Many of you know that my father is now 95 years old. A study was done in which fifty people aged 95 and older were asked a single question:
“If you could live your life over again, what would you do differently?”
They had lived almost a century, so they have a unique perspective compared to most of us. The question was left open-ended, so they could answer however they wanted. What was fascinating is how consistently they answered the question.
People 95+ said:
If I had it to do over again, I would reflect more.
If I had it to do over again, I would risk more.
If I had it to do over again, I would do more things that would live on after I am dead.
The passage we come to this week in the New Testament book of James goes a similar direction. Open your Bible or Bible app to James chapter 4, verses 13 to 17, where James deals with the question of what we will do with our one and only life. What James puts before us breaks out very cleanly into three points. If you’re taking notes, here’s the first:
I can know where I’ll be in a thousand years, but not what tomorrow will bring.
James writes, chapter 4 and verses 13 to 14…
“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
James starts with something the broader culture advocates for: come up with your five year plan, your ten year plan, your twenty year plan. “Here’s what I want to do. This is how much I want to earn. Here are the vacation places on my bucket list, etc.”
We plan all the time, and that’s fine. It’s responsible to plan ahead.
If you want to go to college, you have to plan to take the SAT or ACT. You have to plan college visits and applications. You have to plan where you’ll live and with whom you’ll room, and what courses you’ll register for.
If you want to get married, you’d better have a plan. It doesn’t happen automatically. More and more people are using online matchmaking services: even that is a plan.
If you want to move up in the workplace, you have to come up with a professional development plan. Salary increases and promotions don’t happen by accident.
Elsewhere in the Bible, planning is commended. Proverbs 21:5, for example, endorses thinking ahead, saying…
“Good planning and hard work lead to prosperity,
but hasty shortcuts lead to poverty.”
Proverbs 21:5 NLT
Those who are lazy and think only of the present day, as well as those who try to avoid the benefits that come from planning and hard work, suffer for it. The Bible commends planning ahead in considering the cost of following Jesus—that it’s worth it even if the personal cost is high. It commends thinking long-term in how we deal with one another—dealing with each other in ways that promote long-term friendships and peace. The Bible commends planning ahead in how we handle money—don’t spend everything impulsively and end up in debt.
So what is James going after here? He certainly planned to sit down and write this letter. What is he warning against? Simply put, arrogance. Planning as though any of us can control the future. That’s the myth he’s exposing. The reality is that no one is guaranteed the next breath, no less the next day.
However—for the Christian, you can know where you’ll be a thousand years from now. We sing it in the final verse of Amazing Grace, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.”
So what James opposes is not the wisdom of planning, but the foolishness of presumption.
Dan Gardner’s book Future Babble explores the myth that we can know, no less control, the future. He draws on the work of Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who did a 20-year analysis of more than 25,000 predictions from almost 300 experts in their fields. His conclusion was that as a group, the experts did little better, and sometimes considerably worse, than a dart-throwing chimpanzee! Among their expert predictions were:
In 1914 came the expert prediction that “there will be no more wars among the six great powers.” It was that same year that World War I broke out. 16 million people died. We know now that pre-WW1 was a time of unreasonable optimism concerning human nature.
On a less serious note, another expert prediction: in 1968, the president of Anaconda Copper Mining Company predicted that his company would be successful for 500 years. Wthin less than ten years, fiber optics succeeded copper, and Anaconda was out of business.
In 1990, an expert economist predicted that Japan would financially rule the 21st century. That’s less than thirty years ago, and no one guessed that China would awaken economically. China just held their equivalent of Black Friday—and in that one day, the people of China spent more than $60 billion in online shopping. Compare their $60 billion to a total of $5 billion spent in this country on Black Friday last year.
Gardner’s conclusion in his book Future Babble is that the reason people keep listening to others who really don’t know what they’re talking about is that we as human beings hate uncertainty. “Whether sunny or bleak,” Gardner writes, “convictions about the future satisfy the hunger for certainty. We want to believe. And so we do.”
Trevor Butterworth, “Prophets of Error,” The Wall Street Journal (4-30-11); Ronald Bailey, “It’s Hard to Make Predictions, Especially About the Future,” Reason (4-5-11)
James is exposing the presumption that the future is ours to take. Augustine was a Christian leader in the 4th century. He was alive during the time when the mighty Roman Empire was beginning to decline, and people were confused—Christians, too. In that setting, Augustine wrote a reminder that expands on what James says here. Augustine wrote:
“God will not suffer [allow] man to have a knowledge of things to come; for if he had prescience of his prosperity, he would be careless; and if understanding of his adversity, he would be despairing and senseless.”
Why God doesn’t let us know our own future
God doesn’t let us know the future for two reasons, Augustine says. On the one hand, if we knew we would grow wealthy, we would become careless, arrogant. And on the other hand, if we knew about suffering on the horizon, we would despair and do foolish things. Instead, the Lord teaches us to pray, “Our Father in heaven, give us our daily bread.” He teaches us not to worry about tomorrow, because each day has enough worry of its own. He tells us to be content with what we have, because the pursuit of riches has led many away from the faith. We can’t know the future, and it’s better that we don’t know the future. As a Christian, we don’t need certainty about the next five or ten or twenty years; we know where we’ll be in a thousand years. And we’ll be fine.
In verses 15-16, James shifts to a different mindset. If you’re taking notes, he essentially says…
I can plan like an atheist, or I can trust like an exile.
“Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.”
17th-century pastor Richard Baxter put it this way:
“Man always knows his life will shortly cease, Yet madly lives as if he knew it not.”
More and more thoughtful Christian leaders are pointing out that a strong biblical emphasis that has been neglected among the Western church, one that we would do well to reemphasize and rediscover, is the biblical teaching that we are exiles. We’re on our way home, but so long as we are in the world as it is, fallen in sin, we’re not home yet.
The Jewish people after they left Egypt, but were not yet in the Promised Land, were exiles, pilgrims. The emphasis for them was faith in God’s provision today, and trust that God will provide in the days to come. Hebrews 11:16 says…
“They were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”
You see the same later in the Old Testament when the people of Judah were removed from their homeland and taken to Babylon. They were, and they saw themselves, as exiles. Daniel of the book of Daniel is an outstanding example of a believer who lived aware that he was an exile; he recognized that he wasn’t home yet.
The exile’s way of thinking should be the Christian’s way of thinking. It’s what James proposes here. Receive today as a gift from God. Tomorrow? If it comes, praise God, and enjoy it! It’s totally in God’s hands, and we’re totally okay with that. We have a Father in heaven who holds the future in his mighty hands! Let me give you two Scriptures that reinforce what James writes here.
“All the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.”
“Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
So make plans, yes. Plan for the future. Just do it with the humility that comes from wisdom. Plan like an exile, trusting your days to the Lord who holds the future. What do we want more than anything else? To do the Lord’s will. So plan, while you pray: “Lord, if it’s your will, I’d like to do the following. I’m going to plan for that, and I trust you to lead and guide, and if necessary, redirect so that I stay in the center of your good, pleasing, and perfect will.” That’s wisdom. That’s living like an exile, a spiritual pilgrim, following Jesus one day at a time, and trusting the Lord with the future.
There’s the true story of a pastor who preached on God owning and us really just borrowing all that we possess—and the sermon really got under the skin of one of the people who was listening. So that person invited the pastor over for a gourmet meal. Then he led the pastor on a walk through his elaborate gardens, woodlands, and farm. Then finally came his challenge.
“Now are you going to tell me,” he demanded when the tour was completed, “that all this land does not belong to me?” The pastor smiled and simply replied, “Ask me that same question a hundred years from now.”
I can plan like an atheist—“It’s all mine, and I have plenty of time”—or I can trust like an exile: “Lord, if it’s your will, I’d love to do this five years from now. At the same time, my time is in your hands. If you have something better for me to do, by all means, I invite you to redirect me.”
It’s a tiny little shift, that can make a huge difference in being at peace with the future.
The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson has a beautiful little poem that’s right in line with what James advocates. It goes like this:
“Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be;
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.”
Alfred, Lord Tennyson,
from In Memoriam. Christianity Today, Vol. 40, no. 7.
I can plan like an atheist, or I can trust like an exile. We can use systems to plan as though we have it all figured out, or we can plan with an open hand, asking and willing for the Lord to redirect.
Use the time you have left wisely
Finally, in verse 17, James says…
I can use what time I have, to do all the good I can.
“If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”
To not make time and space for the good we ought to do—to live for self only and not calendar and plan and do the good works God put us here to do…that is sin. It’s falling short of who God calls us to be.
To say that positively—if you know the good you ought to do and you do it—you put it on the calendar, you make that commitment and you follow through—then you’re truly following Jesus. You’re doing God’s will. You’re using your time, talents, and treasure for God’s kingdom. You’re redeeming the time. You’re living in light of eternity. You’re fulfilling the reason for which God created and redeemed you. To not make time and space to do the good works God intends is…sin.
A fellow by the last name Mortland can tell us about not doing good. Mortland committed a string of robberies in Hennepin County, Minnesota. After he was caught, he received a sentence of eight to ten years in prison for the robberies. But here’s where it gets interesting.
During his crime spree, Mortland was given a nickname: “The Rolaids Robber.” He earned that nickname after he repeatedly asked employees of the stores he was robbing for antacid tablets, while he was robbing them.
Once he was arrested, he explained why he kept asking for Rolaids: he said he needed the antacids because of the stress he was feeling from committing the crimes! How about this: do good, and enjoy a clean conscience!
John Beukema, Western Springs, Illinois; source: Chuck Shepherd, “News of the Weird,” The Reader’s Guide (1-16-04)
I’ve mentioned before the largest study of churches ever done. Churches all around the world were studied. All kinds of churches, all sizes. One of the surprise discoveries—something they weren’t looking for but were delighted to find—is that Christians who can say, “I know what my main spiritual gift is, and I’m using it,” were happier than people who weren’t using the gifts God entrusted to them. Makes sense! If you know the good you ought to do, and you’re doing it, there’s a joy that comes with that, a contentment, a sense of fulfillment and purpose, that you’re doing what you’re meant to do. You’re contributing meaningfully, as we say in our third C—that following Jesus together is all about Celebrating Christ, Connecting people, and Contributing meaningfully.
Ephesians 2:8-10 is the classic Scripture capturing that we aren’t saved by good works, but we’re redeemed for good works. The NLT reads…
“God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”
Ephesians 2:8-10 NLT
You were created, and redeemed, because God has good things that only you can do. Use the time you have, to do all the good you can.
One writer says it this way:
“Time is life—nothing more, nothing less. The way you spend your hours and your days is the way you spend your life.”
He’s right. The way you’re spending your time right now, this week, this month—is shaping your legacy, whatever it will prove to be. James says, be careful that your legacy is marked by the good you do regularly.
I want to wrap up with two extremely important pictures of what God is speaking to us through James: the first has to do with the next 10,000 years. The second is a concise capture of your legacy. Here we go.
First, a picture of 10,000 years. There’s an implied tension here between arrogant presumption about the future, and living now in light of the long-term future, meaning really long-term. Here’s a help with that.
Danny Hillis is a computer engineer and inventor who is so committed to helping people think about the long-term future that he has actually designed a 10,000-year clock. The Long Now Foundation has built several models of the 10,000-year clock over the past few decades, and they’re actually building the fully-functional 10,000-year clock right now inside a mountain in rural Texas.
The 10,000-year clock will tick just once a year. The century hand will advance just once every 100 years. A cuckoo will come out just once every thousand years, for the next 10,000 years. They’ve had to think about what materials to use so that it lasts for 10,000 years.
I want you to hear why they’re bothering with such a strange project. From one of the project designers, this explanation: “Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next election perspective of democracies or the distractions of personal multitasking. All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective is needed.”
Danny Hillis, who came up with the whole idea, adds that he hopes the clock will raise the question, “Are we being good ancestors?” Or as James would ask, “Are we doing the good we ought to?”
So there’s the first picture to get us thinking about what we’re doing with the time we have: a 10,000-year clock. Here’s the second.
A few years ago, an online magazine held a contest. And what started as a harmless little online contest took on a life of its own. It spawned a book, that became a best-seller. The person who came up with the idea went on to high demand for interviews; everyone wanted in on what they were talking about. It led to a TED Talk. Today it’s a website.
Here it is: write your autobiography…in just six words. (repeat)
Capture what you hope your legacy will be, in six words. One simple sentence to encapsulate the full length of your life.
A 9-year-old boy who had cancer wrote his as follows: “Cursed with cancer. Blessed with friends.”
Someone else wrote, “Hug my soul, touch my mind.”
A person who fought to be heard wrote, “Asked to be quiet. Spoke louder.”
Someone wrestling with life after kids wrote, “Marriage, children, empty nest: Now what?”
Here’s one that gets you wondering about the backstory. Someone wrote, “Extremely responsible, secretly longed for spontaneity.”
One that I suspect James would fully approve of: “Try and fail is no disgrace.”
Another right in line with James’ word here: “I live now, the only time.”
A fun one: “Painful nerd kid, happy nerd adult.”
A challenge: “Why are some roads less travelled?”
A beautiful legacy: “I’ll love you when none will.”
How about you? If it’s wise to plan but foolish to presume upon the future; If we are created and redeemed to do good works that God has planned for us long ago…
Then what do you hope becomes your legacy?
That’s your assignment for this week: with what James says in mind, write your autobiography in just six words. If you want to write two versions—one with your legacy apart from Christ, the other what you intend to aim for—do that.
But this week, prayerfully and thoughtfully, capture your hoped-for legacy…in six words. Then do the good it takes for it to become true of you.