I am a person who always likes a plan. By a plan, I don’t mean just some general hopes to one day do such and such. I like timelines and concrete goals. Having studied leadership, I know that there is wisdom in this. It is good to have a short-term plan and a long-term plan. While emotionally it is good to take one day at a time, in every other area of life, we need to have some future focus. Why does a child go to school on any given day? Because their parents make them. Why do their parents make them? So they can finish that grade, as a step to finishing school, as a step toward getting a job. Why does a person go to work in any given day? To make money to buy groceries for that week, to pay other bills for that month, to save some money that year and to prepare for retirement decades down the line. If we only lived for the moment, our lives would be much different. It should be obvious that there is a need to have an eye toward the future and to make plans accordingly. At the same time, we all have likely experienced a time when we had carefully planned something and things worked out nothing like we expected. I can think of all sorts of things in our family life that did not work out according to our plans. That did not mean that they were all bad, just that the plan did not match reality. This can seem like an innocent bit of trying to predict the future, but there is something deeper going on here. How we look to the future, how we look to our future, says a lot about how we see life and how we see God. James is very interested in this. He gives some strong warnings, provides a negative example and gives guidance as to how we should plan our futures.
James begins with the assumption that there are some bad plans. The context is that of rich people making plans for gaining more wealth. We would agree that planning for a certain level of financial stability is a good thing. However, when it comes to the plan for our lives, I would suggest that James sees the starting place of amassing wealth to be wrong. It is not that making money is wrong, but having that as our primary motivation can be a dangerous thing. When I first applied to university, I applied for what I loved which was history. However, my mind began to be drawn to the idea of money. How could I make a living with a history degree? So I switched to business. I did not have a love for business, nor did I have natural talent in that area. My motivation was solely about making money. During my studies, I did not dream of a job that I would enjoy or would feel fulfilled in. I dreamed of getting rich. Guess how that worked for me? The only business related job I ever had was the worst paying job I ever had and I quit after two months. Being in ministry, money is no longer my motivator. Bad plans may also include confidence in both short-term and and long-term timelines. I believe that it is important to have short and long-term goals. The problem is with the level of confidence put in those goals. Are you talking about what you would like to see happen or are you stating what will happen? There is a difference between planning well and an arrogant expectation that reality will submit to your plans. The final part of the bad plan is not what is included but what is missing. There is no talk of God here. Bad plans leave God out of the picture. The Bible says “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” (Psalms 14:1 NIV) This is not about modern atheists who actively argue against the existence of God. In that culture, very few would actually deny the existence of God, at least with their words. What we are talking about are practical atheists, people who deny God with their actions. This is the danger in our plan making, that we suddenly become practical atheists. When we just plot our whole lives, we can leave out any room for God’s plan. My children have plans. Those plans are for what games they are going to play and what shows they are going to watch. That is fine. But when we decide we are going somewhere or it is mealtime or bedtime, our plan overrides their plan. We dare not ever feel so secure in our authority that we leave no room for God’s plan.
So there can be bad plans in life. But that does not mean that there can be no good plans. It is hard to see how we could survive, much less thrive, without some sort of planning in our life. So what does that look like? James tells us that starting place for planning is not in wealth seeking but in will seeking. We start with submission to the will of God. We have to begin with the attitude of “If it is the Lord’s will.” I have to be clear what we mean here. I am not saying waiting before a meal until God reveals his will that you should eat. We should be going about the normal activities of life. However, it may be that God would like you to skip a meal and fast. But you don’t assume that ahead of time. The point is, we live our lives with an attitude of being open to God adjusting our way at any time. Here is another question: does God have a specific will for every part of our life? Does God have a specific spouse planned for you? Does God have a specific career path for you? Should we work ourselves up, worrying if this is “the one”? Many Christians would say yes to this. I am not so sure. It is true that God has a will for the kind of spouse you have and the kind of job you get. But it does not take great spiritual insight to understand that it is not God’s will that you be a drug dealer or a mafia hit man. However, God may not have specific concerns on whether you are an electrician or a plumber. So you should not beat yourself up about making the wrong choice unless God gave you specific, clear guidance otherwise. Also, God does not always give full details of his will, it may be just the next step. When I first felt myself called into ministry, there were no details as to what that would look like. Although I had a picture of what I thought it would be, I was way off. Even after I actually started in ministry, what ministry looks like now is very different. I could never have predicted the things that have happened since. All I knew at the beginning was that it was ministry and that I needed training. The next part in good plans is the acknowledgment of the fragility of life. Before we ask if God wants us to marry that supermodel or move to Africa or start a new business, we have to reflect on whether we have another day to live. Every breath we take, every heart beat is in the hands of God. We need to rediscover the fragility of life. It was three years ago at this time that our family made plans. We were selling my parents house, preparing for my mom to move in with us, looking at building an extension on our house and dreaming of what life was going to like. We did move my mom to live with us. She spent less than twenty-four hours in the room we prepared and decorated for her, went into the hospital for two weeks and then was dead. All of our plans are contingent on our own mortality. This is not to be morbid but rather to give us a sense of humility in our plans. Then and only then do we make our plans. We reflect on our desires, look at our resources and skills, try to determine what is possible and beneficial and make plans accordingly. Make short-term plans, make long-term plans. But all of these are always ready for adjustment. We confess that we are not the lord of our own life. All of our plans must be according to our understanding of God’s will and in the shadow of our mortality, reflecting on the fragility of life.
To plan or not to plan, that is the question. The truth is there are good plans and bad plans. The value, is not so much in the content of the plan as it is in the attitude of the planner. Do we start with a focus on getting rich and a confidence in our own abilities? Or do we start with submission to God’s will and a thankfulness just for another day to live? We need to make plans to use our resources wisely, to be faithful with what we have, to prepare for future generations and to live productive lives. But those plans have to be made with an attitude honoring to God.