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If the Lord Wills

hand of God


There is a phrase once common among Christians that you rarely hear these days: "the Lord willing". This expression has definite Biblical roots, coming directly from the book of James. It always relates to future plans and suggest two things: intention and the recognition that intention does not equal certainty.

The passage from James says this:

Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit"; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that." But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)

James seems pretty serious about all this, but at first glance what he is criticizing doesn't seem all that bad. To state one's future plans is something people do all the time. And he is not talking about doing something evil. He is not saying, "I plan to go rob a bank and steal five million dollars." Moving to another city and doing business for a year there seems innocuous enough, and to share your plans with others seems reasonable.

So what's the problem? It is the certainty of the declaration that bothers James. There are no qualifiers in the announcement. The man is not saying, "I plan to go and do this," or "I hope to go and conduct my business." He is saying this is what I will do – "I will go to this city, spend a year there, conduct my business, and make a nice profit." He has neglected to reckon in the God-factor. He has forgotten that the Creator of heaven and earth has total veto power over the plans of all His creation. What we plan and what actually happens may or may not be one and the same, depending on the will and providence of God.

Divine “Job Description”

In Psalm 33 we read, "The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; He makes the plans of the peoples of no effect" (Psalm 33:10). Part of God's "job description" is to negate the plans of people and nations. It is not as though He enjoys upsetting our plans or disappointing our hopes, but His mind and His plans are so much bigger than ours it is inevitable that there will be times when His providence totally overrides and completely undercuts our careful plans and schemes. Someone once said, "If you want to hear God laugh, tell Him all about your plans."

A story is told of the great Napoleon that illustrates this perfectly. As a general, Napoleon had known incredible success in battle, which led him to think of himself as nearly invincible. As He faced the English army in June, 1815, he laid out his strategy to his officers: "We will put the infantry here, the cavalry over there, and the artillery in that spot. At the end of the day, England will be at the feet of France, and Wellington will be the prisoner of Napoleon." One of the officers thought his commander a little too brash in such a declaration, and responded, "But, we must not forget that man proposes and God disposes." Napoleon would have none of it, and answered, "I want you to understand, sir, that Napoleon proposes and Napoleon disposes!" Victor Hugo wrote these words, "From that moment Waterloo was lost, for God sent rain and hail so that the troops of Napoleon could not maneuver as he had planned, and on the night of the battle it was Napoleon who was prisoner of Wellington, and France who was at the feet of England."

It is not wrong to make plans. To dream and plan and set goals for your future is a very wise thing. People who lack organizational skills and try to sail through life living for the moment and never thinking much about the future usually end up at the bottom of the heap. When I do meetings in Africa, I do not simply fly over there and start preaching on the streets. Much prayer and thought, and many emails and phone calls go on months beforehand in order to make things run as smoothly as possible. If you are hoping to start a business or do some major ministry effort, by all means make your plans. But God is telling us here, in your planning recognize Me, and know that a deal is not a done deal until I have allowed it.

Our Own Ignorance

After James describes the man who plans to go to a certain city, he follows it up with, "whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow." None of us, regardless of how intelligent or how learned we may be, can be sure of what will happen tomorrow or next month or next year. We have all had life interruptions. Things were humming along smoothly, our life seemed on course and according to plan, and suddenly we were blind-sided. Some new factor appeared out of nowhere and everything changed. All our plans and expectations about our future were wiped out, and a new reality rudely took their place. And without so much as an "if you please!"

There is One who knows perfectly what will happen in our lives tomorrow and next year, and that is God. The God of the Bible is presented as One who is all knowing, and His knowledge is every bit as precise about the future as it is about the past. In Isaiah God says:

For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, "My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure…" (Isaiah 46:10)

Not only does God know what will happen; He is actively involved in controlling and directing all these happenings. He says that He "watches over His word, to perform it." It is fairly simple to predict the future if you are the one controlling the future. If I predict that a friend will come into some money in three days, and then three days later go to that friend and give him a check for ten thousand dollars, I have made my own prophecy come true. This is how our God works continually. Through His prophets in the Scriptures He has assured us of things to come; through the power of His Holy Spirit He has made those very things come to pass, and is still doing so today.

For us humans it is a very different story. We can only guess about the future and have very little power in shaping the circumstances of our lives and our world around us. For us to make unqualified statements with total certainty about what our future holds is not smart.

Brief Mist

James goes on to deal with the brevity of our lives: "For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away." We have all experienced driving in an early morning fog, only to notice an hour or two later that the fog had completely disappeared. Once the sun rises, the fog clears out with haste. James says we are like that. We are a fog, a mist, a vapor that appears on the earth ever so briefly, and the next moment we are gone. Earlier in his epistle James describes man as fading away as he goes about his pursuits. As we shop at Wal Mart and eat frozen pizza, and watch television, and go to work, and buy things at garage sales, and get into arguments and then make up with our spouses, and celebrate birthdays and Christmases, we are fading away. Though we may look as substantial as ever, the sands of our allotted years are quickly draining from the hourglass. Soon the last grain will quietly fall and we shall be no more on this earth.

If we were all programmed to die at the exact same time – say on our 99th birthday, it would be so much nicer! We could calculate our remaining time and plan accordingly. We could make lists of things to do before we exit this life, and schedule them throughout the years we have left. But there are no guarantees. Children die of diseases, men and women start dying from heart attacks as early as in their forties, and all sorts of accidents cut people's lives short long before they reach old age. And all our will power, all the physical checkups, all the best dietary habits and most comprehensive exercise programs cannot guarantee that we will even make it into old age. These things can up the odds a bit, but they cannot remove the uncertainty factor.

Meditate on Mortality

James is saying that we should take our own mortality into account while planning and speaking of our plans. While the secular man does all he can to deny and suppress the thought of his own mortality, God encourages His children to meditate on it, even as we make our plans. This isn't morbid; it is realistic. And reckoning on God's sovereign control over our lives and life-spans is good for us.

James' advice is this: "Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.' " He is telling us that there is Someone higher and greater than us, who is in charge of our lives, and may make decisions about our lives without even asking our permission. To say "The Lord willing" is to declare "I am not in total control of my life." Of course God can upset our plans not only by taking us to be with Him; He can use a thousand different circumstances to bring our plans to a different conclusion than we had expected. Here is a prophecy for every young person reading this article: Your life is going to contain some major surprises. I speak this not as a prophet but simply as one who has observed the way life works. Regardless of how closely you walk with the Lord, regardless of how keenly you sometimes hear His voice, and how much time you spend in prayer, there will be times when God will surprise you and totally overturn all your best-laid plans, even those plans which you made with His glory in mind.

James tells us that to make definitive statements about your future plans, leaving no room for God's providential hand, is wicked. He says, "But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil." Proud people love to make unqualified statements: "I'll be a millionaire by the time I'm 40." "Our team is going all the way this year." "Nothing will stop me from becoming president of this company." "I'm writing a book that is going to make the best-seller list." Of course, God sometimes allows arrogant people to achieve the very goals they proudly predict, but it does them harm rather than good, and confirms them in their self-confidence which sees no need for the God who holds their breath in His hands and owns all of their ways.

We Don’t Have it in Us

Jeremiah writes, "I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps" (Jeremiah 10:23). Any board would be crazy to place a six-year-old boy in charge of a major corporation. Instead of putting in the long hours and doing the hard work necessary for the success of the corporation, the boy would be in his office playing video games and watching cartoons. It wouldn't really be the boy's fault, though. Six-year-old boys simply don't have it in them to run big corporations. So it is with our lives. We don't have it in us to direct our own lives and our own steps. There is a God in heaven who does. He has sent His Son Jesus Christ to die for our sins, and then raised Him from the dead, so that we could become children of God and receive the Holy Spirit who will become our Director. It is very much proper that we should plan our projects and carefully think through the decisions we must make relating to our future. But we must always seek the wisdom of God, depend upon the leading of the Holy Spirit, and make our plans with the awareness that God has the final say. "The Lord willing we shall live and go, and do this or that."


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