James 3:16 gives a pointed reminder about boasting that we would do well to remember in our day and age: “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.” James is famously tough-minded as a writer, and throughout the short book we have tough comments about such matters as wisdom, the relationship between faith and works, favoritism, and the corrupt way that people often gain wealth and power in this world . What is it about boasting that this passage reminds us about so harshly, especially as boasting is something that we all can find ourselves easily caught up in.
The key words in this passage are: “If the Lord wills.” It is all too easy when we make calculations and plans not to include this little proviso, because the willingness of God to endorse or allow what we have planned is a decisive influence that we may not always keep at the forefront of our mind. It is easy to live our lives as is present conditions (if they are favorable) will continue indefinitely and that we will be able to accomplish what we plan and hope and expect out of our lives. Sometimes that may even happen, but sometimes unforeseen circumstances come up and disrupt our plans, whether because conditions in the world at large were not as enduring or as stable as we thought or because our own frailty or the frailty of others keeps us from accomplishing what we have planned. As both of these circumstances are common enough, we ought to consider them whenever we make plans. We can never be sure when we say we are going to do something that such a thing is going to happen. Even if we do not say it outright, there should be at least a mental acknowledgement that whatever we plan on doing is going to depend on circumstances outside of our control.
Ultimately, those circumstances depend on the will of God. A discussion of the workings of divine providence in its entirety is beyond my interest to do here at present, but it is important to remember that there are at least two aspects of God’s will that are of interest here. The first is God’s active will, that which he deliberately wills into existence (or not). In this case we are dealing with those things that God plans and brings into action by controlling circumstances directly. The second, and this is what the passage is dealing with, is the permissive will of God, that which God allows to happen, whether or not it corresponds with our plans and goals. We cannot be sure that God will allow us to do what we wish, for whatever reason. Sometimes God does not allow that which we might take for granted, because of circumstances, and sometimes God does allow things that we would consider to be horrifying and deeply unacceptable, to the point where we are often tempted to blame God for having ordained a great deal of suffering and agony in our lives that we think that we should be free of.
This aspect of God’s permissive will is an unpleasant one, and I do not want to dwell on it too much, but it is the subject of a great deal of philosophizing on the part of people. One of the reasons why so many who profess to be Christians of one sort or another are fond of bogus evolutionary mechanisms is that such matters free God (in their own impoverished theodicies) of the responsibility for a great deal of the evil of the world. Whether we look at the book of Job or at the judgment that God gave to Israel during the time of David when he took the census, God Himself takes the responsibility, ultimately, for the evils that he allows others to do. Whether or not this is entirely fair or not, it is certainly a sign that God does not need us to build some kind of ironclad justification for God’s inaction or his permission of evil in our world. Part of the benefit of being the creator of something is not having to explain your creation to those one has created. The playwright does not have to justify himself to his characters, nor does the novelist. We can allow all kinds of wretchedness and suffering to happen to those we have created whether they deserve it or not. That is the freedom that comes with being a creator. We too are characters in a story vastly larger than ourselves, and who knows the reason why God allows some things and does not allow others. He is under no obligation to tell us why, no matter how much we may want to know.
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