By Michael E. Brooks
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that’” (James 4:13-15 NASV).
An elder with whom I once worked often said, “I don’t like surprises”. In other words, he and the other elders wanted to be informed of any events which might affect the congregation, especially those which might result in unfortunate results if they were unaware of them. This is a reasonable attitude and request; one which we all share. However, in this world in which we live, we cannot always avoid surprises. Our plans are often interrupted and must be adjusted. It is wise to be flexible. This is especially true of travel and work in other places.
The first major interruption in my travels to distant areas for mission work occurred in the early 1990’s. I was in Guyana, in South America when the army of Iraq invaded Kuwait, precipitating the first Persian Gulf War. What most people outside the Caribbean did not notice was that on the same day as the invasion of Kuwait there was an attempted coup in Trinidad.
I was flying British West Indies Airlines, which is headquartered in Trinidad, and was due to return to the U.S. via Trinidad just a couple of days later. The coup, though unsuccessful, resulted in the shut down of all flights through the island, and caused me to be delayed for several days and finally to be rerouted, a process that was inconvenient to say the least.
In June, 2001, I had just arrived in Katmandu, Nepal when the Royal Family was attacked, resulting in the assassinations of ten members including the King and Queen. I had planned to stay and work in Nepal for three weeks. Under the new circumstances this work was impossible so I left a few days later, after suffering through riots and curfews.
Also in 2001, I was scheduled to return to Nepal and Bangladesh just three weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York. Those attacks and their aftermath made air travel so difficult and uncertain that the airline itself offered to reimburse my ticket fare if I chose not to go. I took this as a lack of confidence on their part and postponed my trip.
There have been other less drastic interruptions and adjustments over the years. These are enough to illustrate the point made in the verses quoted at the beginning of this article from James. Life is uncertain. We cannot ensure the fulfillment of our plans. Does this mean that we should not make plans? I have invited people to come for dinner or go together to some event a few days in the future, only to be told, “I never plan in advance; I don’t know what I will be doing tomorrow.” Is that what James is advocating? Certainly not.
Rather, James is warning us against arrogance and complacency. In verse 16, he says that when we plan without considering God, we “boast in [our] arrogance”. We are too confident of our own sufficiency. He reminds us that we are not in control of our lives, and we cannot determine the future. But there is one who is in control – God. He determines tomorrow. If we rely upon him, and defer to his will, we will be secure. That still does not mean that everything we plan will occur. It does mean that whatever happens to us will be within his plan, and that we can accept it.
Planning for the future is good. Let us however always plan to abide by God’s purpose, to consider our mortality, and to be flexible to accept changes. Such plans will succeed, with God’s help.