The Best-Laid Plans

July 30, 2017 sermon
By John Ulrich, Lead Pastor

James 4:13-17

James 4:13-17 invites all of us as Christian believers, especially those in the middle class (James 4:13), to take God into account first when we make all our plans: small and large, short and long term. James shows us the mistake many of us make when we create our our plans, and shows us a solution.

I. How to plan: Sometimes we make plans without taking God into account. (James 4:13).  Though people make plans without God’s input all the time, James considers it serious business for Christians to consult with God first and seek His wisdom in our plans. Our “flesh” opposes the things God wants, and the battle rages throughout our lives to walk past our fears, our pride, and our desire to control our world. Only God’s Spirit, as we turn our will to Him, can help bring God into all the areas of our lives, e.g.: our hobbies, careers, spouses, children, priorities, retirement choices.

 II. Three problems when we plan without God’s input:

  1. It is foolish. God is in control by working out “everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). Our own efforts are like a “puff of smoke” (James 4:16).
  2. It is ungrateful. We are boasting in our arrogance when planning without God and it is “evil”. It is as if God has been dismissed and we have no use for Him (James 4:16).
  3. It is sin. Sin is not just doing something forbidden; it is also choosing not to actively seek God’s will in every area of our lives (James 4:17).

III. The correct approach to planning is to recognize God’s control and seek His will (James 4:15). God is in control of all: our circumstances, our opportunities, and our challenges. Beyond that, God wants us to recognize His authority, and ask He (God’s will) wants us to do (James 4:15).

Suggestions from Pastor John’s experience for HOW to find God’s will:

  1. Obey Scripture. The more we know and obey the Bible, the less mysterious God’s will becomes. We need to let Scripture be constantly guiding the circumstances of our lives, allowing us to invite God into our plans before they are made.
  2. Pray. Anywhere & any time – Ask, tell, question, praise, thank, just talk plainly and honestly to God. The openhearted relationship of love with God in prayer changes things. Sometimes we get clarity for our plans when we are actually praying, and sometimes later when we discover ourselves right in the center of God’s will.

As individuals, as spouses, as parents, grandparents, and especially as God’s Church at Perry Creek, we need to recognize our struggles & God’s control, & seek His will as we make plans.

Discussion Questions

  1. Are you now plotting a course for a new endeavor? How does this sermon speak to you?
  2. Are you intentionally or unintentionally actually doing what James 4 tells us not to? (Not planning the way God would have you plan)
  3. Have you ever asked the question, “How do I find God’s will?” What do you think of Pastor John’s suggestions?
  4. Do you tend to compartmentalize your life with God as just one room? Is this sinful?
  5. Can you give an example of how you or any believer in your experience, has been changed by their interaction with Scripture?
  6. Are you actively involved in praying for God’s will in the plans for your life, as well as the life of your church?


I have to live out whatever I teach. I have to experience whatever I’m preaching on. You guys know this. I’ve mentioned it before. When I taught on adversity, my house flooded. When I taught on conflict, Kelley and I had a big fight. I once taught on Temptation, and in Starbucks, while I was working on the sermon, I literally had a girl sit down at the table next to my table, and it became clear that she was a swimsuit model interviewing to pose for a calendar. She was very tempted by me. A few weeks ago, I told the story of how I pocket-dialed someone and accidentally left them a four minute voicemail of me complaining about them. Remember that? I was teaching on humility that week. I have to live out whatever I teach.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened this week. We had a plan for this series, and a plan for today’s service. I was supposed to be off-site today and visit another church to tour their children’s ministry. The plan was that Allison would lead music, and John Maiden was going to preach on James 4:1-12, the next passage in our series on James that was the plan.

But at the end of last week that plan began to fall apart. Joel and Allison had some family friends in crisis, and they really needed to go and minister to those folks today. We struggled to find someone to cover for Allison which meant that John Maiden would have to lead music instead of preaching today, that I would have to preach the passage I was going to preach next week – James 4:13-17 – and John would have to preach 4:1-12 next Sunday. We got all out of sync. It messed up my plans for the day. It got us off schedule, and I was grumpy about that. It’s hard to make plans in the summer, when everyone is in and out. Kelley can tell you that I’m a guy that really, really likes for things to go according to plan. So I was kind of grumpy!

Then Kelley said “By the way, what is your passage about?” I looked and, lo and behold, the passage is about making plans and how your plans might just fall apart! It’s about taking God into account when you make your plans! I have to live out what I teach. I am really excited to see what happens to John Maiden next week, because he’s preaching a passage where people in the congregation are actually killing each other! So we’ll see what happens there!

Today we are going to look at a passage where James talks to us about the plans we make. He’s going to talk to us about one mistake that many of us make when we lay out our plans – both our long-term and short-term plans – and he’s going to show us the remedy for that mistake. Turn in your Bibles to James 4:13-17. Actually with this passage, James is going to turn a corner in this book. He’s going to start a new section of his epistle that directly addresses people of different sort of “socio-economic classes.” In the next passage, he’s going to address the rich – those who have more than they need and oppress others. The week after that, he’ll address the poor – those who are enduring the oppression. James is going to start today with the group that really most closely resembles us – the sort of merchant or middle class, not so much those who are ahead or behind but those who are trying to get ahead. H’s going to talk to us about the way we make plans. Today James is going to talk about:

  1. How we sometimes make plans
  2. The problems with that approach to making our plans
  3. The solution to that problem

James is going to have something for everyone here today. Some of you are really going to want to hear what James says, because you are trying to plot a course for a new endeavor and you want to know exactly how to do what James is encouraging us to do here: How to plan. In the last week, Kelley and I have been contacted by more than one couple, who are trying to plan and find God’s will for their family. James is going to have something for you today. Others of you may need this sermon because, either intentionally or unintentionally, you might actually be doing what James tells us not to do in this passage. You’re not planning the way God would have you plan. So what James shares today will be a helpful corrective, a warning that will serve you well. All of us need this passage as a basic reminder as we make plans for our lives and for our church. I’m excited about what we are going to learn in this passage. James says this:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.
– James 4:13-17

How should we plan? Well, first let’s look at how we plan sometimes:

Sometimes we make plans without taking God into account

James identifies his audience for this passage:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”
– James 4:13

That’s who James is talking to. When I first read this, I was puzzled by James’ reaction: Who are these people? Why does he come down so hard on them? They just seem to make a plan and James is all “you boast in your arrogance,” “you’re nothing but a vapor,” and “it’s evil it’s sin.” So what is the problem with these guys?

Well the problem is not that they are rich – that’s the next passage. The problem is not that they want to make a profit – that’s not condemned in Scripture, and James never mentions that again. The problem is not even that they are planning. The Proverbs are full of verses that teach God’s people how to make plans. James will tell us how to plan in verse 15.

The problem with these people and the reason James is taking them to task is that they are planning without taking God into account. Look at what James says:

  • They know the time of their trip – today or tomorrow
  • They know the destination – this or that city
  • They know the duration – spend a year there
  • The know their activity – carry on business
  • They even know the result – we’re going to make money

They know all of that, but there’s no mention of God. They are making plans without taking God into account.

Though people do that all the time, the people James are rebuking are Christians. They are believers in Jesus. We see this because James calls for them to change. He points to their sin. He says they know better. These people are believers, and they are planning without taking God into account.

Let me ask you a question: Have you ever done that? Have you ever planned your day without taking God into account? Ever make a big decision and not really consult him?

We all do that from time to time, don’t we? Every once in a while we make a decision and forget to check with God. Let’s be honest. It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal! We don’t mean anything by it. We just forget. It just happens every once in a while. No big deal to us.

James seems to think it’s a much bigger deal than that. He seems to think this is serious business. Here’s the thing: I think he’s right. You wouldn’t make plans without talking to your spouse, would you? You don’t schedule things without checking with your boss at work, right? So why would we forget to talk to God when we make plans? Why would we not seek his wisdom? Why would we not ask for his input?

Well, I think the answer to that question is why this is such a big deal to James. I think it’s the reason he’s so worked up, because I think the answer to that question “why wouldn’t we ask for God’s input?” is simple: Because sometimes we really don’t want it. Maybe we’re Christians. We want God in our lives. We want his help with certain things. We’re happy to set up a little corner of our heart for God. We’ll give him that gladly, but we want him to stay in the corner. We want him to mind his own business. We want him to stay in the church part our life.

We all battle with this. At every phase of our lives there’s a principle, a force, a mindset inside of us that pushes against giving God real control of our lives. The Bible calls it “the flesh” and says it is by its very nature opposed to what God really wants. It’s still there, even though we are Christians. We battle this our whole lives. There’s always some part of us that wants to keep God in the corner and make our plans without him.

Teen-agers, when I was a teen-ager (back in World War I) I was terrified that God was going to take over more than just the church part of my life. I firmly believed that God had a plan for my life and that if I would simply relax, and let him take the wheel, He would screw my life up beyond all recognition, and I would die a weird and miserable person! I’m joking, but I’ve gotta say, I wanted what I wanted. I wanted God in my life, but I wanted him to stay in the church corner, because I was so sure I could do better on my own! I wanted to plan my life without him.

Ultimately, God broke me of that. I started looking for a wife and I have to admit, I had the same battle! I was like “God I’ve made plans. I’ve got a list of requirements here, I’ve got standards!” So don’t be bringing me any “missionary, book-worm girl” I have a plan!” And wow! Dating was not fun! It was a miserable experience! I had a girl stand me up on a date and get married on that night instead! I had a girl that cheated on me like nobody’s business. I had one that I fought with all the time. I actually had one girl. It was our first date. I said goodnight to her and turned around and fell off the porch. Dating was miserable! But I had a plan! Finally God was like “are we done here?” I said “yeah, I’m done” He said “I’ve got a girl named Kelley you should meet.” I think he did OK! But I had plans.

This battle never ends. We get married. We start a family. It can be “Yeah I want God in my life, but don’t touch the hobby. Jesus, don’t touch the career. I’ve got plans.” Ladies, it can be “Jesus, you can do anything you want with me, but don’t touch my kids. I’ve got plans for them.” It carries on even in retirement. It can be “Don’t mess with my retirement, right? I’ve done my bit. This is me time.” I want you in my, life but stay in your corner, Jesus. I’ve got a plan. Sometimes, we plan without taking God into account. It’s a battle we all fight. Now the second thing James is going to tell us about this is:

There are three problems with this

There are three problems with doing this:

  1. It’s foolish
  2. It’s ungrateful
  3. It’s sin

So James lists three problems. Let’s just take a quick look at each of these.

1. James says doing this is foolish. Let me explain what I mean. Look at verse 14. James says you make these plans:

Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
– James 4:14

Think about this for a minute. For James’ readers to know that their plans will succeed they have to control the future for a year. But James says “You can’t control the future. In fact, not only do you not know what the future is you don’t even know if you’ll be in it.” He says “you’re a puff of smoke”

When I used to hunt dangerous animals in Africa, I would carry something interesting. It’s a little nylon bag with ashes in it. Every so often while I’m stalking that animal, I would give it a shake and a little puff of smoke would come out of it. Why do I do that? Because that puff of smoke is the easiest thing for the wind to blow away. I can watch that smoke and see which way the wind is blowing, so that what I’m hunting doesn’t catch my scent and hunt me back!

James says we’re like that puff of smoke. We think we’re so important. We think we can make plans with certainty, that we can control the future, and that the world can’t keep turning without us. But we’re just like a three year old sitting on his daddy’s lap in the parking lot and holding the wheel of the car, and we’re so convinced that we’re in control.”

But we’re not. Some of you know this. You’ve suffered a financial reversal or an out of the blue medical problem or you’ve had a job or a relationship severed, and you can’t fix it. You’ve been brought face to face with the reality that not everything in this life is fixable, not everything is under your control.

James says it’s foolishness to make plans as if we can control the future. God is in control. Ephesians 1:11 tells us he works all things after the council of his own will . So it’s foolishness to make plans as if we were in control.

2. It’s ungrateful. We’re going to skip verse 15 for now and come back to it later. Look at verse 16:

As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.
– James 4:16

In other words, when you make plans without taking God into account, you are boasting. James literally says “you are boasting in your arrogance.” Now to boast in the New Testament isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It really means to put your confidence in something. James says when we do this we are putting confidence in our arrogance. In other words, we are putting our confidence in our arrogant assumption that the future is predictable and that we control it.

We are especially prone to this in the developed, western world, because we have come up with so many ways to give ourselves control:

  • We have irrigation, so we don’t have to depend on the rain
  • And air conditioning ,so we control the climate
  • And refrigerators, so we can store up food
  • And medicine to cure illness
  • And insurance for disasters

We feel like we’re so in control. The other week, I mentioned a Zimbabwean friend who visited a more developed country and said “It’s as if God has been dismissed. They have no use for Him. They feel so in-control.”

We boast in our arrogance. James says this boasting is evil, because it puts us in God’s place. It blocks the gratitude He wants us to have. When we feel in control, we become arrogant and lose our gratitude.

If you want to see real gratitude, talk to a Christian who has survived a life-threatening illness or experienced real hardship. We have people like that in our congregation, and they are beautiful. There’s just this real sweetness about them. They are so encouraging, because they just live with this constant sense of gratitude. They understand, in a way that most of us don’t, that each day is a gift from God. They’ve embraced the fact that they are not in control, and it’s made them grateful.

James points out that much of the time, we do the opposite: We ignore God’s control and boast in our arrogance. And to do so, it ungrateful. So it’s foolish, and it’s ungrateful. Finally, James says:

3. It is sin.

Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.
– James 4:17

Now this seems like a strange way to end this passage. It doesn’t seem real tightly connected to what James has said. In fact, some people think this was a well-known saying that James just sort of threw in here, that it doesn’t really fit. We know James better than that. I’ve heard Christians quote this verse without the context, because it’s hard to see how it fits.

So what is James saying? Notice he starts with a connective: “Anyone then or therefore who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” What is the good he knows he ought to do? James has told us in verse 15: seek God’s will in all things. Say “if God wills, we will live and do this or that.” That’s the good we are supposed to do. So James is saying if you know you are supposed to seek God’s will in all things and you don’t do it, it’s sin. That’s his point here.

How is this different from verse 16? In verse 16, James said not seeking God’s will was “evil.” ere, he says it’s sin. What’s the difference? I think James is trying to make a special point here. We normally think of sin as doing something that’s forbidden – like stealing, or lying, or adultery, doing something we’re told not to do! James is saying that it’s also sin not to fully seek God’s will. It’s not enough to not do something that’s forbidden. We also have to actively seek God’s will in every area of our life – our money, our career, our spouse. He’s saying that when we don’t do that, it’s sin.

Let me give you an example from one area of our lives to help clear this up. Think of the area of money. We’re told in Scripture not to get money dishonestly, right? “Thou shalt not steal or cheat, or defraud.” So I might conclude that as long as I make my money honestly I can make as much as I want and do whatever I want with it. I might conclude that there’s no sin if I didn’t steal, right? Wrong. James says I have to go beyond that and ask myself what God’s will is. Maybe God wants me to give some of that money away. Maybe he wants me to focus less on making money and more on my family. Maybe he wants me not to be trapped by a wealthy lifestyle. See I have to go beyond just the “thou shalt not’s” to seeking God’s will. Not doing so is sin just like getting the money dishonestly would be sin. Does that make sense?

This goes for every area of my life: the spouse I choose, the career path I follow, the priorities I set the place. I live all of it. To not seek God’s will is actually sin.

Sometimes we make plans without taking God into account, and there are three things wrong with this: It’s foolish, it’s ungrateful, and it’s sin. Now James has one more thing to say:

The correct approach (to planning) is to recognize God’s control and seek his will

Now let’s go back to verse 15. James is going to show us what we should do when we plan. As we come to verse 15 in the passage, James has just shown his readers that they are making plans without taking God into account. He has explained that that’s foolish because they don’t know the future. Then look what he says in verse 15:

Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
– James 4:15

Notice that James sort of makes reference to both sides of God’s will. First, he recognizes God’s control over the circumstances of our life. He says “If God wills, we will live.” In other words, God is in control of our circumstances, in control of whether we live or die, in control of whether we are sick or well, in control of the opportunities we have, and the challenges we face. We want to acknowledge God’s control of circumstances.

But then secondly, James goes beyond that and he points to God’s desires for our plans his sort of “moral will.” James says “if God wills, we will do this or that.” In other words, it’s not just God’s control over our circumstances that we need to recognize. We also need to recognize his authority to set our plans. We need to ask ourselves what God wants us to do. We have to recognize his control and seek his will.

One last question: how do we find God’s will? As individuals, as leaders of our families and as a church, how do we find what God has for us? Most of us would recognize that finding God’s will is a big deal. Some of you are looking for God’s will right now. If this is such a big deal, how do we do it? How do we find God’s will?

James doesn’t really tell us here. He tells us we need to seek God’s will, but he doesn’t really tell us how. I’m just going to close by giving you three simple suggestions today and these just come from my experience as I’ve tried to follow God in my life. Different people have different theories about this. Some say “just pay attention to Scripture, and God doesn’t care about the rest.” Others make every decision a highly mystical experience. I’m probably somewhere in between. Let me just give you three simple suggestions:

1. Obey Scripture

Honestly, I would say this is 80% of the battle. We need to find out what God says we should be doing and not doing – his moral will – and we should obey it. The more we know our Bibles, the more we obey our Bibles and the less mysterious God’s will becomes. We want to obey the Bible.

Let me encourage you to stay in the book ,to live in the book to, read it for yourself. We need to let Scripture be constantly informing our lives. Because this book is alive – and as you read God’s word day in and day out – it will relate to your circumstances. It will give you guidance. I don’t know how God does that but he does: I’m actually not joking when I say “I have to live out what I preach”. God really does make his word relevant to our circumstances. So the first thing I would say, hands down, is let’s keep our nose in the book! Obey Scripture.

2. Invite God into the plan before it’s made

This passage isn’t just about making your own plans and then throwing the words “if God wills” onto the end of every other sentence. I’ve known some Christians that kind of do that, but what James is talking about here is the opposite of that. We are asking God what the plan is before we make it!

The need to do this really came home to me several years ago. For some reason when I was reading Purpose Driven Life. I just realized my tendency to just ask God to bless the plans I had already made on my own. I think my reasoning was that “I’m doing the job God has called me to do. I’m in ministry now. I’ll take it from here and God just needs to bless that.” We want to invite him into the plan before it’s made.

This Wednesday Hope and Cara, the Maidens, and Kelley and I met to discuss our children’s ministry here at Perry Creek. We feel like our children’s ministry is one area where God really wants us to expand this year. We want to see kids come to faith in Jesus and we feel like we may have some kids here that God is going to call into the ministry. We want to be good stewards of them. We really want to grow our children’s ministry. We didn’t meet Wednesday to make our plans. We met Wednesday really to begin asking God what his plans for our children’s ministry are. We really just started with the question: What might God be wanting us to ask for our children’s ministry? What might he want to do? We came up with a list of about 50 things! We are going to pray through them and prioritize them, but we’re aware that our plans and priorities for our children’s ministry might not be God’s plans and priorities. Maybe God’s not going to do things the way we think he should. Maybe his timing won’t be the same as ours. We could wear ourselves out if we get ahead of what God is doing or we could miss out if we’re working on the wrong thing. We don’t want to do that so we want to invite God into the plan before it’s made. Finally I would just say this and I’ve said it again and again

3. Pray

Pray about everything. Scripture tells us “pray on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” Prayer changes things. There’s a reason that prayer is one of our five core values. When you’re driving to work, turn off the radio and pray about your day (don’t close your eyes!), about the situations you are facing and the relationships you are working through, about the issues that have you stumped and the ones that don’t. When you’re driving home, turn off the radio and pray for your family, that you’ll be the Dad or Mom, the grandparent, or the son or daughter that God wants you to be. Pray about the things you’re facing, the questions you have.

Here’s what happens when we pray: We find ourselves in God’s will. We do. Sometimes as we pray, God reveals his plan to us, and we know what his will is. Other times, he doesn’t reveal the plan. In my life, I’ve found this: Every single time I have open-heartedly prayed to find God’s will to make a decision every single time, I come to a point where I look back, and say “sure enough. Where I ended up going – whether I was confident I knew God’s will or not – is where God wanted me to be.” Pray about everything.

James’ message to us today is simple:

  • Don’t make plans without taking God into account
  • Recognize his control and seek his will
  • We need to be doing this as individuals, as spouses, as parents, and as God’s church, right here, at Perry Creek.