Because God Owns Tomorrow (James 4:15-17)
Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. —James 4:15-17
This is one of the most practical verses in the Bible. James is filling our basic, everyday experiences with a robust theological understanding of reality. And he doesn’t just establish the truth—he shows us what it looks like. He tells us what to say—how to think about the in-the-moment planning we do all the time.
Building on verses 13–14, James explains that because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring we should not act presumptuously as if we do. Because we are mere vapors—creatures—we ought to factor in the creaturely implications of how the future works. In a word, the future is out of our hands. And when we make plans about what we don’t know, we should qualify our speech with a recognition that God is the ruler of reality, not ourselves.
Now, to be clear, there is a way to do this that is useless. “If the Lord wills” can become wasted words in cultures where it’s said a lot, though it doesn’t have to be. James is less concerned with what we actually say and more concerned with the posture of our hearts. We qualify all our plans according to the Father’s will because we know deep in our souls that we truly are not in command of tomorrow. We plan and prepare and say, through the whole process, “Father, it is yours” and “God, if you will” and “Do what seems good to you!”
As James goes on to say in verse 16, to not think this way is to be arrogant. It is to boast, however subtle and unstated it may be. And to really drive home the point, James says that if we walk away from his words here and don’t apply the truth then we are guilty of sin (James 4:17; see James 1:22). What an important passage of Scripture!—theologically dense, immensely practical, obedience is on the line.
So we don’t rule tomorrow. We get that deep down. Everyone does. And therefore, when we make plans, we recognize that God is in control. In one way or another, broader culture has categories for reality being out of our hands. Every plan ever made has a qualifier that things may completely crumble. But the question is, what difference does the qualifier make for Christians? What does it mean for a Christian to know that tomorrow is in God’s hands?
It has everything to do with who we know God to be. He is our God, our Father in Jesus Christ. He is not a distant dictator. He is not apathetic to our good. On the contrary, his command of the future is absolutely targeted at our good. His rule of history is for the purpose of his glory in the everlasting good of his people, in and because of Jesus Christ. Which means, we don’t merely make plans and think, almost despairingly, “Well, God, if you will, we’ll see.” No. We make plans and bow our hearts to God and “If the Lord wills” is to say,
Father, you rule reality, not me. This is my plan but you are in control, and I trust that whatever the outcome, your sovereign will is always aimed at my good because of Jesus Christ. So according to him, because of your grace in his cross and resurrection, do what you will and give me the faith to trust you.