Good morning West London Alliance Church!
It is my privilege to spend this morning with you and I wanted to share a passage of Scripture with you that I spent some time discussing with our senior high group last Wednesday. The passage we were working through is found in James 4:13 – 5:6. Verses 4:13-15 set out a standard for godly living. Verses 4:16-5:6 list the implications for not abiding by the verses in 4:13-15. The verse upon which everything hinges is found at 4:15. It reads as follows:
4:15 “For you ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.”
At first blush this verse seems trite. Okay, I should just add “if the Lord wills” to all of my prayers. I could pray for a really good job, a particular relationship or a really nice car and spiritualize my request by saying “if the Lord wills”. Scripture is clear that the prayers of a righteous man availeth much (James 5:16) and whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith (Matthew 21:22). These verses seem to encourage my heart to chase different goals and aspirations. James 4:15 just reminds me that ultimately each plan I make is in the Lord’s hands. I only read James 4:15 as an instruction as to how lightly I should hold on to my goals and aspirations.
Understanding James 4:15 in this way renders the fulfillment of my goals and aspirations to be little more than a test. Their fulfillment is either a test of me (as to whether I am a righteous man and have faith) or they are a test of God (as to whether he is capable or willing to answer my prayer). For scripture to tell me to hold on lightly to my plans seems to be an acceptance that God’s promise to be righteous and ask in faith (so that my request will be granted) is not always true. I can pray for a good job, relationship or car….. I just can’t expect to receive it. Likewise, to ask me to align my requests with what God would already want to do seemingly renders the power of prayer useless. My prayer would just be an affirmation of what God would choose to do anyway. In this case, my prayer for a good job, relationship or car without justifying the request spiritually (a good job allows me also to serve my church, a certain relationship would be with a godly partner or the car I choose would allow me to serve others) would be fruitless. In either case, my prayer life becomes frustrated and my planning is rendered futile because I can’t trust God to do what I ask Him or, in the alternative, I can’t trust Him to do anything other than what He was going to do anyways.
Limiting James 4:15 by only reminding myself that my plans are “if the Lord will(s)” keeps me from getting ahead of God but it does not prevent me from judging God. It is not the content of my plans which is the problem, it is the belief that it is me who makes the plans. As long as I maintain my own expectation of what I would have God do, I measure God against my expectation. I think that the core of this issue is borne out in Luke 9:23:
9:23 “……..Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
The reminder to say “If the Lord will” is much more than reminding ourselves that we must take up our cross and follow Christ. It is a reminder that we must “deny ourselves”. As long as my walk with Christ measures itself by the cross I bear and the challenges I face as I follow Christ, I still measure Christ against my expectations. By reminding myself that it is the Lord’s will, I can change the barometer I use for trusting God. I am no longer the measure. It is not for me to make a plan and ask God to make it happen. “Denying myself” requires me to forget my plan and ask God for His plan.
However, James 4:15 still allows for the planning process to continue. How do we balance coming to God with a request without presuming upon God for a particular answer? The challenge is ultimately to allow God to be God and to rely on Him. Easy to say but difficult to live by. Denying myself is a struggle. The entirety of Scripture is a story of handing our situations over to God. God has constantly put humans in situations that are larger than themselves (Joseph/Pharoah, Moses/Pharoah, Israelites/Wilderness, Esther/Ahasuerus, David/Goliath, Daniel/Lions etc.). Maybe the best example of God teaching man to rely on Him was Gideon. Gideon was prepared to take up God’s cause and defeat the Midianites. He planned to this end. God could have empowered Gideon and the 32,000 Israelites with him to defeat the Midianites (ie. empowered Gideon). God could have used the 10,000 Israelites who were not afraid and help them to defeat the Midianites (ie. partnered with Gideon). Rather God decided to use the 300 men who drank water from their hands to defeat the Midianites (ie. do it for Gideon). What was the meaning behind this story? The reminder was that it was never about Gideon or his plans or his leadership. It was ever, only God who was going to defeat the Midianites and it was God’s reminder to Gideon that he needed nothing more than to trust God to lead him to that victory. Gideon denied himself because he did not hold God in judgement and kept a tighter hold onto God than he did to his own plans.
While this seems easy to say in words, how many times do I not trust God with the events of my own life? I become the judge of how I choose to honour God. I can take up my cross and I can follow him but have I really denied myself? I am still the captain of my own ship. I put God in the unenviable position of either i) enabling me to do something I presumed God would want me to do; or ii) stopping me from, in the best case, serving Him the way I saw fit or, in the worst case, championing my own cause. In any event, God becomes a means to my own end and I judge Him according to whether my plans succeed or not.
The reminder in James 4:15 is for me to start denying myself. While James still recognizes that planning is part of a Christian’s life, it demands that my planning be done solely for the purpose of reminding me of God’s sovereignty and His purposes. This extends beyond deciding what I should pray. It reminds me of whom I am praying to……a sovereign God. It seems counterintuitive to present my own plans for God for His endorsement when He already has plans to “give [me] a hope and a future”.
Historically, I would spend all of my time determining what God would want done and ask Him to help facilitate me getting it done. Instead, my prayer should be asking God what He would have me do. In this way, I don’t risk getting in front of God and requiring Him to remind me that I ultimately am living the life He purposes for me to live. The objects of my prayer do not redeem the sinful heart praying for them. If I, without prayer or consultation, decided that I was going to pursue practicing law or alternatively was going on the mission field, I am equally guilty of making God serve my own agenda. However, if I go to my knees and asked God to lead me in the path I should follow, I would find myself squarely within His will. That could be either practicing law or serving on the mission field. The content of my plans doesn’t redeem them, the heart that presents them to God does.
The question here is not to deliberate on what we pray for but to ask ourselves how we are to pray. The words in James 4:15 help to remind us that it is ultimately God who is to will for us what we should do. I just need to make sure that I ask that of God with no plan as to what I think should happen but only an excitement for what God will make happen.
Understanding how we should plan our lives is particularly timely because of society’s response to Covid. Everyone’s thoughts and plans have had to change. To the extent that my situation has become more difficult, I have the chance to remember (like Gideon) that this was, is and always will be God’s plan. My expectation of myself should be that I will not hold on to my plan and judge God in response to it. Rather, I should hold on to God and judge my plans in response to Him. I must never hold on to either my plan or the results. James 4:15 is reminding me that it was never about me……neither the plan nor the results. Covid is a constant reminder of this. Proverbs 16:9 says:
16:9 “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”