How many of the following statements are true for you?
In the past two years, I planned for a vacation or some business travel.
Our family shopped at a grocery store at least once in the past ten days.
We own at least one vehicle.
I slept last night with a roof over my head in a relatively clean, dry place.
Our family ordered take-out at least once in the past six months.
I made a purchase with a credit card this past month.
We are making tentative travel plans for time away with family or friends, sometime in the coming one to two years.
Based on the fact you probably circled more than two of the above, most of us live relatively comfortable lives. One of those comforts is the luxury of planning. However, the COVID-crisis of recent months has reawakened us to a difficult reality. Our best plans are really rather uncertain. Across this precarious season, we have been learning to hold our plans, possessions, and privileges more loosely—and probably more gratefully. We can relate much better to James’ words in 4:13-17:
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
In previous verses, James spoke to the issue of proper humility. Arrogance, boasting, and over-confidence are radically opposite to God-dependent reliance. In this cluster of verses, he supplies three facts of life.
First, life is remarkably short. It’s like the morning fog that seems dense, thick, and abundant. But soon, it lifts with the blazing saturation of morning sun. One hour you’re young, and soon you’re old. And you wonder where it all went. Where did the time go? Where did the kids go? Where did the opportunities fly?
One of the most haunting features about the now-classic movie, Titanic, is the story-telling motif. We meet Jack and Rose as very young adults, full of such fervor, zeal, and adventure. The tragic sinking takes place. Jack dies; Rose lives. But at the very end, the camera fades from young Rose’s face to a very tight shot of aged Rose. We see her wrinkled face, and in that moment, we sense how the years flew by. The scene still gives me chills as we’re confronted with the rapid pace and uncertainty of life.
History is full of sudden twists and turns. Powerful, respected, witty presidents like Ronald Reagan are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Popular, beautiful princesses like Diana get killed in car accidents in tunnels. Basketball players like Kobe—enjoying the prime of life, career, and family—have helicopter crashes. And sadly, whole nations are stricken with a pandemic.
Second, we can so easily make plans but “leave God out.” How? When we carry the smug attitude that we’re in charge. When we think God doesn’t care about the “mundane” details of our lives. When we make decisions based only on the prospect of more money, business deals that might not exactly square with God’s values of honesty and integrity. When we’re engaging in arrogant planning, we’re leaving God out. When we make career or location moves that don’t factor in the spiritual well-being and life of our family members. When we embrace business decisions that leave little room in our schedules to help others and be on mission in our neighborhood and community, we’re saying, “I don’t really need to consult the King’s values and agenda. I got this!”
Third, we need to focus on God in all our planning. Only then can our days really count in long-lasting ways. To learn to say, “If the Lord wants us to, we will . . .” This is so much more than a Christian’s lucky-charm statement or four-leaf clover for recognizing God’s sovereignty. It’s an overall attitude to learn in, grow in, and let it saturate our perspective. Consider these power questions to help you focus your planning:
What can I see myself doing across the coming months and the coming one to three years? God does not disapprove of good planning. There are proverbs and other examples in God’s Word, the Bible, that demonstrate how powerful advance planning can be. The big issue is our attitude: how will I respond if God rearranges my plans? What if he surprises me? I have to learn to hold plans loosely and thereby let God do his best work in me. It’s quite often the true path to thriving.
Do my plans include the priority God places on time with my family? As busy people, we have an emotional responsibility with our families. Andy Stanley urges us regarding family time: “They want to feel like your priority. It is not enough for them to be your priority. They must feel like it . . . A measure of loyalty is assumed in every relationship. The more intimate the relationship, the greater the expectation.”[i] Prioritizing our plans to reflect such God-honoring priorities is vitally important if we are going to grow stronger and thrive with kingdom values.
Do my plans include the high value God places on serving others—yes, inside church walls, but in all my life spheres? It’s this kind of whole-life, faith-in-action, thriving that James is calling us to practice. Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford say: “A missional movement must apply the gospel to all spheres of life (business, family, art, education, science, politics, etc.)–it cannot be limited simply to ‘coming to church’ or participating in building-based programs.”[ii] Across his letter, James is urging us to make plans that are Jesus-pleasing, action-oriented, joyously integrating our thriving faith.
Is there anything about these plans that violates God’s principles for living? Will I have to bend the truth? Will I need to cut corners, act in immoral ways, or otherwise skimp on the high integrity to which King Jesus calls me?[iii] Have I searched God’s Word to find out? The classic wisdom in Proverbs 3:5-6, urges us to not lean on our own understanding. Instead, seek his will in all you do. It’s good to pause, pray, search the Scriptures, and seek his guidance.
Have I sought the input of other wise, Godly people, regarding these plans? The Proverbs also emphasize how much healthy energy and direction our plans gain when we seek the wisdom of multiple counselors. Here’s a solid life principle: we run stronger when we run with wise people. No plans are ever fail-proof, but they are certainly more likely to succeed when we’ve gained the input of other seasoned, experienced, Christ-honoring individuals.
Asking these questions and pursuing God’s priorities will help guard us from arrogant planning. We will be grounded in God’s will for our next steps.
Money, money, money . . . Money!
In the opening verses of James 5, the Apostle turns the application on a very poignant arena of life planning and pursuit. Use of moolah. James warns rich people who have misused their wealth. He shouts a warning about the misery they can expect, and James catalogs their offenses: They have hoarded their wealth, so it’s rotten, moth-eaten, and corroded. Once again, these vivid word pictures mirror his brother’s words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:19-21). The powerful rich people have failed to pay their workers fair and generous wages. “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (James 5:4). They have lived lives of self-indulgent luxury. They have even committed acts of unjust condemnation and murder of innocent people. And James tells these rich abusers, “You have fattened yourselves.” It’s picturesque language that should seize the imagination of our souls with a blend of humor, horror, and introspection.
James indictment of these “fat-cats” correlates back to the inflated arrogance he decried in chapter 4. Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson, exploring Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 6:17-19, urge us: “Don’t be arrogant. Don’t assume you have wealth because you are so talented and smart. As the saying goes, ‘If you see a turtle on a fencepost, you know it didn’t get there by itself.’ Don’t put your hope in wealth. Instead, put your hope in God. Do good! Be rich in good deeds. Money is a great tool but a poor master. Be generous and willing to share—enough said!”[iv]
Tucked back in chapter 4, we find words from James that supply strong summation. So typical of this sage, early church leader’s style, he fires with bold conviction: It’s sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it (vs. 17). You’ve asked the above questions. You’re aiming to make plans that reflect God’s priorities. You’re grabbed by the vivid word pictures. You’re convicted and motivated for life change. Now it’s essential you act on what you know is right. Nothing less. Nothing more.
We mistakenly think that sin is only doing bad things. Often, sin shows up as not doing the good we ought to do. If we rush through life just living self-consumed, totally missing what really matters, failing to joyously thrive in our King’s plans for our lives, indulging our every financial whim, missing our opportunities to impact others with his kingdom grace, then we are sinning. Plain and simple, but oh so sad. We are missing the mark of God’s gracious intention, his Fatherly aim that we grow stronger in the tough times.
Consider these smarter ways to invest your money, time, and energy for eternal results:
Give your spouse and kids an extra hour of YOU this week. I guarantee, you will not regret it, and they will feel like they are truly your priority.
Deliberately sell something you don’t really need and give the money to a needy person or a special mission endeavor at your church. Instead of hoarding, let go in order to take hold of what matters more.
If you are responsible for the welfare of others, take inventory of how you are treating them regarding wages and benefits. Is it fair? Is it kind and gracious, like you would want to be treated?
Take on a special family endeavor in your own community. Who’s new you’ve not yet met? Who’s old in the ‘hood, but you still don’t know them? Throw a party. Invite several people over for burgers or soup. Intentionally make some new friendships with one or two neighbors you’ve never met. Enjoy the adventure of sharing the King’s love in tangible ways.
Start tithing and graciously giving more to your local faith community.
Volunteer a block of your time to help in hands-on ways alongside your neighbors or some other good community cause.
Time and money are precious gifts. Each day and each increment of pay are graciously granted by the Father of lights. Are you making each one count? You have this day to choose Christ and his priorities. You have this day to deeply enjoy your loved ones. You have today to make a real difference in someone else’s life.
Reflections to help you grow stronger and thrive
Pondering those opening statements, are you stunned to realize just how comfortable you really are as well as the luxury of future planning you enjoy? Why or why not?
Which of James’ “facts about life and planning” really speak to you right now?
Which of the four power questions will most help you focus your planning?
How are you stirred to more wisely prioritize your use and investment of your resources, both time and money? What should it look like in the coming weeks?
How is your heart encouraged toward growing stronger and thriving right now?
This article is adapted from my recent book JOY & THRIVING: Grow stronger in the tough times
[i]Andy Stanley. Choosing to Cheat: Who Wins When Family and Work Collide. (Colorado Spring: Multnomah Books, 2003), 48-49.
[ii]Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford. Right Here Right Now. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 34.
[iii]For an exceptional analysis of what genuine integrity means across all of life, see Henry Cloud’s Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality. (New York, NY: Harper Collins. 2006).
[iv]Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson. Living a Life on Loan: Finding Grace at the Intersections. (Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing, 2006), 160.