Growing up in the 1970’s in Lake Jackson, TX, most everyone in town worked for Dow Chemical in one way or another. At Dow, and nearly everywhere you looked (schools, doctors office, stores, etc.) there were posters and knickknacks with Dow’s safety campaign, “Life is Fragile, Handle With Care”. Life is a vapor! Like a morning mist that soon vanishes, so life is short and uncertain. (James 4:14) There are no guarantees about tomorrow, let alone next year or ten years from now. You may be young and healthy this morning, but you may not make it home tonight. If you ignore these things, you will not live your life properly in light of eternity.
James is beginning a new section, but the connecting theme through chapters 4 and 5 is humility. True faith judges pride by humbling oneself before God. In 4:1-12, James hit the need for humility to resolve conflicts and have harmonious relationships. Now he turns to the subject of humility with regard to the future.
James writes (4:13-14a), “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow.” We don’t even know what will happen ten minutes from now, let alone tomorrow or next year!
A vapor is short-lived. You see the mist at one moment and a few minutes later it’s gone. You see the steam coming out of your coffee cup and in just a second, it disappears into the air. Life is like that. Moses prays in Psalm 90:12, “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.”
The problem was not that these businessmen were making plans for the future. Nor was it a problem that they were capitalists engaging in business to make a profit. Planning is commended to us in Scripture (Luke 14:28-32; Rom. 15:20-28). The problem that James hits was, they were planning as if they were sovereign and they were not bowing before the only Sovereign God. They were arrogantly making plans for their future financial security, but their plans did not include God. Their trust was not in God, but in their business ventures. They were assuming that they were in control of their future and that everything would go according to their plans. Instead, they needed to acknowledge (4:15), “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.”
James is giving us a mindset that needs to permeate all of life. We need continually to be aware of our finiteness and dependence on God and His sovereign purpose in every aspect of life. Sometimes we should say, “if the Lord wills,” but even if we don’t say it, we should think it. It is fine to plan (when we include God in our planning), but we need to hold to our plans loosely. How will we act if God steps in and rearranges our plans?
One of the most basic and helpful lessons in life to learn is, “God is God; I am not God!” He is sovereign; I am not sovereign. He controls the future; I do not in any way control the future. James assumes that you should acknowledge God as the sovereign over your business life. The idea that church is one sphere, but business is an altogether different sphere is not biblical. Jesus is Lord of all of life, from the boardroom to the bedroom. Your business ethics should reflect that you are not in charge of your business; Christ is in charge. You must conduct your dealings in a manner that pleases and glorifies Him.
Verse 13 reeks with arrogance: “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” There is a lot of mention of what we will do, but there isn’t any mention of God! In 4:16, James directly confronts the sinful attitude behind the comments of 4:13: “But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.” It refers to the arrogant self-sufficiency of the world apart from God.
Remember Paul’s pointed question to the proud Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:7), “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” Everything we have comes from God by His grace. We fall into pride when we do not keep that in mind.
How then should we live in view of the fact that life is a vapor, that God is sovereign, and that we’re so prone to pride? Humble obedience to God’s revealed will is our only sane course. I’ve seen memes all over Facebook with the verse Jeremiah 29:11 to comfort us, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” It’s important to include v12-13 along with v11, “Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” God’s blessings depend upon our humbling ourselves before Him. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” (James 4:10)