Series > James: The Wisdom of Faith
The Wisdom of Contentment
Ryan TOmpkins // FEBruary 24, 2019
scripture Passage // James 4:13–17 (ESV)
“ 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.”
Last week, we saw that James is concerned about the churches to whom he is writing and that they are becoming too friendly or too oriented toward the world, and James drew a stark distinction, that one can choose to be a friend of the world, in which case one makes oneself an enemy of God, or one can be a friend of God. We said the difference is that when one begins to love the world too much, even the good things in the world too much or loves a bad thing, then their loves go in a wrong direction, which alienate them from God, and you begin to become God's enemy. Now remember, James is writing to people in the church. He's writing to ultimately us, which we have the same temptation to become too friendly with the world.
Now, we need to be somewhat careful and nuanced in the sense that it's not wrong to love things in the world. God has made the creation good. He has declared it to be good. We are invited to participate in its fruits and enjoy it, but the problem arises when we begin to seek things that only God can offer to us in the midst of the world. There's nothing wrong with loving a good TV show. The arts can be a great forum to enjoy drama and to reflect upon life and to think in new ways, but, I know of one person who disappears into the television. They come to a place and they say to themselves, "I'm tired. I'm frustrated. The world is a bit overwhelming, and I will go and turn the TV on and vanish into that place."
The TV becomes bigger and more expansive in their life. If you hear their line of thinking, what they're doing is saying, "I need rest. I need peace. I'm going to seek it by disappearing into various television shows." What they're doing is saying, "You know, ultimately, a Christian would confess, "I only find true peace and true rest in God, but I'm going to seek it now in the thing of this world." When we make decisions like that, we start to become friends with the world, and that alienates us from God even more so James says very harshly, but it's a harshness that we need to hear that we choose to be enemies of God when we desire that kind of friendliness with the world.
Now, James continues today in our passage in the same line of thought, but he wants to consider it and apply it from a different angle. Essentially, the question that James poses to us today is, "What place does God take in your life? What role does He play? As you think about your agenda and your goals and you plan for the future, is that something that is informed by God, His character and His kingdom, or is it something that you've largely decided upon and you sprinkle God in wherever you might after the fact like you might sprinkle sprinkles on a heaping pile of ice cream?" It's an afterthought. It's an addition that doesn't really add to the real thing.
In terms of asking, where is God in terms of our life, what degree of attention do we give him? It's the same question in the background that we saw last week. Are you a friend of God's or are you a friend with the world? Realize for James, that's a very stark choice. You're going to go in one direction or the other. Today, to see it, to break the passage down and to really just ... First, I want to consider the fragility of life, and then secondly, the will of the Lord. The first half will be about the brevity of the fragility of life. Then we'll consider James' teaching on God's will or the Lord's will.
If you look at verse 13, James begins by writing, "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." Now, we have to say that there's nothing wrong with planning. If you read James two literally or superficially, you might say, "Oh, I can never plan anything." That's not what James is after. The apostles and the kings and the prophets, Jesus himself makes plans about how the future should play out. If James' first concern is not planning simply per se, what is his concern? What's going on in the church when he addresses the planning about today and tomorrow and going to a city, and making certain business?
Why is James worried about that line of thinking in the context of the church? Well, he highlights two different issues that are neglected in the line of thinking that's going on in the church. If you look at verse 14, first, you have no idea what tomorrow will bring. We just don't. Tim spoke well too in the sense that you're not in control. You're not clairvoyant. You can't anticipate what tomorrow holds, and so that should give you a degree of humility. Secondly, you are profoundly fragile. James says you are a mist. It could also be translated as a wisp of smoke. You're here for a moment and then you're gone. The human lifespan is not that significant, and you think that you have many days, but you really don't know when you as a mist will evaporate.
Recently in a counseling class, I was watching a video about people who had been deeply affected in the 2008 recession. There was one woman named Betty. She had had hard time in midlife, getting her legs under her financially and in terms of her life being in a good spot, but eventually, she landed a job at the community college in the administration department. Finally, she had a salary that covered her basic needs and she had life insurance. She thought that she was in a great spot and was doing well.
Then the 2008 recession hit, and suddenly people had a lot less money and therefore there were less people going to school. With less people going to school, there was less revenue for the school. With less revenue for the school, the staff had to be downsized, and Betty was laid off. Now, Betty had not planned for something like that happening. When she was laid off, it started a series of events that cascaded from bad to worse, tragic events in her life in which she was left penniless and without very many options. Now, when you think about Betty's life, she thought she knew what tomorrow held. Tomorrow holds another day at my job that provides for me, and I'm good. I'm going to be here until the day that I retire, but in reality, she had no idea what the next day held.
Regarding being a mist that's here, perhaps shorter than we anticipate. When I was growing up, there was a boy in the church. His name was Andrew, and Andrew was kind and funny and had godly parents, and he was remarkably gifted athletically. His dad had actually made qualifying times for the US Olympic Cross Country Ski Team. Not a sport I know you engage in Texas, but one that I grew up enjoying in the northeast. His dad was a phenomenal athlete. Without training, he dropped into a triathlon and win it. Andrew had inherited a lot of that athletic ability. When I was in high school, I volunteered with the middle school youth group and worked some with Andrew, but then I went off to college and Andrew went into high school.
There was a famous swimming hole that the youth group liked to go to in the summer. It was a river that had been dammed up and then cascaded over some rocks, and emptied out into a big swimming hole at the bottom. We love to go and hang out there and lay on the rocks and swim. They were doing this one summer day, but to get to the swimming hole, you had to cross a fairly busy road that had a dangerous curve. On this day, Andrew and his friends were walking back from the swimming hole and for whatever reason, whether Andrew was caught up in the banter or he was lost in his thoughts, all of his friends looked up, saw traffic and stopped.
Andrew just walked right out into the road and the car struck him and launched him into the opposite lane of traffic, where then he was struck again by a car coming the other direction. He was care flighted to the nearest hospital where he was pronounced dead on the scene. It is a reminder that indeed our lives are a mist. Andrew didn't wake up that day, nor did his parents, saying, "Today would be Andrew's last day on this earth," and yet that is part of the brevity, the fragility of our lives that can be undone in ways or in times that we don't anticipate. We don't expect.
Now, we might think that James is being rather depressing at this point. Yes, our life is a mist. We're very fragile. We don't know what tomorrow brings. What is James's point? Is it only to mock us or to humble us, and what's his agenda? Perhaps his agenda is to help us to realize that we only can understand a right relationship with God, by which I mean friendship with God, if we remember that we don't know what tomorrow holds and we remember that our life is only a mist. If we don't remember that, what happens? Well, James addresses it in verse 16 saying, "As it is, you boast in your arrogance."
Literally, it's you boast in your arrogance, and the words of the people have said, "Well, I do know what tomorrow holds. I'm in control. I'm going to plan my life out. It doesn't need to necessarily reference God, and I'm invulnerable, invincible." What every 20 year old would say, "Death is never going to come to me." As a result, an arrogance of a pride of life develops that I can manufacturer in my life what I want to occur, and this will be my road. James says, "When you boast in such arrogance, it simply becomes evil. You start to live a life that's almost entirely self referencing rather than God referencing."
You might ask the question, "What capacity do you really reference God in the midst of your life?" In one way, you might think of it as a person in just a human relationship. If you think you might know someone like this, someone who always asks for your help, but when you need their help, strangely they're very busy or someone ... I had a friend in seminary, and he was a sweet guy in some ways, but he always wanted to hear himself talk. He would ask questions that he wanted to answer, which was super annoying because he would ask the question, and you'd start to offer some answer, and he'd be like, "No, no, no."
Then we'd go on with his own answer and eventually just started avoiding him because you didn't want to be in this kind of conversation, but if you think of that kind of nature of a human relationship that's very self referential, that's what we do with God. When we begin to boast in our arrogances, our relationship with God isn't friendly anymore. We just call upon Him when we need Him, and the rest of our lives are devoted to doing what we want to do and not really consulting what his agenda might be for our life. As my children get older, I recognize in some of them they want to do everything.
I think that's true of us to some degree. We like to think we can do way more than we actually can. I've always loved the exercise where you provide someone a number of different shaped balls, and you give them a bowl or a jar, and you say, "The most important things in your life are represented by the largest balls, and you can name them. And then the less important things are represented by the smaller balls. And your job is to put as many balls in the jar or the bowl as you can." Now, you know that all the balls aren't going to fit, and if you're going to be serious about the most important aspects of life, then you have to put the largest balls in first and decrease in size and see what small balls you can fit.
If you take the small balls, which may be the fun aspects of life or things you consider more exciting, but they aren't the most important aspects of life, and you pour those into the bowl first, what happens? You don't have room for the larger balls, which are the most important aspects of life, right? Pretty basic, tangible lesson on limited resources into time and actually prioritizing things. The question to us is, "When we think about our lives and we certainly say, "Well God and the church, his kingdom is the most important thing to us. Is that one of the large balls that we put in the bowl first, or do we say, "Well, I've got family balls and I've got kids balls and I've got house balls and work balls and recreational balls, and they're all in the bowl?"
Then suddenly, we think, "Oh, I've got to fit God in here somewhere. I'm going to chop up that ball into little pieces because I can't get it all in there, and I haven't left actually any room for him because he's not really a priority." We begin to realize, "Oh, maybe I am boasting more in my arrogances than I think, and I'm not really submitting life to God in any substantial sense." One of the questions what James' teaching causes us to ask is, "Who gets to say what life should look like?" We're always asking ourselves and thinking, "What should my life look like? What should I be prioritizing and what should I be de-prioritizing?"
When we ask that question, who are we really appealing to? One of my kids made an interesting remark recently. We were watching one of the marvel movies. I don't remember which one. She said, "You know, life is so boring. It would be so much more exciting to live in the marvel universe." I thought, "Yeah, that's true." Then I started to think, "To what degree, as we allow certain things to come in, entertainment or media, and they focus on a certain picture of life. To what degree then do we become disenchanted with our own lives because by comparison, it seem quite boring?"
If I watch the Grammy's and watch the Oscars and follow media and watch the greatest athletes in the world, and filled with all of these stories of what success looks like culturally for the top 3% of society, and then I look at my own life, I think, "Well goodness, my life isn't very exciting. I haven't achieved very much. I'm not nearly as accomplished." We can find ourselves being put into ... Depending on what our reference is for what a good and important and significant life looks like, we can find ourselves in a place of despondency or depression or a needing to escape, because my life is so disappointing.
One psychologist has said this has become a prevalent and pervasive problem, particularly in Western society because we're inundated with images of success that aren't real. They belong only to a very tiny portion of society, and yet we're exposed to them so pervasively that we'd begin even subconsciously to think that those stories are the norm. He coined the term the good enough life. By that, he doesn't mean that you should settle for mediocrity, but what he's saying is if you stop thinking that life should look like all of these stories of uber-success and simply realize that your life is good enough, particularly if it's a life that's informed by being a friend with God, then that's a life worth living.
It's a life that's actually freed from following the false standards of success in this world. If you stop and think about it for a minute, it's so funny in the sense that to be a disciple of Jesus, what are the standards of success? Humility, self forgetfulness, considering others more important than yourself, picking up your cross and following after him. What do those things have in common with cultural success? Nothing, right? I can either decide that I'm going to be successful in the world's standards and be a friend with the world, or I'm going to be successful by God's standards and be a friend with God. I can't do both. It's one or the other.
To be a friend with God is the only way to actually find peace. This is of course what James is driving to as he begins to describe this notion of what does it mean to take the Lord's will seriously. As we think about and plan life and set goals, where does God fit in your life? In verse 15, in contrast to the planning that happened in verse 13, James says, "Instead, you ought to save the Lord wills. We will do this or that." James is driving at this notion that we should be living in a posture where everything we do begins with consulting or considering what is God's will and his agenda. What does the church and the kingdom say to whatever I might be planning or seeking out to do?
Now, one thing that must be said, I don't want you to become this kind of person. Over the years, I've known a few people who read this verse and they decided that the way to live out this verse was simply to add every time they made any kind of plan, Lord willing. I had a friend in college, who I kid you not, he'd say, "I'll meet you for lunch today at noon, Lord willing. I'm going to get up tomorrow morning and go to class, Lord willing." It drove me crazy and complete nonsense, right? Hopefully, none of us are thinking that that's what James is after in this notion. He's after a transformation of heart, a posture in which we really are seeking God's will as an informs everything that we might be doing.
In the sense that if we were to use that analogy with the balls again, James is saying, "Listen, if you're not starting your week by saying, "I'm going to try to prioritize God's will," and what would that look like for the week coming up or the month or the year? If you don't start at that place, then how serious are you about God's will? How often are you allowing all the other priorities of life to crowd out and push real devotion to God and following after him?" Now, this is the case that James would invite us to really live in a posture that submits constantly to the will of the Lord. It's going to look a certain way, and this is what I think James is trying to bring out for us in verse 17.
In some ways, verse 17 seems like a non sequitur. It seems like it doesn't follow what James has been saying, because suddenly he writes, "So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him, it is sin." Now, what does that have to do with what James has been saying so far? What I think James is after is this. What James is describing when he says you know the right thing to do but you don't do it, that is sin. He's describing what we would call a sin of omission. To first degree of clarity and to understand the depths of sin, we typically refer to sin in two different ways. There are two different kinds of sin. There are sins of commission, which these are sins that you do.
You can think commission committing sin, if that helps you to remember it. This would be, "I robbed a bank. I've performed a sin of commission. I've done something wrong. I lied to someone. I cheated. I broke the commandments." These are all sins of commission, but that's not the entirety of righteousness, because the other side of that coin are sins of omission, and sins of omission are sins in which we failed to do what we should. It's not necessarily that you've done the wrong thing, but you failed to do the right thing. A sin of commission is doing something wrong. A sin of omission is failing to do something right.
I see someone in need and realize that I should be the one to help them, but I choose not to do so. I know that someone needs extra assistance and have the money to do it, but I failed to be generous. These are sins of omission. I'm not doing the right thing, and James says to not do the right thing when you know it's the right thing is to engage in sin. Both of these go on. Now, what I think James is driving at as he's writing to these people who are all caught up and making all their plans with no reference to God and setting their own agendas, he says, "Listen, you might be serious about sins of commission, but that's all that they can be serious about."
If you think about people you know who are very busy with their own lives and who set their own agendas and don't live in submission to the will of God, they very often speak of sin in this fashion. I haven't done any gross sin lately. I'm not very guilty. I'm doing pretty good. In other words, they evaluate their relationship with God based only on the sins that they have committed only on sins of commission. Why? Because they don't have time or interest to consider sins of omission. They're doing the bare minimum because their priority is to be a friend of the world, not a friend of Gods.
If you know somebody who is actually striving to be a friend of God, what are they doing? It's not just sins of commission. It's sins of omission that they're considering. In what ways have I failed to love my brother or my sister or my spouse the way that I should? In what ways have I failed to consider others more important than myself? In what ways have I failed to love God and neighbor above all things? Those questions take a lot of time and a lot of energy and a lot of repentance, but that's what it looks like to take a relationship with God seriously and to really pursue being a friend of God. If all the repenting you're doing is over sins of commission and not repenting over sins of omission, then really how friendly are you with God?
You're managing a relationship out of which you think you get certain benefits if you're only repenting from sins of commission, but if you want to be truly intimate with God and to know him more deeply, then you better believe every day you're asking and repenting of ways in which you have failed to do the right thing even when you know it. This is a picture of what it means to truly be a friend of God. We think of Jesus, and when we think of his righteousness and how the cross is effective, we often have the tendency to say, "Well ..." I might ask you just to think, "Why is Jesus perfect? How do we understand his perfection?"
More often than not, you'll hear the answer. "Well, Jesus was perfectly obedient to the law. He never broke it. He kept it perfectly," and when we talk about that, what we're talking about is Jesus never performed any sins of commission. That's absolutely true. Jesus did not sin any sins of commission, but when you read the New Testament authors and you go to places where the new testament authors want to talk about how the cross of Jesus is effective and how atonement happens for us, more often than not, they do not stress that Jesus avoided sins of commission. They stress that he avoided sins of omission.
In other words, yes, it's important that Jesus kept the law perfectly, but what's more important is that he went to the cross in humility and obedience, even though he didn't have to. That's not a sin of commission. Jesus is asking, "What does it mean to truly surrender to the will of the father so that I would love him perfectly and be obedient in all things while I would go to the cross?" Now, that's not doing something wrong. That's knowing the right thing to do and actually doing it.
Paul's a good example of this when he writes in Philippians two speaking of Jesus and the cross, "And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." Paul wants to tell the Philippians, "Do you know why Jesus is so significant and why his death and resurrection actually work? It is because from one perspective that Jesus so readily submitted himself to the will of the father, that he did not commit any sins of omission. He always asked what would honor the father and what would it be to love my neighbor as myself? Ultimately, it means that I will lay down my life on the cross and be the sacrifice that God requires."
This is the invitation. This is why we can run to him. Being perfect in the sense, we don't need to wallow. If you bear some conviction this morning that I've got sins of commission and sins of omission, and I'm not submitting to the will of God, and I put every ball in the jar that has to do with everything I want to do before I put any ball that has anything to do with what God wants me to do in that jar. That's not something that needs to hold you down in the sense that you don't come to God this morning, because Jesus has been perfect in that place for you.
But his invitation to you, his invitation through James is to say, "What would it look like to actually live a life that is free, free from the road of saying, I need to define success by worldly standards and therefore I need to make all these plans? And I need to go to this city and that city. I need to make this dollar and that dollar, and this is how my life has to come together." Maybe James would have us think that there's actually great freedom in remembering that our life is very brief, that we are nothing but a mist. We have no idea what tomorrow brings.
Now, from a secular perspective, that's terrifying. Everything you've invested in might be ripped from you tomorrow, but from a biblical perspective, from James's perspective, that's okay because in your weakness, you can rely on the one who is strong. In your brevity, in your fragility, you may come to the one who was shattered on your behalf. Let's go to him this morning.
Jesus, we marvel at your obedience, obedience not just not to do the wrong thing but obedience to do the right thing. And so often we would like to excuse ourselves from doing the right thing even when we know what it is. Would you forgive us for the control that we think we have over our lives?
Would you help us to remember that indeed, we do not know what tomorrow holds and that life is but a mist? We thank you for redeeming this fragile and brief life, and that's something that is eternal, but we asked by the power of your spirit that as we approach that eternal gate, that we would be more ready for it because we have already been in practice being an intimate friend with you rather than a friend of the world. We ask that you would meet us here and encourage us in this, in Christ's name, amen.