In conversations, we ask questions, pause, listen, and engage with what we hear. For ministry to be effective, it is not enough to provide the right answer or response to the hardship. The person receiving care must understand, embrace, and enact that good counsel. Teaching is about understanding; counseling is about implementation.
That is why counseling is slower. In counseling, phrases like “as it is,” become conversations, maybe multiple conversations (i.e., sessions) instead of a mere point of personal reflection before continuing to read the next paragraph.
“You boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” Here James is summarizing the transferable moral principle behind his point. Their boasting – exaggerated, empty words – were an expression of pride. This passage is an example of how helping conversations need to both “zoom in” an “zoom out.”
Initially, James zoomed in – he focused on specific things that were being said and illustrated what was problematic about this pattern of life and speech. Now, James zooms out – naming the overarching sin that fueled their problematic behavior. Zooming in allows for greater practicality about specific changes. Zooming out allows the work of change to impact the overall character of the person being counseled.
“So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” This is another instance where, without context, this passage can easily feel like a random proverb: if you know your mama wants to you clean your room and you don’t do it, that is just as bad as if you hit your brother. As helpful as that may be, it feels random.
This conclusion reinforces why James made such a big deal about escapism. James finished here because he viewed spiritualized passivity as the key thing these believers needed to change. Paired with the previous point, James is saying, “It is not enough for you to be humble if that humility is expressed in passivity. Real humility makes a difference in the world.”
What is a common temptation that emerges as we go through prolonged seasons of suffering? Passivity. We give in to the mindset that nothing we do is going to make any difference, so we start to do nothing. Conversation becomes filler, a way to kill time. James is lovingly calling these believers out of that tendency. He doesn’t want them to look back at the end of their days and see a wasted life. He wants them to understand God has done too much in their life for them to live this way.What is a common temptation that emerges as we go through prolonged seasons of suffering? Passivity. We give in to the mindset that nothing we do is going to make any difference. Click To Tweet
This passage was brief, but rich. It has many life applications and demonstrates many traits of a skilled counselor. The brevity and denseness of this passage make it susceptible to being reduced to a random collection of proverbs. But upon further inspection and tracing the logical flow in context, we gain a better understanding of how to care for people whose life struggles have been deeply engrained (i.e., habituated) and frequently reinforced in their social context (i.e., their friends affirm the problem by participating in the same pattern).
- What is a proverb – biblical or modern – that you’ve applied without context and not gotten the desired result?
- What is a life struggle that you’ve become mindless towards? You talk about it, but merely to kill time, with little engagement with God about how it could be different.
- What are the things that currently tempt you to lose a sense of the brevity and preciousness of each day?
- What are the habituated areas of your life that need to change? What would it look like to create a more concrete approach for change in those areas?
- What is the root sin, like pride for the believers in this passage, that if you identified and committed to working on it, would weaken the habituated pattern you want to work on?
- Where in your life does passive pride need to become more active humility?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled A Counseling Commentary on James.
* * * If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in my series A Counseling Commentary on Philippians.