What is Your Life?

James 4:13-17

February 11, 2018 | Ray Pritchard

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The Bible has a lot to say about time. The most important thing it says is something we know already—that our time is limited. Time can be used or wasted, it can be invested or squandered, but either way, once used, it can never be regained. Time matters because we have such a limited supply.

Time matters because we have such a limited supply

How much time do you have left? Only God knows the answer. Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Have you ever numbered your days? That’s hard to do because no one knows how many days they have left. You can find websites that use actuarial tables to help you discover how long you will live. You input your birthdate and a few other personal details, click a button, and a date pops up. Now, this isn’t the actual date of your death. It’s just an average for people who fit the details. Different websites use different formulas so the dates will vary quite a bit. I punched in the numbers for myself on one website, and this is what I discovered:

Ray Pritchard–July 8, 2025

I realize that date is based only on certain mathematical calculations, but it is sobering to think that if it is correct, I have about seven years to live. I found another website that says I will live until 2037. Then I found one that says I will live until I’m 90, which would be 2042.

Ray Pritchard–July 8, 2025

2025 (That’s not long)
2037 (That’s 12 more years)
2042 (How do I get those “extra” five years?)

Unlike Abraham, who died when he was 175, I’m not counting on another 110 years. If I lived that long, I wouldn’t even reach the halfway point until 2040.

I’m thinking about all this because I celebrated my 65th birthday last September, which means I’m now on Medicare. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. I find myself looking at my life in shorter spans now. Marlene told me we should start thinking about life in 2-3 year chunks. There is no need to decide where we will be in ten years.

This much seems clear. When you hit 65, you’re closer to the end than to the beginning. Some may say this is morbid, but I think it’s the ultimate reality check. I might live 30 more years. Who knows? The answer is, God does. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16). The good news is, all my days are written in God’s book. The bad news is, I don’t know any way I can get a copy.

All my days are written in God’s book

Because that’s true for all of us, we must walk by faith, knowing our future is in God’s hands.

Martin Luther said we should live with the day of our death constantly before our eyes. As I ponder that thought, the words of a famous hymn come to mind:

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

In light of that reality, we need to carefully consider what the Bible says in James 4:13-17. It begins by asking us to think about a common mistake very successful people make.

A Foolish Boast      

“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’” (v. 13).

Here’s a concise picture of a successful businessman.

He has a plan: “Today or tomorrow we will travel.” Like any smart businessman, he leaves room for contingencies. He might leave today, or he might leave tomorrow. It’s a wise way to approach business because you can’t control all the variables.

It’s good to have a plan

 He has a place in mind: “To such and such a city and spend a year there and do business.” Maybe he’s thinking about expanding into the Midwest, so he plans to travel to Chicago. Or perhaps he’s going to Miami to open a stream of business from South America. If he goes to San Francisco, he can meet people who will help him do business in Asia.

He intends to make a profit: “And do business and make a profit.” Why make plans, why take a trip, and why stay a year if you don’t plan to make a profit? There is nothing wrong with any of this. Show me a businessman who doesn’t want to make a profit, and I’ll show you a man who will soon be out of business.

We have to plan.
We have to think ahead.
We have to have a goal.

So what exactly is wrong here? Put simply, this man left God out of his thinking. He believes (as most moderns do) that he is master of his own fate. He approaches life as if he was in control. Note the phrase, “You who say.” That’s a tip-off. This man not only makes plans, he brags about them to others. He thinks nothing could stop him now.

He’s a fool for leaving God out

He presumes he can control his own future.
He presumes his plans can’t fail.
He presumes his own success.

This man is a fool!

Not because of his plans, but because he left God out.
Not because of his dreams, but because he left God out.
Not because of his desire to make a profit, but because he left God out.

A Sober Reminder 

“Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are like vapor that appears for a little while, then vanishes” (v. 14).

First, there is the uncertainty of life. No one knows what tomorrow holds. Sometimes we forget how fragile life can be. Just one phone call and your life could be changed forever. Things happen so quickly—a speeding car, a stray bullet, a sudden stroke, an unexpected heart attack, and people are saying, “Doesn’t he look so natural?”

“He looks so natural”

Then there is the brevity of life. James 4:14 reminds us that life itself is like a vapor that appears for a moment and then vanishes away. Anyone who has ever blown hot breath on a cold windowpane knows you have to work fast to write your name in the vapor before it disappears. That’s your life—all 70 or 80 or 90 years of it. It’s a vapor that begins to disappear the moment you are born.

We aren’t here very long. I ran across a website with this motto: “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” British playwright George Bernard Shaw wryly observed, “The statistics on death are quite impressive. One out of one people die.”

If you want to know what your life is like, go to the cemetery and look at any headstone. There is a name, two dates, and a dash. That’s what you get when you die: a little “-” to summarize your earthly existence.

Two dates and a dash

When I was 6, I could not conceive of being 65. That was like being 500 years old. Yet here I am, and as I look back, it seems just yesterday I started elementary school. When I look at Facebook, I see pictures of people I knew as a child growing up in a small town in Alabama. But they don’t look like I remember. They’re all older now! That surprises me until I look in the mirror.

When as a child I laughed and wept,
Time crept.
When as a youth I waxed more bold,
Time strolled.
When I became a full grown man,
Time ran.
When older still I daily grew,
Time flew.
Soon I shall find, in passing on,
Time gone.
O Christ! wilt Thou have saved me then?
(Henry Twells, 1901)

No one lives forever. We are born, we live 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 years. If we are strong and healthy and blessed by God, we may live to be 80 or even 90. Some people live to be 100. But it doesn’t matter how long you live because eventually everyone dies. We’re all terminal. The only difference is, some of us know it, and the rest of us act like we’re going to be here forever. If you live each day as if it might be your last, one day you will be right.

Sportscaster Dan Patrick once remarked about an injured player, “He’s listed as day to day, but, then again, aren’t we all?”

A Wise Alternative

“Instead, you should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (v. 15).

There is a better way than arrogance. Instead of presuming we know everything, we should say, ‘If the Lord wills.” That’s crucial because we don’t know what the Lord’s will is regarding the future. As the wise man said, “Do you want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.”

Do you want to make God laugh?

What’s the importance of saying, “If God wills”? Those words don’t mean anything if you merely recite them. This isn’t a magic formula. Those three words point us away from ourselves to the God who made us.

When Paul visited Ephesus in Acts 18, the believers asked him to stay longer. He declined because he had other plans, but he said this in verse 21: “I’ll come back to you again, if God wills.” That’s how we should all talk. We make our plans, we set our schedule, but we leave the outworking of all of it in God’s hands.

I might come back.
I want to come back.
I intend to come back.

But only if God wills. If the great apostle didn’t know his own future, how can we know ours? Proverbs 16:9 reminds us that “in his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” It doesn’t say God “directs” his steps (although that is true—see Proverbs 3:6 KJV), but that God determines his steps. It’s a very strong word that speaks of God’s control of every detail in the universe. Perhaps you’ve heard it said that “Man proposes, but God disposes.” You can make all your plans, you can have your life mapped out, but in the end, God determines every step you take.

God determines every step you take

I read about a man who co-authored a book called “100 Things to Do Before You Die.” It contains a bucket list of events to attend, such as the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Custer’s Last Stand Reenactment at Little Big Horn, Roswell UFO Encounter, Vienna Opera Ball, Bastille Day in Paris, Oktoberfest in Germany, the Running of the Bulls in Spain, and an event in Wales called the World Bog Snorkeling Championships. Even though I’ve traveled all over the world, I don’t think I’ve done a single thing on that list. But there’s still time for me. Alas, the man who co-authored the book died in what CNN called a “freak accident” at the age of 47. He hit his head after a fall at home.

The book says, “Life is a short journey,” and argues for visiting all these exciting places. James would certainly agree on the “short journey” part of it. Even if you live to be 100, your lifespan is just a tiny blip on the radar screen. To paraphrase Shakespeare, we are like actors on a stage. We show up, do our part, exit stage right, and the play goes on.

That’s why we must say “If the Lord wills” every single day.

Stephen Covey was famous for saying we should “begin with the end in mind.” He’s exactly right. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll be here forever. The only thing that matters is doing God’s will.

A Solemn Warning         

“But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So it is sin to know the good and yet not do it” (vv. 16-17).

Boasting is foolish because you don’t control your own future. It’s not only foolish, but it is evil because boasting places you in the position of God.

It’s a sin to act as if you will never die. That’s the ultimate presumption. We all like to feel indispensable, and we are indispensable until we aren’t. As Charles de Gaulle once remarked, “The graveyards are filled with indispensable men.”

The graveyards are filled with indispensable men

I just checked the life expectancy rates by country on Wikipedia. In the US the average life expectancy is 79.3 years. Here is what that means:

If you are 35, you have 531 months left.
If you are 45, you have 411 months left.
If you are 55, you have 291 months left.
If you are 65, you have 171 months left.
If you are 75, you have 51 months left.

If you are 80 or above, congratulations. You’re in bonus time!

But the truth is, some of us won’t make 79 years. We’ll get cancer or have a heart attack or be hit by a drunk driver, or some other calamity will take us away early. Others will live to be 80 or 90 or even 100, thanks to good genes and modern medicine.

But it doesn’t matter how long we live. What matters is what we do with the years God gives us. Perhaps we should meditate on the familiar words of C. T. Studd:

“Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.”

Only what’s done for Christ will last

I began this message by ruminating on my own lifespan. But since I don’t know the future, it doesn’t matter how long I live. God knows, and that’s what counts. My part is to live each day “all in” for Jesus. If I do that, everything else is just details.

Make your plans, set your goals, dream big dreams, and then commit it all to the Lord. That’s the message of this passage. In the years following World War II, Bob Pierce founded World Vision, a humanitarian agency that helps hurting people in the name of Jesus. Near the end of his life, when asked how he accounted for what God had done through him, he replied that early on he learned to pray a very simple prayer:

“Lord, I give you the right to change my agenda
any time you like without informing me in advance.”

That’s the kind of prayer God can answer because it’s based on the truth that God is God, and he has the absolute right to do whatever he wants. Many of us are unhappy because we’re fighting God at the point of his sovereignty. We’ve never surrendered our agenda to his control.

Many of us want to make deals with God. We want to negotiate with the Almighty about the terms of our service. We want God to rubber stamp our plans. That’s not how it works. That simple prayer by Bob Pierce captures the true application of this passage. God already has the right to change our agenda any time he likes. But how much happier we will be if we acknowledge that as we pray.

Your arms are too short to box with God

Perhaps we can come to the bottom line this way. We’re not in control of anything. That’s a hard truth for us to confront because most of us are control freaks who want to rule over our little corner of the universe. But that is a conceit. Time has a way of evening things out. Death comes to all sooner or later. A person who will not say “If the Lord wills” is destined to live a miserable life and to die a miserable death. As the poet said, “Your arms are too short to box with God.”

You are not the master of your fate.
You are not the captain of your soul.
The sooner you realize that, the happier you will be.

Let me draw one simple application. I can state it this way. Hold lightly what you value greatly because it isn’t yours anyway. All we have belongs to the Lord. A certain radio personality likes to say he has “talent on loan from God.” That’s entirely biblical.

Make your plans and dream your dreams. But hold your plans and dreams lightly because you don’t control the future. Perhaps you’ve seen those commercials that say, “You’re in good hands with Allstate.” As true as that may be of the insurance company, it’s far truer of our Heavenly Father. You’re in good hands when you’re in his hands for those hands rule the universe. Put your life in his hands, and you will never be disappointed.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?