James 09: Planning for tomorrow

James 4:13-17

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

There are two types of people in the world: those who thrive with plans and those who love spontaneity. Out of curiosity, how many planners do we have in this place? You are my people. How about the spontaneous? Jesus loves you but I don’t get you. I am a planner. I thrive in an environment where everything is planned and work according to schedules. When I wake up every morning, I know what time I will go to work, when I will get my morning coffee, when I will have my dinner, and who I will meet, how long, where, and when. I am such a planner that I already have my sermon manuscripts for the next one and a half months ready on my drive. I was talking about this with the other CTC Indonesia trainers, and they looked at me like I was insane. Most pastors start preparing their sermons the week they have to preach. I even know some pastors who start preparing their sermons the day before they have to preach. I can’t do that. That would freak me out. If I do not know what I am going to preach at least a few weeks in advance, I will be constantly anxious. I thrive with plans. That’s why whenever I meet spontaneous people, they give me chills. Because they will most likely disturb my well-planned schedules. But can we agree that even those of you who are spontaneous still make plans? You might not have written down plans, but you have an idea of what you want to do and where to go. Everybody makes plans.

Tonight we are in the ninth sermon in our series on the book of James. As we have seen, the book of James is intensely practical. James is serious about connecting our Christian faith to our daily lives. James wants us to think, “If you really believed the gospel, if you really believed in what Jesus has done for you, what would that mean for how you live your daily life? How is your life different from those who do not believe the gospel?” It is easy to say with our mouths that we believe the gospel. But the question is, does our lives reflect our faith? True faith will always change how we live. If our lives are not affected by our faith, then our faith is fake. And in this passage, James is talking about an unbelievably mundane subject. He is talking about one of the most normal things we do, things we do so naturally, that is, we plan. And here is James’ point. There is a way to plan that is godly, and there is a way to plan that is evil. Our faith in God should affect the way we make plans. So, what James wants us to do is for us to look at our calendars. Look at our schedules. Look at our planning. We can know whether we serve God or ourselves by looking at how we plan for tomorrow. Let’s look at the passage together.

I have three points for my sermon: the problem with planning; how to plan; why it is important.



The problem with planning

James 4:13-14 – 13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.

On the surface, it seems like James is against strategic planning. There is this businessman who says, “I see a business opportunity in Chatswood. So, I am going to move to Chatswood, stay there for a year, and work on my business.” So this man has a business plan, a time frame, and a revenue target. And James says, “Who do you think you are to make such plans?” That’s what it seems like at first reading. But that can’t be right because the Bible commends planning. In the book of Proverbs, to make plans is wisdom, and to not make plans is foolishness. There is a famous saying, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” And that’s true. There was one time Jesus was talking to his disciples about the importance of planning. Jesus talked about a man who was building a tower, but that man didn’t do his budgeting properly before he started building. He did not realise he did not have enough money and resources to finish building the tower, and he was mocked by others. That’s foolishness and Jesus told his disciples not to do the same. So James can’t be saying that it is foolish to make plans. It is good to plan for our future. We can’t go anywhere without proper planning.

So, what is James saying then? James is against a particular way of planning. He is against the kind of planning that assumes we are in control of tomorrow. Look at the way this businessman makes his plans. He makes plans in such a way that he is certain what is going to happen tomorrow. It’s all about, “My plan, my way, my strength, my intelligence, my success.” There is no reference to God at all. He thinks he is in control of his future. And we do the same all the time, don’t we? Making plans is very natural for us. We don’t even think about it. It’s something that we do all the time. But James is asking, “In the way you plan, do you assume you are in control of tomorrow? Do you assume you know how things will turn out?” So, James is not against planning, but he is against the presumption that our planning is all that matters. He is against the whisper in our hearts that says, “I’ve done my research, I did all my homework, I’ve made the best plans I could, and now I am in control of my future.” We think that as long as we do our best in planning, as long as we do our strategizing diligently, we can control the outcome. And that is an illusion.

I know this goes directly against what our culture believes. Our culture tells us every day, “You can be whoever you want to be. You can do whatever you set your mind to do. As long as you work hard and you commit yourself to it, the sky is the limit. You are the master of your destiny.” Pretty much all the Disney’s movies communicate that. “Your future is in your hands. Your future is whatever you make of it. So, make it a good one.” But here is what’s interesting. There is a best-selling book by a non-Christian author, Malcolm Gladwell, called Outliers. And in that book, he argues that success is actually not under our control. The whole point of the book is to say, “Yes, hard work is important. Yes, good planning and strategy are crucial if you are to be a success. But those are only a small part of what contributed to success. For you to be successful, you have to be in the right circumstances. You have to be in the right place at the right time. Your social networks play a role. And you must have the opportunities. All these things have to line up or you are not a success.” Do you know what Gladwell is saying? He is saying that most of the ingredients for success are outside of our control. Many things contribute to success, and we are not in control of most of them. Our success and our failure is dependent on forces beyond our control. That’s what the book is saying, and it’s not even the Bible. So, James is saying, “If you believe you are in control, if you believe your future is whatever you make of it, you are not thinking clearly. You are delusional.” And James makes his point in several ways.

First, he says, “You do not know what tomorrow will bring.” Here are two truths about tomorrow: God knows and we don’t. If we are Christians, we know what’s going to happen in a million years. We will reign with Christ in the new heaven and earth for eternity. That’s certain. But we do not know what will happen tomorrow. God has not told us about it. We are in the dark. Let’s not talk about tomorrow. Let’s talk about today. I am not trying to scare you, but there is no guarantee that you will finish listening to this sermon. Anything could happen to any of us in the next one minute. Whether you are 60 or 16, your life could end at any time. I remember the day I was told I had leukemia. That same day, I did my morning run. I was fine. I was healthy. I did my blood check during the day, not expecting any bad news. And I was admitted to the hospital that very same night. All it took was a single phone call from my GP. Can any of us say, “That will never happen to me. I’ve planned my life so well, so I am future-proof”? No. None of us can control our future. The emergency room is full of people who have plans for tomorrow. The graveyard is full of people who had plans for their future.

And that’s the reason why a lot of times we are frustrated, isn’t it? That’s the reason we are disappointed. We plan our lives as if we are in control. We make plans as if we know what’s going to happen next. But life tells us again and again that we don’t. That’s why sometimes I feel sorry when I see people getting angry at people who work for the airline company when their plane gets delayed or cancelled. Have you been there? You see them raging their anger at the poor person who cannot do anything about the situation. I mean, there is a storm outside that makes it unsafe to fly. I can understand the frustration of a delayed flight, but I never understand what benefit there is to yell at the people who work for the airline company. It’s not like they are in charge of thunderstorms around the airport. But do you know why people do that? Because they think they are in control. They are arrogant. They think the universe revolves around them and their plans. It only takes bad weather to remind them that they are not in control. This also applies to some of you who had road rage again and again. You might have a control issue. Just saying.

Now, let me tell you why it is good that we don’t know about tomorrow. Because if we know that tomorrow will be good, we will become careless and presumptuous. But if we know that tomorrow will be bad, we will be afraid and fall into despair. Do you see? Knowing about tomorrow is the opposite of wisdom. It is precisely because we do not know what tomorrow will bring that helps us to plan responsibly. It keeps us humble and hopeful at the same time in our planning. But this is not our default view. Our default view is that once we plan something, it will happen. James wakes us up from our illusion by reminding us, “No, you don’t. You don’t know what will happen tomorrow.” So, we need to factor that into our planning. That’s the first.

Second, James says, What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” I love James. He does not withhold punches. He is saying, “You think you are important? You think you are somebody? You think you are in control? Think again. You are just a mist that is here for a second and then disappears.” The image is like when you go outside in the winter morning and you speak to someone, you can see your breath, a little puff of mist right on your breath for a second, and then it’s gone. James says, “That’s you.” Ouch. There is nothing more fleeting and nothing more brief than that. Here is the point. As we make plans for our lives, there is a danger that we think we are the centre of it all. We think we are the main characters of our lives. One commentary I read puts it this way. “If your life is an autobiography, what would be the title of the book?” A couple of months ago, I was chatting to Josh Tie about the reflection I wrote that I would share with the leaders. And he said, “Potential book one day, titled, ‘Memoirs of a pastor: Through trials and tribulations.’” I replied, “Hahaha too fancy. More like, “The Memoirs of a frustrated pastor.’” If your life is an autobiography, what would be its title? Seize the moment? Against all odds? From rags to riches? From dream to reality? My life, my rules? Those are some of the famous autobiography titles I found on the internet. Here is what James suggests. When you draw together all your greatest moments and all your greatest accomplishments, here is what should be the title of your autobiography. “Mist. Vapour. Steam. Fog. Fleeting.” And then add the tagline, “Here today and gone tomorrow.”

Because here is the reality about all of us. It doesn’t matter who we are, it doesn’t matter what we do, we will be forgotten. Nothing we do will make a lasting difference. In the light of human history, our life is insignificant. No one will remember us. We might live a very good successful life for 80 years and we might accomplish many great things in those years. But pretty soon people will not remember our name anymore. How do I know? Let me ask you a simple question. How many of you know the names of your great-grandparents? What do you remember about them? The truth is no one will remember us in 100 years. Right now, if you are a young parent and you have children running around your living room, you feel that you have time on your side. Do you not? Yet, your family is a mist. It is going to vanish. A day will come when one of you will see every other person in that living room in the grave. And no amount of strategic planning, no amount of hard work, no amount of risk management will stop it. No plastic surgery, no liposuction, no keto diet, no workout will be able to prevent it. Our life is just a mist that is only here for a little time. Once again, James is not against planning. But if we make our plans as if we are someone significant and everyone else has to follow our plans, we are fooling ourselves. Then the question is, how should we plan?



How to plan

James 4:15 – Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

I am going to teach you one cool famous Latin word. It is, ‘Deo Volente’, which means ‘God willing.’ So, if anyone asks you tomorrow what you learned at church today, you can tell them, ‘Deo Volente.’ James says, “Rather than say I will do this and that tomorrow and this and that will happen,” say instead, “If the Lord wills, I will live and do this and that.” But what does it mean to say, “If the Lord wills”? Does it mean we have to use ‘if the Lord wills’ every time we talk about our plans? “Where are we eating tonight after church?” “We will go to Lestari, Deo Volente.” “What are you going to do tomorrow?” “I am going to go to work, Deo Volente.” “Where are you planning to go for holiday?” “I am planning to go to Japan, Deo Volente.” Don’t do that. It is annoying. I think it’s good if we say it here and there to remind ourselves that we are not in control, but if we say it all the time, it becomes meaningless Christian jargon. What James is doing is he is not giving us the formula to safeguard our plans. It’s not as if when we add ‘Deo Volente’ at the end of our planning God will give his stamp of approval on our plans.

I love what Sam Storms writes. “‘If the Lord wills’ isn’t just some insincere, cheesy, religious cliché. It is a worldview, a theology of life, an attitude that submits humbly to the sovereign, providential purpose of God.” In other words, it is the attitude that says, “God, these are my plans. But I am putting my plans in your hands. I subject my plans to your will. Because you know more than I know. You know the future and I don’t. And you and your plans are what’s important. So, I am surrendering my plans to your sovereign purposes.” It is a posture of dependence. We are acknowledging our limitations and God’s sovereignty. We confess that everything we do, everything we accomplish, everything we attain in this life, is ultimately under the sovereignty of God. We are not in charge; God is. We are not in control; God is. We are not the master of our lives; God is. We must remind ourselves that in whatever situation we are in, the only reason we are standing there is by the grace of God. We must say to ourselves, “The fact that I’m alive, the fact that I can think, the fact that I can make plans, it is only because God is gracious to me. I can’t do anything without God. I am fully dependent on him in everything I do.” This needs to be our mindset when we make plans. The sad reality is when it comes to planning, we can so quickly become atheists. All our planning revolves around us and leaves God out of the equation. We plan just like the non-Christians would plan. Our calendars look exactly like theirs. And if our planning is no different to the non-Christians, what does it say about our faith in Jesus? This is James’ point. He is asking us, “Is your calendar saved? Is your planning saved?” Because our calendars will tell us whether God is there or not. Do we plan with God in mind? Or do we plan our lives without the inclusion of God?

Pastor Tony Evans gave a wonderful illustration. Does anyone like to do jigsaw puzzles? I know some people enjoy doing it as a stress reliever. That does not work for me. I do not enjoy jigsaw puzzles. Especially those with a few thousand pieces. It’s not a stress reliever; it is a stress maker for me. Pastor Tony’s daughter loved puzzles when she was a child growing up. One of the things she would always want for Christmas would be a puzzle. The older she got the more complex puzzles she got as a present. At one Christmas, her dad got her a one-thousand-piece puzzle. She took the puzzle full of joy to her bedroom to meet the challenge of putting the puzzle together. But after a while, she came back ticked off at her dad, wanting to know why he had bought her this puzzle. Her dad asked, “What’s the problem?” And her answer was classic. She said, “This puzzle has too many pieces.” And listen. That’s true of our lives as well. Our lives have too many pieces. I don’t care how smart we are, I don’t care how careful we are, I don’t care how diligent we are, we can’t put it together. There are too many variables outside of our control. But there is one person who can put the puzzle together. The puzzle maker who made that puzzle can put the puzzle together. The puzzle maker put a picture of the completed puzzle to let us know that he knows how to put the puzzle together. And our role is to consult the puzzle maker. He knows how to fit all the pieces together that we don’t. Listen. To make plans in our lives without God is like putting a million-piece puzzle together without the complete picture of the puzzle. It is not going to work.

So, how then should we plan? Does it mean we shouldn’t plan and just leave everything to God? After all, God is sovereign, right? He would take care of every little piece and put the puzzle together. But that’s not what James and the rest of the Bible are teaching. All of us assume either our choices matter, and our future is open and not fixed, or we believe everything is fixed and determined, and therefore, nothing we do matters. It’s either or. Most of us think, “Well, if God is sovereign, if everything is fixed, then why do I need to plan? It doesn’t matter whether I plan or not. What God has determined will happen. What I do does not matter.” Either that or the future is whatever we make of it. The future is an open adventure book where we get to decide what will happen tomorrow. We think it’s either or, but the Bible says both. We are both absolutely free and absolutely determined at the same time.

Let me give you one example from the Bible. Apostle Paul was in a boat with soldiers and sailors in the Mediterranean heading to Rome. There was a terrible storm that hit their ship. The storm was so bad that the men were afraid for their lives. And God came and spoke through an angel to Paul and said, “Paul, don’t be afraid. Though the storm is bad and you might lose the ship, no one in the boat will die. Not a single person will die on this journey. You will make it to Rome.” God told Paul that, and then Paul told everyone else. Yet the next day amid the storm when the sailors tried to abandon ship, Paul did not remain idle. He did not say, “It doesn’t really matter if the sailors escape or not. I could not care less. God has promised that I will make it to Rome so I will.” But Paul said to the captain, “If you let these sailors escape, we are going to die.” Wait. Hold on a second. Did not God promise they would make it to Rome without any death? Yes. But God’s promise presupposed that they would stay together.

Do you see? We often think, “Well if they are all going to die, then it’s not sure they’re all going to live. But if it’s absolutely sure they are all going to live, who cares how they act?” Either God is sovereign, or we are responsible. But the Bible says it’s not either or but both. The Bible teaches us that God is absolutely in control and that our choices absolutely matter. And I know what you are thinking right now. “Yos, it does not make any sense. I can’t put the two together.” And I don’t blame you. It is one of the mysteries of the Bible how these two truths work in harmony. But let me tell you why it is crucial we hold these two truths together. Unless we have these two truths together, we can’t plan wisely. We either say, “Everything is fixed. Nothing I do matters. I just can’t seem to make any difference.” So, we become passive and indifferent. We don’t care. We don’t plan. Or we say, “I can do it. I can make the future what I want to make it. I can be anything I want to be.” And we become extremely anxious. We melt down. We freak out. Why? Because we think, “It’s up to me. It depends on me. It all hinges on me,” and we can’t bear the pressure. We are taking God’s place, and we are totally unqualified for the job.

So, listen. If we are going to plan wisely, we need to know that our choices matter. There are consequences to them. Yet ultimately, we are not in control of what happens; God is. It means we have every incentive to plan as best as we can, but on the other hand, we can relax and not freak out because everything is under the control of God’s sovereignty who is working all things together for good. That’s the only way we can plan wisely. If we don’t hold these two truths together, we are going to be passive or we are going to be paralysed. If we are not utterly panicked at the thought of having full control of our lives and God has no control over our lives, we are not thinking straight. One small wrong decision could destroy our future forever. And if we think God is in absolute control and therefore we don’t have to plan, we are not going to get anything done. We will make a big mess of our lives. But the Bible teaches us both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. That’s what enables us to plan well and not freak out. Nothing is more practical than to believe we are absolutely responsible for our plans and God is absolutely in control at the same time.



Why it is important

James 4:16-17 – 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

James is very clear. When we leave God out of our planning, we boast in our arrogance. All such boasting is evil. What is boasting? A boast is how we got ourselves ready, how we got our confidence. And everyone has to boast in something. There is no such thing as not boasting. A boast is what we look to for confidence, strength, and validation. James is saying, “When you leave God out of your planning, do you know what you are boasting in? Do you know where you put your confidence in? You are boasting in yourself. You put your confidence in your plan. You put your security in your own strength and ability to control the future. And that is evil.” Why is it evil? Because when we put our confidence in ourselves, we assume God’s place. We forget that we are not God. We might not say that we are God with our mouths, but we plan as if we have all the power and the knowledge of God. Do you remember what happened to Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon? One day he walked out, and he looked over his kingdom and thought, “Look at all I have built. Look at how strong and capable I am. This is all me. I am the GOAT.” Babylon without a doubt was an impressive kingdom. But Nebuchadnezzar thought it was his hand that made it happen. He did not acknowledge God and give glory to God. He was boasting in himself. And God said to him, “You think you are the GOAT? Go and be a goat for seven years.” And just like that, Nebuchadnezzar lost his sanity and ate grass like a goat. God will not tolerate anyone who wants to take his rightful place.

Then James continues to say, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” A lot of times, we only think of sin as an active sin, an act of rebellion against what God has told us not to do. It is called a sin of commission. But there is another type of sin. It is called a sin of omission. It is a passive sin, where we choose not to do what God has told us to do. In other words, we don’t have to do something wrong to sin. All we have to do is to do nothing about what God has told us to do, and that’s a sin. James is saying, “If you know you should plan with God in mind, if you know you are not in control, but you plan as if you are in control of tomorrow, if you just simply go about your life, make plans, make schedules, and forget God, you are sinning.” Let me make it crystal clear. If we know we need to plan our lives with God at the heart of it and we don’t, we sin. God must be at the heart of all our plans, not just in case of emergency. So, planning is good. Planning is important. But we must not forget God in our planning. We don’t know about tomorrow, but God is clear on what must do today in obedience to him. And to not do that is a sin.

And this is crucial. Because throughout the Bible, there is one sin that continues to plague God’s people. There is one sin that is so massive, that is so huge, that is so natural for us that we commit it simply by going with the flow. We commit it simply by not doing anything. Do you know what that sin is? It is the sin of forgetting God. And you know this. There is nothing worse than being forgotten. Let me give you an example. We upload our sermons every week on YouTube. So, all my sermons are there for people to watch and comment on. Now and then, I received bad criticism from random people. Some wrote, “This is such a terrible sermon. This preacher is dumb and doesn’t know what he is talking about. Please study the text properly before you preach next time. What an awful sermon. Etc.” Those criticisms were harsh, and they were painful to read. But do you know what’s worse than harsh sermon criticism? It is to have no one listen to my sermons. Zero view and zero like. To be forgotten is much worse than being criticised. Because when you are forgotten, you are treated as a nobody, nothing. You are treated as a mist, a vapour. There is nothing worse than being forgotten, especially to be forgotten by someone you love. If someone you hardly know forgets to invite you to his birthday party, you don’t mind it. But if your best friend forgets to invite you to his birthday party, you immediately cross out his name from being your best friend. And that’s what we do to God when we make plans without him in the equation.

Listen to what God says in Jeremiah 2:32 – Can a virgin forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire? Yet my people have forgotten me days without number. I’ve done a lot of weddings throughout the years, and I’ve never seen a bride come down the aisle and suddenly say, “Oh no! I forgot to put my makeup on.” It has never happened, and it probably never will. Why? Because there is nothing more important for the bride than to be as beautiful as she can be on her wedding day. That’s why the bride wakes up at 3 in the morning to get her makeup done. Nothing is more important than that. And God says, “You remember things that are important to you. You would not forget it. But you do not remember me. I am not important to you.” We might think it is a small thing to forget God in our planning, but it is not. When we forget God, by definition, we are taking his place. Forgetting God is the root of every sin: pride and self-sufficiency. We want to be God for ourselves. We are acting as if we have the right to make all the decisions in our lives and have enough knowledge to know what’s going on and what will happen. To forget God is to assume God’s place in our lives and the world. No wonder we worry all the time. No wonder we can’t sleep at night. No wonder we are constantly on edge. Do you know why we worry? Because we assume we know what has to happen tomorrow. We know what has to happen in our lives. We know what has to happen in other people’s lives. But we don’t. We are taking God’s place without the knowledge God has. That’s forgetting God. Worry assumes we know when we don’t know.

So, that’s our problem. Our problem is we forget God all the time. And it is only right for God to forget us when we have forgotten him. But how can James tell us to remember God when we deserve to be forgotten by God? Here is what blows my mind. Listen to what God says in Isaiah 49:15 – Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Can you imagine a mother forgetting her nursing child? I can’t. But even if that’s possible, even if a mother may forget her child, God will never forget us. Even when we forget God, God has never forgotten us. This is the irony. We are the ones who need God, yet we forget him every day. God does not need us, yet he never for one second forgets us. But how? How can God remember us when we forget him? We have to read James chapter 4 backwards. All the things James chapter 4 says we shouldn’t do imply things we should do. And the only person who has done all the things we should do is Jesus. Jesus is the only person who lived with God at the heart of everything he did. Jesus is the only person who lived a life without any arrogance. Jesus is the only person who surrendered all his will to God’s will. Jesus is the only person who never forgot God.

On the night before the crucifixion, he prayed to God, “Father, if possible, I do not want to go to the cross. If there is any other way, if there is any other plan, let me out of here. But not my will but your will be done.” Jesus surrendered his life and lost control of his life. And at the cross, he yelled out, “My God, my God, why have you forgotten me?” Jesus is the only person who always remembered God, and yet he was forgotten by God. Jesus was ignored by the person who mattered the most to him. Why? Because he got the forgottenness that we deserve. Jesus was forgotten for us. Jesus lost control of his life and was forgotten at the cross so we could know that we will never be forgotten by God. Even when it seems like life is out of control, we can have the confidence that God has everything under control. This is the only way we can plan with God at the heart of our planning, and trust that God will take care of our tomorrow. We need to have the assurance that God will always remember us. And because God always remembers us, we can remember him constantly and plan accordingly. Let’s pray.



Discussion questions:

  1. What struck you the most from the sermon?
  2. When you make plans, which danger are you more prone towards? Thinking that you know tomorrow or you are the centre of life? How?
  3. Why is it important to believe that God is absolutely in control and that your choice absolutely matter when you make plans? What happens when you hold only to either or?
  4. How does the gospel enable you to plan for tomorrow?
  5. List out some practical ways to make plans with God at the heart of it.
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