Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it.
James 4:17 (New Living Translation)
James concludes this chapter by issuing us with a stern warning. He doesn’t get any more explicit than this – he reminds us that it is a sin to know the good that we ought to do and yet not do it. This to me is a near-impossible standard to uphold. God gives us the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament, which tells us the things we mustn’t do – kill, covet, steal, lie, etc; whereas Jesus tells us what we must do in the New Testament – to love God and our neighbour. A violation of either renders us sinful; it’s virtually impossible to acquit yourself of blame when the stakes are so high.
I propose that there are three things we can do with the life that God has given to us to steward. The good news is, these choices are ours to make. We can either spend it, keep it or invest it.
- Hedonistic – You can choose to spend it on your pleasures and make your life all about pursuing your goals and dreams. In other words, this life is all about you. I think we are most susceptible to this way of life.
- Egotistic – Or, you can keep it for yourself and be selfish, self-centred, and live like a hermit, as if no one owes you anything and you owe nothing to anyone. You inevitably become greedy, mercenary and inconsiderate. I think we unknowingly choose this way of life.
- Altruistic – Or (and I pray this you’d choose this!), you can invest it in the things of God and in His people, knowing that one day, God Himself will give you great returns – some of it on earth and most of it in heaven. Life is fast and it will soon past; only what is done for Christ will last.
Think about it for a little while – if everyone in this youth group invested their lives in the good that they ought to do, imagine what we would be capable of accomplishing for God! If the local church comes together, unified in one vision to bear fruit, I truly believe that we will be world-changers, history-makers and life-shapers! There’s so much power in the potential of us doing good unto all men.
So my question then to all of us is – What exactly is the good that we ought to do?
When Jesus ascended to Heaven, He gave us the Holy Spirit and left us with the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. These aren’t great suggestions but great instructions for all of us to carry out. The former tells us to love God and His people. The latter tells us to go out and touch and impact lives for Jesus. I don’t know about you, but if you call yourself a Christian, then these two great instructions must sound good to you; these are what we must invest our lives in if life is uncertain and death is certain. And to help us along, we can depend on the Holy Spirit; we are not alone at all in doing good for the glory of God. May we learn to involve God in all that we do in this short life for His glory alone!
What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you will be boasting about your own plans, and all such boasting is evil.
James 4:15-16 (New Living Translation)
If life is uncertain and death is certain then how in the world are we supposed to negotiate our journey in this lifetime? What on earth are we doing for heaven’s sake? James proposed his resolution in verse 15, which calls for us to tweak our alignment.
It’s not about the planning but about the perspective, not the pursuit but the priority. If life is truly punctuated by question-marks and death completed by full-stops, then I’m grateful that God is my space – the punctuation most-often used in every sentence; every word is preceded and followed by a space. I thank God that His grace is laced in space!
James instructed us to renew our mind. We naturally speak with presumptuousness so he wants us to think differently and speak with renewed positioning. He’s blatant enough to say, “What you ought to say is”, which signifies a deliberate change in speech; speaking like that won’t come naturally, that is precisely why we have to intentionally train ourselves.
So how exactly does James want us to change in our speech? First and foremost, we must acknowledge God’s will in our lives. Everything counts for nothing if God is not in it. That explains why he began his sentence with, “If the Lord wills”. Then he says, “We will live”, meaning that we should check if we are even alive, for it is pointless talking about plans if we are not alive to carry it out. Finally, James says this last, “And do this or that”. Once we have committed our plans to God (and asked Him for His purposes in our lives), and ascertained that we are alive to carry it out, we can consider implementing our plans.
Of course, James knows we’re hardly so obedient; he correctly diagnosed the problem by identifying the opposite of seeking God’s will, that is, to boast about our own plans. This evil boasting is rooted in human pride, where we think we are in control. In Greek, “evil” is an active verb, which means that if we boast of our own plans, we are continuously doing evil.
I didn’t plan to return to Singapore last July. I thought I’d be in Shanghai for a few more years. But everything changed within a week. In a nutshell, I was caught in the middle of a senior management dispute and had to make a decision. I sought the Lord and I made the decision to return home. I had His peace reigning in my heart. Everyone around me was shocked – my mother, sister, colleagues, business associates and even Huiyi’s family – because I was doing well in Shanghai. In fact, I left in the same month of a promotion and significant pay increment.
But a still small voice in my heart assured me that it was all right to come home. I knew that the Lord was going to take care of me, so I obeyed. That was simply it. I had no idea that it would lead to what I am doing now with R-AGE; I didn’t expect myself to be a full-time youth minister so quickly but God knows His timing and I trust Him for it – that’s the beauty of life.
When we understand that this life doesn’t belong to us but to God, we will realise that all we need to do is to obey. Obedience is the highest expression of stewardship; the best way to see the mark of obedience to God in your life is to observe how you have stewarded your life according to what God has revealed in your heart. I do not look forward to the day when God puts His arm around my shoulders to commend me on all the good things I have done for Him only to sound a tad bit disappointed because I missed out on the only thing He wanted me to do; it is important for us to be faithful to our calling.
People say that change is the only constant but I beg to differ for God is the only constant. And if God is the only constant, then wouldn’t it be wise for us to bank on Him to see us through this uncertain life leading up to a certain death? We must remember that life does not revolve around what we want but what God wills. Our lives ought to be a declaration of the true sovereignty of God and never about the imagined control of Man.
If I am an investor and someone told me about a stock that would eventually be good for me, I would buy it in a heartbeat. The stock will fluctuate, but because I know that it will eventually be good for me, I will hang on to it no matter what. The Bible tells us in Romans 8:28 that we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them. Our job becomes really simple then; all we need to do is to love God and live out His purposes in our lives.
Look here, you people who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.”
James 4:13 (New Living Translation)
Fact – you are not in control of your life; you can control your effort but you cannot determine your outcome. Life is uncertain and is a gigantic question-mark. The sure thing about our life is that we are completely unsure about it. It is impossible for anyone to tell me that they can guarantee that they will be able to do what they have planned. James gave us a glimpse of a presumptuous conversation in verse 13 – it was as if these people were sure of their plans coming to fruition.
- Who – “You who say… We are going”
- What – “Do business there”
- When – “Today or tomorrow”
- Where – “A certain town”
- Why – “Make a profit”
- How – “Stay there a year”
Sometimes we tend to think that it is us who determines what happens next, and not God. Be careful when you start to think like that. We are brought up in a meritocratic society and may tend to function like this – “So long as I attain this grade, I’ll be able to get into this school, and end up working in this job afterwards”; if you think like that, you’re not very different from the presumptuous businessmen that James was addressing.
Anything can happen in life. God used the incident of my failed MacBook Pro to teach me about the uncertainty of life and my helplessness towards it. Rain falls on both the good and the evil. I’ve learnt that life is uncertain but I’ve also learnt that there’s certainly nothing I can do about it. I can plan and work in advance to the best of my ability, but if my laptop decides without warning that it would crash on me, I have no choice but to restart my work.
Whenever you remember that you are not in control of your life, you must also remember that your life doesn’t belong to you. You do not own this life; you are only meant to steward it. The problem with us is that we think we own this life. And when that happens, we get into deep trouble because we don’t usually like to let go or give away what we own.
Remember that your life has been purchased by the precious blood of Jesus Christ and because it has been bought, it no longer belongs to you, or the devil, but to God. So never think that you own your life. Instead, submit your life to God and let Him have full control of it. We can propose but God can oppose; we can project but God can reject; we can rule but God can overrule. Let’s learn to accept His will and ask Him for wisdom and peace to deal with the unravelling of life.
Singaporean students easily get caught up in the relentless paper chase. Remember this – Jesus is greater than your grades. Do you really think that God’s plan cannot unfold in your life if you score badly or end up in the wrong school? No, God is so much bigger than that. Don’t be discouraged if you’ve made academic mistakes for there are no mistakes with God; nothing is ever wasted in His economy.
Proverbs 16:9 tells us that we can plan our course, but it is God who determines our steps. So let’s learn to commit our plans to God, for when we work, we work, but when we pray, God works! The sooner you realise you are not in control of this life, the easier it will be for you to accept that life is truly uncertain and always a question mark for you to discover and be surprised by its unknowns. It’s a good thing that life is out of your hands, but in God’s hands.