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.
15. If the Lord will. A twofold condition is laid down, “If we shall live so long,” and, “If the Lord will;” because many things may intervene to upset what we may have determined; for we are blind as to all future events. By will he means not that which is expressed in the law, but God’s counsel by which he governs all things.
15 The corrective for this attitude of presumption is found in v. 15: “Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” In the Scriptures, “the Lord’s will” is either revealed or hidden. The revealed will of God primarily has to do with mandates for righteous living or events that have already taken place. The future, as in our passage under consideration, is a part of the hidden will of God. The condition “if it is the Lord’s will” implies that a veil lies over the future and that the Lord himself will determine one’s actions and the outcomes of those actions. Further, God himself will determine whether an individual will even be alive. Notice that the thought “we will live” (zaō) is assumed in the travel plans of v. 13, but James points out that living another day is not guaranteed but is subject to the Lord’s will. The appropriate response to the veiled nature of the future is humble submission—an attitude implicit in the conditional clause “if it is the Lord’s will.”
4:15 / Instead of relaxing in the false security of worldly thinking, they need to raise their thinking to a higher level: If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that. This, of course, was precisely how Paul lived: Acts 18:21; Romans 1:10; 1 Corinthians 4:19; 16:7; Philippians 2:19, 24. The fact is that God alone controls whether we live. He alone controls whether we are able to do this or that. This acknowledgment recognizes human finiteness and divine sovereignty. But it does not rule out planning. The we will is a plan made in God’s will.
This advice is not simply to add a “God willing” at the end of every plan. Rather, it is to plan with God. Each plan is evaluated by his standards and goals; each plan is laid before God in prayer with adequate time spent in listening for God’s ideas. In such a case the “if God wills” is a prayerful belief that God does will, not a pious hope God won’t interfere. Plans made with careful prayer and aimed at God’s goals need not be insecure.
4:15. Finally, we hear the proper attitude. We are to seek the will of God in all our plans. Doing the will of God demands an active listening for God’s goals and plans. We must plan for the future, but we must plan with a deliberate seeking of the will of God.
As we discuss the will of God, we must not let his will become a strictly formal expression which lacks any spiritual meaning for us. We must remain spiritually alive to the necessity of building our plans around his desires. We must also avoid legalizing our own will under the disguise of seeking God’s will.
Some years ago I was an avid collector of postage stamps. Often I received stamps from various companies on approval. This procedure allowed me to look at the stamps, select what I wanted, pay for them, and return the unwanted stamps to the company. Have you ever asked God to show you his will “on approval”? If we use this method of seeking God’s will, it makes us the ultimate sovereigns over our lives. God desires that we obey his will unconditionally.
15. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
James teaches that God is sovereign in our lives. In all our planning, deeds, and accomplishments we must acknowledge our submission to God. Thus, after a comment on the brevity of life, he returns to the subject he introduced in verse 13. He says that instead of ignoring God in our daily activities, we ought to place him first and say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
In some circles and cultures, the cliché the Lord willing is rather common. It is a pious formula that because of its repeated usage begins to lose its intended significance. But why does James tell the merchants to use this formula? He shows them that their lives are in the hands of a sovereign God and that they should acknowledge him in all their plans. He does not tell them when and how to use the phrase if God wills.
Surprisingly, this phrase does not appear in the Old Testament. In the New Testament era, however, the apostle Paul teaches the Christians its proper use. Here are a few examples:
- When Paul left Ephesus, he said to the Jews, “I will come back if it is God’s will” (Acts 18:21).
- He told the Corinthians, “I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing” (1 Cor. 4:19).
- He promised the believers in Corinth to spend some time with them “if the Lord permits” (1 Cor. 16:7; also compare Phil. 2:19, 24; Heb. 6:3).
The New Testament, however, gives no indication that the apostles had coined a formula that was to be used frequently. In fact, Luke fails to relate its use in the narratives of Paul’s journeys recorded in Acts. Even in his epistles, Paul fails to employ this formula in places where we would have expected it. This means that we do not need to use the words God willing as a threadbare phrase. Rather, our entire lives ought to be that of the child of God who knows he is secure in the protective care of his heavenly Father. Every believer must live in such a way that, as Horatius Bonar put it, “no part of day or night from sacredness be free.” That is joyous Christian living.