DashHouse

Healthy Ministry in Complicated Times

James

How to Live in an Uncertain World (James 4:13-5:20)

Big Idea: Life is uncertain. How are we going to survive it? By remembering that he’s sovereign, by trusting his justice, and by praying and supporting each other.


I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Jimmy’s Coffee on Gerrard. If you haven’t, I highly recommend it. I was there the other day, and somehow managed to snag the third floor boardroom for myself. Eventually, though, a woman joined me. She asked, “Will it bother you if me and my friend talk?” I told her no. It’s a public coffee shop, after all. I can’t expect other people not to talk. Then she asked, “Will it bother you if we cry?” I told her it wouldn’t bother me. It didn’t make sense for me to tell them that they could talk but they weren’t allowed to cry.

So they sat at the table, these two close friends, and me. And in the safety of speaking in front of a stranger who didn’t know who they are, and who would never see them again, they began to open up about their lives in complete honesty. I won’t repeat the details of the conversation that I overheard before I decided it was time to leave and give them a bit of privacy, but I’ll summarize it like this: life is hard. Actually, life is brutal. It reminds me of the advice I once heard for preachers: be careful what you say when you preach, because the world just rolled over and flattened half the people in your congregation every Sunday.

We’re in the very last sermon of our series in the book of James. Today we’re looking at a large passage that goes from James 4:13 right to the end of the book. It’s a passage that switches between a lot of topics. One preacher (David Platt) kidded, “This sermon is going to be all over the place, but it is totally James’ fault. This whole series is James’ fault, for that matter.” It’s going to seem like this passage is all over the place, and it is in some ways, but there is one overarching theme: life is uncertain, and we need wisdom so we know how to live within it.

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So as we finish this series in James, let’s look at what James says with two simple points. One: life is uncertain. Two: given that life is uncertain, how do we live within it?

Life is Uncertain

The first thing that James tells us is that life is uncertain. This is so important because of a lie that we’re tempted to believe: that if we’re smart enough and disciplined enough, good things will happen in our lives. We live under the illusion that we are in control of our lives, and that the right strategy, the right techniques, and enough discipline, then we’ll be able to live the good life. In other words, we think we’re in control of our lives.

The reality? James says we are not in control of our lives. Look at what James says in James 4:13-14:

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.

James is not saying that it’s wrong to make plans. The Bible is clear that planning is a good thing. Proverbs 21:5 says, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.” Planning is a good thing.

The problem? In our planning we often forget that life is uncertain. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We act like we can plan our lives when we don’t even have control over the next five minutes.

Our lives are unpredictable, and they’re also short. The Stoic philosopher Seneca said, “We are always complaining that our days are few and acting as though there would be no end of them.” I thought of this recently when I came across a grid that shows how long the average person lives in months and weeks. It’s not a long time. James compares us to a mist that appears for a time and vanishes. That was very common in the Palestinian climate. Water droplets in the air would form into condensation and then just disappear. Our lives are like that. The room where you sleep will be home to someone else, and nobody will even remember that you lived there. Your job, if it even exists, will belong to someone else. Your great-grandkids, if you have them, won’t know your name. We’ll be forgotten.

Talk about depressing! But we have to face this or we’re living in denial. And it’s not only this that we have to face. James goes on to describe some of what we’re going to face in this world. In chapter 5 he rails against the rich oppressors who take advantage of the poor, and who exploit day workers for their own gain. I think James is probably speaking to Roman and Jewish non-believing employers. Some of the people that would have read this letter would belong to the class of the day laborers who were being exploited by the rich. Not only is life uncertain and short, but there are many people who are dealing with gross injustice in the world. We live in a world in which wealth is unequally distributed, and in which the rich can still take advantage of the poor. We still live in a world of injustice and inequity.

And then there’s just the general level of suffering. In verses 7 to 20 he speaks to those in the church who were suffering, either in a general sense, or with sickness.

As the actor Katharine Hepburn said, “Life is hard. After all, it kills you.” It is hard. James reminds us that it’s uncertain, short, and full of all kinds of troubles. There’s no denial in the book of James, no hint that we will escape the troubles of life if we follow Jesus Christ.

So what do we do then? How do we live in this uncertain, short, and difficult life?

How to Live in an Uncertain World

As I look at this passage, with all its twists and turns, I see that James offers three pieces of advice for how to live in this uncertain world.

First, remember that God is sovereign.

We’ve already seen that James says that life is uncertain and short. We can make plans, but we really have no idea what’s going to happen in five minutes. How shall we live, then? Should we just go with the flow and refuse to make plans? No, James says. Here is what we should do. In James 4:15 he says, “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.'”

James isn’t against planning. But James says that our planning should always realize that God may have other plans. James isn’t saying that we should just tack on a pious-sounding phrase to what we say. He’s asking us to acknowledge that our own limitations — our ignorance, frailty, and dependence — and that God has the ultimate say about what’s going to happen in our lives. We can trust God because he’s good and he’s sovereign.

This phrase, “If God wills”…

…is to be the constant refrain of our hearts as we conduct the affairs of our lives. “If God wills” must be written over students’ plans—the choice of a life partner, future education, all everyday activities. Older people need to say from the heart, “If God wills, I will spend my time … If God wills, my children will become … If God wills, I will take up this ministry … If God wills, I will wake up tomorrow.” All of us should have this heart attitude. (Kent Hughes)

It’s only when we comprehend the sovereignty and goodness of God that we’ll be able to handle the things we can’t control, because behind the seeming randomness of life is a God who is in control even when we aren’t, even when life seems completely out of control.

I like what Wendell Berry writes in one of his novels:

I can’t look back from where I am now and feel that I have been very much in charge of my life …. I have made plans enough, but I see now that I have never lived by plan …. Nearly everything that has happened to me has happened by surprise. All the important things have happened by surprise. And whatever has been happening usually has happened before I had time to expect it …. And so when I have thought I was in my story or in charge of it, I really have been only on the edge of it, carried along. Is this because we are in an eternal story that is happening only partly in time?

We are part of an eternal story that we don’t control. Let’s never think we do control it. Let’s understand that God is weaving together an eternal story, and trust him in the everyday details of our lives because of that.

That’s the first way that we can handle uncertain times: trust God, because our days aren’t uncertain to him.

Second, trust in his justice.

In James 5:7-9, James says:

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.

We’ve already established that life is full of injustice. How can we put up with all the oppression and inequity in our lives? It’s still a question that we wrestle with today. We live in a world of economic and racial injustice. James has just finished talking about the way that day-laborers are exploited by the rich. It’s wrong, and James speaks against it loudly and clearly. On a more personal level, some of you know what it’s like to experience other kinds of injustice. You know what it’s like to be wrongfully terminated. You have experienced your name being dragged through the mud. You’ve had unjust accusations leveled against you. You know what it’s like to maligned and mistreated.

What does James say we should do? He’s already spoken against the injustice, and certainly we should do that. But even then, we’re still going to continue to experience injustice and oppression. And so James gives us one of the most powerful resources that have helped some of the most oppressed groups in the world to not only survive, but to live with hope. What is it? The justice of God. God will bring justice for the oppressed. He will stand against the oppressor. He will right all wrongs. Every case of injustice will eventually be brought into his courtroom, where justice will finally and completely be done.

One of my pastor friends, Chris Brauns — who is coming to visit us one day, by the way — has a line that’s always stuck with me: “a soft view of hell makes hard people.” Here’s what he means. A lot of people struggle with the idea of God’s wrath and justice. Believing in the reality of hell is a very difficult thing. That’s a pretty easy view to hold, Brauns says, if the worst thing anyone has ever done to you is to spray Roundup on your grass. But what if someone has really wronged you? What if you have to deal with gross injustice in your life? What do you do when someone wrongs and hurts you at the deepest level and gets away with it?

The Bible provides an answer: count on the justice of God. “A central strategy for avoiding bitterness is to rest in the truth that God will see that justice is done,” he says. In Romans 12 and Psalm 73 and 2 Thessalonians 1, and in this passage, the Bible tells us that we can deal with injustice now by resting in the truth that justice will soon be done. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor who lived and suffered under the Nazis, and was ultimately killed by them. When asked how it was possible to feel love for such people, he replied, “…it is only when God’s wrath and vengeance are hanging as grim realities over the heads of one’s enemies that something of what it means to love and forgive them can touch our hearts.”

Look to the justice of God, James says. God will right all wrongs. You can live in an uncertain world knowing that one day God will certainly set right everything that is wrong today. The Judge is standing at the door. Justice will soon be done.

Finally:

Third, pray for and support each other.

The rest of James (5:13-20) focus on how we can get through this uncertain world together. Suffering? Then pray. Cheerful? Then sing praise. Sick? Call the elders and let them pray over you, anointing you with oil. The oil was a way of symbolizing that the elders were bringing this person before God for healing. Have you sinned? Confess your sins. Not all sickness is a result of sin, but God can use physical illnesses to discipline us. Is someone among us wandering from the truth? Then go after them! We have a responsibility to look out for each other, to care for each other.

What James talks about here cannot be done on a Sunday morning. It means that we’re in each other’s lives, sharing our suffering and joy, praying for each other, walking with each other through good and bad times.

What James says should be blindingly obvious: We’re not going to get through life very well if we try to do it on our own. We need the church. More specifically, we need a certain kind of church, a church in which we pray for and support each other.

Life is uncertain. How are we going to survive it? By remembering that he’s sovereign, by trusting his justice, and by praying and supporting each other.

What is James saying? Only the gospel can give us hope in an uncertain world. Jesus rescues us from a life of randomness and uncertainty to a world in which we can know that God is for us, that God is at work, that God will bring everything to justice, and that he’s given us resources — like his family — to help us through this wild and uncertain life.

Life is uncertain. How are we going to survive it? By remembering that he’s sovereign, by trusting his justice, and by praying and supporting each other.

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