Missing A Trick?
In my lifetime I have definitely noticed a difference in the way Christians talk. I was shocked as a late teenager to hear Christian friends rubbing their hands with hollow excitement at the prospect of going to see Bruce Springsteen – look, I like ‘the Boss’ too (at least the throaty relaxed easy-listening parts): but if they believed this was the ultimate goal in life, I honestly felt it was they who were missing out. What was lacking in their conversation in those days was any mention at all of God in all their talk. I’m pleased to report that some of them, at least, have remedied their ways!
It used to be reasonably common to hear Christians say “D.V.”. If it balked at the possibility of actually naming the Lord, and if it was a little highbrow assuming a working knowledge of Latin, at least there as passing nod to God and His providential rule. Sadly, even then, most only mentioned God when dressed up in Sunday best. For the most part the Name was left out of the talk.
The God with No Name?
James 4.13-17, however, warns us that if God should always be uppermost in our thoughts, the mention of His Name should be often on our lips. I find it hard to imagine a Christian businessman stating to his employees ‘If the Lord wills, our company will do this or that.’ It was a sin for Donald Trump to say ‘We will build the wall’ with no mention of Christ’s help. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not an Irishman giving a political view on the States (it doesn’t ultimately matter what I think about the rights and wrongs of the wall). If the wall does eventually get built, and providence may have a hand either way, it was presumptuous and boastful to claim certainty of future achievement whatever his intent. I can imagine the angels looking down through the clouds on the presidential campaign and basking in the heat of all the rising hot air. I wonder did they say ‘Well, let’s just see if that’s how the planned wall on the Mexican border eventually turns out!’ So what I want to do is to give a number of reasons why Muslims put us to shame when they say ”’In sha’ Allah'”.
First Life’s Frailty And Finality v14
Tomorrow may bring a cerebrovascular accident, coronary thrombosis, pulmonary embolism or cancer diagnosis. The routine scan may turn into a terminal nightmare. Our wagon may leave the route, or an SUV mount the sidewalk. I can count at least three classmates who never left High School. The heartbreak of Columbine, road-rage in Westminster, bombing in Manchester, and empty cars in Queen’s that followed 9/11 devastation, should help us live our lives, re-order diary slots, speak humbly of our schedule, and less boastfully of projects. If our brothers across the pond are swamped by an ocean of ‘great expectations’ and ‘Megachurch’ over-optimism, the tacit Ulster-Scots are no less quick to be boastful in their hearts and congratulate themselves. How many preachers have boasted to friends of a preaching engagement next month, without paying any courtesy to the Lord who orders our steps and has decreed our latest breath.
Second The Future Is So Uncertain v14-15.
It is one thing for ‘El Presidente’ to boast of past successes in business without acknowledging God – it is another thing entirely to say of the future: “We’re gonna build the wall folks – it’ll be a great wall, I promise you!” Yet despite the claim of many to posses prophetic powers, or to have a Christian ‘crystal ball’, or a naggingly accurate hunch (it seems that some do, as providence would have it), no man alive today can claim to be an omniscient Nostradamus (who wasn’t!). Why? Because only God knows your tomorrow, and the number of the Greyhound which is coming around the corner, hopefully on the tarmac and not the sidewalk. No doubt Job would have warned His children that the house would collapse if he had known, but even this righteous man became prey to providence. You might have expected the actuaries and accountants at Lehman Brothers to have woken up to the credit bubble and smelt the coffee of the coming crunch in 2008. I’ve a very good friend who, the previous week, was asked by one of the Irish banks to name his number and he could take out a loan without any backing assets (the clue to this madness of course is that the lender would get a cut on a strictly commission basis!!!). Thankfully he declined, yet still went away on vacation a multimillionaire, and came back to find he was nearly left on skid row! The merchant in James’ warning was overweeningly confident he would ply his wares in Jerusalem, Judea and then to the ends of the earth. His product seems to have been sound, he had done his market research, his supply chain was reliable, so he just needed to load the cargo. Here is a man with the Midas Touch who makes his own luck (or so he thinks). He must have known some ships don’t make it to port. He seems not to have learned the lesson of Jehoshaphat’s fleet at Ezion-Geber (1 Kings 22.48), or heard of the story of Jonah – the prophet bought the ticket, boasting to sailors ‘I’m going to Tarshish’, but God had different ideas – the recalcitrant prophet would have a ‘whale/wail of a time’. House prices crash leaving millions in negative equity! Bubbles always burst when you pump them up too much! What lies at the root of this empty boast, is a failure to recognize the providence of God, and that no human being can master his own destiny.
Third Priorities Are Misguided v17.
It is easy to miss this, but surely this is true – the failure to mention God, to articulate his rule, to prayerfully seek His will, reveals a heart in love with the world. That’s why James reminds us that plans should always be contingent. When charting a course of action we should ask ‘Is this what pleases God?’. This merchant, of course, has decided what matters most. He seems almost oblivious to the need to read the Word. His religion is confined to synagogue on Saturday. His faith has little impact when he removes his Sunday best. To maximize profit, to open up new markets, to increase internet sales – why, any way, does he need to consult Christ? That’s what he asks himself when challenged by the church. How does he know the good he ought to do? He may, of course, have a nagging conscience; the pastor may have addressed it in a recent Sabbath sermon; friends may have warned of the need to pray when planning; but the only fail-safe way is to seek truth in the Scriptures. It is this refusal to bring our plans before the bar of the bible that betrays that this believer is intent on his predetermined course of action – doing what HE wants instead of what God wants! This is a symptom and sign of a worldly, earthly-mindedness. There is little of the perfume of heaven about his decision-making process concerning his trade visit. I remember a number of years ago when talking to friend about the possibility of doing a PhD when he asked me a startling question which really shook me up: “You’re a pastor aren’t you? You can teach in college, can’t you? Do you really need a doctorate? Is this on your ministry plan that God has for your life? Is this what God’s will is? Is this the best use of your time?” Yes, years on, I’m still toying with my proposed Thesis, but still wrestling in my heart asking ‘To exactly whose drumbeat would I be marching?’. We need to ask the same motive-wrenching questions with respect to our relationships, purchases, vacations, careers, investments, property – we need to ascertain if our priorities are awry or aligned with the will of our Lord.
Fourth Evil Is Committed v16.
The muddled-priority merchant is a specific example James uses. He now moves to a general principle ‘All such boasting is evil.’ He doesn’t say of course that all boasting is evil. We are commanded in the bible to boast in the Gospel and glory in God. He is one with us in our natural antagonism to braggarts (that is, of course, so long as the particular braggart in question is someone else and not us – we usually quite enjoy blowing our own egos up and out, even if it leaves a bitter after-taste of shame). All boasting of this kind is what the apostle has in mind. This species of boasting is really devilish pride. It is the kind of ‘Tower of Babel’ attitude, which puts God out of the picture, and exalts ourselves on a pedestal – the heart that boasts of our own educational achievements, college degrees, sporting feats, personal ambitions, curriculum vitae, reading completed, churches built, sermons preached, conferences invited to, souls converted, countries visited, automobiles purchased, companies run, dollars earned – without any reference to God as the giver of success, or the goal of our ambition. This is what the devil-inspired towering advance of the project of Babel was all about – to make a name for autonomous, godless, thoroughly post-Diluvian, secular man without any reference to or acknowledgment of God. Such empty boasting in human achievement is the heart of pride and root of sin. Did you think making plans without reference to God who has no place in or control of the diary is a small sin? It is foul, bad, wicked, presumptuous, pompous, self-inflated and arrogant verbal sin of omission. Or in case you think I have overstated my case, we’ll use the term James uses – EVIL!
Fifth Help is Forfeited.
If the fourth point is a shock, the fifth is rather sad. Believers with saving faith should have God at the center of their plans. God in Jesus Christ has pardoned all such pride and clothed them in humility – He freely supplies the grace required, when sought, to make all our plans fit with the revelation and agenda of the Heavenly Father’s diary, in union with His Son. He was always keen to acknowledge that He did the Father’s will. His one great life ambition, publicly stated, was to finish the work God gave Him to do (on our behalf – there is heaven in that!). His loving sacrificial merit is our motive for seeking God’s will in all we do. Yet instead of reading the bible and discovering what God wants; instead of praying fervently for light, grace & strength; instead of committing our plans to the successful blessing of the Lord (or frustration leading to blessing if that be God’s will to which we bow & submit); instead of asking for strength, safety, success and witnessing opportunities for service; or praying to meet someone we can have fellowship with on our business trip; or pleading, in God’s mercy, we might have a providential encounter to lead the lost to Christ – we just blunder on with our own plans. We do that in our homes, jobs, colleges, marriages, churches and ministries – and we forfeit so much grace because we puff up self.
Is God in your speech – I don’t mean mechanistically or hypocritically or insincerely but spiritually from the heart – regularly? Are you embarrassed to mention in normal conversation ‘If the Lord wills’ or ‘If God wants it that way’? Do you only do it with Christians and never give witness before pagans? Perhaps, even worse, have you gone into a group of rather modest unbelievers and boasted of this and that with an inflated sense of self-infatuation? It is a tragic thing, isn’t it, when the biggest ‘blow’ (as we would call him or her in Ireland), is the Christian in the room (I blush to think how many times I’ve won the prize)! Even if we only brag about our spiritual feats before other believers, we are robbing God of the glory and are certain to be chastened! As I urge upon myself, friends & brothers, let me also urge on you – whether you eat, drink, travel, work, play or buy in all you do may it be to the glory of the One and Only God, in whose power are your steps and in whose hand is your life! Seek all the grace you need to align your will to His and boast in the Lord Jesus though whom your proud flesh is crucified to the world.