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Five Principles for Living in the Light of God’s Providence

We’ve been looking at James 4:13-17 where James highlights five principles for helping us process the reality of divine providence in our lives. Give serious consideration to them as you reflect on life today and your plans for the next five minutes as well as the distant future. Continue reading . . . 

We’ve been looking at James 4:13-17 where James highlights five principles for helping us process the reality of divine providence in our lives. Give serious consideration to them as you reflect on life today and your plans for the next five minutes as well as the distant future. Here again is the text:

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)

(1) John Piper helpfully reminds us that it matters greatly to God how you think about your future plans as much as it does the actual pursuit of your future plans.

Let me explain. Imagine someone responding to James by saying: “Wait a minute; what practical difference does it make in my planning whether I believe my life is a mist? What practical difference does it make if I believe that my future is in God's hands? Do I stop planning, because my life may be short or uncertain?”

I think James would say, “No, you don't stop planning. You don't drop out of society. You don't become a hermit, waiting for your little vapor of life to disappear.”

So what is the point? The point, is that it matters whether a true view of life informs and shapes the way you think and how you speak about your plans. As Piper has so forcefully said: “Your mindset matters.” What he means by that is that your theology matters. How you talk about your present existence and your future plans matters. Believing that your life is a mist may make no practical, bottom-line difference in whether you plan to do business in a place for one month or one year or ten years. But, in James' mind it makes a difference how you think about it and talk about it.

Why does it matter? Again, I appeal to the words of Piper. It is “because God created us not just to do things and go places with our bodies, but to have certain attitudes and convictions and verbal descriptions that reflect the truth – a true view of life and God. God means for the truth about himself and about his providential and sovereign control over all of life to be known and felt and spoken as part of our reason for being.” You weren't just created to go to Chicago or New York and do business; you were made to go there with thoughts and attitudes and words that reflect a right view of life and God.

So he says in verse 14, in all your planning, keep in your mind and let it govern your actions and give expression with your lips to this truth: “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” That is, keep in mind that you have no firm substance on this earth. You are as fragile as mist and vapor and a breath in the wind. Keep in mind that you have no durability on this earth, for you appear “for a little time” (v. 14). 70 or 80 or even 90 years may seem like a long time, but it isn’t. Your time is short. And keep in mind that you will disappear. You will be gone, and life will go on without you. It matters that you keep this view of life in mind.

Then verse 15 tells us the true view of God that we should have in our minds and in our mouths as we plan our future. Verse 13 began, “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 he tells us what's wrong with that way of talking. He says in verse 15, “Instead, you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’”

In other words, it not only matters that you have a right view of life when you make your plans (you are like a mist), but it also matters that you have a right view of God as you make your plans. And it matters that you give expression to this true view of God: “You ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (v. 15b). People need to hear you say it and watch you conduct yourself in conformity with your belief that God is sovereign over your life.

(2) We are ignorant of the future, and it is good that we are! “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.” Some of you are saying: “Darn it! I wish I did.” No, you don’t. Why? Because if we knew that tomorrow would bring prosperity, we would probably become careless and presumptuous. If we knew that tomorrow would bring adversity, we would probably become frightened and fall into despair.

Tomorrow may bring earthquakes, car wrecks, heart attack, a promotion, healing, an unexpected pregnancy, an unexpected miscarriage, your elderly parent becomes a Christian, a wayward child comes home, and who knows what else.

So, in his wisdom, God has given you memory in order that you may learn from your past success and mistakes, and he has hidden the future in order that we would be compelled to trust in him wholly.

(3) Never lose sight of the brevity of life! “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” The Bible doesn't liken our existence to the Rock of Gibraltar or to the everlasting hills or to the immovable stars above. James says, "you are a mist"! A mere puff of smoke, like breath that appears momentarily in the cold air and then vanishes; like steam rising from a hot pan of water only to dissipate in the swirling air.

James isn’t the only biblical author to describe life in such terms.

“Remember that my life is a breath” (Job 7:7a).

“My days are swifter than a runner” (Job 9:25a).

“Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not” (Job 14:1-2).

“O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Surely a man goes about as a shadow” (Ps. 39:4-6a).

“My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass” (Ps. 102:11; cf. Ps. 103:15).

Don’t misunderstand these texts or the one in James. They are describing the quantity of life, not its quality. These biblical authors are not saying that life isn't important, but that it is brief. The word "mist" or "vapor" isn't designed to minimize the value or meaning of life, but rather points to its brevity. In fact, it is precisely because life is so important and valuable that we need to diligently redeem every moment of our short sojourn on this earth.

(4) Consciously and consistently submit to the sovereignty of divine providence in all things. “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (v. 15b). Everything we do is subject to God's will. It isn't simply life that is subject to his will, but all we do in life. It’s not just whether you are alive tomorrow or next year or in ten years, but what you do (“this or that”) tomorrow or next year or in ten years!

“If the Lord wills” isn't just some insincere, cheesy, religious cliché. It's a worldview, a theology of life, an attitude that submits humbly to the sovereign, providential purposes of God. If the Lord wills, I will finish this article. If the Lord wills, I will eat lunch later today. But God may not so will, and if he does not, don’t think for a second that he has treated me unfairly or my wife unfairly or you unfairly. Life is a gift. Each breath is the fruit of divine mercy.

The bottom line is, we are rather presumptuous when it comes to life. We've lost sight of the fact that life is a gift, subject to God’s will. That we live as long as we do and accomplish as much as we do is the mercy of God. G. K. Chesterton perhaps put it best when the said:

"Here dies another day, during which I have had eyes, ears, hands, and the great world round me; and with tomorrow begins another. Why am I allowed two?"

If the Lord wills that we live means that there are times when the Lord does not will that someone continues to live. I’m certain that my emphasis on God’s providential sovereignty over life and death is unsettling to some. So let’s be sure we have biblical grounds for asserting it.

“See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deut. 32:39).

“The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Sam. 2:6).

“And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (Job 1:21-22).

“Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Ps. 139:16).

(5) To disregard or remain indifferent to God’s sovereign providential oversight of both life and death, together with all our decisions and their outcome, is arrogant, evil, sinful boasting.

This may sound harsh and inflexible, but I’m only restating for you what James clearly and unequivocally says in vv. 16-17. It is “boasting” because it seeks to take credit for things ultimately due to divine grace and his merciful provision. If God is ultimately responsible for life, not to acknowledge it is to boast over some alleged self-sustaining and self-preserving power that you and I think we have.

To think that anything we do or say is out of God’s control and that we are the masters of our own fate is “arrogance” (v. 16b). It is, says James, “evil” (v. 16b). That is a fairly harsh and pointed indictment of any attempt on our part to claim ultimate credit for anything of good that we achieve.

Let me give you just a few among countless examples of how this is confirmed elsewhere in Scripture. The first comes from the lips of David as he praised God for what God had done in making possible the building of the Temple:

“Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all” (1 Chron. 29:11-12).

Second, don’t ever think that this only applies to God’s dealings with his people, with believers. When Nebuchadnezzar was king over Babylon and still in rank unbelief and idolatry, God held him accountable and severely judged him for failing to acknowledge that God alone makes rulers great and brings rulers down. Nebuchadnezzar was condemned to live as an ox in the field for failing to recognize

“that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Dan. 4:32).

Daniel spoke the same thing to Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, Belshazzar:

“And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored” (Dan. 5:23).

Note well that this latter statement, as well as the words to Nebuchadnezzar, were spoken to unbelievers. Their lives, their very breath, together with all their “ways” are no less in God’s providential hand than are the lives of those who are in saving relationship with him.

Finally, some have wondered how v. 17 is connected with vv. 13-16. We know that it is because of the word “therefore” (translated in the ESV by the word “so”). Clearly, the sin of omission in the mind of James is the failure to take into consideration the reality of God’s providence when making and pursuing our plans in life.

Thus, the “right thing” to do that James mentions in v. 17, the not doing of which he calls “sin” is the conscious, happy, consistent, unequivocal acknowledgment that whether we live or die, wherever we go and whatever we do, is subject to the sovereign, providential, majestic will of our heavenly Father!

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