James 4:11-16 – On Planning Well

Brothers and sisters do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who can save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

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. (NIV)

Listening is both art and hard work. A few years back I spent a week at a prayer retreat. It was time intentionally set aside to hear God. It was hard work. I stayed in a little one room hermitage in the woods surrounding by God’s creation. On the first morning, I was in bed and at dawn I heard this loud thud on one of the windows. I woke up and heard it again, and then again. Outside there was a big male robin going at the window like there was no tomorrow. He did it about a dozen times before finally flying away. I laid there a bit frustrated with this stupid bird waking me up, and yet also wondered about that robin. Since I was there to connect with God, I started asking the question: “God, what are you trying to teach me through that stupid robin?”

I did not get an answer to my question. Then, the next day it happened again. Mr. Robin came by and took about a dozen hard tries at my window before flying away. However, this time I finally realized what was going on. Mr. Robin was perching just outside the window and looking at his own reflection. All he could see was a big rival robin staring back at him, on his turf, and he was going to tear into that interloper. Little did the birdbrain know that he was fighting a losing battle, against himself. 

“God, what are you trying to teach me through this robin?” Now, I had my answer. I was a Pastor tackling the issues and problems of others in the church and the world. Yet, I came to understand that I was only tackling myself, seeing my own reflection and struggling in a losing battle. I investigated the face of the enemy, and the enemy was me.

We are our own worst enemies. Much of life is determined by whether we plan for and with God. The natural temptation of us all is to view the landscape of human problems, assign enemies, and then fail to see that our greatest enemy is staring at us in the window’s reflection. Another temptation is to believe that when things are going well, it is because of our own doing – as if somehow, we can live and move and have our being independent of God in the equation. So, I ask, is God in our plans?

That is a big question. Here is just a smattering of what Jesus said about living for him: 

“Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33)

“Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)

“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.” (John 8:31)

“No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 10:62) 

We are not called by God to control other people or events; we are called to practice self-control and listen to God as we determine the course of our lives in both the big and small things of life.

The Apostle James had to deal with some birdbrain robins. They were only looking at themselves and not doing the good they knew they ought to do.

The Actual Situation

Some of the people James addressed were planning and mapping out their lives without consideration of what God wanted. They neither looked to God before beginning their planning process nor intended on including him in their dealings. These certain businesspersons were independent minded. They viewed their time and money as their own. In their minds, they give God an hour on Sunday, and the rest of the time is their own; they make their own money and no one can tell them what to do with it; they make their own plans, and maybe ask God afterward to bless it all.

The actual situation was that people were holding back on God, only giving him a certain portion of their effort.  And this can happen to any of us, with anything we have.  We may not all have money and power, yet we all have time, and how we use our time says a lot about our faith.

One of the many things God taught me at my prayer retreat was through all my business and busy-ness that I was holding back in some ways. Yes, I could compassionately connect with people but was guarded with it. Having my armor up was coming from a fear of not doing something perfect, or at least not doing it really well; and, if I would give myself completely to compassionately connecting with others, I might get hurt (because I’ve been hurt before). I wonder if you can resonate with this.

God just wants us to show up, be present, and not be perfect. We are to do the best with the gifts and abilities given us and leave it all on the playing field so that it cannot be said of us that we did not do the good we knew we should have done.  Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with being afraid.  In fact, true courage involves fear because real bravery is doing what is right when it is scary to do it, no matter what the consequences might be.

The Analysis of the Situation

Life is truly short – like a mist that appears for a little while in the morning, and then vanishes. Thus, the scheming we might do to make money and guard our investments; the posturing to make ourselves look good; the power-plays we engage to get our way; and, the anxiety which prevents us from the things we know we ought to do amounts to nothing at the end of our lives.

I have talked with far too many people over the years who crucify themselves between the two thieves of regret over yesterday’s missed opportunities, and fear of what will happen tomorrow. I have observed far too many people who made lots of money, patented inventions, and won awards, yet had no one at the end of their lives to be with them. They were not there for others, and so others were not there for them. 

Jesus said we cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24). In God’s economy, money is simply a tool to be used to meet needs and bless others. Yet, we tend to make audacious plans with money through accumulating debt and presuming we can pay it off; encouraging our kids to get high paying jobs as their highest objective; and, putting faith in the market economy to provide for us in the end. 

James was not saying money is bad and making plans is wrong; he was saying that the almighty dollar is not to be the motivating factor in our lives, and that God needs to be squarely in the middle of all that we do.

The Alternative to the Situation

The alternative to making plans independent of God is to plan carefully for God to be in everything – to find and do his will without trying to impose our will upon the divine.

This requires listening well. It is easy to rush and keep busy and then are unable to hear what God might be saying. When things are rough, we may work so we do not have to stop long enough to feel what is really going on inside of us. James encourages us to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”  Listening well enables living well.

The Audacity of the Situation

Some people in James’ day were boasting over their accomplishments.  Like Kings Nebuchadnezzar and Herod of old, they made plans and did what they wanted with delusions of grandeur. They believed they were the ultimate sovereigns of what could and should go on in the world of which they controlled. They had to learn the hard way that they were only masters of small worlds.

Boasting merely sets us up for a higher fall. We need God, and we need each other, and whenever we lose sight of that truth, we are on a one-way road to implosion. Whereas some might call it independence, God calls it evil.

The Awfulness of the Situation

The tragedy of independent planning and acting is that God is left out due to purposeful ignorance. Like the deceitful husband and wife duo, Ananias and Sapphira, there were certain persons who withheld their money and their resources so that they could look good to the rest of the community and influence happenings within the church (Acts 5:1-11).  It did not end so well for them.

Conclusion

Doing more with greater efficiency may help, yet it misses the point. We are to take the time and effort to relate meaningfully with God so that we can plan with confidence and make faith-based decisions on what we believe the Lord wants us to do.

Let us not find ourselves repeatedly flying into a window. Instead, let the Lord shape life in such a way that conforms to his purposes, so that we will then know genuine lasting joy and peace.

One mark of the mature person is that he/she has the same benevolence and character whether they are rich or poor. Since we are all rich in faith, let us continually demonstrate it by living for Jesus Christ, loving one another, and planning to reach a lost and unjust world with the good news of God’s grace.

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