Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil. Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. (James 4:13-17, NLT)
In this final section of chapter 4, James addresses yet another issue that is relevant to our contemporary Western culture. One of the fine lines we walk in our pursuit of the “bottom line” is the distinction between planning and presumption. To be clear, the Bible is consistent about the importance of planning ahead. Both the Old and New Testaments advocate wisdom, forethought, preparation and prudence. So we are not excused to be negligent in our stewardship of our lives and resources. James’ contention comes when planning turns prideful, leading to presumptuous behavior that forgets the transitory nature of life.
I have a friend who was on a flight on September 11, 2001, or what we now call “9-11.” Because he was in the air when the first world trade tower was struck, air traffic control called for all flights to land immediately at the nearest airport, which grounded my friend about ten hours from home. Rental cars were quickly booked, so by the time he actually landed there weren’t any cars available. He spent the next three days trying to figure out a way to get home.
The point of that story is the point that James wants us to learn. Our plans for the future need to be made with the consideration that we can never be 100% certain what might unfold before us in a given moment that is beyond our control.
James opens the passage by describing the four primary areas of presumption that we need to think through. The first is time (“today or tomorrow;” “spend a year”), the second is location (“a certain town”), the third is objectives (“we will do business”), and the fourth is outcomes (“we will make a profit”). Again, James is not writing against planning, and neither does he condemn making money or becoming prosperous. His issue is the attitude shift from making humble assumptions to making boastful presumptions.
In the back of our minds we know that life is “like a morning fog” that appears and then fades away. But James advocates a mentality that lives is the constant awareness that every day should be lived as though it could be our last. This truth doesn’t mean that we live in a state of paralysis, rather that we see our lives as part of a larger design that considers God’s will.
James is not encouraging the constant recitation of “Lord willin’ an the creeks don’t rise,” for adding glib and meaningless formulas will not keep us from presumptive behavior. What he intends is for us to have a sincere appreciation for God’s control of life’s events and his overarching design.
Some will view verse 17 as a fragment that is unrelated to the context of the paragraph. Granted, sins of omission are as serious as sins of commission. But in the present context the verse should be read as a final exhortation: “Now that you know what is right, do it!”