Pastor Chris Tweitmann
“The best laid plans…”
“The best-laid plans” is a saying
– a proverb from a Scottish poem written by Robert Burns in 1786.
The complete line of that poem reads:
“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
This saying refers to something that has gone askew,
something that has not turned out as one had hoped.
The expression carries the connotation
that one should not expect for things to always turn out to plan.
Have you ever had one of those days where, despite being proactive,
and despite all your effort, nothing turns out like you planned?
One of those days? How about one of those years?
Much of 2020 has been a prolonged experience of our best laid plans going awry.
How many calendar events over these last six months
did we have scheduled that ended up being cancelled or postponed?
How many holidays, birthdays, or other significant life events
during this last year have we had to completely adjust
and revise our expectations for?
Speaking just for myself, my family,
we had a college graduation that was cancelled,
a wedding ceremony that has been postponed,
several milestone birthdays that we planned on celebrating much differently.
And if I expand this list to include my broader family of Grace,
in just six months, the list gets even longer.
What does your list look like?
What plans for your life got cancelled, postponed, or revised for this year?
It is into this situation – the overwhelming reality that has come to define 2020
– that the next passage from James’ letter to the Church speaks.
To all of us who assumed our lives and schedules would be what we planned, that everything we mapped out would come to pass…
To an entire planet of people that presumed
life tomorrow would continue as we knew it yesterday
until a virus became a global pandemic and changed everything,
To those who still refuse to accept the way things are and persist in
trying to regain control of their calendars, their careers, and their comfort…
James has a word for us today. A word for today. A word about tomorrow.
A word about living for the present and planning for the future.
A word that maybe, for the first time ever,
we might actually be in the right place to hear. Here’s James 4:13 – 17.
The way this passage starts might tempt us to believe James is not talking to us.
After all, he addresses his comments to those who travel
– who go into this or that city and then spend a year there
carrying on business and making money.
In other words, James appears to be talking strictly
to merchants, to vendors and tradespeople.
But what James is doing is offering a situation from the world of business
that is intended to serve as an example for all people.
The key here is not what these people do; it’s how they go about doing it
– specifically, how they make their plans.
James is capturing an attitude, an ethos, an approach to life
where we presume that all of our plans are going to come about
simply because we made those plans.
To be clear, James isn’t saying making or having a plan is wrong – a bad thing.
Repeatedly through God’s Word, the Bible – especially in the book of Proverbs,
the wisdom of anticipating and preparing for tomorrow is commended to us.
Within the narrative of the scriptures we witness several, varied examples of
godly people making plans, from Joseph to King David, from Paul, Peter,
and even Jesus Himself.
As good stewards of all that God has given us,
we are encouraged to cultivate the habit of planning
– to be mindful that we reap what we sow
in terms of our time, talent, and other resources.
Making plans is not the issue.
The problem is making plans with the assumption
that we have control over our plans.
The problem is believing we have a unilateral ability or power
to determine when, where, what, and how long we will accomplish something.
But WHY is this a problem?
James reveals the foolishness of such a mindset as he declares,
“Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.”
And James is right, isn’t he? We don’t know the future.
We can speculate. We can anticipate.
We can make an informed guess and plan for tomorrow,
but ultimately, we don’t KNOW what tomorrow will bring.
The most tragic events in our lives are most often the unexpected
– the things we never see coming,
the stuff we might have granted as existing within the realm of possibility,
but we never could have imagined as actually happening to us.
James tells us we should never presume
that tomorrow will be like today
because our resources and our ability to control outcomes
are much more limited than we realize or admit to ourselves.
We don’t even know all there is to know about the past or the present,
so how can we, on our own, possibly know or guarantee the future?
We cannot assume that any of our plans will turn out the way we want,
James goes on, not only because our knowledge is finite,
but because we ourselves are finite creatures.
James’ first point is you and I do not have the power and the control
we convince ourselves we have.
His second point is even more humbling as James asks, “What is your life?”
Many answers have been given to this question.
James, as always, keeps it real and tells it straight.
“For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”
Have you ever been camping and watched the smoke from the fire
curl up and dissolve into the night sky?
Have you ever, on a really hot day, sprayed yourself with a water bottle
and witnessed the water droplets quickly turn to vapor in the wind?
Have you ever caught a morning sunrise come up over a river
and melt away the bank of fog along the surface of the water?
These are the images that James is invoking to describe what our lives are.
Whether we fancy ourselves to be a prominent businessperson,
an award-winning athlete, a noted scholar, a decorated war hero,
a rising artist, a skilled musician, the President of the United States,
or the world’s greatest Mom, we are but a wisp, a vapor.
We are but a mist because we are all mortal.
Every human life by itself has a beginning and an end.
In the span of eternity, each of us,
on our own exists for a brief moment only to be gone in the next.
None of wants to admit this but that doesn’t make it any less true.
And yet ours is a world that lives in denial of mortality.
All of our modern comforts and conveniences
– including our healthcare system – are designed to enable us
to keep the end of the road out of sight and therefore out of mind.
But James refuses to write us another prescription to make us
feel comfortably numb as we punt our perishability downfield.
James doesn’t tell us to be strong.
He doesn’t tell us not to let our mortality dominate our lives.
James challenges us to recognize our frailty and to accept our vulnerability.
James encourages us to remember and not to forget or ignore
that we do not have the power to control how long we have to live,
and therefore, we cannot assume that we have tomorrow or next week,
or next month, or next year.
For James, the reality of our mortality – that life is short
– exposes the folly of our presumption –
that we cannot plan for the future as if we alone control our destiny.
For all you and I know, today could be the last day of our life.
Now before this all sounds too dark and depressing,
James isn’t trying to convince us to resign ourselves to some fatalistic worldview.
James isn’t suggesting that our lives are meaningless and without purpose.
Christianity isn’t alone in telling the truth about the transience of our humanity.
Other faiths and secular philosophies also attest that our lives are
but a flash in the pan, a blip on the radar, a flower that blooms and fades.
But Christianity doesn’t stop here – confronting the inevitability of our death.
This, in fact, is where our faith begins.
Christianity faces the truth of our mortality
in order to reveal the possibility and the promise of our resurrection
– of a life that does not ultimately end
but that is radically extended and transformed eternally.
James isn’t declaring “Eat, drink, and be merry because tomorrow we die.”
For James, admitting that our lives on their own are transitory and uncertain
is the starting point for first recognizing, and then actually living
as though our lives are in God’s hands.
In verse 15, James redirects our mindset away from
the folly of our presumption to the confidence borne of our faith:
“Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
Again, James isn’t saying there is anything wrong
with planning or living for the future.
The problem James is addressing is when God has no place in our plans.
James seeks to correct this kind of thinking by getting us back to square one.
Before we even begin to make any plans, we need to acknowledge
that it is only by the Lord’s will that you and I are living today.
We didn’t bring ourselves into this world.
And every breath we take, every beat of our heart,
every movement of our body, every engagement of our mind,
every inspiration of our spirit is only by the grace of God.
However, saying, “If the Lord wills” does not mean
that we can do what we want as long as God keeps us alive.
No! The point is,
if life itself is contingent on the will of God, then so must our plans.
This is why James goes on to add, we ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will”
whenever we propose to do this or that.
Back in the day, this kind of understanding was once built into
the Christian mindset as earlier generations believers used to say,
“The Lord willing” or conclude their letters
writing something of their plans with the addition of the Latin phrase,
Deo Volente or “God permitting.”
Jesus taught us to pray this way, “Thy will be done.”
Jesus Himself prayed these very words in the Garden of Gethsemane
before his journey to the Cross, “Father, yet not as I will but as you will.”
This inclusion of this little phrase was an acknowledgement
in any proposal for the future that we must not overlook
that our plans are always subject to the Lord’s plans for us and for this world.
But, let’s be clear.
“The Lord willing” is not intended to be a slogan
– something we just tack onto to anything we say or write in terms of our plans.
This is not the point James is making at all.
“If it is the Lord’s will” is not just supposed to something we say;
it is to become our adopted mindset in approaching everything we do,
every breath we take, each day and every moment as a gift from God.
And in acknowledgment of that gift, rather than taking such grace for granted,
we are to make all our plans in light of this fixed perspective
– of living in complete dependence upon the Lord.
As human beings we have been created
not just to believe in God but to live our lives for God.
God didn’t come down to us in the person of Jesus Christ
so that we would finally believe in Him.
God came to us in Christ, clearing away all the obstacles before us
in our relationship with Him
through the Cross, the Resurrection, and Pentecost,
so that we would follow Him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
And the fact of the matter is,
how we face each day as well as how we anticipate
and work in terms of the future is a clear indicator of whether or not
we are living for God, whether or not we are following Jesus.
When we fall into the habit of living our daily lives and planning for our future without considering and relying upon the Lord,
we are guilty of operating out of a form of practical atheism.
Why? Because we are engaging our lives as if God isn’t there.
When we confess with our mouths on Sunday
that Jesus is Lord and Savior of our lives
but then conduct ourselves Monday through Saturday
as if we are the lords and masters of our destiny,
we are functionally denying Christ.
Take a moment and reflect on your life right now.
Consider the decisions you’ve made in the past.
Consider all the plans you’ve made for your future.
• Decisions and plans related to your career path and goals.
• Decisions and plans related to where you are living.
• If you’re married or hope to be someday,
decisions and plans related to marriage partner.
• If you have kids or desire to, decisions and plans related to your children.
• Decisions and plans related to how you budget and spend your resources
– your time, your finances, etc.
• Decisions and plans related to your retirement – to how long you will live.
How much has the Lord been involved
in those past decisions and in those future plans?
Did we pray over any of these decisions and plans?
Did we listen through God’s Word and by the Holy Spirit
to hear, to consider what the Lord’s plans for us might be?
Did we even ask if our plans and goals are what God’s goals and plans are
– and not just for us, but for His people, for His creation?
Do we wait upon the Lord before we make our choices and act?
Or do we execute our decisions and our plans
and then come to the Lord asking God to bless what we’d already decided to do?
It doesn’t take much to start leaving God out of our decisions and our plans.
Part of our confession as Christians is that we are a broken people
– forgiven yes but still being reformed of our tendency to live for ourselves,
to function as if the world centers and revolves around us.
In the midst of spiritual recovery by the grace of God, from our addiction to self
we are bombarded constantly by self-help strategies, advertisers,
and even leadership examples
that urge us to– sometimes even shaming us if we don’t
– to claim and assert our self-determination, our self-sufficiency,
our autonomy and independence.
And the more we scratch that itch, the more we convince ourselves
we have the power to carry out our plans,
the less we will abide in the power of the Spirit
and yield to the Lord’s plans for our lives and this world.
The more we think, speak, and act under the assumption that we are in control,
that we have the right to impose our will and desires
for the present and the future with impunity,
the less credit and recognition – glory, honor, and praise
we will rightly give to the Lord.
We will instead presumptuously take all the credit for ourselves.
This is what James is talking about when he says in verse 16,
“As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.”
But WHY is it evil to take pride in our decisions and our plans?
Because it is precisely at the point where our decisions and our plans
are our source of strength, comfort, and hope for tomorrow,
that all those decisions and all those plans become our functional god.
We are looking to them, trusting and relying on our decisions
and our plans to give us joy, to give us peace, to make everything wrong right.
Beloved, the more we believe in ourselves,
the less we believe in and rely on Christ.
The more we live for ourselves, the less we live for Christ
and therefore, the less we live to support and care for each other.
And this, above all, is God’s ultimate plan for our life together
– that we glorify Him by expressing His love
through the good we do for our neighbor
– acting justly, practicing mercy, and sharing from
what we have been given for the betterment of all persons.
James underscores this with the last verse of this passage, of this chapter:
“If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it,
it is sin for them.”
We tend to look at sin – wronging God – as doing what we shouldn’t do.
Here though, James, clarifies, sin isn’t just staying out of trouble;
we also wrong God when we fail to do what is right
– as we refuse to do what the Lord requires of us.
To accept God’s reign over all creation and to declare oneself a citizen of
His Kingdom is to embrace God’s law of love and to commit to live by it.
James having just finished telling us to keep the Lord involved in all our planning – to live as we have been called in following Jesus, now makes it clear
we have no excuse if we fail to do so
– because having just taught us this principle, we know better now.
We are living through a season right now that has forcibly opened our eyes
to the truth of what James is telling us.
All our lives have been reset by something invisible called COVID-19.
Our best-laid plans at work, for our homes,
in terms of our wealth and resources, within our families and friendships,
have been completely wiped out or forced to radically change.
And as we try to make decisions for the future,
we honestly don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
Can I confess to you for a moment, how hard it has been
to be your pastor over these last 6 months?
In the midst of all that has changed within my life
and within the ministry of Grace, what has been harder for me
has been trying to make decisions over these last six months
and to plan for our future with the staff and leadership of this community.
There are so many unknowns before us.
There are countless opinions about what’s real, what’s true,
and what’s necessary in the midst of all this.
At the same time there are segments of our community
who aren’t communicating with us,
who aren’t showing up either in person or online,
despite our best efforts to keep in touch with them.
In the last six months, as I have found myself consumed by the effort
to make the right decisions and the best plans for our future,
it’s been an exhausting and continually frustrating experience.
And to tell the truth, until we came to this part of James’ letter,
I didn’t understand why this was the case.
But now I get it.
Six months in and what the coronavirus has exposed is the degree
to which I have become accustomed to finding my confidence
– my peace and security – in my perceived power and control
to make plans for my life and for this ministry.
Don’t misunderstand me.
I’ve been praying and seeking God’s will. I’ve been mindful of the Lord’s plans.
It’s just that I’ve realized how much I’ve taken God’s presence
– His blessings and His grace for granted
– as a given rather than the place, the relationship from which I start.
And you know what really brought this home for me?
When I realized I just keep wanting things to go back to normal
– and by normal, I mean back to my perceived ability to control things,
back to my presumptions of having the power to determine
what comes next for me and frankly, for Grace.
But what if Jesus doesn’t want my life to go back to normal?
What if Jesus isn’t leading me back to that place I once was
where He was following my lead more than I was following His?
What if Jesus is working through all of this by His Spirit
to lead me to depend more on Him and less on myself?
What if Jesus is redirecting me from
having all my decisions and all my plans blessed by Him
and instead having all the choices I make and the plans I commit to
be first shaped by Him?
Bob Goff, a former lawyer and now renown Christian author and speaker, crystallized what the Holy Spirit was putting on my heart and mind
when he wrote this:
“The way we deal with uncertainty says a lot about whether
Jesus is ahead of us leading, or just behind us carrying our stuff.”
What say we Church?
In the throes of the instability of these last six months
and the uncertainty as unexpected events continue to unfold in our world today,
are we following Jesus’ lead or are we presuming Jesus
is supposed to following our lead – behind us carrying our stuff?
Jesus can carry our stuff. He’s a great Savior.
But are we willing to let Jesus be Lord of our lives?
To lead and direct the steps we take and the plans we make for our lives?
Following Jesus involves an importance balance
between doing nothing and trying to control everything.
On the one hand, James is stressing our existence
and all of our activity attempting to map out every square inch of our lives,
is subject to the sovereign will of the Lord.
All of our plans, our goals and our dreams for the future
at home, at work, in the public square, or in the church,
must be framed, grounded, and tempered
by the humble recognition of fact that the Lord reigns.
That God is God and we are not.
That only what our Almighty Creator ordains and allows will come to pass.
And that sort of humility doesn’t diminish our hopes and our plans for the future.
It sanctifies them.
It keeps our plans in the realm of reality, as a holy means of serving God
instead of a sinful attempt to replace Him.
It yields our plans to the shaping and transformation by the Holy Spirit
so that our lives become sacred conduits of the blessings, of the fruit,
of the Kingdom of God.
Because, on the other hand, while James declares with the rest of scripture,
that the Lord reigns, James isn’t nullifying our agency or responsibility
as human beings.
James isn’t telling us to throw all planning to the wind.
God created us with a free will in the sense
that we have an ability to make real choices
that have a genuine, consequential effect on our lives,
this world, and the immediate future.
And we must remain both conscious and attentive
in the choices we make and the plans we undertake
to do what is right in the eyes of God today
because we cannot take for granted that
we will have the opportunity to do so tomorrow.
We should not wait to honor our parents,
invest in our marriage,
spend time with our children, or engage and develop our friendships LATER
because we do not know what tomorrow will bring.
We cannot choose to wait to address the realities of
social, racial, gender, economic and environmental injustice and concerns LATER
because God has called us to live rightly TODAY
– not when its’ convenient, not when its’ comfortable,
not when it makes sense to us but NOW.
Today is what we have been given.
Tomorrow belongs to the Lord, not to us.
Whatever we plan for tomorrow is in the Lord’s hands and not ours.
Beloved, the fact that we’re not in control doesn’t mean
the world in which we live is out of control.
The invitation and challenge before us is to be a people
who move forward with the quiet confidence that our entire lives,
from start to finish,
along with every aspect of the world around us, past, present, and future,
is firmly under the sovereign care and dominion of the Creator of all things.
With the certainty and security of this assurance,
we have both the freedom and the responsibility
to make decisions, to orchestrate plans
– and the good news we don’t have to either
come up with these plans or to execute them on our own.
All we have to do to make the most of the time we have been given
by following Jesus’ lead and that means living fully into each moment
– loving and serving each other more
and worrying and struggling by ourselves to control things less.
The answers we are searching for and the hope we seek,
are not to be found through our best laid plans of trying to
get everything back to normal.
No, the reconciliation and redemption for which
we all long will only be realized as we follow the God
who is not just up in heaven aloof and detached,
letting us do whatever we want to do
but rather, who in Christ and through the Holy Spirit
remains in the midst of our very real choices
is actively, wisely, and lovingly, working all things together
according to the perfection of His will, of His plan for us
– which is for our individual and collective good.
The best laid plans are those the Lord has for all of us together
– plans to prosper us and not to harm us,
plans to give us together hope and a future. Amen.