On Saturday, as we dressed for our third funeral in as many weeks, Nancy, my wife, said to me, “We’re dressing in back a little too often lately.” Indeed. Three funerals in three weeks even for a couple hovering around sixty years of age seems a bit much. It has me thinking a lot lately of those words in James 4:13-17 where that concept of life as a vapor appears in the writer’s plea for a certain kind of attitude shaping all of life.
Essentially James warns us about the folly of a certain kind of talk – “Come now you who say” (v. 13, emphasis added) – that talks big about the future, immediate and distant. He describes it in terms of saying things like “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit” (v. 13). It’s not the planning James objects to; it’s the arrogance that presumes certain outcomes he has a problem with (v. 16). He probably has Proverbs 27:1 in the back of his mind: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.”
He objects for three reasons. First, boasting ignores the uncertainty of life (v. 14). Life is a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. The word for vapor in Greek is atmis from where we get the English atmosphere. What figure could better communicate the uncertainty of life? Nobody has any gilt edge guarantees about what tomorrow may bring. We number our lives in terms of years each birthday celebration, but God tells us in Psalm 90:12 “Lord, teach us to number our days aright” (emphasis added).
Second, boasting denies the sovereignty of God (v. 15). Here James describes how we ought to talk in all our planning, personal or business: “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” Perhaps James has another proverb in view: “There are many plans in a man’s heart, nevertheless the Lord’s counsel – that will stand” (19:21). A well-placed, meaningful “If the Lord wills” that prefaces all our dreams for the future communicates intentional dependence upon God for the outcome in anything we endeavor and confidence that His purposes shall prevail.
Third, boasting constitutes the epitome of evil (vv. 16-17). James minces no words here: “All such boasting is evil” (v.16). The word evil is pornea from where we get pornographic. In other words it is obscene in God’s eyes when we make grandiose plans probably born of greed (notice the emphasis on buy and sell and make a profit in v. 13) that take no account of God in the process. That he calls plainly “sin” in v. 14.
Tomorrow I mark the seventh anniversary of my surgery on my tongue and neck and the joy of that many years cancer-free. On April 29 we hope to dedicate a new church building to the glory of God. That God would give me any additional years of service and that He would be pleased to let us have decades of prosperous ministry to come in our facility at 872 Maitland Avenue, and everything else we presume upon Him for the future, must come with the qualifier if the Lord wills, so that we might avoid evil boasting and temporal arrogance, sins that greatly offend Him.