Presumption has been a human characteristic since our first parents got us into deep trouble, way back at the beginning of history. With the encouragement of Satan, Adam and Eve accepted the notion that they knew more than God and should, thus, act independently. After all, God had given them dominion over the earth and its creatures. And when Satan came along and described all they needed to do to be like God, they fell for his persuasive argument. The only way they could really prove their independence from God was to disobey Him, so they did — with tragic consequences for all of us. Since then, every generation has been busy trying to assert that independence over again.
In his letter to 1st Century Jewish Christians scattered throughout the Roman Empire, James mentioned a couple of specific examples — ones which humanity is still practising and attempting to refine 2,000 years later. Let’s read the first one and then take a closer look at it.
James 4:11-12 “Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?”
This is one of a handful of Bible passages that are particularly beloved by unbelievers and by Christians who are walking far from God. People love to isolate verses like these and spin them in such a way that they say far more than the writer intended. But before we look at that, let’s consider what James did say with these convicting words. To do so we need to look back to some earlier comments he made.
Do you remember that back in chapter 2 verse 8, he wrote: If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” you do well?” We need to remember that context when we read chapter 4, verse 11 and 12. The condensation of the entire law regarding human interactions is summed up in loving those around us. If we really love someone, we won’t speak evilly of them.
James strengthened his argument with a somewhat unconventional approach. Keeping in mind that the law says we are to love our brothers and sisters, when we speak badly of them, we disobey that law. The law says, “do not steal,” so when we steal, we break the law. The law says, “do not bear false witness,” so when we lie, we break the law. It follows then that when the law says, “love others,” and we speak evilly of them, we are breaking the law. This is not difficult to follow.
However, in the matter of speaking evilly of others, we stand in judgment of them. When we do that, we not only break the law, but we stand in judgment of it. In speaking badly of others, we suggest that the law ought to be broken — that our harsh assessment and public reproach of our brothers and sisters is the right thing to do. James made it clear that as we break the law, we presumptuously move from being a keeper of the law to being a judge of it.
In positioning ourselves above the law, we encroach on divine territory. There is only one Lawgiver. He is able to save and destroy. No human can do those things, so we have no right to decide if the law is good or bad. Our job is to keep the law. Keeping the law, requires us to not speak evilly of our brothers and sisters. Thus, again James forces us to condemn ourselves with our own words when we answer this question: Who are you to judge another? Clearly we have to answer that we have no right to judge others and we have effectively shut our own mouths.
Now, here is where the abuse of this passage comes to the fore. People who are busy breaking other aspects of the law, are quick to say, “James clearly condemns judging others, so you have no right to judge me.” Let me make a subtle distinction. There is a difference between judging a person and judging his or her actions.
You remember that on some recent programs, we saw James, himself, condemning ungodly behaviour of various kinds: an attitude of partiality, anger, wickedness, ungodly speech, disobedience to God’s “perfect law of liberty” and so on. In this very passage, James condemned a judging spirit in others. The old saint was not trying to say that anything goes, no one should ever identify sin and draw attention to it. No! Rather he challenged his readers to stop pronouncing judgment on people.
When we see someone commit sinful acts which are clearly against God’s law, our instinct is to say, “On the basis of my observations, this person deserves hell.” That is not our place. What we are responsible to do is to keep ourselves, as James wrote earlier, “unspotted from the world.” Then, as we seek to live a pure life, within the community of saints, we help others see their shortcomings and sin, just as they help us. Skip ahead to the very end of the letter. Here are the last two verses:
James 5:19-20 “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.”
We’ll look at these words again at the end of our study, but they shed light on the subject at hand. Several passages point out that judging is God’s domain, but let’s not forget that discernment, correction, and admonition are in the human domain. The distinction between judging people and discerning behaviour is an important one and sadly, it suits us all very well to confuse the two. After all, that allows us to judge the other fellow for pointing out our unrighteousness.
Another way that people demonstrate presumptuousness is by leaving God out of the picture as they set goals and attempt to fulfil them. People in the world do this all the time, but James raises a concern regarding Christians who do this. And by the way, this serves as a perfect illustration of his previous point. He draws our attention to sin in our lives without condemning us. He doesn’t say that people who forget to include God in their plans aren’t true believers. He simply acknowledges that believers can slip into the world’s patterns, be made aware of it, and get back on track.
Here’s the next section of text we’re going to look at today.
James 4:13-17″ 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. Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.”
One of the first questions children of my generation got used to answering was, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” From the time we could speak, well meaning grown-ups, trying to make small talk with us would ask us about this. So, from an early age we started thinking about the future. Some of us were inspired by the possibilities and began to lay out a detailed program which we intended to follow to the letter.
There is nothing wrong with making plans. The Bible offers both instruction about and examples of planning. However, to make plans without consulting God and leaving room for Him to work in them is arrogant, to say the least. I believe Proverbs 16:9 is particularly appropriate to remember at this point. It says: “A man’s heart plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps.” Unfortunately, that idea did not seem to have much influence on the people James had in mind when he wrote his letter.
He got their attention by saying “Come now.” This expression occurs several times in the Bible for just this purpose of getting people to listen. Once he had their attention, he specified precisely the people he wanted to talk to. These were the folk who had all the details of their lives planned — those who said “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit.”
These people had paid attention to a variety of contingencies. They had thought about the time — today or tomorrow. They had considered a move — we will go. The had thought about where — to such and such a city. They had calculated how long it would take — spend a year there. They knew what strategy they would adopt — buy and sell. And they had their purpose firmly in view — make a profit.
James acknowledged they had all this in place and then reminded them of one crucial factor they had neglected. They didn’t know what would happen tomorrow. They seemed to have forgotten that life is transient and often turns out very differently from what we expect. James employed a graphic little word picture to press the point. He wrote: “What is your life? It is even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”
Nearly everyone on the planet, perhaps except for infants, have observed steam rising from a pot of boiling water. As the water heats, vapour mysteriously begins to form on the surface and then rise into the air. If it is boiling vigorously, the steam may rise a foot or two, then just as it mysteriously appeared, it mysteriously disappears. It’s gone. It’s real. It’s there. We can see it. It has physical characteristics — it’s hot and moist. But it doesn’t last and there is no way to capture it and make it last. If you did manage to catch it in some large overturned pot, it would quickly condense and turn back into water.
Our life is similar. It is a great mystery. It’s not there and then two cells join and it is there. We can describe the mechanics of that fusion, but we can’t identify the essence of life. It lasts for a while and then it disappears. It’s gone with apparently little evidence that it ever existed except in the memories of those who witnessed it.
In light of this, James told his friends who were given to making detailed plans, they shouldn’t be boasting about what they were going to do, for such boasting is evil. Instead they should humbly recognize that God is sovereign over the affairs of humanity and should humbly say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.”
None of us is sure of tomorrow. Recently, in the span of five days, three friends experienced bereavement. In each case, family members had to be contacted. Funeral arrangements had to be made. Legal paperwork had to be filed. And so on. All of this interrupted their lives profoundly. It will take weeks for things to return to normal, and even when it does, it will be a new kind of normal. There will be a empty place in their lives that someone they loved used to fill.
And just as a child watching the water vapour rise from a kettle might ask her mother, “Where does the steam go?” So some of these dear people are asking “Where did my loved one go?” We seldom think about what comes after our physical life until we are confronted by the departure of someone we care about.
James closed his discussion of this theme by saying “to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.” To make room for God in our plans is good. We know that. If we do not do it, we sin. Once again, James did not dance around a tough issue, but dealt with it directly. Put negatively, we dare not leave God out of our plans. Put positively, God should be central to our plans.
Where does this passage find you today? Have you consciously and intentionally considered what God might be wanting to do in your life, or are you making your plans without Him. He isn’t just interested in your plans to join Him in heaven when you die. He has His own plans for you as you live each day until you get there.