March 14, 2021
New York Times columnist David Brooks once shared in an article about how we as humans are an overconfident species, what he calls a “magnification of the self,” and in addition, noting that he believes it’s especially true of us as Americans. He cites some of the following statistics to make his case:
In 1950, the Gallup organization asked high school seniors, "Are you a very important person?" And at that point, in 1950, 12 percent said yes. They asked the same question in 2005 and 80 percent said, "Yes, I am a very important person." (Maybe that’s more of a generational thing, more a Millennial thing, than American thing.)
Here are a couple that defy all math and statistics: 94 percent of college professors believe they have above-average teaching skills. (Try and make sense of that one.)
When asked if someone believes they fall in the wealthiest 1%, the top 1% in total wealth? Nineteen percent of Americans are in the top 1 percent of wealth.
Finally, Americans score 25th in the world in math, but if you ask Americans, "Are you really good in math?" they often say yes.
Brooks concludes, we are #1 in the world at thinking we are really good at math. So, at least we’ve got that going for us.
We’re an overconfident bunch, Brooks writes, and though we likely don’t always feel that way, there’s probably at least some level of truth in what he’s saying.
This morning we continue on in our sermon series on the book of James, and friends, we are in the home stretch, just a couple more weeks to go as we get ready to wrap this up before Easter Sunday.
And to some extent, our passage this morning, picks up where last week left off. Last week, our scripture concluded with this charge from James: “Humble yourselves and he will exalt you.”
And in many ways, our passage today is a continuation or application
of that charge. James wants to take a facet of our lives, an aspect of our everyday lives, and show us what it looks like to approach it in humility, or to frame it in the negative, James shows us the limitations or the foolishness in our pride and boasting and overconfidence.
And James’s topic for us today an important one, one that we may not always think about too deeply, but yet truth be told, one that we’re thinking about all the time, and that is, our planning, both how we go about our making our plans and who we include in them.
And speaking of planning, or maybe poor planning that is, we’re just going to focus on verses 13-17, as Pat just read, we’ll save the rest for next week as at some point over the weekend I realized that I bit off more than I could chew.
All this said, James wants to encourage and cultivate a level of humility within us as it comes to our planning and to do so, he describes the following, and it’s how we’ll structure our message for today:
How we often go about our planning / The problem with our planning / How we should plan instead
How we often go about our planning
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.”
At first glance, this plan sounds perfectly fine and reasonable. In fact, this sounds like the kinds of plans we make. Where we say, “Sometime in the future, we will do this, and we will accomplish that.” Plans such as “I will complete grad school by the end of the year” or “My wife and I will retire by the time we’re 65” or “We plan to have 2 kids someday, 3 at the most.” We make plans. That’s just what we do.
However, I want you to notice a couple of the assumptions that we often make in our planning, assumptions that James I think wants to tease out and challenge using his hypothetical example here:
James says, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there,” the idea being. It doesn’t really matter if we go today or tomorrow, we’ve got all the time in the world, and when we do go, we’ll spend a year there. It’s this assumption of time, this belief that tomorrow is promised to us.
In addition it says, “doing business and making money.” Notice just how certain it all sounds. This sense of “This is what we will do, and this is what we will accomplish.” It’s this assumption, this belief, that results are a sure guarantee and that if we simply put our mind to something, we will accomplish it.
In many ways, this sentiment and belief is baked into popular culture, in fact, you’ll see it in children’s books, such as Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go,” and happens to be a book often quoted at high school graduations everywhere. Here again is how the book begins:
Congratulations! Today is your day. You're off to Great Places! You're off and away!
You have brains in your head
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
So much promise, so much optimism. And yet, I think James, if he were hearing those words would say, “Alright, pump the brakes there Dr. Seuss. Slow down. Not so fast.
And this brings us to …
The problem with our planning
14 Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
So much for the unbridled optimism of Dr. Seuss, James words are sobering, humbling, like having a bucket of ice water poured on top of us.
James’s point here is, how is it that you and I can make plans with such confidence and assurance and such little humility? As Eugene Peterson says in quoting James, “You don’t know the first thing about tomorrow.” And as much as I want to challenge that assertion, though I often assume that tomorrow is a sure guarantee, it’s not. And even more, none of us with complete certainty, can describe with full confidence what tomorrow will even look like.
In reality, as we know all too well from experience, life so often doesn’t go according to plan.
After all, hasn’t this been one of the big takeaways and life lessons from this past year? It was about exactly a year ago due to the pandemic that it felt like our lives were turned upside down and completely disrupted. Over the past year I feel like the planner in me I feel like has died a slow death, as so many of the things in life that seemed like a given or sure thing were no longer givens or sure things. Like if you were to ask me a year ago what’s the likelihood of us having worship in the sanctuary on any given Sunday I would have said it’s the same likelihood as the sun coming up in the morning. It was one of the surest things I knew.
In reality, we humans are like a mist, like the morning dew, our lives short in the grand scheme of eternity, and our lives here on earth come with no promise of tomorrow.
James’ point seems to be, since we are no more than a mist, since we can’t even guarantee our own existence for tomorrow, can we really declare and be so confident about the future? Do we really have that kind of control or certainty?
So in light of all this, how should we go about our planning? How should we approach them, or more importantly, who should we approach them with?
And with that in mind, here’s the third and final part …
How we should plan instead
Here’s what James says next,
15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.”
James gives us a simple preface, a simple phrase to include in our planning, the phrase, “If the Lord wishes.” An equivalent phrase often said, is “Lord willing.”
Now this may not seem like much and in some ways, it may seem like a throwaway line, but there, but notice the ways in which it helps us to reorient ourselves rightly.
James says, “If the Lord wishes, we will live.” Our very lives, our tomorrows, our very next breath are a gift from the Lord.
James says, “If the Lord wishes, we will do this or that.” Our results and accomplishments are a gift from the Lord.
Here’s an example of how this once played out in my own life:
Years ago, in my late 20’s, before I met Callie, my family and I would occasionally get into a specific argument. I called the if/when debate. Here’s how it would play out, somewhere in conversation or in talking about life, I would say to my mom and brother, “If I get married.” And my mom and brother would look at me with this incredulous look and say, “Daniel, it’s when you get married, not if, when.” You know, as if getting married and finding a soulmate is the kind of thing you can just speak into existence. And I always fought them on that. I always thought that saying “when” was the wrong way to look at life. Long story short, in the end, I think we we’re both right. My family was right in terms of the outcome, I did get married and happily so. But to this day, I’m convinced I was right in terms of my posture and perspective, and if I dare say, I think James would agree with me too.
James says, Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will do this or that.”
Now for what it’s worth, Plans and dreams and hopes and ambitions are not bad things. They are so often good things, James’s point in all of this, his hope for us in all of this is that we would take our plans and ambitions and submit them to God, to be open to his direction, to be open to his guiding, and yes, even being open to a possible redirection or reforming of the plans that we have for ourselves and others.
So, here’s my homework for you, if that’s even a thing: Make an effort to weave the phrase “If the Lord wills” into your speech and everyday conversation. See what happens.
Now the idea here isn’t that it’s some spiritual version of “Mother May I” or “Simon says” and that if you don’t literally say the words “If the Lord wills” or “Lord willing” that it invalidates everything you just said.
But yet, I think you’ll find, that the phrase can be powerful to think and say out loud. It slows you down. It reminds us of who God is, what he is capable of, and who we are, what we are capable of.
Take note of how that simple, yet powerful little phrase begins to impact how you see yourself, how you see God, and how you think about and go about your plans.
Now, I suppose we could take it too far, like I don’t think we need to say “Lord willing” for each and every plan we make. Like if you and spouse are discussing plans for dinner and one of you says, “Lord willing, we’re going to have tacos tonight.” Yeah, that might be a little much.
But yet, for the biggest things in life, try it out,
When you’re lying in bed, dreaming about the future.
When you’re sitting down at the dining room table, making plans or looking at the calendar for the upcoming month or year.
When you’re in a business meeting or having a private conversation with a close friend,
And as you do, ask God, are my plans in sync with your plans? Is what I want for me, what you want for me? Is what I want for my family what you want for my family? Is what I want for our church what you want for our church?
Try saying it over the course of the next week or so. “If the Lord wills” “Lord willing, we will live and do this or that.”
And I’ll finish with this.
You know in many ways this is a continuation of James’s exhortation from before, when he said, “Humble yourselves, and he will exalt you.” And that’s what we do, when we make our plans, we humble ourselves, and say, “Lord willing.” I have these plans, but you might have something else for me. You see in many ways, it echoes Jesus’s words from long ago, when he was in the Garden of Gethsemane, saying, “Lord, take this cup from me, but not my will, but your will be done.” So friends, may we too be people who submit our plans to God in the little things, in the big things, both this day and in the days to come.