Women's Bible Study Fallout...
4:13 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”—14 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. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
At first glance James 4:13-17 seems straightforward - don't make any statements about the future without acknowledging the sovereignty of God over your own. And perhaps that is all there is to it. It is appropriate, after all, to be one who is rightly oriented in such a way. But the context of James suggests that there is more to it than that. In fact, this portion of James seems very out of place with the rest of James if we take it on this first glance face value.
I see the big questions about these verses being, "Is the quotation James makes literal or figurative? and if figurative, what of?" And the question associated with it, "who is James talking to?"
If the answer is literal (which it may be) then we might say James is using the clear allusions to wisdom literature in verse 14 as self-permission to abruptly change subjects and include a disconnected proverb to his letter. His audience would be tradesmen or merchants, or more likely, tradesmen as the example for all people of all occupations and endeavors. It is hard for me to see how it makes sense for James to do this, especially when he calls it evil boasting in 16. But maybe that is my problem and I need to get over it.
If the answer is figurative then who is the audience and what is it about? I am going to suggest that James is continuing to speak to the same audience he has been speaking to. Up to this point in James's letter the audience has been the early persecuted church, scattered from Jerusalem. And it is particularly directed at the zealous leaders of the church, inwardly contentious, and violently engaged with its enemies, mimicking the satanic spirit of the communities around them (their Jewish persecutors, and Rome). But apart from consistency and narrative flow are there other clues that would suggest that James is referring to this audience? An old pastor of mine suggests a few clues. If we are assuming figurative language are there other figurative references using tradesmen and/or economics? Sure there are. Several of the parables of Jesus are built upon economic imagery. Revelation has a whole section in chapter 18 about merchants and trade and it is about the fall of the Temple and Jerusalem. These uses suggest the tradesman have to do with those ordering the life of the church. What about literal clues that the reference may be figurative? Remember that Paul was a bi-vocational minister, as most probably were then. He himself was a tent-maker or tradesman. And the phrase in 13, "go into such and such a town" echoes the words of Jesus in Matthew 10 when he sent out the disciples to go into the towns and preach the good news. Using the image of tradesmen here as a reference to the same audience from the rest of James does not seem like such a stretch after all - the disciples ordering the life of the Kingdom (in this case disciples going about it all wrong).
If we continue with the idea that James is speaking to the audience he has been speaking to, and assume the language to be figurative, then it modifies how we understand this whole section. Instead of general instruction to all about the sovereignty of God over the future, it speaks more directly to our character and action being in accordance to the will of the Lord. These are people who are leading the church in the same fanatical violence of her enemies are doing so against the will of the Lord. To make plans to go forward in this spirit as if it is the way of true success is arrogant boasting in their own evil ways. This is obvious enough and consistent with what James has already been saying. Where it gets interesting is in what James proposes as the self-check. He says, "you ought to say, "if the Lord wills..."" This is clever on James's part. If you are doing something that is obviously not the will of the Lord, then it is hard to say, "if the Lord wills." If I say to my friend, "Friend, lets rob that person over there after lunch." it would be weird if my friend replied, "I'll see you then, Lord willing." Of course the Lord doesn't will that me and my friend rob a person after lunch. We "know the right thing and fail to do it," and appealing to the will of the Lord helps reveal to us what we already know, that we are being false to the truth, boasting in our arrogance, attempting in vain to wrest control of the future for our own designs.
In our Bible study we talked about the habit of tacking on, "Lord willing" to all the plans we make. While it may be good practice to do this kind of self-check to yourself, I don't think James is suggesting that we make this a public habit for our everyday practices. Saying that you are going to visit your aunt this weekend, Lord willing, is not what James is talking about. Of course it is not against the Lord's will that you visit your aunt. This scenario is not one involving "knowing the right thing to do and failing to do it." "Lord willing" is about our ethics. Bowing to the sovereign will of God is more than an existential nod, it is about ethical allegiance.
Coincidentally, in college Bible study we were talking about how giving thanks for what we take to use functions in a similar way. Adam, taking the apple, could not give thanks to God for it because he was outside of righteousness. Thanking God for and apple God had not given him would have been non-sensical. If he had tried to give thanks for it perhaps he would have been convicted enough to refrain from continuing. To put that scenario into James's, Adam saying I will eat this apple, Lord willing, isn't about Adam recognizing that the future is in God's hands, it would be about reminding himself of the will of the Lord - TO NOT EAT IT.