Covid has made us all very aware of the limitations of planning. Over the last two years so many things have been arranged only for them to be cancelled because of a fresh outbreak of Covid. There have been times when diaries have almost become irrelevant. Although I don’t believe Covid can be laid at God’s door, nonetheless Covid has been a reminder that nothing can be set in stone and that God may have other ideas for the future. For although the Bible makes it clear that it is wise to plan: “Plan carefully what you do and whatever you do will turn out right” (Prov 4.26 GNB), at the same time we need to recognise that “we may make our plans, but God has the last word” (Prov 16.1 GNB: see also Prov 19.21).
In this regard the words of James come to mind:
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 little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that’. (Jas 4.13-15)
As James goes on to make clear, James is not against planning per se, but rather the hubris of those who fail to realise that ultimately all of life is in God’s hands: “As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil” (Jas 4.16); or as the GNB puts it “you are proud, and you boast; all such boasting is wrong”.
As has often been pointed out, the words “if the Lord wills” is reminiscent of phrases such as “if God wills” (in Latin, Deo volente, from which we get the abbreviation ‘D.V.’) or “if the gods will” often to be sound in the secular literature of antiquity, phrases which had little more substance than our modern English expression ‘touch wood’. However, for James this was no shallow pious expression. Significantly, he ‘Christianizes’ the expression as speaks of “the Lord” – this could either be the Lord Jesus (see Jas 1.1; 2.1; 5.7,8) or of God the Father (see Jas 3.9; 4.10; 5.4,10).
However, precisely because God is sovereign, as Scott McKnight notes, “There ought to be contingency in all plans” (The Letter of James). As Jesus taught us to pray, we are to say “your will be done” (Matt 6.10). In this regard I find it significant that when Paul spoke of his travel plans to the church at Corinth, he wrote: “But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills” (1 Cor 4.19); and “I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits” (1 Cor 16.7).
James emphasises in particular the fragility and consequent unpredictability of life: “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (4.15). The parable of the Rich Fool comes to mind who after a bumper harvest was confident of a comfortable retirement of “many years”, only for God to say, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you” (Luke 12.9-16-20). In our terms, a good pension boosted by a host of ISAs is not guarantee of longevity of life! What in practice does this mean? I like the suggestion that our focus should primarily be on the present: “Realizing the future is uncertain not only teaches us to trust in God, it helps us properly to value the present. To be obsessed with future plans may mark our failure to appreciate present blessings or our evasion of present duties” (J. Coutts, quoted by James Adamson, The Epistle of James). Above all, we need to recognise that at all times our lives are in the hands of God – and that ultimately this, and not our plans, which gives us security.