Taking God Seriously

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : James 4:13-16

When you sketch your plans for the future, where is God in the picture?

Presuming About the Future

One of our most common human failings is presuming about the future. Listen to this searching word by the New Testament author of James, the brother of Jesus: “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 get gain’; whereas you do not know about tomorrow. 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 shall live and we shall do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”

Here are people who set forth their long-range plans with smug assurance. We can envision them as a group of first-century merchants. They have before them a map of the Mediterranean world. You might call them the forerunners of our multi-national corporations today. They are planning a large-scale business expansion. They’ll establish a string of stores stretching from Jerusalem to Rome. “Here’s our time frame: we’ll get things going in Antioch and after two years, move to Ephesus. After another two, we’ll start a thriving enterprise in Athens. In ten years, our products will be in use all over the empire and we’ll be on Easy Street.”

But it’s not only the merchant, the established entrepreneur, who plans this way. I remember a young friend in college named Jim telling me of his projections for the future. Ten years out of college, he expected to be making $50,000 a year. That may not seem so unusual now, but at the time I heard it in the late 40s, it sounded rather grandiose. You’ve heard others confidently mapping out their lives in that way. Here’s an ambitious young man, headed for the top. “At this point in my career,” he predicts, “I expect to be holding this post. Several years later, I’ll be promoted to that position. Then I’ll be ready for the final power play.” Sometimes we tend to admire people like that, to stand in awe of them. “She knows what she’s after and she’s going to get it.” Or, “What a mover he is! He won’t let anything stand in his way.”

A Form of Pride

According to James, however, this way of talking is another form of human pride. When we speak in this way, we act like we control the future. We set ourselves up as masters of our destiny, as those who can speak with authority about coming events. We fling out, for everyone to hear, a kind of boast of our control.

But isn’t such planning necessary, we wonder, if we want anything to be accomplished? Surely, those who have a clearly formulated plan are most likely to succeed in any field. If we aim at nothing, as we say, we’re likely to hit it. Isn’t it better to establish a course for ourselves than simply to drift?

Certainly it is. Most of us (including James) would heartily agree. James is not against making plans. He doesn’t want to ridicule foresight or even to discourage ambition. Why not have a goal for your life and work? Why not cherish a dream? “You gotta have a dream,” says the song in South Pacific, “If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have your dream come true?”

What’s wrong then with these projections of first-century merchants or our own announced career schedules today? Just this: they often express our tendency to make plans and predictions without taking God into account. In that kind of talk, we appear as self-appointed sovereigns of our lives, ignoring the fact that God is the only Lord. We show no awareness of dependence on him. We forget the most elemental fact of our existence: that we are God’s creatures and that our lives are in his hands.

Not only is this a fault, says James, it is really laughable foolishness. “Come now,” he says. Be reasonable! Stop kidding yourselves! You talk knowingly about what you’re going to do in years to come, but the truth is that you don’t even know about tomorrow. You don’t know what a day will bring forth, much less a decade.

I’ve had the privilege at times of attending “future conferences.” Highly regarded experts in a number of disciplines have been meeting with Christian leaders in an effort to anticipate what’s coming and how the church of Jesus can prepare for it. At our first meeting at one of those, we were thinking in terms of a decade. When all the study and discussion had been concluded, we weren’t very sure about next year! Even a surface reading of the recent past makes it plain that absolutely no one foresaw many of the key developments during our lifetime. So many unexpected breakthroughs, unheard of chains of circumstances! One of the few relatively certain things we can say about the future is that it will be full of surprises.

But the folly of our long-range predictions lies not only in our short-sightedness. We are fools to presume because our existence is so frail and fleeting. “What is your life?” asks James. Then he answers his own question. “You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” That’s quite a description, isn’t it? “You are a mist.” Maybe James is thinking about those wispy clouds that drift around a mountain peak or the low-lying mist that shrouds a lake, or the silent fog that blankets a seacoast. You see it, it seems to have substance, but before the slanting rays of the morning sun, it suddenly disappears. Your life, hints James, is like your own breath on a winter morning – visible before you but quickly gone.

“That’s overdrawn!” objects someone. “All over the world, life expectancy is on the rise. We’re finding the means to cope with one disease after another.

Yes, but granting all that, we’re still talking only about averages. What guarantees are there about the longevity of any particular individual? About you? About me? What does it take to scatter this mist we call life? Not much. Justinian, one of Rome’s mighty emperors, died by going into a room that had been newly painted. Adrian, a pope, was said to have been strangled by inhaling a fly. Men have been choked on the seeds of a grape, poisoned by a few drops of water, or even carried off by a whiff of foul air. In our time, it takes no more than a nod at the wheel of a speeding car, a weakened bolt on the mounting of an airplane engine, or any one of a thousand machine malfunctions, to snatch away our lives in a moment. And what do we really know of what is transpiring now in our own bodies? We all remember people who seemed to be in perfect health, but were suddenly and fatally stricken.

One morning years ago, I heard our handicapped son, Billy, in the adjoining bathroom at about 6 in the morning. I got up to see if he was all right and helped him back to bed. He seemed normal enough. An hour later, when I went to wake him for his work, I found that he had died in his sleep. Those who performed the autopsy discovered no certain cause for his death. Twenty-four years old! What is your life? “A mist. . . .”

In prosperity, in good health, in reasonably settled times, it’s hard for us to take this seriously, at least about ourselves. But our television sets, our newspapers shout to us every day about the uncertainty of life. You have frequent reminders of that in your own community, even in the circle of your relatives and friends. Even so, it is desperately hard to realize in an existential way how frail we are. But when we feel the pressure of affliction, things can change. Listen to Job, swamped by troubles, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle. . . . My life is a breath” (Job 7:6-7). Or hear another sufferer among God’s people, “Behold, thou hast made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely every man stands as a mere breath” (Ps. 39:5).

Maybe we really know that all the time, but we have a way of blocking it from awareness. It’s too unsettling, too disturbing to think about, so we keep acting as though “it couldn’t happen here.”

Albert Camus, in his novel The Plague, reminds us how we rarely consider in parting from those we love that we might not see them again. “Mothers and children,” he says, “lovers, husbands and wives who had a few days previously taken it for granted that their parting would be a short one, duped by our blind human faith in the near future – all these people found themselves without the least warning hopelessly cut off, prevented from seeing one another again ever or even communicating with each other.” The poet spoke wisdom when he said, “Look thy last on all things lovely, every hour.” Don’t play the fool by imagining that you or those precious to you have a permanence here on which you can depend.

Does the Bible call us then to a gloomy preoccupation with mortality, a restless brooding on the fact of death? Not at all. To know how transient we are is not necessarily to court despair. On the contrary, the preciousness of life comes home to us only when we recognize “the measure of our days,” how short our life is.

A Better Way

We don’t need to ignore the realities of our existence in order to be happy and hopeful. James recommends here a better way: Listen, “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.'” It used to be a common practice among Christians to say with regard to some announced plans for the future, “God willing, we shall do this.” The familiar initials “D.V.” at the end of a letter abbreviate the Latin phrase, “If God wills.” The custom seems to be little in vogue today. Maybe that represents a significant loss.

But there is no magic, of course, in merely saying or writing the phrase. James calls for an attitude of heart, a characteristic way of looking at our lives. God wants from us the recognition, the acknowledgment that everything depends on his gracious will. Not a hair can fall from our heads without his knowledge. No breath of harm can touch us without his permission. Nor can any project of ours prosper without his blessing. To know that, to realize that we have to do with God in everything, and that our only security is in his keeping, that is what the Bible means by “the fear of the Lord,” which is “the chief part of wisdom” (see Prov. 2:7).

It may be today that both our boasting and our blindness spring from a different kind of fear. We cannot face our mortality with poise because we know down deep that all is not well between us and God. We are still living without him, rebelling against him when we don’t ignore him completely. We go on pretending we will live here forever because we can’t bear the thought of what may lie beyond.

I want you to know today that you don’t have to live in that fear. The God who holds your life in his hand has shown in Jesus Christ the extent of his caring. He has given his dear Son to die for you so that you may be forgiven and received as a beloved child. If you will repent of your vain ways, renounce your “God-complex,” and trust in his mercy in Christ, you can this day be at peace.