James began chapter 4 talking about war with God and he ends it talking about the will of God. The two themes are actually related: when a believer is out of the will of God, he becomes a troublemaker and not a peacemaker.
Lot moved into Sodom and brought trouble to his family. David committed adultery and brought trouble to his family and his kingdom. Jonah disobeyed God and almost sent a shipload of heathen sailors into a watery grave. In each case, there was a wrong attitude toward the will of God.
That God would have a plan for each of our lives is an obvious truth. He is a God of wisdom and knows what ought to happen and when it should occur. As a God of love, He desires the very best for His children. Too many Christians look on the will of God as bitter medicine they must take, instead of seeing it as the gracious evidence of the love of God.
“I would give my life to the Lord, but I’m afraid,” a perplexed teenager told me at a youth conference.
“What are you afraid of?” I asked.
“I’m afraid God will ask me to do something dangerous!”
“The dangerous life is not in the will of God,” I replied, “but out of the will of God. The safest place in the world is right where God wants you.”
In this section of his letter, James pointed out three attitudes toward the will of God (of course, only one of them is the correct one, the one that every Christian ought to cultivate).
Ignoring God’s Will (James 4:13–14, 16)
Now 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.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes… As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.
James was addressing the wealthy merchants in the assembly. There is no evidence they sought the will of God or prayed about their decisions; rather, they boasted about their plans. They measured success in life by how many times they got their own way and accomplished what they had planned. They were basically saying to God, “We know what You want us to do, but we are not going to do it. We know more about this than You do!”
James presented four arguments that reveal the foolishness of ignoring the will of God:
The complexity of life (v. 13). Think of all that is involved in life: today, tomorrow, buying, selling, gaining, losing, going here, going there. Life is made up of people and places, activities and goals, days and years; and each of us must make many crucial decisions day after day.
Apart from the will of God, life is a mystery. But when you know Jesus Christ as your Savior, and seek to do His will, then life starts to make sense. Even the physical world around you takes on new meaning. There is a simplicity and unity to your life that makes for poise and confidence. You are no longer living in a mysterious, threatening universe.
The uncertainty of life (v. 14a). These people were making plans for a whole year when they could not even see ahead into one day! Their attitude reminds us of the farmer in Jesus’ parable in Luke 12:16–21. The man had an abundant harvest; but his barns were too small, so he decided to build bigger barns and have greater security for the future. He said to himself, “I have plenty of grain laid up for many years. I will take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”
What was God’s reply to this man’s boasting? “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.” Life is not uncertain to God, but it is uncertain to us. Only when we are in His will can we be confident of tomorrow, for we know that He is leading us.
It is good to have goals, but goals will disappoint us if we leave God out of them. There is no point in making plans as if God does not exist because the future is in His hands. What would you like to be doing ten years from now? One year from now? Tomorrow? How will you react if God steps in and rearranges your plans? Plan ahead, but hold your plans loosely. Put God’s desires at the center of your planning; He will never disappoint you.
The brevity of life (v. 14b). This is one of the repeated themes of Scripture. To us, life seems long and we measure it in years; but in comparison to eternity, life is but a vapor. It is like the morning mist that lingers only in the early morning hours and vanishes when the sun rises. We count our years at each birthday, but God tells us to number our days (Ps. 90:12). We live one day at a time and those days rush by quickly the older we grow. Life is short no matter how many years we live. Don’t be deceived into thinking you have lots of remaining time to live for Christ, to enjoy your loved ones, or to do what you know you should.
Since life is so brief, we cannot afford merely to “spend our lives” and we certainly do not want to “waste our lives.” We must invest our lives in those things that are eternal. Live for God now! Then, no matter when your life ends, you will have fulfilled God’s plan for you.
God reveals His will in His Word, yet most people ignore the Bible. In the Bible, God gives precepts, principles, and promises that can guide us in every area of life. Knowing and obeying the Word of God is the surest way to success (Josh. 1:8; Ps. 1:3).
The frailty of man (v. 16). “As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.” Man’s boasting only covers up man’s weakness. Man proposes, but God disposes. Man cannot control future events. He has neither the wisdom to see the future nor the power to control the future. For him to boast is sin; it is making himself a god. How foolish it is for people to ignore the will of God. It is like going through the dark jungle without a map or over the stormy sea without a compass.
Disobeying God’s Will (James 4:17)
If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
We tend to think doing wrong is sin, but James tells us sin is also not doing right. (These two kinds of sins are sometimes called sins of commission and sins of omission.) These people know the will of God, but choose to disobey it. This attitude expresses even more pride than does the first: “It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them” (2 Peter 2:21).
Why do people who know the will of God deliberately disobey it? I have already suggested one reason: pride. Man likes to boast that he is the “master of his fate, the captain of his soul.” Man has accomplished so many marvelous things that he thinks he can do anything.
Another reason for disobedience is man’s ignorance of the nature of God’s will. He acts as though the will of God is something he can accept or reject. In reality, the will of God is not an option; it is an obligation. We cannot “take it or leave it.” Because He is the Creator and we are the creatures, we must obey Him. Because He is the Savior and Lord, and we are His children and servants, we must obey Him. To treat the will of God lightly is to invite the chastening of God in our lives.
Many people have the mistaken idea that the will of God is a formula for misery. Just the opposite is true! It is disobeying the Lord’s will that leads to misery. The Bible and human experience are both witnesses to this truth. Even if a disobedient Christian seems to escape difficulty in this life, what will he say when he faces the Lord? “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows” (Luke 12:47–48).
What happens to Christians who deliberately disobey the known will of God? They are chastened by their loving Father until they submit (Heb. 12:5–11). If a professed believer is not chastened, it is evidence that he has never truly been born again, but is a counterfeit. God’s chastening is an evidence of His love, not His hatred. Just as we earthly fathers spank our children to help them learn respect and obedience, so our Heavenly Father chastens His own. Though chastening is hard to take, it has a comforting truth of sonship with it.
But there is also the danger of losing heavenly rewards. In 1 Corinthians 9:24–27, Paul compared the believer to a runner in the Greek races. In order to qualify for a crown, he had to obey the rules of the game. If any contestant was found to have disobeyed the rules, he was disqualified and humiliated. The word “disqualified” in 1 Corinthians 9:27 does not refer to the loss of salvation, but the loss of reward. Disobeying God’s will today may not seem a serious thing, but it will appear very serious when the Lord returns and examines our works (Col. 3:22–25).
Don’t count on your time. It is passing! Don’t count on your possessions. They will soon belong to someone else. Don’t count on your career. It will soon be over. But count on this: eternity is rapidly approaching and only those who have taken refuge in Jesus Christ can face it.
In Part 2, we will look at the third attitude toward God’s will: obeying.