Question: What is the proper way to understand and apply James 4:13-17? On the surface it appears that we are being commanded to say something like "if God wills" with every future-tensed statement. But doing that 100% of the time makes me uncomfortable. I feel like I would seem strange in both Christian and non-Christian circles. So, it would cause people to have a bad impression of Christ, since it would be seen as an odd behavior if too often said. I think that if we replaced future-tensed statements with comparable present-tensed ones (instead of saying `we will` say `we are going`) dances around the thrust of the command in the passage that plain-old says, "If God wills." What should a Christian do with this passage?
James 4:13–17 (ESV)
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.
Answer: I heartily agree that we should be sensitive to sounding weird in church, in the workplace and in the community. This is not to say that we should look like and sound like the world—God forbid! But, there is a huge difference between having an honest Christian demeanor and adding quirks to your speech. Quirks do not advance communication nor do they honor God. In fact, (and as you have mentioned) they would negatively affect your lifestyle witness. But what do we do when God’s word says—and in very plain language—to do just that? We assess the language to make sure that that is indeed what it says. So, let us do that—and we’ll stay with the English.
If this passage were to be interpreted so literalistically as to say that every time we were speaking in the future tense that we must first say, “If the Lord wills…” then, to be congruent, we would have to restrict that command only to the people who say the words, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit—” unless it is okay to change our hermeneutical preferences from “literal” to “literalistic” in the middle of a passage. In light of this, understanding that we must prepend any future-tense communications with the phrase, “If the Lord wills…” would be silly. Then what is James saying?
James is merely saying what his half-brother Jesus said on so many occasions: Don’t be arrogant—tomorrow is not a lock. A person’s attitude, and not his words, is the issue here. So, the phrase in question is merely a tool to support that greater idea. As such, you should not understand it as the focus of the passage; think of it rather as the lens. Seeing that phrase as a tool makes it sound less like a command. So, how does this work in the passage?
James set-up a contrast between two theoretical persons: an arrogant man and a godly man, and he did this by having them each utter a sentence that would highlight their personality differences. This is rather like a play. We understand the first speaker to be arrogant because of his chest-beating statement, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit,” and we see the second man as humble by virtue of his speech. “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” James wants his readers to choose humility over arrogance when thinking about the future, and he did this by using example-sentences. But like dialogue in a play, these phrases are designed to give us information about personalities—that’s all. They are not a reason to genuflect verbally whenever we speak of the future.
Consider the following two paraphrases that are based only on the sense of the English text. In the first, I have kept the same example-sentences, but I have set them up more as general statements. My purpose is to say the same thing as James, but to eliminate any impulse to repeat “If the Lord wills…” before each statement about the future. In the second example, I have eliminated the dialogue altogether, but have kept what I feel is the purpose of the text.
The type of person who says, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” is an arrogant fool! Tomorrow is uncertain. But the person who says, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” is wise—he understands the nature of tomorrow. Therefore, refrain from evil boasting. (James 4:13–17, EP paraphrase)
You who make plans for the future without a thought to God are arrogant—because you do not realize how temporary your life is. You should approach every endeavor with an eye toward God.”
(James 4:13–17, EP paraphrase).
Since the meaning of the original has been reasonably maintained in my two renderings, the difference between them is a matter of communications style—of rhetoric. James’s methodology involved setting up a theater-of-the-mind to establish the contrasting character traits. But since the example-sentences could be included, changed or removed while maintaining the verses’ information, we should understand them as playing a supporting role in the communication. Therefore, since these phrases are not “the point,” they should not be inordinately emphasized—and certainly not auto-prepended to our speech.
My second paraphrase, “You should approach every endeavor with an eye toward God,” is not a command; it is an instruction. Its tone communicates, “This is what you ought to do,” not, “Do this!” Read James again with this in mind. When he penned, “Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills…” he was merely giving us an example of what a right-thinking Christian might say about his future. This is neither a command nor an instruction to say it.
In my opinion, this passage in James teaches that we Christians should approach every idea about the future with our attitudes prepended by, “If the Lord wills…” As such, there is no problem with us saying the words, too, sometimes—because they are God’s truth! But we should do so occasionally—and as the Spirit leads. Never as a verbal tic.
[This generated a follow-up question. Go here to read it.]