Who is in Control?
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.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin. _ James 4:13-17
“Has anyone tried unplugging 2020 and plugging it in again to see if that works?”
The above and other similar jokes are all over the internet as people try to make sense of the unusual time we live in. There is a sense in which people feel that things are not right. And the reason things are not right, at least at the core, is because we have no control over what is going on. There is a clear feeling that life is happening to us, instead of us making life what we want it to be.
In this section, James teaches that people ought always to live as though they do not have control. He wants the proud to acknowledge that in fact only God is in control, that they do not have determinative power over the future or future circumstances. He underlines that in the grand scheme of existence on earth, humans are nothing more than a vapour that comes and goes. He is not saying humans are insignificant. Rather, when it comes to talking about tomorrow, humans are so uncertain that he compares them to a vapour that quickly vanishes.
Considering this, the course of action James recommends is to acknowledge God. Notice he does not say stop making plans for tomorrow. The fact that God is in control, and that you do not know what will happen tomorrow, is not an encouragement to be fatalistic and lazy. Rather, in all the planning, acknowledge God. Consider that God has plans, and his plans might not match up with yours. You might have a plan to drive your car in the morning, but God might have a plan to work on your patience by giving you some car trouble.
For God’s people, there is an extra implication embedded in this reality. If God is in control, and we are not, then how we respond when God has put His plan into action and put aside ours says a lot about our maturity. If you respond to a plan going bad like it all depended on you, something is wrong. If you respond to external circumstances that affect you unfavourably as though God is not in control, something is terribly wrong. We must remember that we do not believe in fate; we believe in God. And God has revealed Himself to us to be generous, kind, loving and gracious to His people. When He has put into action His plan, it is the best thing that could have happened to us.
Scholars have long tried to find key themes in James’ letter. The one theme that is abundantly clear is that James wants his readers to move from theory in to practice. Repeatedly he says, “you know this, so then act in light of what you know” (Jas 1:2-3, 19; 2:12; 3:1). In a similar way here in verse 17 he summarizes neatly; if you know what the right thing is, then do it. This is an encouragement from James to not live like there is no God. To acknowledge him in all you do. To leave space for His plans not matching up with yours. And to respond well when he does what is pleasing to Him, knowing that He is good.