I’m a great believer in planning. Indeed, there is Biblical precedent for planning. According to the Book of Proverbs, it is wise to plan: “Plan carefully what you do and whatever you do will turn out right” (Prov 4.26 GNB).
I’m a great believer in long-term planning. As a result, every June I buy an ‘academic’ diary, which runs for eighteen months, from the July of one year to the December of the following year. Notice, I say every July. This means that always I am able to look at the very least six months ahead, and for most of the year a good deal longer. This was necessary when I was minister of a local church – weddings and special services of one kind or another always needed to be diarised ahead. Strange as it may seem, even in ‘retirement’ I find I need to look ahead – I already have three engagements for 2021.
But as the current lockdown illustrates, there are limits to planning. So much has had to be cancelled: my visit to our eldest son in Vancouver; a special lunch in the Athenaeum and a formal dinner at Madingley Hall; a garden party and a Cambridge reunion; a performance of Oliver with a grandchild in the star role, a guitar recital by invitation of the Vietnamese ambassador; and a swathe of concerts at a local festival; doctor’s and dental appointments; preaching and teaching engagements; and of course the usual round of Rotary breakfasts and Mencap lunches. Goodness knows, how many more engagements will be cancelled! This was the context in which I read James’ warnings to a group of merchants in the churches to which he was writing:
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money’. Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that’. As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil” (James 4.13-16).
I’m reminded of Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12.16-20) where as a result of a bumper harvest a farmer made plans to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to store his corn and all his other goods. But God said to him: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you”.
So does this mean that there is no place for financial planning? No, James is not condemning the first-century equivalent of pensions and ISAs. Rather, he is speaking out any kind of future planning which stems from human arrogance in our ability to determine the course of events. There is nothing wrong with planning, provided it is ‘in pencil’, provided there is a recognition that ultimately our lives are in God’s hands.
As we have discovered during this coronavirus pandemic, all of us – and not just those over seventy years of age – are vulnerable. In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, we are “nothing but a wisp of fog, catching a brief bit of sun before disappearing” (The Message). Life is provisional; only death is certain.
Therefore, when we plan, we are to say to ourselves “If the Lord wills”. Notice, my addition of the words ‘to ourselves’. I cannot stand the thoughtless glibness of those who in almost every other sentence insert the expression ‘the Lord willing’. What James has in mind is not the use of a set phrase but the adoption of the principle that whatever plans we make, God has the last word. Or as Douglas Moo has written in his Pillar Commentary:
This world is not a closed system; what appears to our senses to be the totality of existence is in fact only a part of the whole. This life cannot properly be understood without considering the spiritual realm that impinges on and ultimately determines the material realm in which we live day to day.
This is not fatalism – it is not the same as Muslims peppering their conversation with the expression ‘inshallah’. Nor is it the same as people in the ancient world saying ‘the gods willing’. No, James says ‘the Lord willing’. I think that it is highly likely that James has in mind “the Lord Jesus Christ” (1,1; 2.1; see also 5.7, 8) although I recognise that elsewhere in his letter the term ‘the Lord’ can refer to “the Lord and Father” (3.9). However, if the reference in 4.15 is to God the Father, then we need to remember that he is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We can happily entrust our plans to him for we know that in spite of the coronavirus and “the sufferings of this present time” (Rom 8.18) God’s ultimate purposes for this world are for our good (Rom 8.28).
In practical terms at this time of the coronavirus pandemic, we need to learn to sit lightly to our diaries. It is not easy. Indeed, it can be frustrating and painful (just think of the brides whose weddings have had to be cancelled!). However, ultimately “God is faithful” (1 Cor 1.9)– he is to be trusted, whatever. Or to return to the Book of Proverbs: “we may make our plans, but God has the last word” (Prov 16.1 GNB).