James 4.13-17: Two Kinds of Vapor

A sermon preached at All Saints in Boise, Idaho on 19 June 2011.
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On the Fourth of July in 1845, American writer Henry David Thoreau moved away from civilization. He decided to do this because he was tired of his life; he was tired of the constant demands of society and work and government and industry and culture. It was all too hectic and unsettling. Surely humans weren’t meant to live this way. There must be a better way to live.
That Fourth of July was 166 years ago, but I think we can relate! If anything, life has gotten more hectic and unsettled. Our society, work, government, culture, and just life in general make even more demands on us. Despite new technology that makes our lives easier in some ways, our daily schedules are maybe even more packed than they would have been in 1845.
Thoreau built himself a small cabin near Concord, Massachusetts and lived a very minimal lifestyle: simple house, simple clothes, simple food, simple friendships, simple furniture, simple pleasures. He stopped to smell the roses – literally! He did his best to get into the rhythm of nature: the four seasons, the subtle differences of the different times of day, the sights and sounds of animals and thunderstorms and country life. He tried to arrange everything in his life to be the opposite of his previous hectic life.
Thoreau wrote about his time in the woods in a book called Walden. He described the beauty and serenity of his life there in terms that make his reader wish to live that way too. As I read the book, it’s easy to think: What a relief it would be if we could just slip away from my crazy life into Thoreau’s simple life! Maybe this is how human beings were meant to live! Maybe it appeals to me even a little more because I live in Idaho.
It all sounds very attractive as you read Walden. But at the book’s conclusion, Thoreau does something strange: after two years in the woods, without any ceremony or explanation or apology, he simply packs his bags and moves back to the city. At the end of it all, despite all the wonderful things he tells his reader about, Thoreau can’t live his simple life in the woods forever. At the end of it all, his experiment in a new way of life didn’t work.
Thoreau’s Walden is just one of ten thousand different ways people have tried to make sense of their lives. How am I supposed to live? What am I supposed to value? What am I supposed to do with my time and energy and mind and money and emotions.
Everyone asks these questions at some point or another, and different generations have answered them differently. In ancient times the meaning of life was found in the glory of the nation. In medieval times it was the glory of the church, while in modern times it was the glory of humanity.
In the 1950s the most important things in life for many people were working hard, providing for the family, and preserving the American way of life. The 1960s emphasized peace and love. In the 1980s many people defined their world in terms of personal prosperity and the triumph of the free market. Perhaps for many today the key to a good life is getting a job and keeping it.
Each of these ways of looking at life can be attractive, just like Thoreau’s simple life. But in the end, they are just as broken. The problem with all of these views is that they are vapor. The book of Ecclesiastes–which is, like Walden, a book about the meaning of life–begins like this: “Absolute vapor, absolute vapor, everything is vapor.”
Vapor clouds our vision. Try to cling to smoke and you end up with nothing. Try to find your way out of a fog – you’re only guessing which is the way out.
Ecclesiastes says that apart from God, all of life is vapor. Nations come and go. So does money. So does war and so does peace. Even love, even our minds, even our lives are vapor, they are fog and dust and smoke.
James chapter 4.13-17 takes up these same themes:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are a bit of smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes.

Instead, you should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So, for the person who knows to do good and doesn’t do it, it is a sin.

Here is the irony in this passage: We feel like the things in our lives are vapor, but James is telling us that we are the vapor. We are “a bit of smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes.” I think our instinctive reaction as human beings is to hate this idea, but I also think we know it is true.
Here is an example of this: I come from a pretty tight-knit family. Most of my relatives value their family pretty highly, and we can tell you where our ancestors immigrated from once upon a time. But I recently had to ask my mom, who keeps the family tree, what several of my great-grandparents names were. I had met my two of my great-grandmothers when I was a toddler, but until I asked, I couldn’t have told you that their names were Alma & Helen, and there was no way that I remembered my great-great-grandmother’s name: Katrina Maria Paulina Paulsen Hansen Jensen.
Do you remember your great-grandparents’ names? You have eight of them. That’s not many generations ago. And if we go any further back, the memory becomes even fuzzier. And this is family. If anyone is going to remember us, it would be our family, right? But eventually everyone fades into history. James says we are smoke.
Another example: even if we donate money to get our name on a building that will last much longer than we do, the name eventually becomes associated with the building as the person is eventually forgotten. I still remember the names of the dorms I lived in at college: Gordis, Carson, Emily. Who were those dorms named after? No one knew; the name had become the building and the person had aded away.
The truth is that we are the vapor, dust, smoke, and we know it. But James points out an even greater irony: Even though we are smoke, we boast about it! We are arrogant smoke.
We boast in this way, according to James: We say things like, “Today I’m going to do this, and then tomorrow I’m going to do that. And guess what! I’m going to succeed in these plans! I’m going to make a profit and win and accomplish and achieve!”
Can you see why this attitude is arrogant? Isn’t it kind of ridiculous for smoke to say, “I’m going this way, and then I’ll go that way!” Smoke has no control over its course, and neither do we. Just as smoke is moved by the wind, so also we are moved by life. We’ve all known someone, or even been someone, who has had no choice but to move or change jobs or make other major life decisions that are completely out of our control.
And to think that our plans are successful just because we decided they would be! How many times in your life have things worked out well for you, when you knew that they just as easily might have been a disaster!
I think about this often. Every time I make a big decision, or teach a new class, or preach, or go on a family vacation, I have a feeling in the back of my head that this might turn out really well, or it might be a disaster.
And to think that we can accomplish something just by the sheer power of our will! Today or tomorrow, we will do this and that, and because we plan it well enough and want it bad enough, we will be successful! This simply isn’t true.
Here is an example of what I mean: It always annoys me when I hear a professional athlete claim that they were successful because they “wanted it” more than anyone else. At any given moment, there are exactly 750 professional baseball players in the major leagues. At any given moment, there are approximately 5000 professional baseball players in the minor leagues.
What makes the difference between a major leaguer and a minor leaguer? While desire or will power might play a role in some cases, the fact is that there are minor leaguers who have all the desire in the world, but they will never play in the major leagues. They’re simply not talented enough.
And even when talent and will power and whatever else are on our side, we all know that in life things sometimes simply don’t work out. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, but sometimes things just don’t work out. We’ve all experienced that.
James says, “You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be!” But even though we know all that because we’ve all experienced it, James says we are still prone to boasting like arrogant smoke.
James instructs us to see things differently. Instead of saying, “Today or tomorrow” we will go and do and be successful, we should say, according to v. 15, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” I think James would want to write that phrase in italics and underline and bold if they’d had those things in his day: “If the Lord wills,” then I will live and go and do.
Now, I am convicted that most of the times I have thought about this passage in the past, I have understood it to mean that James wants us to change our words, that he wants us to say things differently. Instead of saying this, I should say that. That was the point as I understood it.
However, that is not what he is getting at. He is not advocating a change of words; he is advocating a change of attitude. He is not trying to change the things we say; he is trying to change the way we think. This is not just a new way of talking – prefacing everything we say with “If the Lord wills…” – it is a new attitude toward life.
The difference this way of thinking makes is enormous. Factoring the Lord’s will into the story of our lives changes everything. I will briefly describe three ways in which this “If the Lord wills…” attitude changes our lives. They are 1) God’s direction, 2) God’s provision, and 3) God’s glory.
First, this “If the Lord wills…” attitude makes us keenly aware that we live our lives at God’s direction. So much of our lives are beyond our control. We are smoke blowing in the wind. But God is the wind. It is in him, the apostle Paul said while preaching in Athens, that we live and move and exist. It is his will, not ours, that charts our lives.
Jesus taught us to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This prayer should define our lives. It teaches us to recognize the reality behind all that happens to us, and it readies our hearts for whatever his will brings us.
Joseph and his brothers learned the lesson of God’s direction. Their story is in the last 14 chapters of Genesis. Joseph’s brothers nearly murdered him but decided to sell him into slavery instead. In the end they come face to face, but this time the tables had turned since Joseph was in the position of power. But Joseph showed them kindness and summarized their lives this way: “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” God’s will was behind the entire story of their lives, and he used the events of their lives to save not only their family, but also their entire nation.
God’s will is behind our story too. God has used the events of your life, the good and the bad, to shape you into who you are. If you are in Christ, then what others might have meant for evil, God meant for good. He will use even our worst moments for his good purposes.
Second, this “If the Lord wills…” attitude James writes about teaches us to trust in God’s provision. What God has called us to do, he will certainly enable us to do. That means intellectually, emotionally, financially, spiritually, and in any other way.
Certainly, it will be tough at times. The Bible is full of stories of people who were called to do incredibly difficult things: think of Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, David, Elijah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and dozens more. But in each of those cases, God had prepared them to do what he asked them to do, and God was with them while they were doing it.
God has provided for us in the same way. If you are in Christ, whatever God has called you to do, he will enable you to do. He has prepared us and he is with us even today.
Third, James’s “If the Lord wills…” attitude proclaims God’s glory. Instead of arrogantly boasting about our lives, James’s attitude recognizes that whatever comes is from God. If I am successful, I need to remind myself, it is not because I’m so good at all this. It could’ve just as easily gone the other way.
For example, I’m sure you’ve noticed this: Whenever things go right, we take credit for it—I made a good decision; I acted quickly; I was smarter or better than everyone else. But when things go poorly, we blame God—Why have you forsaken me? Why didn’t you come through for me?
By recognizing the Lord’s will in every area of our lives, we are giving him the glory for the good things that happen, and we are trusting that he will work things out as he has promised when the bad things happen.

God’s direction, God’s provision, and God’s glory: The greatest example of a life lived with this “If the Lord wills…” attitude is Jesus himself.
Jesus is the one who taught us to pray, “Your will be done…” The night before he died on the cross, Jesus pleaded with his Father, asking that he not have to go through with his coming execution. But then he prayed, “Yet not as I will, but as You will.”
Through the best and the worst, Jesus recognized he Father’s will was behind the direction of his life, he recognized that his Father had equipped him to do everything he was called to do, and all he did was for the Father’s glory.
And we are called to be like Jesus. We are to take up our cross, die to self, and live for him. Like Jesus, we are supposed to believe the promises of God: that he has prepared us and is with us, no matter how good or how bad our circumstances are.
If we follow the example of Jesus, we will be a new kind of vapor. The first kind of vapor comes and goes and is forgotten in a few generations at most.
The second is a vapor that is transformed. 1 John 2.17 says that the world is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever. So which is it? Are we vapor, as James says, or will we remain forever, as John says?
The answer is, both. What an apt description of those who are in Christ! Having an “If the Lord wills…” attitude almost certainly won’t result in earthly success or immortal fame. In many ways, we are still vapor. But if we do God’s will and not our own, we are a vapor that remains forever.
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