Friday, May 31, 2013

Towards a Better Understanding of James 4

As you know from my last post, I spent a few days in California earlier this month for a conference. Yet in spite of the fact that this visit was my first time on the West Coast, in spite of the fact that I desperately needed a few days away after a stressful semester, I deliberately reined in any enthusiasm until I arrived. I didn't plan much, besides making sure that I had housing and transportation. I didn't talk much about my trip with other people.

I've done this kind of thing before. Visiting Paris last summer, I planned my housing and transportation in advance. Everything else I planned during the two-hour flight from Prague, bookmarking interesting pages in my travel guide with the napkins from the in-flight snack. Visiting London two years ago, I did the same thing: There were a few things I planned in advance (my self-initiated, self-guided T.S. Eliot walking tour, for instance), but almost everything else I planned out on the plane.

For a long time, I thought I was the only one who did this. Then, a close friend of mine took a trip to London, and she too confessed that she was trying not to get too excited, lest the whole trip fall apart at the last minute. Even in the weeks leading up to a trip that had been planned for months, she was still holding back her enthusiasm, just in case. (For the record, she made it, and she's enjoying London right now.)

When I noticed this pattern, this tendency to rein in excitement lest something prevent our plans, I thought of a passage in James 4:
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.'
In the past, I've always interpreted this passage as a caution against undue excitement: Because we will not live forever, because all pleasures in this life are but temporary, there's no need to get particularly worked up about any of them. Remember that only through the generosity of God do we enjoy any of our pleasures at all; when He turns off the tap, whatever we loved is gone.

Probably this interpretation owes a lot to the parallels between James 4 and Luke 12, in which Jesus, like a divine stockbroker, warns his readers that spiritual wealth is far more stable than material wealth. This, of course, is true. Yet I can't help but feel that the pessimism of this interpretation - beware! You're likely to lose everything at any moment! - is problematic.

Read as an indictment of planning ahead and getting excited about the future, James 4 turns God into a bogeyman. Sometimes, believers who subscribe to this interpretation will tack the phrase, "If the Lord wills" onto their plans, whether those be for a summer vacation, a new job, or a spouse. I appreciate the sentiment: Yes, everything we are or accomplish is designed by God. Yet I can't help but feel that repeatedly using the phrase to discourage excitement about life turns God into a killjoy, who wants nothing more than to spoil our happy plans.

Imagine, for instance, I said this: This summer I hope to visit my family, Lord willing. You could, in place of the Lord willing, just as easily substitute the (perhaps more honest?) phrase, If nothing goes wrong. Like so: This summer I hope to visit my family, if nothing goes wrong. In other words, what this phrase, as inspired by the pessimistic interpretation of James, does is repeatedly associate God with things in our life going wrong. Please don't misunderstand: I'm not saying that God hangs around in order to make us happy, like some kind of cosmic vending machine. I'm not even saying that God tries to grant us plenty of good things in this life. As Stephen King reminds us, In this world those who do evil ride over the roads in Cadillac cars.

Yet our God is a good God, a gentle God, and to use a phrase that implies when things go wrong, God is responsible, does not do justice to the complex and deeply compassionate way that God is involved in our disappointments and sufferings, whether they be trivial or deeply important. From elsewhere in the Scriptures, we know that Jesus does not stand around waiting to yank the rug out from under our feet just when we are happiest. Jesus weeps when we weep.

I am therefore cautious about interpreting James's epistle in a way that makes it seem like our God is trying to zap us. As I thought about this passage before California, it occurred to me that there is a deeper theme, one more affirming and encouraging - and, as is true with almost all of Scripture, more difficult to follow.

Notice the context of James's words. When he instructs them to say, "If the Lord wills, we will do this our that", he has just finished comparing their life to a mist, to the morning dew. Imagine how long that stuck around in the summer! Confronted with such truths, the natural reaction is not to forge ahead; it is to pull back from life altogether. Think of the people who quit their jobs and traveled the country when Harold Camping preached the Rapture.

This is not the instruction that James gives to believers. Instead, he tells them to get back to life, to go on working and planning and dreaming, albeit with the single caveat "if the Lord wills". And in the context of their short lives, the phrase "If the Lord wills" takes on new meaning: Doom may be assured, but it is the Lord who holds back that doom, and it is the Lord who sees that their plans are carried out, that they live and do this or that. In other words, the Lord is a giver of good things. Thus, the goal is not so much to worry about what bad things might happen, caused by a vindictive God, but to recognize that we live in a world of uncertainties and rely on a good God for good things.

No, God will not always supply us with sunshine and roses. No, we cannot be certain that any of our plans will turn out. Yet as believers we are to make plans anyway, to forge ahead with bravery and faith because our God is good.

I am reminded of something that Lilias Trotter, one of the first missionaries to the Muslim world, wrote:
Faith learns to swing out into nothingness and drop down full weight on God - nothing between us and the abyss but Himself - A rejoicing in every fresh emergency that is going to prove Him true - the Lord Alone - that is trained faith.
Surely the future - what will happen to us, who we will know, what we will do - is the deepest abyss of all; there is no seeing what may come. Yet that is no excuse to hold back in fear, to choose the clear, safe course. It is a call to draw up our plans, and in those plans to 'drop down full weight on God' - our loving, gentle God who may (or who may not) will for those plans to happen.

1 comment:

  1. Very good food for thought! I relate to a lot of what you're saying. I'm a worrier, so it seems like I spend a lot of time worrying that things could go wrong, or when they do go well, I worry that my joy is short-lived and things will soon go wrong again. What a terrible way to live life. I am working on enjoying the good things that happen and hoping for the best.

    Also, your post reminded me of this: