Of Providence & Our Plans

Kevin delivered the following sermon from James 4:13-17 at Morningside Baptist Church in Douglas, GA, where he serves as Senior Pastor. 
Of Providence & Our Plans/James 4:13-17

Introduction

James Hudson Taylor was a British Christian missionary that served over a half of a century in China. He founded the China Inland Mission, which now bears the name OMF International. Through Taylor’s cultural-sensitive approach, countless thousands of Chinese people would hear the gospel and be converted. He was a general in God’s Army.

Taylor’s ministry practices were unconventional by most missionary agencies of his day, but the fruit bears witness. He was more concerned with proper heart motives that credentials and abilities. For example, history records an interesting story of Taylor’s faith in God’s power to use what seemed foolish of the world.

A one-legged school teacher from Scotland came to J. Hudson Taylor to offer himself for service in China. “With only one leg, why do you think of going as a missionary”? Asked Taylor. “I do not see those with two legs going replied George Scott. He was accepted.1

Hudson Taylor was a man given to prayer in doing the work of the ministry. Warren Wiersbe writes,

Hudson Taylor offers the following observation: “We can make our best plans and try to carry them out in our own strength. Or we can make careful plans and ask God to bless them. Yet another way of working is to begin with God; to ask His plans, and to offer ourselves to Him to carry out His purposes.”2

This is brilliant advice on planning the work of the ministry. I believe he derived it straight from the pages of Scripture. In this sermon, we will explore what the Bible says about our planning and God’s providence.

In this passage, James pinpoints the problem of planning without consulting God’s will and gives the solution of godly planning. James’s main point is that total surrender to God’s providence is the key to success. We must submit to God’s guidance in every aspect of our lives. There is not a “church/religious” sphere and “career/business” sphere. All spheres are one. For believers, there is no separation between the sacred and the secular.

First, we’ll look at the problem of godless planning in 4:13-14, 16-17. After we understand the error of living without seeking God’s guidance, we will focus on the solution of godly planning and how we can implement this principle in our own lives.

The Problem of Godless Planning (4:13-14,16-17)

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” (4:13)

It is important to understand from the start, God is not against planning. In fact, if you survey the Bible, you will see instances of people making plans. For example, we see Joseph making plans for Egypt to survive the years of famine, David planned and supplied Solomon the materials for building God’s Temple, and in the New Testament we see Paul’s plans to further the Gospel where Christ was not named (The letter of Romans reveals Paul’s plan to take the Good News to Spain.) Each of these examples are plans submitted to or directly instituted by God’s sovereignty. God is not against planning, but He is against being left out of your plans. Later, we’ll discuss how to include God in our planning, but for now, we’ll address the problem of godless planning.

What’s wrong with the planning James is talking about or what I’ve defined as godless planning? Godless planning is presumptuous.In verse thirteen, James depicts merchants making future business trip plans without consulting God’s will. Grant R. Osborne writes,

James is picturing his readers as itinerant merchant traders who in the first century would have been what we today call ‘new money,’ a wealthy group of Jews whom Josephus said would stop at nothing to make more money (Antiquities, 12.2-5; also Sirach 26:29).3

These merchants were making some major assumptions about their financial endeavor. Here are five assumptions in their (godless) plans:

  1. They assume when they will go. For they say, “Today or tomorrow we will go…”
  2. They assume where they will go. For they say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city…”
  3. They assume how long they will stay. For they say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there…”
  4. They assume what they will do. For they say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there, and engage in business…”
  5. They assume the results of their endeavor. “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.”

They have it all figured out by themselves. Their plans are presumptuous. Where is God in their plans? He’s absent. They’ve excluded God from their plans. They’re living as “practical atheists” and many Christians today are guilty of the same error.

Osborne states, “The sin is not in planning or even in the desire for a profit but in the boastful, self-engrossed attitude. The self is the total focus and God a forgotten footnote in their lives.” 4 Have you relegated God to a forgotten footnote of your life?

We’re often asked as children what we want to be when we grow up? (To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve got that figured out yet. I’m not even sure I want to grow up!) We shouldn’t disregard our dreams and desires. For God may have planted them in our hearts. However, we must not assume what we want is always God’s will. Considering this fact, we still should ask children what they want to be when they are grown, but also remind them God has a sovereign plan for their life they must seek.

Planning that is absent of God’s guidance is presumptuous (or arrogant) because it doesn’t account for our limitations. Although we have many limitations, James specifically mentions two: our limited knowledge and our limited time in verse fourteen.

Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. (4:14a)

The first problem with planning without consulting God is our limited knowledge. Do any of us know what the future holds? Therefore, when planning, we are not sure our plans will even work or not. We are simply ignorant of all the variables.

In 1871, Helmuth Von Moltke, in an essay on military strategy, wrote, “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces.”5 Over the years, Moltke’s words have been shortened to say “no plans survive first contact.” Or as Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get hit for the first time.”6

How many times have you planned to do something only to be hit with something unexpected?Life is an amazing curve ball pitcher. What happened to your plans? The Bible states, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth?” In other words, you don’t know what you’ll encounter in the next ten minutes, let alone the next day! (This should teach us to plan with God in the mix, but warn us about procrastination, too. Indecision can be worse than a poor decision.) Not only do we possess limited knowledge, we also possess limited time.

You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. (4:14b)

The second problem with planning without God is we possess limited time. James uses a beautiful metaphor of a wisp of vapor (or puff of smoke, a mist) to illustrate the brevity of life.

Have you ever watched the early morning mist hover over the surface of a pond? A few days ago, I went to one of my favorite spots for some quiet time with God. (If you don’t have a spot; I encourage you to find one.) I parked with my truck facing a pond; I cherish. It was early, so the mist was rising from the waters. Some vapors stretched ten to twelve feet in the air before vanishing and some strands disappeared inches from the surface of the pond. James 4:14 came to my mind. At that moment, it reminded me of the brevity of life. Some live long lives, stretching many years, but others live brief lives, only traveling a short distance from their birth. All lives are brief compared to eternity. I turned my attention from the pond for about five minutes to gather my Bible and journal. Then I walked toward the sacred spot, where I planned to sit and listen for God’s voice. I noticed the mist dissipating. All the wisps of fog were vanishing.

No one lives forever.

In Psalm 90:10-12, a prayer attributed to Moses, the Bible states,

As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, Or if due to strength, eighty years, Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; For soon it is gone and we fly away. Who understands the power of Your anger And Your fury, according to the fear that is due You? So teach us to number our days, That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.

I’m not mentioning this point to depress anyone, but to sober us from the delusion that we have all the time in the world. We possess limited time. Therefore, let us not waste it wandering around on self-engrossed endeavors. Let us seek God’s will for our lives! Jesus taught us to pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven” for a reason. You have a work to accomplish for God on this earth.

The type of planning expressed in James 4:13 is wrong because it is presumptuous. Another word for being presumptuous is arrogant. Who are we to make plans without consulting God? This is what James declares in verses 16-17. He writes, “But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil” (4:16). Godless planning is sin, because it is prideful and arrogant. It is evil.

James continues, “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him is sin” (4:17). You miss the mark when you leave God out of your planning. Again, God is not against planning, but He is against being left out of your plans. We must include God’s will in all our plans. It takes total surrender to God’s providential guidance to succeed in the Christian life.

How do I do that? James answers this question in verse fifteen. The opposite of godless planning is godly planning.

The Solution of Godly Planning (4:15)

Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that. (4:15).

The key to success is submitting to God’s providence. Providence is God’s sovereign actions throughout history. James alludes to providence with including the phrase “If the Lord wills…” in our planning. We ought to include this principle. Douglas J. Moo writes, “What James encourages is not the constant verbalization of the formula If it is the Lord’s will, which can easily become glib and meaningless, but a sincere appreciation of God’s control of affairs and of his specific will for us.”7 God’s control over the affairs of man brings an important question to mind.

If God is sovereign, do our plans matter? Yes. How? Although it is an intellectual mystery, the Bible teaches that humanity is free, but determined. I’ve tried to understand this principle, but I don’t have the brainpower. I simply receive what the Word of God says by faith and accept it as truth.

In Proverbs 16, God reveals this puzzling truth about being free and determined. [Turn to Proverbs 16.] The Bible states, “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD”(Proverbs 16:1). Did you see it? We have plans, but God controls things, too. Let’s look further. In verse nine, the Bible states, “The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:3). I can’t explain it, maybe others can, but somehow God takes our plans and actions, and works His sovereign plan out. There is nothing wrong with having a solid plan, but we must leave room for God to direct our footsteps. This last verse has special significance for me, because God used it at a pivotal junction in my life.

In 2019, I was pastoring in my hometown. The church was doing relatively well, but I experienced what I call a “holy discontentment.” I was literally at home, but something wasn’t quite right. I felt “out of place.” My wife and I both sensed God moving us from the church, but we didn’t know where we were to go.

We agreed to not make a hasty decision and thought it best to give it six months. We asked some trusted friends to unite with us in prayer. If it was time to leave, we would go. If not, God would satisfy and remove the “holy discontentment.” We committed our lives to God.

Months passed. Still, this lingering feeling of being out of place plagued us. It made little sense to either of us. So, I did what I do best. I tried to figure God’s plan out ahead of time. (I’m not sure why I default to this mindset, because my track record of figuring God out is not impressive.) I was teaching part-time at a private school, so I assumed I would transition to a full-time position. I wasn’t alone. My wife vocalized this transition into Christian education, too. Easy peasy. We had figured it out!

Until the door closed at that school.

After I attended a meeting that I assumed would lead to full-time employment, I realized God was not moving me in that direction. Well, I thought I guess that settled it. I was to stay at the church. It made sense to me, but I was still experiencing that “holy discontentment.” As I drove to meet my wife at her Nanny’s home, I wrestled with my thoughts.

When I arrived, I told her that the door closed at the academy. As we were heading home, my wife mentioned another school. I don’t think either of us were considering employment opportunities at that point, only we knew we wanted our kids to have a biblical worldview education and without the teaching position at the former school, we couldn’t afford our kids’ tuition. So, we made a impromptu visit to First Academy on our way home.

In short, that impromptu visit turned into a job opportunity. The Lord led me into the office of a School Director wanting to hire a full-time Bible teacher. She had actually interviewed other candidates, but sensed the Lord telling her to wait. The amazing thing was six months had passed from when my wife and I prayed. We had a plan, but God directed our steps. (I think it would be amiss if I didn’t say that a very similar set of events led me to Morningside Baptist Church.)

Returning to Proverbs 16, we find a verse that parallels James 4:15. Proverbs 16:3 states, “Commit your works to the LORD and your plans will be established.” Some mistakenly interpret this verse as telling God your plans first and then He’ll make it happen then. That is not at all what this verse means.

Notices it states commit your works (or deeds) to the LORD. This word commit means to roll over onto. This means decide to “roll over” your actions onto the Lord. Determine to follow God in the obvious. Do what you know to do and God will guide you along the way.

Another story from my journey as a pastor will illustrate my point. I went to my pastor and expressed I felt it was time for me to pastor a church. I’d served as an Associate Pastor for two to three years and as a Youth Pastor two to three years before that, but I was green as Kermit the Frog. It scared me to even voice the desire to pastor, because I wasn’t confident that I was ready.

When I finally choked out the words, my pastor smiled. He must have sensed my discomfort. Then he shared a powerful illustration that helped me.

He said, “Kevin, when you drive at night, can you see ten miles done the road?”

“No.”

“How then do you find your way home in the dark?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer, afraid the obvious answer was wrong.

He said, “You find your way home by following your headlights. If you ask God for guidance, then trust Him to provide the light for your next decision. The fundamental way God provides light is through His Word. Follow that light.”

It was simple. All I had to do was focus on performing the task at hand in a godly manner. I needed to follow the light given. Simple, but not always easy.

To bring this full circle, it’s okay to plan for the future, but we must constantly follow the light we receive. It may take us in a path we didn’t foresee, but trust God (or commit to Him your care) and you’ll always be on the right path. However, I must warn you that God delights in the scenic route.

Before I finish, I want to share a quote from Grant R. Osborne. He writes,

All our actions (“do this or that”) must be placed in his hands. So in all of our detailed planning (which we need to do), we must pray for God’s guidance and will, following the Gethsemane prayer (Mark 14:36). “yet not what I will, but what you will.” Total surrender to God’s providential will is the key to success.8

This is our Father’s world, and He knows best. We must trust him. Let us not live as “practical atheists” and neglect our Father’s perfect will for our lives. We must seek God in prayer, fasting, reading and studying the Bibles. God promises to guide us.

The Gospel in James 4:13-17

We must not only plan for the here and now, but we must plan for eternity. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus shared a potent parable. The Bible states,

And He told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man was very productive. “And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. ‘And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.” ’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ “So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21)

This parable is primarily is a warning against covetousness, but in it we see the foolish mistake of godless planning. The man didn’t know what was to happen. He had limited knowledge. He thought he had more time, but his time was limited too. The most important plans you can make involve your eternity.

The Apostle Paul summarized the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. He writes,

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,

The Bible plainly states, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). Have you made plans for eternity?

Works Cited

1https://bible.org/illustration/one-legged-missionary

2(W. Wiersbe, Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching and Preachers, 243.)

3Grant R. Osborne, James:Verse by Verse, (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA, 2019), 136.

4Grant R. Osborne, James:Verse by Verse, (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA, 2019), 137.

5Unknown, https://quoteinvestigator.com/2021/05/04/no-plan/.

6Ibid, “no plan.”

7Douglas J. Moo, TNTC: James: Revised Edition Vol. 16 (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 2015), 199.

8Grant R. Osborne, James: Verse by Verse,139.

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