God's control of tomorrow
A major objective of James throughout his epistle is to stop evil speaking. In his crusade against it, he winds through many arguments and illustrations until he comes to the fundamental issue: a man’s attitude toward the law of God (Jas. 4:11). James shows that a man who breaks the law by speaking against a brother is doubly guilty. First, he is guilty of acting contrary to the law, and second, by casting the law aside, he is guilty of holding the law in contempt. In essence, he is denying that God has a right to define his behavior as sin. Thus, by judging God’s law, he is placing himself higher than the lawgiver, God, and making law for himself. But what folly (Jas. 4:12)! A rough translation of James’s rebuke of such a man is, "Who do you think you are?" James points out that God has ultimate power, even over life and death, whereas we are nothing. His power to destroy us if we fail to obey Him should give us, if we have any common sense, a healthy respect for His law.
The next verses continue the comparison between man’s weakness and God’s strength. The enormous gulf between creature and Creator exists not only in God’s ability to declare what is right, but also in His ability to control the future. Everything that happens is the direct outworking of God’s will. He is the One who ordains the course of history. Man, however, has no control of the future beyond his ability to make plans and preparations that may never come to fruition.
Before drawing out the implications of God’s sovereignty over tomorrow as well as today, James says, "Go to now"—literally, "Come now" (v. 13). These are words calling for close attention. He is saying, "Listen to me, for I will show you how misguided you are, you who take seriously your attempts to plan your lives." He addresses especially those traveling merchants whose normal practice is to map out a strategy for making money in the months ahead. For the sake of illustration, he describes a typical strategy that they might conceive. They might decide to leave today or tomorrow for another city, with the intention of staying there and conducting profitable business for a whole year. James characterizes their plans as presumptuous (v. 14). They are making unfounded assumptions about what will happen. Everything they confidently expect is a matter of speculation—whether their final balance sheet will show a profit, whether they will be able to remain in the city a full year, even whether they will reach the city. They really do not know what tomorrow will bring.
Doubt attaches even to whether they will live another year. James reminds them that life is like a vapor that, after suddenly appearing, quickly disperses and fades away, becoming undetectable. He is thinking perhaps of a wisp of smoke, or of an odorous exhalation from a jar of perfume, or of a slight breath of fresh air. Such a vapor is now here, now gone, just like a human life—now here, now gone.
The proper lens for seeing the future
In view of how uncertain the future is, we should look upon our plans as mere guesses. We should acknowledge that whether our plans come to pass depends strictly on whether God allows them to prosper (v. 15). To every thought of what will happen, we should attach the condition, "if God wills." James does not mean that it is a sin to omit this wording whenever we speak of the future. Rather, he means that in our hearts we must never fail to recognize that the future depends on God. Though we do not actually say "God willing," this proviso should be fundamental to our outlook on things to come. We must always understand it to be true whether or not we say it. Yet there are times when it is good to hedge a promise by stating outright, "God willing." We find many examples in the New Testament (Acts 18:21; 1 Cor. 4:19; 16:7; Heb. 6:3; Phil. 2:24). It is good to speak these words if the people hearing us might build up expectations that come to nought, leaving them disappointed.
If "the best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley" (or, go often awry), as the poet says, should we make plans at all? When criticizing the merchants who lay out a strategy for making money, did James mean that a businessman is wrong if he looks ahead? Planning is normal practice in every realm of life—not only in business, but also in education, family affairs, even the work of the church. Is it wrong? Should we simply live day by day without giving any thought to the future? No, that is impossible. Whatever we do is governed by some picture of what will happen. Any purchase, for example, assumes that we will live to use it. Any departure from home assumes that we will arrive somewhere else. No, it is not possible to exclude planning from our lives.
Lest we make wrong applications of his teaching, James tells us exactly what is objectionable (v. 16). It is sin to "rejoice [or glory] in your boastings," an unmistakable allusion to Proverbs 27:1: "Boast not thyself of to morrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth." Here we have another reminder that the Epistle of James falls in the tradition of Jewish Wisdom Literature. James is identifying two things as evil. The first is to make plans that ignore the hand of God ("boastings," referring to plans resting on self-confidence). The second is to glory in those plans; in other words, to congratulate oneself for skill in managing tomorrow. The second evil follows from the first because to exclude God from our picture of life’s outcomes creates a vacuum that human pride rushes to fill. If we do not see that the future depends on God, we will imagine ourselves to have power over the future. In essence, we will make ourselves gods. Presumptuous plans, forgetting that God can overrule, are therefore a form of idolatry.
When doing nothing is sin
In conclusion, James presents an important principle in the clearest and most succinct terms we find in Scripture. He says, "To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin" (v. 17). Many other texts build important conclusions on the same principle, although without making it explicit (Luke 12:47; John 9:41; 2 Pet. 2:21).
James’s formulation may be a lesson that he drew from Jesus’ parable of the two sons (Matt. 21:28-32). Their father directed them to go work in the vineyard. One refused, but later changed his mind and obeyed. The other agreed to go, but never went. His chronic failure to do right was sin.
Or what James says may be his application of the so-called Golden Rule: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets" (Matt. 7:12). Notice that Jesus’ actual words are far more demanding than the familiar words. He does not command, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." So stated, the rule merely prohibits things that we ourselves would not like to suffer. Rather, Jesus commands that we do every good thing we can imagine. To fall short of doing every good thing is therefore sin, as James reminds us.
In context, the good that James is urging upon his readers is to heed his instruction in verse 15, where he told them to add, "If the Lord will," whenever they spoke of their plans. But he is also referring more generally to everything he has said so far in his epistle. He has offered many ways to do good. We should seek wisdom (Jas. 1:5), rejoice in humble circumstances (Jas. 1:9), visit the fatherless and widows (Jas. 1:27), etc. To neglect any of these admonitions is sin. We prefer to think of sin as a deliberate trespass of a negative law, such as "Thou shalt not kill." But our duty goes far beyond the mere avoidance of evil deeds. It takes in every good deed fulfilling a positive law, such as the preeminent requirements to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves.