Updated: Apr 30, 2019
“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.” (NASB)
As with any text, we must begin with context. How do these verses fit into James’ argument thus far?
Context: As commentator D. Edmond Hiebert sees it, James 4:1-5:12 collectively address the issue of worldliness (Hiebert, D. E. (1992). James (Revised). Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, pp. 42-46). Generally speaking I agree with Hiebert, though I would prefer to dig a little deeper. The prevailing issue that James is addressing in this section is pride. Naked pride is at the center of both their personal conflicts (4:1-3) and their conflict with Almighty God (4:4-6). It is their pride that must be repented of (4:7-10) as they have positioned themselves above their brethren and even above the royal law of liberty (4:11-12). And pride is yet again rearing its ugly head, but this time in the form of practical atheism. James takes these verses to expose and explain the prideful attitude of practical atheism.
The Exposure (vv. 13-15): “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.”
Verse 13 is directed at a particular group within the church who trust in their own planning more than anything else. Notice that James addresses those “who say…” In writing to a congregation as a whole, one does not expect that every problem is indicative of every individual. James is now calling out very specific attitudes that line up with specific individuals. What is the attitude being condemned? “You who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.”” To be clear, there is nothing wrong, sinful, or incorrect in making business plans. But notice the assurance with which these individuals speak. They have a guaranteed timeline: We leave today or tomorrow and we’ll stay a year. They have a guaranteed destination: This city (the original is quite particular as if they were pointing to a specific city on a map). And they have a guaranteed outcome: We will do business and we will make a profit. One might wonder how on earth anybody could speak with such bold assurance? There are any number of events that could arise to disturb these plans. This is precisely what James points out in the very next verse.
“Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.”
This rebuke comes in two levels. First, those who would make such audacious plans have no way of telling what tomorrow holds. They have not been there, they have not seen tomorrow, why on earth would they assume that tomorrow will yield what they desire? Secondly, and even more serious, they have no way of assuring their own existence within the realm of tomorrow. The NASB doesn’t reflect this, but the question regarding their lives is separate from the lack of knowledge of tomorrow. Perhaps a better reading of v. 14 would go something like this: “Whoever says this does not understand the thing of the morrow. What is your life? For you are a vapor that appears for a little while and then disappears.” James’ point is very simple. You cannot guarantee the outcome of tomorrow, nor can you guarantee your own life. The human experience is nothing but a vapor, a puff of smoke or a steam. This carries the image of one’s breath on a frosty morning. As soon as you exhale, you see it, but then it's gone. What foolishness is involved in such scheming!
But James does not leave his readers to sulk in his rebuke. Verse 15 gives the appropriate response.
“Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.””
This is no magic formula to be uttered prior to expressing one’s plans, but an active attitude of submission to the cosmic God of the universe. He is sovereign, and we are not. It’s as simple as that.
But this is an expression shared by many false religions and pagans, from ancient times into our present days. The pagans and heathens worship capricious deities whose wills are unknowable, yet man is always subject to them. Yet the Bible speaks so clearly as to what is the will of God.
The will of God is for:
1. The repentance of the unbelieving world (1 Peter 4:6)
2. Conviction of sin to lead to true repentance (2 Corinthians 7:9-10)
3. The Holy Spirit to intercede on behalf of the believer (Romans 8:27)
4. Believers to be sanctified and live a life of obedience to God (1 Thessalonians 4:3; Romans 12:2; Ephesians 6:6; 1 Peter 4:2; 1 John 2:17)
5. Believers to endure under trials (Colossians 4:12; Hebrews 10:36)
6. And for the church to be faithfully shepherded (1 Peter 5:2)
Believers are to be concerned with these things, rather than on the gathering of material gain. If priorities are truly in order, then all other things will fall into place. First seek His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be gathered unto you (Matt. 6:33). Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4).
The Explanation (vv. 16-17): “But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.”
James does not mince words here. His audience boasts, not in the ability of the Lord to accomplish His expressed will and purpose, but in their own arrogance. Once again we see the results of pride.
On a side note, I love how James is never content to simply point out the problem’s manifestation and move on. He always circles back to the root of the problem and exposes how the behavior or attitude is in direct opposition to God. Such arrogance is nothing short of evil.
But it is James’ conclusion that should startle us into repentance.
Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.
As stated in 4:4-5, the problem is not ignorance to the will of God, but indifference. James’ audience knows what to do, but they are not doing it. This is sin. Period. Sins of omission (not doing what we ought) are not any less of a violation against God’s character than sins of commission (doing what we should not).
This is practical atheism. Giving God all the lip service we feel that He is required on Sunday, and living the life of indifference the rest of the week. This arrogance is evil and is sin. We must repent of our practical atheism in our headlong pursuit of God’s will over our own.