“Listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’.” (James 4: 13-15)
I wonder how many people could have envisaged the current COVID crisis when they made their New Year’s resolutions or plans at the end of last year. I certainly didn’t. Like most people I thought about holidays, and my wife and I had started looking at options for a Spring break. Then suddenly everything changed and any plans were gone.
The words of James sum-up a lot of people’s thinking before the current crisis. Work hard, play hard. Make life work for you, be confident, and get your dreams. Businessmen will have made their vision statements, set their goals, and probably have been on the way to achieving them. Just the same as the people James describes. James talks about businessmen but this is more than just business or making money. It’s about living for the moment, living for a comfortable life, thinking only of myself and those close to me, a disregard for those for whom life is tough. I recognise myself in some of these attitudes.
The problem? It left God out of their thinking. Everything would carry on as it is now, there’s no need to think about God. But many are now learning the hard way as their businesses struggle to even survive, jobs are lost, and tragically people die. “You do not even know what will happen tomorrow”.
But there’s another problem with the attitude James describes – it doesn’t actually satisfy us. “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes”. Nothing lasts. Just like the morning mist on a summer day, the sun rises and the imposing mist goes – and by late morning we’ve forgotten it was even there. I work hard and get to go on a holiday of a lifetime, but I have to come back to the daily routine. I get a new phone or something else that I’ve wanted, but the satisfaction only lasts a short while. And the years go by so quickly – as I look in the mirror I see an old man staring back at me that I don’t want to recognise. Nothing lasts. Nothing really satisfies. The Bible sums it up by saying its “meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes). Imagine trying to catch the wind!
The current crisis has made us all re-evaluate our priorities. A recent YouGov poll said that only 9% of Brits want life to return to normal after the coronavirus outbreak is over. People have noticed significant changes – cleaner air, more wildlife, stronger communities. People are valuing the basics of life much more. That’s really good and hopefully people will remember those values as time goes by. But we also need to re-evaluate life itself. What are we living for? Where is it all going?
James helps point us in the right direction when he says, “Instead you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’.” As I read those words I often fail to realise how liberating they are. On the face of it they sound somewhat resigned. But that misses the point.
None of us can control our tomorrows. At the best we can plan and hope. James is simply saying that we can put all of life into God’s hands – into the hands of the One who can control tomorrow. Instead of trying to work it all out for ourselves – and finding it doesn’t satisfy at best, and at worst find it all falls apart – we can trust it all to God. “If it is the Lord’s will” – that just means we leave it in His hands. That’s actually liberating. Instead of “chasing after the wind” I can trust that God knows it all, sees everything that is happening, and has my best interests at heart. And ultimately after this short life is over I am safe eternally because of what Jesus did for me.
And when I submit my life to God by trusting in Jesus, I find the satisfaction that so often eludes me in the rest of life. Being a Christian doesn’t mean I have to become dull and boring! Jesus put it like this: “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full”. Life is no longer just about me and my selfish dreams. I can live life with a new purpose.
Is James just speaking to people who have never become Christians? In fact he writes to those he calls “brothers and sisters” – in other words people who had become Christians. And as we reflect on James’ words, they are as applicable to Christians as to anyone else. Maybe the current restrictions have exposed some of what I’m really living for? Maybe I've taken God for granted?
It’s been famously said that no-one will say on their death bed: “I wish I had spent a few more hours at work”. The current restrictions are pretty frustrating for everyone, but they give us a chance to re-evaluate what’s important in life. Most importantly, we need to re-evaluate what life is about and put it all in God’s hands. And then our tomorrow is safe.
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®