Every night before we go to bed, we go through the same routine: we double-check to make sure the doors on both the house and the cars are locked, and the alarms set. After all, we’ve had our cars vandalized and looted, and I’ve had tools stolen from the garage. Neighbors have been burglarized. A child on our street was attacked by a pit bull.
And we live in the suburbs.
In the West, we are heir to a long historical tradition in which we expect our homes to be havens of safety from the outside world. That’s why the business of selling and marketing alarm systems is called “home security”: it’s the promise that technology can help stave off the anxiety that keeps us awake and listening for things that go bump in the night.
The need for home security is just one expression of a larger need. Against the background of an imperfect and sometimes traumatic past, we try to manufacture security in the present. But no matter how effective we might be in achieving it, the future is always open-ended, always uncertain, always just beyond our full control.
Where, then, can we find our security?
In the verses we’ve explored recently from James 4, we can see some of the same anxieties with which we still wrestle. People who strive for status, particularly in competitive ways, aren’t just greedy — they’re insecure. Our language doesn’t help: we may say that someone has an “inflated ego,” but the deeper truth is that the bluster and braggadocio may mask a fragile sense of self. People who boast too much of their plans and successes need to hear the adulation and applause. It’s how they know that they matter, that they belong.
You can’t just tell a boastful person to stop boasting; putting a stop to the behavior from the outside won’t address the need inside. It’s like telling someone who’s hyperventilating to stop breathing because they’re making too much noise. The better solution is to help them calm down and know that there’s plenty of oxygen to go around.
We can’t read James as merely trying to correct individual bad behavior. His more important goal is to establish godly communities. It’s one thing, for example, to tell people to stop boasting, but it’s another to show them how to make anxious, ego-inflating, conflict-inducing boasting unnecessary — to be a community characterized by love, wisdom, and humility, where no one has to worry about whether they have a place.
And all of this falls under the protective umbrella of God’s sovereign care and mercy. To say “if the Lord wills” can be mere churchspeak, but it doesn’t have to be. Nor should it represent a wistfulness that doubts God’s intentions toward us: “Gee, I’d really like to do X, but I don’t know if God will let me.” Rather, as James uses it, the phrase should be an honest expression of submission to and confidence in divine providence, a deeply rooted trust that what God wills is best.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with making plans; indeed, sometimes it’s irresponsible not to. But most of us probably know the kind of anxious “What if?” planning that attempts to envision and stave off anything and everything that could go wrong. At some point, we may have to say, “It is what it is. I’ve done everything I can.”
But we can also say “If the Lord wills” before, during, and after our planning. We can remember why we do what we do, and keep in mind for Whom we are doing it.