A number of years ago on Christmas eve, we were looking forward to a Christmas program presented by the Sunday School and then to Christmas events that would follow the next day. All during that day, we heard news that an Alberta Clipper was going to come and we should prepare. But the weather was nice and we saw no indication of the Clipper and so went ahead preparing. About 4:00, Carla went into the basement. The sun was still out and it was nice out. When she came upstairs a short time later, the Clipper had hit and she could not see across the street. How disappointed we were that all our planning and preparation were for not. This is just one occasion of many in which I have been upset and disappointed because the plans I had made were changed. Sometimes, such disappointments are even more serious. Just this week, many people who had tickets on Canada 3000 flights had to face major disappointment. We saw their unhappy and angry faces on TV.
Several times I have had my eye on something that we wanted to buy as a family. I planned for it, saved money for it and just when we had enough money for it, something broke on the car and I had to spend that money to fix the car. For some, such disappointment is even more serious. Just this week, many employees of Canada 3000 lost their job. One family was interviewed on TV in which both husband and wife were employed by the company and now are without work and likely won’t get their last pay check.
Since the events of September 11, we have a lot of reason for fear in this direction. The instability created by the terrorist attacks has caused a lot of people’s plans to be changed and has created an economic situation which has forced us to look at things in a new way.
What is the problem? Is it that life out there is so terrible or is it that we have learned to think that we are in control of our life and our money and if we just try hard everything will be OK? Life can be terrible, these are tragedies, loss is not a good thing, but what difference does it make that we have placed our trust in God?
In James 4:13- 5:6, James identifies two attitudes that reveal when God is not at the center of our lives. Two of the primary resources we have been given are time and money. We can so easily be arrogant about our time and who owns it and our money and who owns it. The passage is divided into two sections. The first one from 4:13-17 addresses the arrogance of time and the second, from 5:1-6, the arrogance of money. James begins these two sections with the words, “Now Listen” in NIV. You know how sometimes we take our children’s face in our hands, look them in the eye and communicate some important message to them? With these words, it is as if he is taking our face in his hands and looking us in the eye and telling us - “If you are living like this, is God really at the center of your life?”
In the first section, James raises the issue of our control of our time and the plans we make.
I like to make plans. Often, I have put together plans that involved meeting certain people at certain times and getting a whole bunch of things done in one day. The more complicated the plans and the more thinking it takes to bring all the plans together, the more I like it. After a day like that, I am always glad when all the things I planned happen and sometimes I am even amazed that it all came together.
There is nothing wrong with making plans, but I also know that at other times, I have had my plans all carefully laid out and one phone call has altered my entire day. I usually have a real battle adjusting to those changes. What does that battle reveal about my heart?
James warns those who are arrogant about making their plans. In Israel, there was a merchant class whose business it was to go to different places, set up shop and make a profit. We do the same thing. We make a business plan for our business. We expect a certain product to do well and we set up a budget according to expectations. We think about how much we can afford to spend on fertilizer and whether a new tractor fits into the plans. We plan for household purchases and vacations. These are all good things, but what happens when the plans we make don’t turn out? What does that reveal about our heart?
As we make these plans, we sometimes forget two things. One is that we do not know what tomorrow will bring. Will there still be a demand for our product tomorrow? Will the weather allow us to harvest a crop large enough to sustain the purchase of a tractor? Will we still have our job and the wage we now have tomorrow so that we can pay back the loan that was made assuming these things? Tomorrow is not in our hands and if we confidently plan as if we control tomorrow, we are in trouble.
The second thing is that our very life is not certain. James gives a very sobering reminder when he asks, “what is your life?” My father and I and a few of his friends got up early one morning to go fishing. The fog on the lake was thick and as the sun rose, it shone through the fog and gave the most wonderful visual effects and my dad, being a photographer, took a whole bunch of pictures, and he won awards with some of them. By mid-morning, the fog was gone. I thought about it that day, how different the day looked from the way it had looked in the morning. If my father had slept in that morning, he would have missed the opportunity of taking those prize winning pictures. James uses this kind of imagery to remind us that our life is like a mist, it is there for a little while and then gone. I learned this in a more serious way when my father passed away. There were 3 months from the time he was diagnosed until he died.
These two realities reinforce that we must not be arrogant about our time and the plans we make.
Instead, James says, “we ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will…’” What does it mean to say “If it is the Lord’s will?”
I have a friend who often says, “Lord willing” as he makes plans. He phoned a while ago and let me know of plans to come visit us. As we were discussing the details, he said, “Lord willing we will be there on Tuesday at 5:30.” In his case, I know that he means it sincerely. He is really interested in following what the Lord’s will is and sincerely recognizes that God’s plans for us sometimes change. Sometimes, however, people say this, but it simply becomes a set of words which make a nice ending to their sentences or make them sound spiritual. Saying, “If the Lord wills” is good, but it must be more than a set of words, it must be an attitude in our hearts. How do we cultivate such an attitude in our hearts?
Notice that the attitude does not preclude planning. James says, “If the Lord wills, we will do this or that.” Saying, “If the Lord wills” does not mean we stop making plans, it is not the attitude of life that simply accepts what comes and never is proactive in working towards something. It is not the supposedly super spiritual attitude that expects God to do everything and make all things fall into place. There is a place for making plans and for projecting into the future. There is a place for a business plan and for a plan about how to fertilize, purchase tractors, sow fields and plan for household purchases.
Saying “if the Lord wills” begins when we invite God to be part of our plans as we make them. It means asking God to give wisdom and guidance as we make our plans. I have learned something recently that has helped me a lot. I have often wondered, does God have a specific will for me. If he does, why doesn’t he reveal it? If I am free to choose, why bother praying. These two things came together for me when I realized that we are free within the moral will of God to do what we choose. But, God is interested in the details of our life and as we seek His guidance and learn to listen for His direction, he gives wisdom and guidance in our planning. Saying “If the Lord wills” means asking God for guidance and listening for his direction before we make plans.
Saying “if the Lord wills” also means recognizing that God may change our plans in mid-course. When we have a certain course in mind, and God suddenly brings another plan into our life, if we have truly said “if the Lord wills” we will not need to feel the devastating disappointment that we would have felt otherwise. It is a confidence that if our plans are changed that God has not left us and that his love and power are still active in our life and that he is still guiding. When Joseph’s life plans were changed when his brothers sold him into slavery, we are not told what his attitude was at the time. Later, we know that he recognized that that change of plans, even though it was brought about by the evil intent of his brothers was a part of God’s plan for the salvation of his people. If we say “if the Lord wills” we can understand the same thing.
The way James presents this here, we must realize that this is pretty serious. Any other attitude is one of arrogance. If we think that we have control, we are proud and do not realize who we really are. If we think in this way, we put ourselves in the place of God and we boast and brag about our ability without understanding who we are and who God is.
This is not just a character flaw or weakness of some kind, it is sin and James is very clear that such an attitude needs to be repented of.
What is your attitude about your life? Who is in charge? Are you in control? Do you recognize the authority of God in your life? Are you willing to accept the freedom of humbling yourself before God and submitting your time to Him? Do you live your life saying, “if the Lord wills?”
The next section begins in the same way as the first section. Once again our face is in James’ hand and he says “Now Listen!” You can hear the exclamation mark at the end of this phrase. James has often shouted at his listeners because of his serious concerns for them. This section almost seems to be the loudest shouting of all. In fact, it is so loud that many commentators believe that he is not even speaking to Christians. They refer to 2:6, where he speaks about the rich unbelievers who are abusing Christians. There, however, he uses the term “they” and here he says “you” and so I do not think we can escape the intensity of this language in that way. These are challenging words and address a powerful temptation even for believers and that is the arrogance of wealth. He gives warnings about three things that we need to watch. Once again, his main concern is to ask us, “Is God really at the center of all you possess?”
There is a subtle temptation to which all who have any resources are prone and that is to think that what we have will always be there and that we can rely on it.
We bought our van in 1996, determined not to drive it on gravel so it would last longer. I washed it regularly and waxed it a few times a year. In fact, we bought it in November and then went to Arizona for Christmas and waxed it again. I took care of it. Yet today, paint is gone from the front, there are rust spots in a few places, I haven’t waxed it in quite a while, it has 285,000 km and I wonder how long it will last.
A car may be a poor example because after owning a few I am learning that they do not last all that long. But just go to a garage sale and you will see the things people have purchased with pride and have cared for just a few years ago and now these same things are being sold to whoever will give something for them.
James goes so far as to say that silver and gold will rust. He knew and we know that iron and steal rust, but silver and gold do not rust, so why would he say so? He is reinforcing that even the most precious things we have, the things we consider most permanent will not last forever. So why is it that we continue to trust in that which will not last?
Not only is it foolish to put our trust in what will not last, but it also puts us in great spiritual danger. In verse 3 James says, their corrosion will “testify against you and eat your flesh like fire.” This is very graphic language that warns us that if we live our lives trusting money instead of trusting God, we are in danger of selling our soul to our possessions which puts us under the judgement of God.
Such words should make us think very carefully about what our life is all about. Is God the one we trust, or do we put more faith in our bank account, earning ability or RRSP’s?
A second danger for those who have money is to use what they have as a means of power and control.
James speaks specifically about those who hire others for work and do not pay them what is due them. The context is one in which the landowners would hire people to do their farm work. Those who would do this work were most often poor people and would depend on what they earned each day. If they were not paid that day for the work they did, they would not be able to eat. The warning which the rich land-owners needed to hear is that God hears the cry of those who have been cheated. James does not mince words. In the verses that follow he warns of judgement on those who exploit others by the power of their wealth.
How do we apply this today? The issues are complex. At one time we were told to stop eating bananas so that the international companies who are buying the bananas would not make money and stop exploiting the farmers who grow them. This did not make sense to me because it would take the little money those farmers were making away from them. I have to confess that I do not believe that I have learned to handle this as well as I could. Perhaps we need to sit down some time and talk about where we struggle with these issues and how we can be faithful to God.
For this morning, let me ask you, “Do we use the power of our possessions to get our way or do we honor God with what we possess?”
The third warning is one that causes me even more trouble. In verse 5, James says, “you have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.” He isn’t gentle in his words either. He uses a picture that reminds me of the cow who thinks that he has a wonderful life because he has a great diet of grain instead of just hay and that he can eat as much as he wants, not realizing that the change in diet is for the purpose of fatting him in preparation for slaughter.
Our willingness to live in luxury and self-indulgence and the temptation to think that we deserve that and that we have earned it is a similar danger. Life is good and I enjoy many things. I wonder what to think when I read this. Are we not the ones who by world standards are living in luxury and self-indulgence? How do we draw the line between enjoying the blessings God has given us and refusing to live in luxury and self-indulgence? This is a temptation that my generation and the next is even more prone to than the previous generation.
When we are saved, there must be a connection between our salvation and the way we handle our possessions. Zacchaeus announced his new-found freedom from wealth before Jesus announced his salvation (Luke 19:1–10) After the Holy Spirit came on the believers in Acts, one of the immediate responses was that they shared everything in common. Their new life in Christ had an impact on the way they handled their possessions.
I confess that I need God’s help in this…and perhaps that is the right starting point. Recognizing that we need God’s help and desiring that He transform the way we think about and handle our possessions.
These are words that challenge us deeply. They condemn us because we know that we have planned without God and have used our resources without God. The key concept here is that in these most basic areas of life - the resources that we use every day - we need to have God at the center. The change needs to take place in our hearts in terms of what we depend on. Do we depend on God or our money and our ability to make things happen or on God?
We can’t ignore these words and hope they will go away. I may not preach on this again for some time, but you can’t leave here today and think that you don’t have to think about this and hope you don’t have to be reminded. In James 4:17 we read, “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.”
We often focus on the sins of commission - that is avoiding those sins which we know are wrong like murder and lying. What James is speaking about here is the sins of omission, that is, knowing what is the right thing to do and not doing it. The Bible is full of stories of people who were condemned for failing to do the right thing. The priest and Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan, did nothing actively wrong, they were condemned because they failed to do what was right. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man is condemned for failing to take notice of the poor man at his gate. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the separation does not take place for any active wrong, but for the failure to show compassion.
Will we learn to live with God at the center of our lives? Will we make plans according to God’s will and accept the changes that come according to His plan? Will we live generously, giving to others and not hoarding our wealth? Will we give consideration to the level of self indulgence our life manifests?
I don’t say these things glibly or lightly. I struggle with these things and my hope and prayer is that we will listen to what God is saying to us. At issue here is our faith in God. If we believe in God we will know that by going his way we will find peace, joy, stability and the glory of God. May we make every effort, by the grace of God, to put God at the center of our time and our money.