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.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.
Is James’ logic really that planning ahead is tantamount to sin? If so, those of us who want to take all of the Bible seriously have a problem. You are only reading these words because a sequence of people set or met deadlines, some of them months ago. If December church magazines cannot say when the carol services are this year, there will be grumbles. Elsewhere the New Testament praises good administrators.
The point that really links James’ sentences is that we cannot control the future. It is not only in his time that business plans almost invariably claim that after a year or two a new enterprise will break into profit. Then the entrepreneur finds that no amount of energy, skill and enthusiasm on his or her part can control enough of the variables.
As Advent starts tomorrow, many churches and church people enter their busiest month. Has our essential planning left space for the possibility that God will want to say something new to us and change our perspectives? Or does God have to wait now until after Christmas?
The arrogance is not the planning but assuming that what we can control is all that really matters. That is as close to idolatry as assuming that only what we can count really matters. Those who come to our well-planned carol services will hear how God has a track record of breaking into our lives in ways more wonderful than we could possibly imagine or organise. It is more promise than threat. The question is whether we live as if we believe it.
The old chapel noticeboards said Divine Worship on Sunday would be at “11am DV”. Deo volente is “God willing”. They silently made the crucial point that it is not our plans that control the universe.
Creator God, Responsible for the precision chemistry of my liver and the spontaneity of the butterfly, thank you for the orderliness that allows us to plan; for those good at converting wonderful dreams into realistic plans that actually happen; for those who patiently carry out necessary but unexciting plans. Help us to live aware we never know the whole of your plans – so keep us humbly alert for what you are about to do. Amen.
John Ellis, Synod Area Leader for West Kent & East Sussex