That life is hard and so much of it uncontrollable is a lesson that most of us learn early in life. Though we may live in denial for a time, tragedy and misfortune soon force us to reckon with our inability to make things work out the way we want.
Regrettably, we are far more prone to deny our own lack of control and behave as if there is nothing we cannot do. The wisdom of the world tells us that we can be self-sufficient, and so we arrogantly speak and act as if we are sure of the future.
Today, James reminds us of our place in the world. In keeping with his concern to contrast life according to God’s wisdom with life according to the world’s wisdom, James tells us that we cannot be absolutely sure of what tomorrow holds, and therefore we must remember not to presume against the will of God (4:13–16).
The people James seems to have in mind are wealthier Christians who are most likely involved in the practice of trade (v. 13). These wealthy individuals have responded to the difficulties of life by confidently boasting in the future profitability of their enterprises. It is important to note that James is not condemning the possession of wealth or even wise planning for the future. Wealth can be used for furthering the kingdom of God and planning is an essential part of the stewardship God requires of us. Rather, James is condemning the idea that money can bring any security to us. The wealth we possess today could be lost in an instant; it is fleeting just like our lives (v. 14). It brings us no real security, and we cannot boast in it. Rather, we must trust all that we have and all of our future into the hands of the Lord who alone determines what shall come to pass (v. 15).
Also, James is not condemning all assertions about the future or saying that the statement “if the Lord wills” is a magic phrase that guarantees our trust in God’s hidden providence. Rather, he is speaking to matters of the heart. In all that we do or plan, we must remember that the future is unknown to us and that ultimately only God can be trusted to work things out. This trust must be evident in our lives whether or not we always expressly verbalize it.
The call to recognize God’s sovereign will over the future is incumbent upon the rich and poor alike. And though the statement “Lord willing” is not a magic phrase conveying absolute trust in God, it is often true that when such wording is absent, so too is confidence in God’s sovereignty. As you plan, remember God’s hidden providence and Calvin’s wise assertion that “the practice of saying ‘If the Lord will or permit,’ … ought to be carefully attended by all the godly.”