“Can we please get new couches when we move?” I asked my husband quite randomly at dinner last night.
“Can we talk about that when we actually move?”
That wasn’t exactly the answer I was looking for. “Sure, we will save money from our stimulus check for two beautiful couches, Tess. Let’s get dark gray. You can pick them out this summer, since we’ll probably be moving by August.” Something along those lines would have been a little more reassuring.
It was a simple question, but as I think about it in light of the book of James, I wonder if there was more behind it than I would care to admit.
My desire to update our couches carried with it a couple assumptions:
- The coming months will go according to plan. My husband will get a pastoral call, we will move to another state, and we will buy a house. Hopefully, this will all happen by the fall.
- Our finances will be stable. Sure, we may not be able to buy a new minivan, but surely, we’ll be able to afford a couple of nice couches. (Oh, and some new home décor, too.)
Normally, the areas of the future and personal finances do not make me very anxious. In the last twenty years, God has bent over backwards to show me I can trust my sovereign Father to lead and provide for me. In the wake of a global pandemic, however, many of us are suddenly thinking—sometimes quite nervously—about these things more than usual. James has a very relevant word for us. Toward the end of his much-loved epistle, he addresses those who are planning and those who are prospering.
An Exhortation to the Planner
James first addresses the planner:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil (4:13–16).
We don’t have to be planning a profitable business trip to learn from this. In fact, most people aren’t doing much planning at all right now because so many things in life have come to a halt. But whether we have a carefully crafted plan or we’re facing the discouragement of failed, delayed, or uncertain plans, what matters is, What are we placing our hope in? What is giving us peace? What is giving us joy?
If we pridefully leave God out of the picture, we will rest our hope, peace, and joy upon the shaky foundation of our own desires and ambitions for life. Why is that a shaky foundation? Because we are small, finite creatures who “do not know what tomorrow will bring.” Indeed, we do not know if we will even live to see tomorrow. Our days on earth are few and numbered. We need a smaller view of ourselves and a bigger view of God.
We do not need a perfectly planned year—we need a God whose plans cannot be thwarted (Job 42:2). We do not need the guarantee that our desires for this week or next month will be fulfilled—we need a sovereign Father who is constantly working all things for the good of those who love Him (Rom. 8:28). If He is our God (and He is!) the humble profession, “If the Lord wills” will not leave us feeling anxious, discouraged, or out of faith. Rather, it will leave us with a peace that surpasses understanding, and a calm trust that God is for us and not against us—even when things don’t go the way we envisioned them.
An Exhortation to the Prospering
In the next passage (5:1–6), James has a stern word to the rich. James is most likely speaking to people in the Church who are believers only by profession. Their lack of saving faith is evidenced in the way they live. While they mistreated the poor (v. 4), they also lived “in luxury and in self-indulgence.” But God saw their wickedness. He saw their prideful arrogance while they gloried in their pleasures rather than in God. Not only would their riches rot away, but they would one day be judged by God for their sin.
Though James is rebuking unbelievers, we, too, need to heed his warning. The words “laid up treasure in the last days” (v. 3) ought to immediately take us back to Jesus’ words in Luke 12. In verses 13–20, He told the parable of the rich fool, who built bigger barns to store all his possessions and then planned to sit back and relax—until God took his life that very night. Jesus ended the parable with this warning: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (v. 21). He continued these thoughts in the next passage, telling His disciples to not be anxious about the basic necessities of life and to instead focus on storing up treasure in heaven, “where no thief approaches and no moth destroys” (v. 33).
It really doesn’t matter whether our bank accounts deem us rich, poor, or somewhere in-between—we all have a particular attitude toward money (or lack thereof) and possessions, and it will most certainly make itself known in our thoughts and actions. Some of us have not yet been affected financially by the pandemic, but are becoming fearful of what a struggling economy might mean for the future; some of us are already crunching numbers and wondering how we’re going to pay the bills next week. And yet, all of us need to ask ourselves, “Where is my treasure?”
If we are storing up treasure on earth, this time of financial uncertainty will make us anxious rather than generous; slow to deny self rather than slow to hoard. If, on the other hand, our gaze is fixed on our eternal home and we are storing up treasure in heaven, we will not fear if earthly wealth is taken away. We will trust that Jesus meant what He said: “And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. . . . Instead, seek [your Father’s] kingdom, and these things will be added to you” (Luke 12:29, 31).
This brings me to a final thought. In James 4:17, we find a pithy exhortation that, in my opinion, applies beautifully to both the present uncertainties of our future and our finances: “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”
We may be uncertain about our plans for the future, and we may be uncertain about what the bank account will look like five months (or five days) from now. Will we be able to do the things we want to do and go the places we want to go? Will we be able to buy the things we need to buy and enjoy the comforts we are so accustomed to enjoying? We simply don’t know.But what do we know? We know God’s Word. Tomorrow may be a mystery, but in His fixed, unchanging Word, God has told us much about today.
Are you bored at home? Today, you are to make good use of the time (Eph. 5:16).
Are you a mom? Today, you are to bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).
Are those kiddos driving you crazy? Today you are to be kind and tenderhearted, forgiving them as God forgave you (Eph. 4:32).
Are you a wife? Today, you are to outdo your husband in showing honor, and as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with him (Rom. 12:10, 18).
Are you worried? Today, you are to not be anxious about anything, but with prayer and thanksgiving make your requests known to God (Phil. 4:6).
Do you have plenty? Today, you are to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share (1 Tim. 6:18).
Dear sister, you may not know anything about tomorrow, but may God give you the grace to entrust your unknowns to Him, and do what you know to do today.