Does James 4 teach that we must prepend our speech with, "If the Lord wills?" Part 2

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

(This is a follow-up answer to another question. I suggest that you click here and read the other question first.)

Question: Your [previous] answer is what I want the Bible to say but I am still having trouble getting there from the text itself. Isn't James making it about generic future tensed statements by saying "we will live and do this or that" instead of repeating exactly what the supposed speaker said? It gives me the impression that this applies to not only travel/business in the future but anything. What do you think?

Furthermore, what grounding is there to think that James is working in a "theater-of-the-mind" fashion here? I am open to it but do not see how you got there. What prevents me from doing this interpretation technique to other passages of scripture? (Would commands to give to the poor, be generous, and server others are not really about actually doing or saying anything but just having a heart that feels like it cares about others?) There have been many times with cults and false religions that they take a straightforward reading of the text and spiritualize it to something else without showing justification for the qualification/exception. How is your spiritualizing of the passage different? I am open to it but need to see why. Thanks again so much! 

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.” (James 4:13–15, ESV)

Answer: I am glad that you want to interpret these passages as I suggest, but I am even more pleased that you insist that the text should tell us how to understand the text — and that you will need to be satisfied on those grounds. Me too! But the text merely says what it says… no tricks. So, the question is not so much, what are the words? It is more, what is their implication? I'll respond point by point to some comments pulled from this question.

“isn't James making it about generic future tensed statements by saying ‘we will live and do this or that’…”

Yes, I see that as a generic statement that applies to everything future. This does not make it a command, however. This merely gives us the time parameters for the argument. The fact that something “ought to” be done from this point on does not mean that we are commanded to do it.

The Book of James is often called the “Proverbs of the New Testament,” and his advice about the future should be treated like the wisdom in Proverbs. For instance, the following is a great idea (and please do this as much as possible!) but, although it is structured as an imperative in the English, it falls short of being a command.

6 Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.
(Proverbs 22:6, ESV)

James is not developing Pauline doctrine nor is he delivering Levitical instruction; he is issuing Proverbs for Christians. You should read, “Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” in the same spirit as you would read Proverbs 22:6: let’s do this continually — but not with the superstitious overtones of having to say a certain thing every time.

“Don’t drink only water. You ought to drink a little wine for the sake of your stomach because you are sick so often.” (1 Timothy 5:23, NLT)

Here, even Paul is not delivering a Pauline doctrine — or even a command (in spite of the language being decidedly imperative). Is Paul telling Timothy never to drink water? No. That’s not what’s going on. He’s instructing Timothy about the medicinal value of wine vs. water — but using the rhetoric of a command. Here’s another:

“Greet one another with a holy kiss…” (Romans 16:16, ESV).

The “command” language in the above verse is the same as in James 4:15. Are we in holy-behavior default by not “laying one on” every believer we meet? We might be. After all, Paul commands us to kiss every Christian…and this includes women kissing women and men kissing men? If we must “do” a certain thing because James said to in Scripture, then we must “do” this also because Paul said it in Scripture. Any takers?

We English speakers are taught that an imperative sentence gives a command. But an element that is a command by sentence structure is not necessarily a command by force or intent. A full command says, “Do this!” The examples above say, “You ought to do this.” Not all “commands” are equal… sentence structure notwithstanding.

“What grounding is there to think that James is working in a "theater-of-the-mind" fashion here? I am open to it but do not see how you got there. What prevents me from doing this interpretation technique to other passages of scripture?”

In any piece of writing quotes can only do three things: separate-out citations, show irony and indicate dialogue. Of the latter, the dialogue can be either the exact record of what a person said, or it can be dialogue for the sake of rhetoric, where no real-life character exists or no actual words are spoken. This is what we have in James. Therefore, unless you think that James is quoting actual characters, those phrases are in the realm of make-believe. Yet (and this is critical) the truth they teach is still very real.

What else could James’s staged dialogue be then, but a rhetorical tool to set-up characterization? Can you think of another reason for James to use made-up dialogue for theoretical persons? What else would be going on in James’s text? Why are you forcing the text to tell us something strange when it is telling us something common? (Occam’s razor applies.)

Theater-of-the-mind is not a technique of biblical hermeneutics per se; it is just a commonsense tool used to read English… and I don’t need a committee’s permission to use it. Indeed, God used common language to tell us uncommon things, so we should never dismiss a common reading of the inspired text. True — we should be careful — and use solid hermeneutics, but hermeneutics is built upon a sensible reading and understanding of the text. Theater-of-the-mind is one way to see what God is saying when he sets up a dialogue involving two non-actual persons. So, please tell me, which rule of hermeneutics does this violate? And why would one not use this in other portions of Scripture where it was the best tool for the job?

“How is your spiritualizing of the passage different [than that of false religions]?”

I repudiate any idea that I might be spiritualizing Scripture. In fact, I claim just the opposite. I am earnestly trying to deliver the best exegesis by corralling the complete yet leanest sense of this passage. You are the one who is adding ideas to the text.

If you read a few commentaries, you’ll see that you are standing alone on this. Commentator Gill feels as I do — that these quotes show an attitude, and that saying the words are not important. Now, Gill states that it might be proper to use those words on all occasions. You and I seem to part with Gill here. I believe that any such scripted speech would sound phony today—like when a Christian fundamentalist spouts clichés…but ones that happen also to be true.

“…here are two conditions of doing anything; the one is, if it should be agreeable to the determining will and purpose of God…and the other is, if we should live, since life is so very uncertain and precarious: and the sense is, not that this exact form of words should be always used, but what is equivalent to them, or, at least, that there should be always a sense of these things upon the mind; and there should be a view to them in all resolutions, designs, and engagements: and since the words are so short and comprehensive, it might be proper for Christians to use themselves to such a way of speaking; upon all occasions…” (Emphasis mine).

“What prevents me from doing this interpretation technique [theater-of-the-mind] to other passages of scripture? E.g. the commands to give to the poor, be generous, and server others are not really about actually doing or saying anything but just having a heart that feels like it cares about others.”

First, reading a rhetorical dialogue using a theater-of-the-mind technique does not change the clear communication to “do something” into its related emotion — that we should merely feel like or think about performing God’s will rather than doing it. It is merely a reading tool; it has no power to change what’s on the page. This technique illuminates what’s there — and a light cannot change the meaning of its target words.

Second, you seem to have God’s general will confused with his commands. When you read, “You ought to say” you understand, “Say this!” This tells me that you see the concept of “ought” as a command. They overlap, of course, but they are conceptually discrete. All of God’s commands are his will, but all of God’s will is not in the form of a command. As such, there are no commands per se for us to give to the poor, to be generous and serve others. Do not misunderstand me — doing these things is indeed God’s will! But these bits of God’s will usually carry the tone of instruction (“you ought to…”) rather than the tone of command (“thou shalt…”).

God encourages giving et al in the tradition of alms and through the Law’s protection of the poor. Additionally, caring for our fellow creatures is considered entry-level behavior in the Kingdom of God…and in both testaments. But you will find no such commands. Commands exist in the Decalogue, the broader Law and where God or Jesus spoke — (but only a fraction of what they spoke is a command).

“Do not kill”…now, there’s a command!

Third, the New Testament warns us about rote repetition. If James meant for us to repeat the phrase “If God wills…” every time we spoke of the future, that would counter Jesus’ instructions.

7 “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. (Matthew 6:7, NLT)

Although James is not addressing prayer per se, Jesus is weighing-in on the value of repetition for repetition’s sake: That’s what the pagans do! Now, repetition is not in itself bad, so when is it vain? When it is a matter of form rather than an incident of true communication with God. With James, you are arguing that we must perform the form of the words every time. I am arguing that we must perform the attitude of the words every time…but the form of the words occasionally, when the Spirit leads. Now, that might be every time! But the language does not mandate it.

Fourth, the New Testament frees us from ritual repetition and warns us that such behavior is suspect. When Jesus fulfilled the Law (Matthew 5:17), we were no longer responsible to perform its sacerdotal particulars. In fact, trying to do so makes us look bewitched (Galatians 3:1). Repeating Jesus’ sacrifice brings shame upon the Christ (Hebrews 6:6). We should flee the type of regularity that is based on superstition or is a hold-over from pagan practices (Galatians 4:10). Again, doing things repeatedly is not necessarily evil. But if we feel compelled to do an action, we might look like that baseball player who blesses himself for every time he goes to bat… but who lives a fully sinful life, hasn’t been in church for six years… and bats .227.

We should note that some religious organizations do require sacerdotal-like behaviors as part of a worship system. But these are merely the rules of their own clubs — rules that they are free to enforce — but rules that are outside of our discussion. These are extra-biblical requirements, and they do not concern the Body of Christ at large.

Fifth, perhaps you are kicking against the goads! Your own objection (that such rote behavior might be odd) could be the Holy Spirit interpreting the situation for you! Your mental-self is wrestling with a perceived ambiguity in the text, but your visceral-self is warning you of danger ahead. Go with your gut. Don’t be a slave to performing any action that is (on a good day) possibly in the text. Am I saying to abandon the mental process in favor of the gut? No! I’m an apologist — I love the mental wrestling! But, I cannot (and I do not want to) quench the Holy Spirit — especially if he’s been tugging on the viscera.

Finally — and perhaps my strongest visceral reason for my stance — is that the New Testament nowhere justifies repetition-for-religious-form’s-sake. If anything, it teaches the opposite — that we are free from all that. If James is teaching this, then it is a singular teaching… and a singular testimony in the Bible requires special handling since we use Scripture to interpret Scripture. Perhaps this is why in your original question you had to ask if there were any other examples of people speaking in the way you postulated… because there aren’t. Biblical authors did use that phrase, but only occasionally and as the Spirit led. Never as a rule of holy-speak.

“What should a Christian do with this passage? Did Christ and other biblical positive examples like Peter and Paul always speak this way?” (Your statement from the original question.)

Let me close with this comment from D. J. Moo in the Pillar New Testament Commentary. Since you seem to be standing alone against such a cloud of witnesses (Calvin, Jesus, Paul, me…), you should rethink your interpretation of James’s passages.

“However, as Calvin pertinently observes, Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles do not always state this condition when they plan for the future. What was important is not the verbalization but that ‘they had it as a principle fixed in their minds, that they would do nothing without the permission of God.’ James attributes no magical significance to the words themselves. ‘If the Lord wills’ can become nothing more than a glib formula without any real meaning. James, rather, wants us to adopt the attitude expressed by the words as a fixed perspective from which to view all of life. (Emphasis mine) (Moo, D. J. (2000). The letter of James (p. 206). Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos.)

I offer these thoughts with respect — and with prayerful consideration for your future service in the Kingdom.

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