Planning for Your Future
St. Augustines Archive
13 June 2017
Today we’re continuing to work our way through the letter written by the apostle James, Jesus’ younger half-brother. And the passage we’re in today is up there with the most direct, blunt passages in the New Testament. As we keep tracking along with James, this week and for the next few weeks, we’re going to be thinking about the future.
And so, my question for you this morning is – how is your future looking? How are your plans going? We’re nearly halfway through the year, so how are you 2017 plans going? Perhaps you have plans for a holiday coming up – hopefully somewhere warmer.
Many of you, I know, will be making plans for the end of the financial year.
Our lives are filled with plans, aren’t they? We make plans for holidays; plans for our careers; plans for our families; plans for our retirements.
And inevitably, with all these plans, our attention turns to our finances. How are we going to pay for our plans? Can we afford a house in the area we want to live? How much do I need put aside to live well in my retirement?
Well its these two topics – our plans and our money – that James is going to help us think about today. And he has some stark warnings for us in these areas.
At the top of the order is our confident planning. Have a look with me what he says in chapter four, verse thirteen:
James 4:13Now 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.”
In James’ sights are the business owners of his day – wealthy traders. The Roman empire brought with it relative peace, and plenty of infrastructure, and so if you were a trader, these were great times.
And James speaks to people who are making the most of the time they’re living in. They’ve got plans to go into this city, or that city, set up shop, do some trading, and make for themselves a tidy profit.
It all sounds pretty ordinary, don’t you think? We make plans like this all the time – just open up the calendar app on your phone, or flip open your diary and they’re full of our very ordinary plans. Meetings, and appointments. Business opportunities.
And in our heads, we have bigger plans too. Maybe you have a 5-year plan, or a 20–year plan. Plans for families, and careers, and property, and retirement.
But in our planning, James wants us to pause for a second, because we’re at risk. We’re at risk of sinful arrogance.
See, while none of us would claim to be fortune tellers, or to know the future, the way we plan betrays the fact that we think we’ve got things pretty well under control. We can pretty confidently map out our future.
And actually, with a bit of hard work, we can basically shape how our future will turn out. Ultimately, we think, we are the captains of our own destinies.
But before we start to think like that, James has a reality check for us in verse fourteen:
James 4:14aWhy, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.
‘Hang on a second’, James says, ‘you’re confidently planning out the next year – you don’t even know what will happen to you tomorrow!’
He’s right isn’t he? Sometimes, when we think everything is going to plan, we get a big reminder that we don’t really even know what will happen to us from day to day. We don’t know what spanner tomorrow could throw in the works.
Tomorrow could be the day the economy collapses, and your nest egg is wiped out. Tomorrow could be the day you get called into the boss’s office for an unexpected and unwanted chat. Tomorrow could be the day of a sudden and serious illness for you or a loved one. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. And in seconds, our confident plans could all fall apart.
But it’s more than just our plans that could fall apart. See what he says in the next part of verse fourteen:
James 4:14bWhat is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
Our lives are a mist. You know how fleeting and fragile a mist is. There one moment, but the slightest of breezes, a bit of sunlight, and it’s gone without a trace.
That’s our lives, says James. We scurry about, making plans as if we’re in control, oblivious to the fact that we may never get to see them through. And even if we made it to a ripe old age, what lasting significance will most of us have? In three or four generations, who will care about the things that you or I achieve – we’ll just be names on a family tree.
James has about the subtlety of a sledgehammer here, doesn’t he? But he’s frank because he wants us to be realistic about our lives – they are temporary, and fleeting, and insubstantial in the grand scheme of things.
So why does James give us such a bleak picture of our lives? Why does he want to remind us that we’re not in control? Well read on to verse fifteen:
James 4:15Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
The picture James paints of our lives as temporary and fleeting would be bleak, except for one fact – there is someone who has history in the palm of his hands. But it’s not us – it’s the Lord. God is the one who is in control of everyone, and everything, across all of time.
And that’s where we start to see the problem with our very ordinary planning. We plan as if we know the future, and we are in control of how things turn out, and we make no acknowledgement of the Lord. Even us Christians will acknowledge that God is in control, but are determined to make our plans our own. We think that we’ve got it – we don’t need any help. ‘God, I’m going ok. I’ll call when I need you, but until then, I’ve got it.’
But James is pushing us back to his words last week:
James4:10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
He wants us to humbly recognise that you and I don’t control the future – God does. On our own, we can do nothing, let alone anything of substantial, lasting value. It’s a humbling thing to realise – the only way we can do anything of eternal value is in humble submission to God.
So, if we start to recognise yourself in the person James is talking to here, what should we do?
James doesn’t want us to throw our diaries in the bin, or stop taking appointments. Instead, look again at what he says in verse fifteen:
James 4:15Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
James has had lots to say about the power of our tongues in his letter. Our tongues are like a bit in a horse’s mouth. Our tongue is like a tiny rudder on a great ship. Our tongues are a controlling influence in our lives.
And so, because our tongues are so influential in steering the course of our lives, it’s no wonder James’ solution is to do with what we say. He says we should verbally acknowledge God’s sovereign control over our plans. He wants us to say, ‘Lord willing’ when we speak about the future.
Not as some superstitious habit, or a repetitive mantra – he wants us to absorb the attitude behind it. Speaking about God’s sovereignty over our lives, and our plans, and our world, will help fix that truth in our minds. It’s the antidote for the habit that can creep into our planning of thinking that we are the ones who are ultimately in control.
So, when we plan our lives – next year’s finances, or the kid’s schooling, or our upcoming holiday – and even the small things in life – let’s acknowledge with our mouths the sovereign control of the Lord over all our plans.
And if we really believe that God is the God of the universe, and not just the God of what we do here on Sunday, or in the privacy of our own homes, then let’s say so. Let’s acknowledge the fact that God is in control of what happens in our offices, and in our schools, and in our government. Let’s acknowledge that God is the sovereign Lord of the universe, and nothing happens outside his will.
But James keeps going, because it’s not just foolish or naïve to forget to acknowledge the Lord in our plans – James says it’s evil. See what he says next in verse sixteen:
James 4:16As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.
Boasting. Arrogance. Evil. That’s strong language, isn’t it? All we’ve done is a bit or forward planning. Don’t you think you’re going a bit over the top, James? That’s just how everyone talks.
But that’s exactly James’ point – everyone else does speak and act like that. That’s the ‘worldly wisdom’ that James has warned us about earlier. It’s what he’s called ‘double-mindedness’ – saying with our lips ‘Jesus is Lord’, but acting day to day as if we’re the ones who are ultimately in control of our lives.
That’s evil, James says. Acting as if the power to oversee the future belongs to us, rather than God. Taking the prerogatives of God and claiming them for ourselves. That’s the heart of what sin and evil is – it’s exactly what Adam and Eve did in the garden.
If you act and speak as if you’re in control of your future, James says it’s arrogance, and pride. And God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
And then, to underline the force of what he says, see what James writes next in verse seventeen:
James 4:17Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.
James moves from attitude to action. Just like he has done all through the letter, James says that what we believe needs to be reflected in what we do.
Think of what he said in chapter two about someone who finds a brother or sister in need, but doesn’t do anything more than say to them ‘Be warmed, and be filled.’
James expects that a humble attitude will come out in humble actions. And an arrogant attitude will come out in arrogant actions. And so, he says: ‘Don’t just say you want to know God’s will, or that you recognise your dependence on his will – go and find out what God has already said about his will, and do it.’
And what is God’s will? I think James would probably look to his older brother’s summary of the law of God: Jesus said, ‘Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.’
If you know God’s will, and you fail to do it, for you that it sin.
Well, having issued the challenge to those who are in danger of arrogant planning, James moves on to speak about the great danger another group of us are in. He says, ‘Now listen, you rich people.’
He moves on to the rich, because out of all of us who are tempted to think we have some control over the future, having material wealth can make us even more prone to that temptation. And so we’re in great danger, and James uses deliberately provocative language to warn us.
Now there’s no reason to think that James is talking to every wealthy person out there. But the Bible has lots to say about the dangers of wealth. There are great temptations for Christians when it comes to money, and many good Christian people have sinned terribly in this area. So any of us who have money our their bank balances would be wise to listen in to what James has to say here from the start of chapter five:
James 5:1Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.
James 5:2Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.
James 5:3Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.
There’s a great irony in this passage, isn’t there? James has just warned us about the danger and arrogance of assuming we know what will happen tomorrow, but here he says that actually, we do. Maybe not the particular details of tomorrow, or next week. But we do know what really matters about the future. We know where the future is ultimately headed. And we know because Jesus rose again from the dead.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead has set the clock ticking on the end of the world. Jesus ascended to heaven with a promise that he would be back. And when he comes back, time’s up, history is finished, and the day of reckoning begins. The day when the living and the dead will stand before him to give an account for their lives. And this in-between time we live in now is what the Bible calls ‘the last days’. And the last days are counting down.
We’ve been given the inside information on where history is headed, so James strongly warns us to use the information wisely. If we know that the clock is ticking on this world – that Jesus could return any moment, or in the blink of an eye we could be gone – then James warns us not to get too heavily invested in the riches of this world.
Suppose you had money invested in shares in a particular company. And tomorrow, you’re given reliable inside information that this company is going to go spectacularly bust. Your shares would be worth nothing. Leaving aside for the moment the highly illegal bit about insider trading, what do you do?
What you don’t do is start selling everything you have to buy more shares. You don’t pump more money into the insolvent company. That would be foolish, to put it mildly. No, you get out as quickly as you can.
Friends, here’s the inside information on where the world’s wealth is heading: your wealth will rot; moths will eat your clothes. Even the safest commodities – gold and silver – that supposedly never corrode – on that last day they will perish.
The problem with the rich is that they’ve put their faith in the wrong place. They’ve put their trust in their wealth to give them the security that they long for. But that’s foolish, isn’t it? We know what will happen to that wealth. Money isn’t in control of the future – Jesus is. And money can’t give you security on that last day when you stand before Jesus.
Instead, on that last day when you stand before him, Jesus will ask you: ‘What is all this wealth? Where did you get it? What have you used it for?’ And if we hoard it up, James says a steaming pile of rotten and corroded wealth will stand as evidence against us.
We would be foolish to keep hanging on to our wealth in these last days, when we have the insider information. Friends, let what you know about the future drive how you use your wealth in these last days.
But James keeps going in his warning to the rich. Because the temptation when you think your wealth is your security is not just to disregard God, but to disregard other people too.
Remember Jesus’ summary of the law: ‘Love God, and love your neighbour.’ Well these rich that James is writing to think they can get away with treating people however they like. But see what he says to them from verse four:
James 5:4Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.
James 5:5You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.
James 5:6You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.
The temptation with wealth is thinking it gives you the right to do whatever you want. These rich have used their wealth only for themselves. They’ve thought their time on earth is for self-indulgence. Living in luxury.
They’ve enjoyed the good life. But James warns them that it’s the kind of good life a farm animal lives – eating all it wants, and more, oblivious to the fact that it’s fattening itself for slaughter.
And do you see how they’ve got their wealth? They’ve gotten it by any means necessary. By defrauding their workers, in verse four. By manipulating the legal system, in verse six. They’ve gotten their wealth by taking the innocent to court, in effect depriving them of their livelihood. It’s tantamount, James says, to judicial murder. They’ve robbed the poor and innocent of their livelihood to fill their own coffers.
But their biggest mistake is that they haven’t recognised who the Lord is. He’s the Lord Almighty, or the Lord of Hosts. That is, he’s the Lord of all of heavens armies. And more than that, he is the Lord who hears. He hears the cries of those who have been defrauded. He hears, and he cares, and he will act. And on that day of judgement, even the money that the rich have stolen by fraud will testify against them. Even if they’ve done it in secret, and no one ever knew, God knows.
See, on that day, God will hold us to account for how we’ve lived. And our greed and self-indulgence will receive the judgment it deserves.
But do you see the language that James uses in verse six? They’ve condemned the innocent man. Or more literally, the righteous man. And we can’t help but think of the supremely righteous man, Jesus Christ. The one who through the manipulation of the judicial process was put to death. The one who was murdered, but didn’t oppose.
So, it seems the rich, by their behaviour, are aligning themselves not with the righteous and innocent man, Jesus Christ. They’re aligning themselves with the ones who murdered him. They’re setting themselves up against the Lord Jesus. And in light of what we’ve seen about Jesus returning in glory to judge, that doesn’t bode well for them.
Well, with his very blunt words, James has a warning for each of us here. And we need to be careful we don’t try and wriggle our way out of his grasp. We need to listen, because if James is right, we’re in great danger.
If, as you’ve been listening to what James has had to say in these verses, and you’ve recognised yourself in them. You’ve recognised your own attitudes to the future, and to your wealth, James’ warning is the strongest of all. James says to weep and wail. The way you have misused your wealth is serious. Your wealth will testify against you on the day of judgement, and James says it will eat your flesh like fire.
If you think you need to reform your ways, it’s too late – sin is a hole you can’t dig yourself out of. But there is hope. Recognise the lordship of Jesus Christ, and turn to him. He offers full and free forgiveness. His death on the cross takes the punishment for our sin, and it’s on offer if we will trust him. It’s not too late for that – the last day hasn’t come yet.
As well, James has a warning for the rich. And if you’ve got money in your bank account, then that’s you. One day, you will have to give an account to God for how you’ve used that wealth. That wealth could one day testify against you. Remember, it’s not true wealth. It’s not true security. It has been entrusted to us to use for the Lord’s sake. So, have you used it to love God and love others? If you have, you are storing up true treasure. Treasure in heaven, that can never perish, spoil or fade.
We all need to hear the warning James has for us in these verses – the danger of thinking we’re basically in control of our lives. The danger of hoarding up wealth for ourselves.
As we make plans for these next few years about where our lives are headed, let’s remember that we’re in the last days. Let’s keep the Lord, and his will in the forefront of our minds, and on our lips. Let’s acknowledge that he is the one who is ultimately in control.
Let’s use the wealth he has given us wisely. Let’s use it to express our love for him, and our love for others, while we wait for him to return in glory on that last day.