Responding to the Will of God
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin. (4:13–17)
The Scriptures give many marks of a true Christian, such as love for God, repentance from sin, humility, devotion to God’s glory, prayer, love for others, separation from the world, growth, and obedience. But nothing more clearly summarizes the character of a genuine believer than a desire to do the will of God. In Psalm 40:8 David wrote, “I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart”; in Psalm 143:10 he added, “Teach me to do Your will, for You are my God.” Jesus taught that “whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35), while in John 7:17 He declared, “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself.” In Matthew 7:21 He gave the sobering warning, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” Peter exhorted Christians to “live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God” (1 Pet. 4:2). The apostle John described believers as those “who [do] the will of God [and live] forever” (1 John 2:17).
The greatest example of one who did the will of God was the Lord Jesus Christ. In John 6:38 He defined His messianic mission when He said, “I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (cf. John 5:30). To His shortsighted disciples, focused as they were on earthly things, Jesus explained, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work” (John 4:34). In agony in Gethsemane, facing the awful reality of the cross, the Lord nonetheless prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matt. 26:39; cf. v. 42; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42). The Lord Jesus Christ perfectly modeled the most essential element of a relationship to God—obedience to His will.
For James, doing the will of God identifies another test of genuine saving faith. True Christians are characterized by “doing the will of God from the heart” (Eph. 6:6). They joyfully, willingly pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done” (Matt. 6:10). The apostle Paul’s delight in God’s law (Rom. 7:22) is another way of expressing the same attitude. The words of the familiar hymn “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” reflect the desire of every true Christian:
Have Thine own way, Lord!
Have Thine own way!
Thou art the Potter;
I am the clay.
Mold me and make me
After Thy will,
While I am waiting,
Yielded and still.
—Adelaide A. Pollard
On the other hand, a constant disregard for or disinterest in God’s will is a certain mark of the presence of pride—the ugly sin also underlying conflict, worldliness, and slander (4:1–12). To disregard God’s will is tantamount to saying, “I am the sovereign ruler of my own life.” Such a prideful attitude is antithetical to saving faith; as James has already pointed out “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (4:6). Those who refuse to submit to God’s will give evidence that their lives have not been transformed by His saving grace (cf. Titus 2:11–12).
True to the pattern he has followed throughout his epistle, James takes a practical approach to the issue of responding to God’s will. In a fascinating passage built around the seemingly mundane illustration of businessmen’s plans, James gives significant insights into how people respond to God’s will. In so doing, he presents three negative responses and one positive one.
The Foolishness of Ignoring God’s Will
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. (4:13–14)
The first negative response to God’s will is foolishly ignoring it, living as if God did not exist or was indifferent to and benign toward human behavior. James addressed such people in familiar Old Testament prophetic style (cf. Isa. 1:18); his words come now are an insistent, even brash call for attention. They also indicate disapproval for the conduct they address. James is in effect saying “Listen up!” or “Get this!” The phrase come now appears in the New Testament only here and in 5:1.
The targets of James’s rebuke are those who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” The Greek text literally reads “the ones who are saying,” indicating people who habitually live without regard for God’s will. The underlying Greek verb, legō, means to say something based on reason or logic. James rebuked those who habitually think through and articulate their plans as if God did not exist or care (cf. 4:11–12).
The specific illustration James chose was one that would have been familiar to his readers. Many Jewish people dispersed throughout the ancient world were successful businessmen, itinerant merchants who naturally sought out the flourishing trade centers in which to do business. Wise planning and strategizing in business is not, of course, sinful in and of itself but commendable. No spiritual principles are violated by anything the businessmen said. The problem lies in what they did not do. They did extensive planning, but in the course of their planning, they totally ignored God; God was not part of their agenda.
Like Satan’s five self-centered “I wills” (Isa. 14:13–14) that caused his fall, the businessmen’s statement contains five presumptuous elements indicating their ill-advised confidence. First, they chose their own time, today or tomorrow. Second, they chose their own location for doing business, such and such a city. Third, they chose their own duration, deciding to spend a year there. Fourth, they chose their own enterprise, to engage in business (literally, “to travel into an area for trade”). Finally, they chose their own goal or objective, to make a profit. James is not attacking their profit motive, but their exclusion of God. Allowing for no contingencies, they planned as if they were omniscient, omnipotent, and invulnerable.
In Luke 12:16–21 the Lord Jesus Christ told a parable illustrating the folly of presumptuously leaving God out of one’s planning:
And He told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
In verse 14, James gives two important reasons those who presumptuously leave God out of their planning are foolish. First, James says to such people, You do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. Like the rich fool in our Lord’s parable, they were ignorant of the future. Proverbs 27:1 expresses the same principle: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.” Life is far from simple. It is a complex matrix of forces, events, people, contingencies, and circumstances over which we have little or no control, making it impossible for anyone to ascertain, design, or assure any specific future. Despite that, some people foolishly imagine that they are in charge of their lives. Sadly, such people ignore not only the existence of God’s will, but also its benefit. Christians have the comfort of knowing that the sovereign, omniscient, omnipotent God of the universe controls every event and circumstance of their lives and weaves them all into His perfect plan for them (Rom. 8:28). David wrote, “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness. Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He will do it” (Ps. 37:3–5). In a similar vein, Solomon wrote, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Prov. 3:5–6).
James gave those tempted to do so a second reason that leaving God out of one’s planning is foolish: the brevity of life. You are just avapor that appears for a little while, James reminded them, and then vanishes away. Life is as transitory as a puff of smoke from a fire; the steam that rises from a cup of coffee; or one’s breath, briefly visible on a cold day. How foolish, in light of the brevity and frailty of earthly life, to plan and live it without consideration for God’s will.
The Bible repeatedly stresses the shortness of human life. Job, possibly the first book of Scripture to be written, says much about life’s ephemeral nature. In 7:6 Job lamented, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and come to an end without hope,” while in 7:9 he added, “When a cloud vanishes, it is gone, so he who goes down to Sheol [the abode of the dead] does not come up.” “We are only of yesterday and know nothing,” said Job’s friend Bildad the Shuhite, “because our days on earth are as a shadow” (8:9). Continuing his lament, Job said, “Now my days are swifter than a runner; they flee away, they see no good. They slip by like reed boats, like an eagle that swoops on its prey” (9:25–26). Job’s complaint to God in 14:1–2 aptly summarizes the frailty and brevity of human existence: “Man, who is born of woman, is short-lived and full of turmoil. Like a flower he comes forth and withers. He also flees like a shadow and does not remain.”
The Psalms also stress the transitory nature of human life. “As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years,” wrote Moses, “or if due to strength, eighty years, yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; for soon it is gone and we fly away” (Ps. 90:10). “My days are like a lengthened shadow,” the psalmist mourned, “and I wither away like grass” (Ps. 102:11). Summing up the Bible’s teaching on the brevity of human life, David wrote, “As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, and its place acknowledges it no longer” (Ps. 103:15–16; cf. Isa. 40:6–8; 1 Pet. 1:24).
Their ignorance of the future and the frailty and brevity of human life should give pause to those who foolishly ignore God’s will.
The Arrogance of Denying God’s Will
But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. (4:16)
The first wrong response to God’s will is presumptuously ignoring it, living as though God and His will do not exist. But there are also those who, while acknowledging that God exists and has a will, nevertheless arrogantly reject it. Those in the first group are practical atheists—living as if God did not exist. Those in this second category are self-theists—refusing to submit the uncertainties of life to God, they set themselves, their own goals, and their own wills above God. God’s will, though acknowledged, simply is not as important to them as their plans. Though such disdain does not characterize the life of a believer generally, even Christians are often guilty of setting aside God’s will in favor of their own plans.
Those who deny God’s will, James says, boast in their arrogance.Kauchaomai (boast) can mean “to be loud-mouthed,” or “to speak loudly,” either in legitimate rejoicing (e.g., Rom. 5:2–3, 11) or in touting one’s own accomplishments (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:19). The context indicates James has the latter meaning in mind in this passage. Alazoneia (arrogance) comes from a root word meaning “to wander about” and reflects empty pretense. It was sometimes used to describe charlatans who traveled around selling phony goods. Taken together, the two words picture someone bragging pretentiously about something he doesn’t have and can’t obtain. Such is the arrogance, James says, of those who deny the will of God.
Perhaps no one has expressed this defiant attitude toward God any more clearly than William Ernest Henley in his famous poem “Invictus”:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
That poem clearly reflects the attitude of those who know God exists, but arrogantly defy His will.
Isaiah 47:7–10 gives another example of arrogant denial of God’s will, recording the proud, defiant words of Babylon:
[Babylon said] “I shall be a queen forever.”
These things you did not consider
Nor remember the outcome of them.
Now, then, hear this, you sensual one,
Who dwells securely,
Who says in your heart,
“I am, and there is no one besides me.
I shall not sit as a widow,
Nor know loss of children.”
But these two things shall come on you suddenly in one day:
Loss of children and widowhood.
They shall come on you in full measure
In spite of your many sorceries,
In spite of the great power of your spells.
You felt secure in your wickedness and said,
“No one sees me,”
Your wisdom and your knowledge, they have deluded you;
For you have said in your heart,
“I am, and there is no one besides me.”
All such empty, arrogant, foolish boasting, James warns, is evil. Scripture uses ponēros (evil) as a title for Satan (Matt. 13:38; John 17:15; Eph. 6:16; 2 Thess. 3:3; 1 John 2:13–14; 3:12; 5:18–19), the original boastful (cf. Isa. 14:13–14) sinner. Those who arrogantly deny God’s will emulate Satan’s sin, and may suffer his doom.
The Sin of Disobeying God’s Will
Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin. (4:17)
Those guilty of this third negative approach to God’s will affirm God’s existence and acknowledge the supremacy of His will—then proceed to disobey it. James rebuked such people with the axiomatic statement that the one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin. Those in this third group know God’s will, and affirm that it is right.Kalos (right) describes what is qualitatively good, morally excellent, worthy of honor, and upright.
In the broadest sense, God’s will is expressed in all the commands and principles of Scripture. Specifically, the Bible says that God’s will is that people be saved (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9), Spirit-filled (Eph. 5:17–18), sanctified (1 Thess. 4:3–8), submissive (1 Pet. 2:13–15), and suffering (1 Pet. 3:17). To the person obeying those five aspects of God’s will, the Bible says, “Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4)—that is, He will both plant the desires, then fulfill them.
Those who know God’s will are responsible to obey it, and if they fail to do so, they sin. They will find no comfort in the fact that they have not actively committed sin. Just leaving God out is itself sin. The sin of disregarding and disobeying God’s will is one of omission, of not doing what one knows is right (cf. Luke 12:47). Sins of omission are rarely isolated from sins of commission.
The sin of this third group is actually more serious than that of the first two groups. At the conclusion of the parable of the faithful steward (Luke 12:41–48) Jesus warned,
That slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more. (vv. 47–48)
The wayward prophet Jonah provides a classic illustration of one who knew the will of God, but refused to do it. Called by God to preach to Nineveh, the reluctant prophet instead attempted to flee to Tarshish—about as directly in the opposite direction as possible. Only after being severely disciplined by God did Jonah finally submit to His will. Those who disobey God’s will likewise suffer the consequences (cf. Rom. 1:21–23).
The Blessing of Acknowledging God’s Will
Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” (4:15)
In contrast to the negative, sinful responses to God’s will discussed above, James gives the positive side. Instead of the practical atheism, self-theism, or flagrant disobedience of the first three responses, James exhorts his readers to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that. This fourth alternative and positive response to God’s will, that of acknowledging and obeying it, generally marks true believers. The present infinitive form of the verb translated to say reveals that submission to God’s will must be habitual and continual. In every aspect of their lives and in every decision they face, believers’ response is to say “If the Lord wills.” Simply put, the will of God is central to all their plans (cf. Acts 18:21; Rom. 1:10; 15:32; 1 Cor. 4:19; 16:7; Phil. 2:19, 24; Heb. 6:3).
Acknowledging God’s will affirms His sovereignty over all aspects of life. We live only because God so wills it, for He controls life and death (Deut. 32:39; Job 12:9–10; Pss. 39:4–5; 104:29; Heb. 9:27; Rev. 1:18). God also controls everything people do and all the circumstances of life.
For the Christian, doing God’s will is an act of worship (Rom. 12:1–2). It is to be done from the heart (Eph. 6:6), as a way of life (Col. 1:9–10; 4:12), recognizing that He must energize us to do it (Heb. 13:20–21). In John 13:17 the Lord Jesus Christ pronounced the reward given those who do God’s will: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
Responding to God’s will is yet another test of a living and true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. A strong desire to do the will of God is a sure mark of a transformed life.
Planning without regard to God (vv. 13–17)
James could see his readers doing exactly that. They would talk about going to ‘such and such a city’, about spending a year or so there and about the various transactions they would conduct while they were there (v. 13). They were talking as if they were in charge of their lives, and they weren’t.
James tells them that they had not factored into the equation the brevity and unpredictability of life. They could talk about one place, that city over there, and, before they could get there, end up in another place—eternity. They could talk about a period of time, this year or next, and, before that period began, find themselves in the realm of the timeless.
How easily we forget what life is like! It is a vapour! It is like the morning mist that lingers only in the early morning hours and vanishes when the sun rises. And when the sun rises, it doesn’t take long for the vapour to vanish!
So James tells his readers to quit acting as if they are in control. That is proud living! He says, ‘Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that” ’ (v. 15).
No, he is not suggesting that we actually have to say those exact words every single time we are planning to go somewhere or to transact some business—although it would not be a bad idea to say them frequently! Rather he is talking about always keeping in mind that God is in control, and none of our plans ever supersedes or overrides his plans.
The eternal God has made us for eternity, and to eternity we must go. And the eternity that awaits us is one either of bliss or of woe!
So let us live with God and eternity weighing much on our minds. We constantly have the tendency to make this life the main event and eternity a footnote. Eternity is the main event, and only a fool lives as if this life is all that there is.
Don’t count on your time. It is passing! Don’t count on your possessions. They will soon belong to someone else. Don’t count on your career. It will soon be over. But count on this: eternity is rapidly approaching, and only those who have taken refuge in Jesus Christ can face it.
Against presumptuousness (4:13–17)
James turns to a second area of high risk. He has shown us that by a wrong understanding of other people, and of their significance as brothers and neighbours, we can jeopardize our humility before God, which is the key to the whole situation. But there is also the sin of presumptuousness, which comes from a wrong understanding of ourselves in relation to our own lives and ambitions. It is interesting—and typical of James—that this sin too is put before us as a sin of speech. We are not now, however, defaming a brother; we are talking with a like arrogance to ourselves. We assure ourselves that time is on our side and at our disposal (today or tomorrow). We make our plans as if personal ability (and trade) and the profit motive (and get gain) were the only issues to take into account. We overlook frailty (a mist), and ignore the fact that even the small print of life is in the hands of a sovereign God (if the Lord wills). Yet we know better all the time (knows what is right), but self-confidence makes us boast, and all such boasting is evil and a sin against knowledge.
What is this presumptuousness of which James speaks? It first touches life: today … tomorrow … a year (13). It is the presumption that we can continue alive at will. Secondly, it touches choice: today or tomorrow we will go … spend a year … trade. It is the presumption that we are masters of our own life, so that we need to do no more than decide and, lo and behold, it will happen like that. Thirdly, it touches ability: and trade and get gain. Of course we shall succeed if we want! We can do it!
Once more it is all so ordinary, indeed so natural. That is exactly the point. When James exposes the blemish of presumptuousness, he exposes something which is the unrecognized claim of our hearts. We speak to ourselves as if life were our right, as if our choice were the only deciding factor, as if we had in ourselves all that was needed to make a success of things, as if getting on, making money, doing well were life’s sole objective.
Now how do we guard against presumptuousness? The three verbs in verses 14–15 will put us on our guard against presumptuousness. First, there is our ignorance, you do not know. James indulges here in a little irony. He is talking about a person who was busy laying out his programme for next year (13) and he quietly notes that you do not know about tomorrow (14). This fact alone is enough to keep us low before the God who created, controls and apportions time. Then there is our frailty—you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. We are insubstantial (mist), transient (a little time) and gone without trace (vanishes). Finally there is our dependence, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills …’. We come here to the heart of the matter.
James is not trying to banish planning from our lives, but only that sort of self-sufficient, self-important planning that keeps God for Sunday but looks on Monday to Saturday as mine. Certainly the words ‘God willing’ or their equivalents are not to become a fetish, or used as a protective talisman. John Calvin aptly notes that ‘we read everywhere in the Scriptures that the holy servants of God spoke unconditionally of future things, when yet they had it as a fixed principle in their minds that they could do nothing without the permission of God’. C. L. Mitton goes to the central point when he contrasts ‘evil doers’ who make the transience of life ‘an excuse for snatching all the pleasure out of it while there is time’, while ‘others use it as an excuse for doing nothing’, but ‘James refers to it as a reason why men should be humble before God’. Once more it is this key factor of the lowly walk with God that is threatened. Our initial determination is to commit ourselves decisively to God’s side (7), to live in close fellowship with him (8a), to purge our lives and our hearts (8b), to come to the place of wholesale repentance (9) and so to humble ourselves before God. All this can be lost, however, if, once outside the doors of our private room, we take the reins of life into our own hands, we forget our ignorance, frailty and dependence and plan our day, our week and next year as if we were lords of earth and time, and there was no God in heaven. To be sure the words ‘If the Lord wills’ can be a protective superstition; but they can also be the sweetest and most comfortable reassurance to a humble and trustful spirit.
The words are also intended for practical application to the hard details of real life. James addresses himself here to the Christian businessman, planning the expansion of his company into a new area, engaged in forward budgeting for a year’s trading. Too often Christians leave God in the church or at home with their wives when they take the train to their offices. James sees that either God is honoured as Lord in the place of business, or else the crucial factor of the humble spirit has been sacrificed on the altar of presumptuousness. In verse 14 it was the contents of tomorrow which were unknown, but in verse 15 it is the very existence of tomorrow and our own existence which is in question. We may take tomorrow for granted, thinking of it as a mark on the rim of time’s wheel, coming on inevitably as the circling years proceed. But in the Bible the years do not circle. They go in a straight line from eternity to eternity, and on that line we receive another day neither by natural necessity, nor by mechanical law, nor by right, nor by courtesy of nature, but only by the covenanted mercies of God. The very existence of tomorrow is as much part of our dependence on him as is our life itself5 and our ability.
The sin of presumption
Finally we must ask, with James, how serious the sin of presumptuousness is, even though in essence we have already faced the issue. It is, as we have seen, a most direct challenge to the life of lowliness before God, for it involves taking into our own hands the reins of planning and command. It involves seeing life itself as a continuing right rather than as a daily mercy. All this, however, is by implication from verses 13–15, and it would seem that James sees here something too serious to be left to implication. He uses verses 16–17 to drive his point home.
The verb ‘to boast’ (kauchaomai) is often used in the New Testament in a good sense for exultant, abounding joy in something, as when, for example, we are encouraged to boast in our hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:2). But what an unholy, unacceptable thing this exulting becomes when it arises from your arrogance! Here is a word (alazoneia) used elsewhere only in 1 John 2:16, and translated the ‘pride’ of life. In other words, when even in little, secret, almost unrecognized ways we forget how frail we are, and stop short of conscious dependence on our God, it is an element of the proud, boastful, vaunting human spirit, flaunting its supposed independence and self-sufficiency. As such it is evil (16)—and James offers no qualification of the word: he merely says evil, the word which other scriptures use of the devil, the ‘evil one’.
Verse 17 finds James at his abrupt best! He moves without preparatory warning from the particular of verse 16 to the general of verse 17, from the evil of the sin of arrogance to a searching statement of the principle of the sin of omission. In fact, the whole idea of sinning by default has never been given more pointed expression. It is a principle which exposes the insufficiency of even our best accomplishments, and makes us realize that we are never more than unprofitable servants. ‘We may be able’, says C. L. Mitton, ‘to avoid committing forbidden evil; but who can ever seize positively every opportunity of doing good?’
Verses 16 and 17 are not, however, as unconnected as rsv might suggest. In the Greek the connective ‘therefore’ (oun) appears at the opening of verse 17. It must not be overlooked: ‘All such boasting is evil. Whoever, therefore, knows.…’ To James the sin of presumptuousness is so important, so basic, that it is as if the category of sins of omission had been deliberately devised in connection with it: that is the force of the ‘therefore’ of verse 17. We might consider it a small thing, a passing feature of life, if we forget how dependent we are and act in mere self-will. He sees it as the hard core of vaunting pride which is the mark and curse of fallen man. Here, above all places, we cannot afford to fall into the sin of omission.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (pp. 229–237). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Ellsworth, R. (2009). Opening up James (pp. 141–142). Leominster: Day One Publications.
 Motyer, J. A. (1985). The message of James: the tests of faith (pp. 160–163). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.