“If the Lord wills…”

During these years of pandemic, uncertainty has been the norm. Daily routines that we took for granted — work, school, family life — were turned upside-down. Everyone was forced to adapt in some way, in some cases having to do things they never thought they would have to do.

If there’s a bright side to all of this, it’s that many of us learned things we otherwise wouldn’t have learned. I have to confess: as an educator, being forced to pivot quickly to teaching online instead of in the classroom revealed to me my own arrogance. I knew before the pandemic that higher education was moving inexorably in a more hybrid direction, but dug in my ideological heels. With what little I had seen of online education, my attitude was, “No way. I’m never going to do this. I’ll retire first.”

Then COVID hit, and there wasn’t a choice. It was online or nothing (and it wasn’t time to retire yet). So just like all of my colleagues, I pivoted. I did what I needed to do to make it work. It literally cost me hundreds of hours of extra work, with many missteps and setbacks along the way. But it did work. Students learned. And at the end of the day, I was a convert. I began to imagine all the possible benefits of continuing in a hybrid mode.

Never say never. Because who knows what future God may have in mind?

. . .

We’ve seen in a recent post that there’s nothing inherently wrong with making plans for the future, nor with telling those plans to others. This past June, for example, I had primary responsibility for planning a graduation event for the students in our program. There were lots of details to manage, and many decisions to make. But I also had to communicate my plans and questions to others for everything to go smoothly. I also think of the many “What’s next?” conversations I had with the grads afterward. Most of them did indeed have plans for the next steps they needed to take in their professional journeys. I expected no less.

But imagine, if you will, two graduates having that conversation with each other. “What are your plans for the summer?” asks one. The other speaks proudly of the impressive internship she’s already landed, and of all the things she hopes to accomplish. “What about you?” she asks, when she’s finished. The first didn’t expect such a polished answer; she was just making conversation.

And now she feels inadequate; all she had planned was to take a break for a couple of months, to get her bearings after the rigorous demands of graduate school. Can she just say that, honestly, without feeling a bit ashamed? Will she have to make up something that sounds a little more impressive? Will her friend think less of her if she doesn’t?

This, I think, is the kind of situation James has in mind when he chastises believers for the boastful way they talk about their plans for the future:

Pay attention, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such-and-such a town. We will stay there a year, buying and selling, and making a profit.” You don’t really know about tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for only a short while before it vanishes. Here’s what you ought to say: “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” But now you boast and brag, and all such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16, CEB)

Let’s be clear. It’s not the words in themselves that matter, but the heart and intention behind the words. Again, it is not inherently problematic to say, “Tomorrow I will do X.” Nor is it inherently bad to make money. And not even all boasting is evil, as James himself suggests (James 1:9-10).

Rather, in the context of the letter as a whole, we can imagine the situation. There are people in the church who are ambitious, not for the things of God, but for the things of the world. When they talk about their plans, there’s an unspoken invitation to be impressed, to applaud.

The problem, in other words, is neither making nor speaking about future plans, but arrogance. Again, it’s not just about the language. James is not saying that the words “If the Lord wills” can be used like a magic formula that will cleanse all the words that follow of pretense and bad intentions. As suggested in the previous post, pious language can be used for impious purposes.

His point is rather that the people who are boasting of their plans should have the kind of humble hearts that are always aware that tomorrow belongs to a sovereign God. When they say “If the Lord wills,” it’s because in their minds, all their plans are contingent; their trust is in him rather than in their own power to get things done.

Might we cultivate the same way of thinking?