There’s a story about a grandfather who tried to give advice to his grandson. He said, “Johnny, “Fools are certain, wise men hesitate.” Johnny, in reply, asked, “Are you sure, Grandpa?” With unequivocal confidence, the grandfather answered, “Yes, I am absolutely certain.”
This rather amusing story provides a good backdrop to the warning in James 4:13-17. In this passage, we see James calling out to those whose boasting is evil by virtue of their self-confidence. “Look here,” James says, “you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit’” (James 4:13 NLT).
First, let’s look at how James describes those who are so certain of themselves that they are pronounced guilty of such boastfulness:
- their mind is set to work (“we will go... and do business”);
- they have a targeted location (“to a certain town”);
- they have a plan and a goal (to engage in business and “make a profit”);
- they have a set time frame (“stay there a year”).
Now, let’s look at what James is NOT saying. James is NOT saying that those who engage in work with plans in place and goals in mind are wrong to do so. On the contrary, Scripture teaches the importance of hard work and planning. Just take a look at Proverbs 21:5 and you will find other explicit principles like it! Just think of the apostle Paul, his intense diligence and the clarity of his passion and purpose!
What, then, is James saying? For the answer, we’ll have to look at what James utters next: “How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:14-15 NLT).
Evidently, James is calling out to those who have become so self-confident that they have left God out of the equation. In the words of Pastor Cedar of NorthsideHBC, “no one can argue against the fact that [one hundred out of every one hundred people die], no matter one’s health, education, or economic status. James makes clear that every human life has a limit and every human life is short. James’ point is this important truth—our continued existence and our capacity to do things rest solely on the hand of a sovereign God. Our plans for the future are only as good as He wills them to be. When God says, “Yes,” no one can say, “No.” And when he says, “No,” none can say, “Yes.”
In James’ own words to those who in their self-confidence think themselves sovereign over their own lives, “you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:16-17 ESV). Thus, in light of the truth of the limitation of the human mind and life, James says, “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this and that.’” In the words of Pastor Cedar, in keeping with James’ message, “let us recognize God’s sovereignty in our lives.” Jeremiah 9:24 and 1 Thessalonians 2:19 are just two examples from Scripture of the things that we can rightly boast about. Not all boasting is evil. It is the object of our boasting that makes the difference. Is our boast in ourselves or in our own abilities? Or is our boast in God who created us, gifted us, and who alone sustains us?
Let us echo the prayer (attributed by some) to Bobby Richardson, a retired major league baseball player whose Christian faith is described as “key to his outstanding career, his marriage of 60 years and his witness for Christ” (Rudy Gray, 2016)—
"Your will be done. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. Amen.”
For further study: When thinking about the will of God and His sovereignty, there is often the question about what that means in view of what is endowed to us—the human will. If God is sovereign, does it even matter what we do? First, consider what we have studied so far. Before arriving at this passage about God’s sovereignty, James gave us quite a number of imperatives, which make clear that our motives, choices and our actions do matter. However, before going on to more imperatives (yes, there are more in James 5!), it is significant that James takes a pause and gives reminder of the fact that God is ultimately in control (and there’s no cause for boasting in self!). Think about and consider Scripture passages that deal with the human will and the sovereignty of God (Here’s one resource for finding applicable passages). Then, compare your findings with the THIS article and see if you arrive at a similar conclusion. (Please note: the links provided are meant to be of help as resources for your personal study. We have found the resources, to date, to be reliable and helpful, but they do not necessarily mirror our own views and cannot guarantee all content. Then again, no human being has perfect understanding or viewpoint! Thanks be to God whose Spirit is our help! And so, as you study, don’t forget to pray and ask God for wisdom!)