What is Your Life? (James 4:13-17)

Main Idea: Life is less about accomplishing our plans, and more about God accomplishing His plans for us and through us.


[Picture of The Almost Impossible Thing]

There’s a children’s book called “The Almost Impossible Thing” that encourages children to strive to achieve their unrealistic goals.

[Picture from The Almost Impossible Thing]

It’s about a bunny rabbit that sees a bird and decides that it wants to fly.

[Picture from The Almost Impossible Thing]

So the rabbit attempts to fly by setting up ski jumps, trampoline bounces, and experiments with kites. And in the end, the bunny rabbit builds a rocket and flies away.

[Picture from The Almost Impossible Thing]

It’s a fun little story that ignores the reality that bunny rabbits can’t fly.

What kind of goals do you have for your life? Do you have big plans, or small plans, or no plans at all? And how do you plan to go about accomplishing your plans?

Sometimes I can’t make up my mind what my plans even are. When I was in high school, at various times, I planned to be a web designer, a major league baseball player, and a movie star. And at one point, I think I even planned on doing all of these things at the same time!

They say “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” But when it came to my plans, they either weren’t realistic, or I didn’t follow through. So maybe what we really need to do is, like the rabbit in the story, make better plans so that all our dreams will come true.

But maybe not. Maybe the real solution is that we need to be more content with what we have, and not worry so much about planning to get what we don’t even need. Proverbs 19:21 says:

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand. (Proverbs 19:21)

I had many plans in my mind when I was in high school, and even now my mind sometimes runs wild in different directions with possibilities. But even though we can sometimes make fairly detailed plans, we have to remember that it’s God’s plan which will ultimately come to fruition. So maybe instead of planning so much, we simply need to get on board with God’s plan.

So which is it? Should we plan, or not? Is it true that “Failing to plan is planning to fail,” or is it pointless to plan because only God’s plans matter?

James 4:13-17

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”— 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. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. (James 4:13-17)

Father, help us to pursue what You have for us. Help us to do the things that we know are right, and not worry so much about what we don’t know. Help us to follow Your plan for us. In Jesus’s name, Amen.

Having Raelynn as a member of our family has taught me more than anything else that all of my plans are tentative. It doesn’t matter what I have planned for the day or the week, if Raelynn needs to go to the hospital, or even just needs a bit more care at home, all of my plans need to be set aside. There was a period of time several years ago in which Raelynn would cry for several hours a day. Her doctors couldn’t find anything physically wrong that would have caused it, and her meds didn’t seem to give her any relief, so all we could really do was hold her and sing to her for hours a day.

Maybe you can think of a time in your life when you were reminded that it doesn’t always matter how detailed your plans for your life are. We often have to learn the hard way that life is out of our control, and sometimes we have no other choice but to abandon our plans because God has a different plan.

I know most of us are still resentful about this last year, when our lives were massively changed because of Covid-19. But regardless of how you feel about it, I think we can all recognize that sometimes it just doesn’t matter how great our plans for our lives are. Our plans, at best, are tentative, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

That’s the point that James makes in our passage this morning. Verse 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” (James 4:13)

Isn’t it interesting how often our plans have to do with making money? All of my plans as a high school student, being a web designer, being a baseball player, and being a movie star, had to do with making money. And usually our plans about money aren’t just about making a little money, or just enough money, but about making a lot of money! So if all of our plans were to come true, we’d all be millionaires!

That sounds great, but I hope you know that that’s also not the goal of life. So don’t just plan to make money.

But as we’ll see in this passage, this concept applies to much more than just financial plans. It’s talking about pretty much any of our plans when we plan things based on our wisdom and desires.

James begins verse 13 by getting our attention. He basically says, “If you’ve ever made a plan for your life, listen up!” And that’s probably almost all of us. With very few exceptions, in some way or another, we’ve all decided who we want to be, or what we want to, and we’ve planned how we would get there.

Now, this is not a condemnation against planning. It’s good to plan. The Bible tells us that it’s foolish to fail to plan. Proverbs 16:3 says:

Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established. (Proverbs 16:3)

The proverb assumes that we have plans. It’s good to have plans. It’s natural to plan. But we need to commit our work to the Lord. In other words, make a plan to serve God.

So James isn’t telling us not to make plans. Some people read James 4:13 and say that it’s condemning planning to trade and make a profit, as if making plans regarding our finances is the problem. But James isn’t saying that, either. Proverbs 21:5 says:

The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty. (Proverbs 21:5)

There’s an old prayer from a church budget committee, that goes something like this:

“Lord, You keep our pastor humble, and we will keep him poor.” – Church Budget Committee

Sometimes we can incorrectly think that God wants us to be poor. Like making money is a bad thing. But the proverb we read a second ago says that the plans of hard-working people lead to abundance, and failing to do that leads to poverty. God isn’t against people working hard and making money, as long as those plans have the even higher goal of glorifying God by serving Him.

So it’s good to make plans, and it’s even good to make plans regarding your finances. So James isn’t telling us not to plan. Rather, James is pointing out the arrogance that we often have in making our plans. Look at verse 14.

yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. (James 4:14a)

It’s really humbling to think about how much we don’t know. We don’t know why we dream the dreams that we dream. We don’t know what dark matter is composed of, even though it appears to make up around 85% of the universe. We don’t even know much about how we know things at all. Scientists have been studying the human brain for hundreds of years, and we know some things about it, but in most ways, the human brain is still a complete mystery to us.

So if there’s so much that we don’t know, it’s crazy to think that we can be so arrogant sometimes about our plans. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow!

Now, you might be thinking, “Yeah, but my life is so predictable. I know what I’m going to do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day after that.” And it’s true that sometimes we can have very predictable lives. And yet, even then we can’t predict everything.

One of the most obvious examples of this is getting a flat tire as you’re leaving to go on vacation. Has that ever happened to you?

The simple truth that all of this points to is that we’re not omniscient. Only God knows everything, so we need to trust Him and allow Him to direct our lives.

And then James hits us with one of the deepest, most important philosophical questions that we can seek to answer. He asks in the middle of verse 14:

What is your life? (James 4:14b)

This question ought to humble each and every one of us. Because unless you’ve made a significant impact on the world, in a hundred years, nobody will likely even know that you ever existed. And even if you do make a significant mark on the world, like Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, Jr., they were still mere men with limited lifespans. They were born, they lived, and they died, and the only things that we remember them for are the great things that God accomplished through them.

So what is your life? James answers the question for us at the end of verse 14.

For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. (James 4:14c)

In the entire scheme of human history, our lives don’t seem to be that significant. Our entire lives aren’t even a blip on the radar. We can get so consumed with our plans and our lives, and we can get so stressed out about what may or may not happen today and tomorrow. To us, our lives seem of utmost importance. But from eternity’s perspective, whether you’re a web designer or a movie star doesn’t seem to make that much of a difference. You’re a mist that appears for a little while, and then vanishes.

In light of that, James gives us a bit of advice. Verse 15.

Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:15-16)

I used to hear the phrase “Lord willing” in church all the time. They’d say it about everything, from the big things to the small things. “We’ll have a great VBS, Lord willing.” Or, “I’ll see you next Sunday, Lord willing.”

Now, I didn’t grow up in church, so when I heard things like that in church when I started going as a teenager, I thought, “Well, what’s going to happen before next Sunday? Why wouldn’t I see you next Sunday? Do you know something I don’t know? Are you going to die? Am I going to die?” All these things ran through my head, so it just sounded a little funny to me, when all they were really saying was that all our plans will only come to be if they’re part of God’s plan.

Now, I don’t necessarily think that we need to always tell people we’ll only do things “if the Lord wills” it, but we should always have the understanding that we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. At best, even when we’re fairly sure of them, all of our plans are very loose plans.

So all I’m really saying is that our lives are not primarily composed of our plans.

The way I approach planning as a pastor has changed a few times over the years. When I first became a pastor, I had very detailed plans for what I wanted to accomplish, and how I wanted our church to look. When those plans didn’t work out, I stopped planning anything for a while, and convinced myself that this was more spiritual because to make plans is to limit God, and we can’t limit God. More recently, I’ve started planning again, but with the understanding that God’s plans are far greater than any plans that I can come up with, so I ought to be willing to completely abandon my plans at the drop of a hat in order to get on board with God’s plan for our church and my life.

You see, life is less about accomplishing our plans, and more about God accomplishing His plans for us and through us. And God’s plan for you is actually incredibly simple. It’s that you have faith in Jesus, and repent of sin. God’s plan for you is that you rest and rejoice in Jesus.

Maybe you’ve felt the struggle before between your plans for your life and God’s plan for your life. If they’re in opposition to one another, in the end, only one of these will win. Hint: it’s not yours.

But when we treat life as if it’s more about our plans, we boast about things that we really have no control over. James calls that evil, and sin. Verse 17.

So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. (James 4:17)

God’s plan for your life is the right thing. And when you know the right thing to do, but refuse to do it, it’s sin. This is such a simple concept, yet it seems impossible to do because most often, our minds are completely consumed with following our own plan rather than God’s plan. We know the right thing to do, but we somehow think that our plan is better than God’s plan, so we sin.

I want you to notice something about verse 17, because it’s very different from how we often think about sin. Verse 17 is saying that sin isn’t just actively doing wrong things, but even passively not doing good things. We usually think of sin as things like murder, and stealing, and even lying. But this verse teaches us that if you know something that you should do, and would be good to do, and would be glorifying to God to do, and then you don’t do it, even that is sin. You see, God doesn’t just want us to avoid doing bad, He wants us to actively do good.

By that standard, we are definitely all sinners.

Jesus said in Matthew 7:12:

So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

In other words, all of the Old Testament, all of the laws and examples and proclamations of the prophets, all of it is to teach us to love people: doing unto others as you would have them to unto you.

We can get this so backwards, can’t we? When we think about our lives, our goals, our plans, we primarily think about what we want for ourselves. But God instructs us to think about others. And Jesus set the greatest example of this when He humbled Himself and died on the cross for our sins.

So what is your life? It’s a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Psalm 103 says it like this:

As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children. (Psalm 103:15-17)

So if you want your life to have meaning, lasting meaning, it can only be found by resting in the steadfast love of the Lord. And if you want your kids and their kids to have full, meaningful lives, share the steadfast love of the Lord with them. It’s from everlasting to everlasting. In other words, God’s love surrounds all time. Our lives come to an end, but God’s love never comes to an end.

Some might say that God has an unrealistic goal. How can God’s love never fail? I mean, how can God continue to show us love over and over and over again when we know the good we ought to do, and yet consistently fail to do it? But that’s who God is. God is love. And God is all-powerful, meaning that not only does God unconditionally love us, He can truly save us by His power and grace.

So God demonstrated His love for us in that even while we were sinners, Christ died for us.

You see, it seems impossible that God would love us and save us, even though we’ve sinned against Him. But God did the impossible thing. He rescued us from death and hell, so that we would rest and rejoice in Jesus forever.

Pastor Chris Huff

Pastor Chris Huff has been with us since July 2009.  He and his wife, Abby, have four children.  Chris is originally from St. Louis, MO and even though he was raised as a city boy, he has a small town heart. Chris is all over the internet, so you can find him on Facebook, Twitter,… (read more)

James is one of the most simple and practical letters in the New Testament written to encourage and instruct believers. The fact that this letter is in the Bible is interesting, though, because it actually almost didn’t make the cut. Some well-known Christians throughout history didn’t like it or think that it measured up to… (read more)

Bible Passages: James 4:13-17
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