James 4:13-17– James 5:1-3: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.’ – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire.”
In mid-September of this year Barbara and I took our first-born son to college. We had planned and coordinated our return from California to land at Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport (DFW) at the precise time that would allow us to get to an event being held that evening that we had promised to attend. It was a good-bye party for some dear friends, and we wanted very much to be there. We actually changed our flight so that we could get back in time. Everything was going great until we approached Dallas, and I noticed a lot of stormy weather out the window. Our pilot adeptly brought the plane in through the storms and landed on the tarmac at DFW. He came on the PA and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have some good news and bad news. The good news is we are on time; the bad news is that no planes have left this airport in the last two hours. Every gate is jammed, and we are going to have to sit on the runway for an hour.”
I turned to Barbara and said, “Two hours.”
And I was right. I’m no genius, but he said no planes had left for two hours and the flight schedules were behind two hours, so I knew it would be two hours before we got a gate. Every bone in my body was protesting. I was screaming internally with rage, but externally trying to be very nice and polite and pastor-like. But I was very upset. We had rearranged our plans, we had come home early, we were suppose to be somewhere. Now I was going to sit on the runway for two hours. My wife, who can read some things that I am thinking now and then, looked over at me and simply said, “Skip, heaven rules.”
I was a little upset that she had delivered a sermon to me with just two words (which is a lot pithier than I could ever do!). I was still protesting internally. I thought of all the letters I needed to write to the management of the airline to tell them how to better handle the situation. I was figuring out strategies like moving the planes at the gates out, letting ours come in and unload the passengers, then let the planes go back out. I had it all mapped out.
Forty-five minutes into our wait the air conditioning went off in the airplane, and I had something else to think about. The pilot came on again and said, “We don’t have any air conditioning, folks, and some of you have noticed that it’s a little hot. Just be patient, because a truck with a generator is on its way.” Again, I found myself thinking, “How in the world does this happen?” In place of all of my schemes and ideas about how to fix the airline, Barbara simply says, “Heaven rules.”
Who has control?
The issue for me was not just that we were delayed or were missing an event that we wanted to attend, it was that I don’t like to be out of control. I had two hours to think about not liking being out of control, and during that time I had thoughts like this: when I think I’m in control, I am actually very presumptuous, because if I think I am in control, I am not really in control. And when I am out of control, I think I ought to be in control. Either way of thinking is presumptuous of me.
Heaven rules. It’s a way of saying that God is in control and I am not. This is the Bible’s great teaching called providence. The English word providence comes from the Latin that means pro, beforehand, and video, to see. So it is to see or plan something beforehand. Charles Spurgeon said, “Fate is blind, but providence has eyes.” Providence is the great teaching of God’s Word that everything happens in order to accomplish God’s set purposes.
Most of us move from providence to presumption very easily. We are happy to say that God is in charge until saying God is in charge means something inconvenient for us, like taking a direction that we do not want to take. We try to take charge. We want control. That’s presumption. James shows us what this presumption is like and how to lean against it. Note three types of presumption in
The first way we move from providence to presumption is by forgetting how quickly life changes. “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.’ – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring,” says James. He is talking about someone setting out his or her plans for the coming year when no one even knows what will happen the next day.
We tend to claim providence for ourselves, saying that we have the ability to do the pro video, to see ahead. But how quickly life changes. The phone call comes that we did not expect. The boss summons you to her office. The report from the lab comes in. When we see how quickly things can change, presumption is rationally preposterous.
The second way we move from providence to presumption is by forgetting what we are. I call this purpose presumption. “What is your life?” James asks, for you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Before it was the content of tomorrow that is unknown, now James says that it is the very existence of tomorrow that is unknown.
James says three things in a row about this kind of presumption:
1. We’re insubstantial, just a mist. We can be seen through.
2. We are transient. We are here for just a little time. The early morning mist burns off quickly.
3. We are gone without a trace. We vanish.
If you say this sounds pessimistic or even fatalistic, it is not. It is biblical realism. This is what is actually true about our lives. The longer we live, the more that we see it is so. Realism is not being self-sufficient; realism is being dependent.
Third, we forget our position in relationship to God – we forget our dependence.
John Calvin had more robust views on this kind of presumption (as in fact he had in many things!). He said, “We read everywhere in Scriptures that the holy servants of God spoke unconditionally of future things.” They did not say, “If God wills, we do thus and so.” But then Calvin goes on to say, “But they had as a fixed principle in their minds, that they could do nothing without the permission of God.” They didn’t need to say it all the time, because they really deeply believed it. I wonder if we always really believe we can do nothing without the permission of God as we speak of our plans.
People who live by the fixed principle of God’s providence all their days are not presumptuous. They don’t forget how quickly life changes, that we are just a mist and how dependent we are. They live every day deliberately by the permission of God. It is a deliberate act of the mind and will to live every day by the permission of God.
This is a hard thing for some of us, maybe particularly for men, because some of us think it is weakness to release apparent control of our own lives and see even our hours and minutes belonging to God. But it is not a matter of weakness, it’s a matter of seeing where our true strength lies.
On what do you want to rest your tomorrows? On your ability to make happen what you wish or on the power of an infinitely strong, infinitely good and loving heavenly Father? When we take the reigns of life into our own hands, we forget our ignorance, our misty frailty and our dependence, and we plan our day or week or next year as if we were the lords of earth and time. Such presumption is the practice of practical atheism. No matter what we profess, no matter how much we say we believe in God, we confess with our lives what we really believe. When we live our lives as if God were not there, we forget Him and our place in time.
One great commentator, Alec Motyer, said this: “The years go in a straight line from eternity to eternity, and on that line we receive another day: neither by necessity, nor by mechanical law, nor by right, nor by courtesy of nature, but only by the covenant mercies of God.” We live by the covenant mercies of God. We live under the permission-giving of God, day by day. Many of us don’t have trouble saying that God was obviously in control of the beginning of time. And we don’t have any difficulty in imagining that God will be in control at the end of time. But everything in between is another question. Somehow it is as if God suspends His sovereign control and we act as if it all depends on us. We are practical atheists or, at best, we are deists who believe that God sets it all up, but then leaves it to us to manage it from here on out.
What we are really talking about here is the Bible’s deep and wonderful truth about God’s providence that is called concurrence. This is essentially the truth that God controls everything, but He does so with our cooperation, so that we participate in making decisions, in being agents of action, moving concurrently with God, but in such a way that His sovereign control remains the primary power.
Many things happen by natural occurrence. A meteorologist can define a thunderstorm in terms of wind currents and energy changes in the atmosphere, and that is true enough. But
A botanist can tell us how vegetation grows, and she is right. But
A physicist with information about the size and the shape and the weight and direction of a pair of dice, can explain why they will roll just the way they do, but it is true as well as
The Bible’s teaching of providential concurrence is that “God directs, and works through, the distinctive properties of each created thing, so that these things themselves brings about the results that we see. (Wayne Gruden, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 1994, p. 319) So we would say that events are caused by God, the Creator. But we would also say that events are caused by the creature. The difference between practical atheism and trusting in God’s providential care is a thin line here. It is determined by your answer to this question: Is God the primary cause of all plans? Does he initiate everything? Creaturely causes are vital, we would never deny them. But they are rightly understood as secondary causes, even though they are the causes that are the most evident to us. What is true in nature, and in seemingly random events, is certainly true in all of the activity of our lives, so that the Scriptures teach that God our Father plans all our days before there were yet any of them (
Success and failure in our lives come from God. As
In all of our lives and actions, as with the grass and the dice, God acts as the primary cause therein, but He does so in such a way as to make room for all of our responsible choices. Our actions are always significant. The Bible would always say that we are responsible and our decisions are very, very important. From our point of view, we could even think of them as determinative, but God’s providence is primary. That’s the difference between the deist or practical atheist and the Christian, for the believer in the Lord says that all of our days, all of our successes and failures, all of our abilities and inabilities and all of our joys and disappointments come from the hand of God’s providence, even as we do our parts. So as Spurgeon said, “Fate is blind, but providence has eyes.”
Providence and God’s heart
Christians often attach another word when speaking of God’s providence. It’s care. We speak of the providential care of God. God moves on His people’s behalf to bend all of history and all the circumstances of our lives toward our ultimate benefit.
This is true in things that seem small, like waiting on the runway at DFW for two hours when I want to be somewhere else. I don’t even know to this day why it happened. I don’t know what the particular mercy of God in that was. It is also true in big things, as recently when our daughter Carey’s friend was driving her car towards a drunk driver coming the other way and at the last minute she saved her life and my daughter’s by flicking her wrist and moving the car out of his way. And in God’s providence their car was totaled as it rammed against the guardrail, and in the God’s providence two 16-year-old girls walked away from the car, and in God’s providence two 16-year-old girls are very sober about the power of automobiles now.
If, at the last minute, God caused the flick of a wrist to avoid a head-on collision, then it is also God’s providential care that He bent all of history toward the purpose that He would not spare His own Son, but instead, cause Him to have a head-on collision with wickedness and death. God’s providence extends to the smallest of things, and God’s providence extends to the most massive thing of all-the providential concurrence of God’s working out His purposes even through the worst that men could do to His own Son. This is told to us in
God designed it, God intended it, God meant for His Son to go to the cross for us. But it happened at the hand of wicked people. Jonathan Edwards describes providence this way, “God not only does His people good, He is His people’s good.”
God is our good in the gospel of His Son. He turned the wickedness of men on its ear by making His Son’s death the fullest expression of His providential care for us, and He did it concurrently with the desires and actions of the men and women who were involved. Who killed Jesus Christ? Did Judas do it for money? Did Pilate do it for power? Did the Pharisees do it for envy? Yes, but that’s not the whole story. The primary actor in the death of Jesus for you was His Father, for it was not Judas who killed Jesus for money, or Pilate for power, or the Pharisees for envy; it was the Father who delivered him up to death out of love – out of love that in His providential intention He wishes to bring to your life today.
In the midst of whatever difficulties and hardships we find ourselves, it is in the good news of the providence of God, who shaped all of history and bent it all for our good in His Son, that He says to us, “I am with you even in this providence you endure today.” When we believe that, any presumption flies away: the planning presumption that forgets how quickly things change, the purpose presumption that forgets we are a mist, the position presumption that forgets our dependence upon God. Our presumption blindly grabs the reins of calendars, of our lives, of our tomorrows. His providence brings His presence and care.
James says it is a presumption that boasts in our arrogance. How quickly we forget who we are and that our lives are lived under the good and providential care of a merciful God. How quickly we presume upon our wealth. Can you believe how strong these words are? “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire” (
Trusting Him with our tomorrows
Do not presume that you know what tomorrow brings. Do not presume on the good things the Lord has given. Instead, trust in the providence of God and live each day by permission of the One who gave permission to men to kill His Son for you.
Last summer I read a biography of Robert E. Lee. What an intriguing, godly and wonderful man he was. He once said: “The truth is this, the march of providence is so slow, [it unfolds gradually, we don’t know it all at once] and our desires are so impatient, [like why am I sitting on this airport tarmac right now] the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it are so feeble, the life of humanity is so long, and that of individuals so brief, that we often see the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. But it is history that teaches us to hope.”
It is easy to become discouraged, isn’t it? Where do you run when you are discouraged about the seemingly slow progress of God’s providence on your behalf? Where do you look? Look at the cross. Look at how long it took Jesus to die on a cross for you. Look at the pain that He suffered there for you. Look at the mercy of God that flows out of the cross to you from His Son. Somehow the perspective we gain on all of the ups and downs and ins and outs and waitings and uncertainties and question marks of our lives falls into place like a camera lens coming into focus when we focus on the cross of Christ.
Lee is right. Our presumption will be humbled by seeing how out of control we are, how little we can affect our tomorrows, how quickly we can lose what is valuable to us, how our abilities will fail against the tide of time. But I would change one thing in Lee’s statement: it is not so much history that teaches me to hope, it is Jesus Christ on the cross that teaches me to hope. It is the cross that humbles my presumption, for it is there that God purposed to do all He could do for my providential care. And if God bends all of history and the hearts of wicked men to accomplish His Son’s death for me, then can I trust my tomorrows to Him?
That’s the question James raises. Can you not see that you live under the permission of God for all of your tomorrows in light of the huge thing He did in one magnificent yesterday for you? In all the trials and disappointments of his life, and there were many, Robert E. Lee believed that we should do the best we can, but even as we do that we should recognize that what we intend may not always be what God intends. In odd moments, sitting at his desk as the president of Washington College (later Washington and Lee University), Lee would scratch little maxims out on a piece of paper. After his death they were all collected and the shortest one of them all is this: “God disposes. This ought to satisfy us.”
It really should satisfy us to know that a sovereign God, full of providential care for us, did that which only He could do in the cross of His Son. Now all of His providential blessings flow out to our lives, and we live each day by His permission.
Thank You Father that we do indeed live by Your permission, that our lives belong to You, that You don’t belong to us. Oh, You do in a way, You’re a covenant God, You’ve given Yourself to us, but we belong to You. We live under Your leading, we are guided by the wonder of Your providential care for us. Help us to live as covenant creatures, mindful that that is deeply and beautifully and richly true, and help us to take joy in the midst of the providential unfolding of Your purposes in our lives, because You have made Your purpose secure in us by Jesus Christ and His cross and His winning us forever and our belonging to You through Him. Thank You. Amen.
This sermon is reprinted with the permission of Park Cities Presbyterian Church, Dallas, Texas, 214-224-2500, and can be found at www.pcpc.org.
Skip Ryan is Pastor of Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas, TX.