Last November I had the opportunity to register for classes for the January and Spring terms. Before I registered, I looked at what classes I have left to complete for my degree as well as the class schedules from January 2020 to Summer 2020 and saw that I could finish my degree by the end of Summer 2020. I planned which classes to take, what it would look like in terms of the amount of coursework, and how that would affect my part-time job. This is how we often plan.
We make plans all the time and we expect, long for, and sometimes need our plans to work out in order to feel that things are going right. Our Bible passage today, James 4:13-17, will help us with the plans that we make.
(Read James 4:13-17)
There are three questions that James 4:13-17 answers for us on the topic of making plans. The first is: How do we usually go about making plans? The second is: What is the problem with how we usually go about making plans? And the last one is: How should we handle the plans that we make?
So, let’s turn to the first question: How do we usually go about making plans?
We Go About Making Plans as if We Are in Control
The words “Today or tomorrow” and “this or that” show a type of planning that does not consider God. This is about anyone who makes plans separate from God and think they are in control. The words “we will go …” implies a level of confidence of what will happen.
We often make plans with our friends as if we are in control. We plan with our friends to go to this or that mall and to visit such and such store and to buy this and that or we plan with our friends to catch a movie at such and such a time and at this or that movie theatre. We make plans as if we are in control of the future.
James goes on to highlight a problem with how we usually go about making plans. What is the problem with how we usually go about making plans?
We Do not Know what the Future will Bring and to Think that We do Is Arrogant
We are uncertain about all the events of tomorrow. We have here the concept of unforeseen circumstances. It is like when you make plans earlier in the school day to go catch a bunch of Pokémon on Pokémon Go afterschool with your friends or to go watch a movie with them but then one of your teachers decides to give out a test tomorrow. If you want to keep doing well in that class or want to improve your grade in that class, you’d probably skip the Pokémon catching or the movie watching to get to studying for that test on top of the other homework that you have to do.
And this is not just about tomorrow but about all of life, which is transient. For any of us who have experienced a death in our family, a loss of a friend or classmate due to some horrible tragedy, have attended a funeral, or have listened to a news story about a parent grieving over the loss of his or her child, we know that life is transient. Life is short.
Since we don’t know what the future will bring and life is transient, to say that something is a sure plan is to say that we know the future which is arrogant. This is boasting about making plans apart from God and of one’s ability to control life. The New English Translation captures the meaning of verse 16 well. It says, “… you boast about your arrogant plans.” If we don’t know what the future will bring then we are not in control.
We have seen so far that we often make plans as if we are in control. We have also seen the problem of not knowing what the future will bring and to say that we do is arrogant when it comes to making plans. Making plans is not the problem, the problem lies in how we handle them. So, that brings us to our final question, how should we handle the plans that we make?
We Submit Our Plans to God
The words “Instead, you ought to say …” provides an alternative to verse 13 and a command of what to do with our plans. This is not just about the words we say but the attitude that we have with the plans that we make. Are we humble enough to accept that God could have a plan in mind that is far different from what we have planned? Do we acknowledge to ourselves that God is in control, not us?
Also, our plans have a condition, “If it is the Lord’s will ….” Are we humble enough to accept the fact that, with all our planning for school and ultimately for our future, that things only happen if it is God’s will since he is the one in control and not us? When we fail to submit our plans to God, which we know that we “ought to do,” we sin.
Submitting our plans to God can be done through prayer. We can make our plans for which classes to take, for which college to go to, for what to study in college, for when to be done with school, and for when we would like to meet the person we would marry.
We can take all these plans and talk to God about them. Share with him your plans. Recognize that he is in control and trust that, if your plan does not work out, it is because there is a better one being worked out.
What we see from James 4:13-17 is that we should submit our plans to God for we have no control of the future. In the beginning of this message, I shared with you about my plan to finish graduate school. On my school website, it says that it takes three years to complete my degree which is true if one goes full-time, does not have a job during that time, does not need to travel a long distance for classes, does not have a family to take care of, does not encounter circumstances such as personal illness, illness/death in the family, an accident, or lack of finances, and many other circumstances that can pop up.
I started my degree in 2012. I made plans to complete my degree any earlier than 2020. Each time I made a plan, I was confronted with the fact that I was not in control. My current plan to finish by the end of Summer 2020 could change due to unforeseen circumstances because I’m not in control.
Making plans are helpful to see the possibilities, but James is telling us to submit those plans to God for we have no control of the future.
Sam Ng is a Master of Divinity student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He currently serves as a pastoral intern at the Boston Chinese Evangelical Church in Boston, MA.