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. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13–16, ESV.
I depend greatly on the calendar that I keep on my computer and my phone. I spent some time looking at it yesterday. I deleted a lot of things. Then I thought of what this would have looked like on mom’s old kitchen old wall calendar. Instead of just a lot of empty space where events used to be, there would be a lot of scribbled out events—black marks covering up mom’s incredibly neat handwriting. That old wall calendar is probably a better reflection of how I feel about having to remove so many events for the sake of social distancing. Black marks over pretty letters.
But James tells us that we should expect the scratched out events. We are not God. We do not know what tomorrow holds. In fact, we do not even know if tomorrow holds life or death—we are like a mist. In James’s day, in arid Palestine, a mist was a common metaphor for something that was here for a moment and then gone. That is what the span of our life amounts to when considered in light of God’s eternity. Our calendars have very few pages in comparison to God’s calendar.
So, life is short. Is James trying to depress us? Not at all. James is offering us more of his characteristic wisdom. We do not know what tomorrow holds, so we need to plan with the sovereignty of our almighty God in mind. To cling to our tentative plans instead of God’s sure plan is arrogant sin. We must enter each day, even each moment, holding to our plans loosely and trusting that God has a plan for us that is solid as a rock.
James does not go into it here, but we must also keep in mind that God’s plan for His children is always good. Paul helps us here in Romans 8:31-39. He writes, “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That is God’s plan—a plan to show His love to His people.
When we add this message from James with what we observed in the previous chapters, we get a great game-plan for living each day: Ask God for the wisdom that shows itself in humility and brings righteousness and peace. Control your tongue. Make your plans, trusting that, as good as your plan seems to you, God has something even better in mind. And His plan is a sure expression of His love.
I pray that you will know the goodness and steadfastness of God today.
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. James 3:13–18, ESV.
“Who is wise and understanding among you?” If there ever was a question for our day, that might be it! A tiny virus in China jumped from an animal to a human being and the entire world has been forced to reconsider how to do life. If ever there was a need for wisdom and understanding it is now!
But James doesn’t just ask us if we know any wise and understanding people. James gets brutally honest and tells us what wise and understanding people look like. They look like meek people. The wise and understanding one will not be jealous, selfish, boastful, or dishonest. These behaviors only produce chaos and evil. They are not evidence of wisdom, but evidence of demonic worldliness. God-given wisdom “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (3:17). And these wise behaviors produce righteousness and peace.
Wisdom is humble and results in righteousness and peace. It is tempting to read this passage and think of our speech-making leaders in Washington DC or in Harrisburg. Who doesn’t long to see peace and righteousness flow from humbly wise and understanding government leaders?
All the same, I believe the Lord would have us read James with a much more immediate application in mind. Wouldn't your family benefit this week if you were humbly wise and understanding? Could your family not use a little peace and righteousness? how about your workplace? how about your friends on social media?
Let’s join together today and pray James 1:5 with a James 3:17 understanding of what we are asking for! God said He will grant us wisdom if we ask. Can you imagine? All of our homes filled with humble wisdom producing righteousness and peace! Staying home may help us overcome a virus. Humble wisdom and understanding may turn our homes into places we want to stay!
May God bless you with righteousness and peace as you seek His wisdom and understanding today. I am praying for you.
So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. James 3:5–6.
Our county has not yet been placed under Governor Wolf’s “stay at home” order. Nonetheless, we are trying to follow the state’s general guidelines:
“General guidance for Pennsylvanians: Stay home as much as possible. Try to get groceries once per week instead of daily. Freedom of travel remains, but please refrain from non-essential travel. Essential travel includes things like commuting to an essential job, picking up supplies like groceries and medicine, and checking on family and pets in other households. Do not host or attend gatherings.” (https://www.health.pa.gov/topics/disease/coronavirus/Pages/Coronavirus.aspx)
That first guideline requires the people of God to consider James 3. Suddenly, many of us are spending day-after-day with our immediate families. The entire day. You are receiving all of their words. They are receiving all of your words. While I pray that, in the brief period of time we have been at this, you have found this extra conversation time to be a blessing, James tells us it is a bit dangerous. He says, “the tongue is a fire.”
Our tongues, the words that come out of our mouths, have the potential to do great harm. In fact, as you read all that James has written on the subject (Jas 3:1-12), you will see that controlling your words and preventing them from doing great destruction can be a hard fight. Fortunately, James already told us how to win this fight: “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (Jas 1:19). Listen first. Listen with love. Then speak, in love, if it is really necessary.
Make it your goal today to win this battle. Control your words. Use them to bless and not to curse. Build up and do not tear down. Speak encouraging words about Christ and His blessings.
Here is a way you could use your words for good and get to talk to people outside of your own home: NeedHim is a ministry that is looking for volunteers to do evangelism by telephone, chat room, and text. NeedHim partners with our North American Mission Board’s Evangelism Resource Center and provides great “stay at home” opportunities for evangelism. You can apply here: https://needhim.org/get-involved/.
May God bless you as you follow Jesus today,
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2:14–17, ESV.
Once every day, I go to the PA Department of Health website to look at a map. It is not a map that will help me find my way from point A to point B. It is a map that shows, county-by-county, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the number of associated deaths. The red, orange, and yellow colors indicate the highest numbers and every day they spread out a little further from their epicenters in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. As of yesterday, our rural county is only light green and the counties around it are still grey (no cases). Even so, the wave of red, orange, and yellow is moving our way.
As a Christian, I grieve with those who have lost loved ones and I am concerned for those I love who might be at serious risk if they were to catch this illness. Even so, the Bible tells us that this is not the time to cower in fear. We are to have faith in our mighty and good God. He is our one hope in life and in death. The salvation bought by the death and resurrection of Christ is sure and sealed for all who have faith in Him.
Into that experience of faith, even faith in the storm of pandemic, James comes and tells us to get to work! James will not buy our claim to faith if he does not see our works. If we offer platitudes to people who need our help when it is in our power to help them, then James would even call our faith dead.
In times like these, we must lean hard on Jesus, having faith in His might, His goodness, and His perfect salvation. But James tells us that leaning hard on Him will look a lot like going to the poor and the hungry with food and clothing and care. Living faith works.
How does this living faith work during a pandemic? It may work by social distancing, keeping your distance to help others stay well. It may work by making masks for medical workers. It may work by getting groceries for folks who really need to stay home. It may work by calling or sending cards to those in nursing homes who cannot have visitors. It may work by paying a bill for someone whose job has fallen victim to the virus response. It may have to work in creative ways beyond what I can imagine this morning!
Be encouraged. Your God is still God. Jesus still saves. You can have faith . . . living faith.
May God bless you as you live that faith today. I am praying for you.
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:26–27, ESV.
There is sentiment that floats around the church at times that says, “We don’t need religion. What we need is Jesus.” It is well intended. It is also misleading. I believe that James would counter that sentiment with a saying of greater precision. Something like, “We don’t need man-made religion. We need Jesus-shaped religion.” That is, in fact, the essence of what he is saying in the two verses before us this morning.
Man-made religion is self-absorbed. It is populated with those who think of themselves as good, religious people but do not control their speech and deceive their own hearts (see Jas 1:22-25). This kind of religion, James tells us, is worthless.
There is, however, a religion that has worth. It is Jesus-shaped religion. It is Great Commandment (Mt 22:37-40) religion. It is pure and undefiled like the spotless sacrifice the Jews were to offer in the temple. It is also pretty straight-forward in practice: care for those who need care and resist the temptation to sin (see Jas 1:12-15).
Our current circumstances demand we reconsider how to have this kind of religion, don’t they? How do we maintain a pure and undefiled religion when the events and structures we have always had in place to help us do so are removed? We will need to be creative in our religion in these days. Let me encourage you to practice some pure-religion-creativity today:
What will you do today to care for someone who needs care? Can you reach out and care without going out? Can you visit the “widow and orphan” while social distancing? No other age has been so equipped to do so! What will you do today?
What temptation to worldliness is nipping at your heels today? Is the news-o-mania sucking you into a whirlpool of anger and despair? Is your new-found family time revealing selfish traits in your own heart? What temptation will you pray about and fight against today?
I am praying that this will be a particularly good day for you—one where you practice a Jesus-shaped religion and know the joy of your Lord.