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James Series: Planning God’s Way (4:13-17)

Updated: May 2

Planning God’s Way

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into this or that town and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” You do not know about tomorrow. What is your life like? For you are a puff of smoke that appears for a short time and then vanishes. You ought to say instead, “If the Lord is willing, then we will live and do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows what is good to do and does not do it is guilty of sin.

James 4:13-17 (NET)

How should we, as believers, rely on God as we plan for the future?

Unfortunately, planning is at times looked down upon in some Christian circles, as though believers should simply live by faith or be led by the Spirit—meaning that we should simply trust God without giving much thought to planning or preparation. Sometimes this is emphasized in the preaching of sermons, the planning of church services, or even in considering retirement. However, this view does not fully embrace what Scripture teaches about planning and preparation and also what it means to depend on God. Because believers trust God and realize they are stewards of his many gifts, they should plan. We plan, so we can best use the gifts he has given us for his glory. Proverbs 21:5 says this, “The plans of the diligent lead only to plenty, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.” If we are hasty, meaning we don’t take time to plan for the day or the future, we won’t be very profitable, and we’ll spoil the gifts and opportunities that God gives us.

In this text, James challenges these Jewish Christian businessmen about how they were planning for the future. In James 4:13, he says, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into this or that town and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.’” By using the term, “Come now,” it was like him saying, “Listen up!” or “Pay attention!” It was common Old Testament prophetic language.[1] In Isaiah 1:18, Isaiah said, “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

In James 4:13, these Jewish Christian businessmen, who had been scattered throughout the ancient world because of persecution, were making intricate plans. In their planning, they tackled the when (tomorrow), the who (we), the where (this or that town), how long (a year), the what (business), and the why (for profit). However, their planning was amiss, so he corrects them, so they can honor God in their business and bring a greater glory to him.

Secular Versus Spiritual

As we consider planning, we must first note that for James there was no separation between the secular and the spiritual. Often times Christians focus on their “spiritual life” to the neglect of their work life, school life, and family life. Or, they focus on their “secular life” to the neglect of their “spiritual life.” However, in Scripture, there is no separation between the two. By addressing this issue, James says that how these merchants planned for and conducted their business ventures was important to God, and this is true for all our endeavors as well, which is why we must plan. We plan, so we can be profitable in our labors and bring glory to God. Colossians 3:23-24 says, “Whatever you are doing, work at it with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not for people, because you know that you will receive your inheritance from the Lord as the reward. Serve the Lord Christ.” In all our labors, we are serving the Lord and will ultimately be rewarded or judged by him. There is really no difference between the “secular” and the “spiritual” for a Christian.

Therefore, in this study of James 4:13-17, we will consider how to plan God’s way, as to bring the optimum profitability and honor to God from our endeavors.

Big Question: In considering James 4:13-17, what principles can we learn about planning God’s way—in order to bring glory to God?

To Plan God’s Way, We Must Avoid Neglecting God in Our Planning

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into this or that town and spend a year there and do business and make a profit… But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.

James 4:13, 16

When the merchants discussed their plans, they didn’t say anything wrong as they considered the who, where, what, why, and how of their next steps. The problem was with what they did not say, as God and his will were left out of their plans. He was never mentioned. In fact, in verse 16, James says, “But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” It is clear that these Christians were not only planning but boasting in their previous and future successes. They planned apart from God and thought they could accomplish their plans without him. However, Psalm 127:1-2 says, “If the Lord does not build a house, then those who build it work in vain. If the Lord does not guard a city, then the watchman stands guard in vain.” If our plans neglect God, they are in vain, even if they seem to produce a profit. In John 15:5, Christ said that apart from him, we can do nothing—meaning nothing spiritually good or acceptable to God.

No doubt, when these Jewish Christian businessmen were first persecuted and forced to move to new properties, they relied on God, quite a bit (cf. Jam 1:1). But, after life had settled down, they probably started to neglect him and focus on worldly pursuits. This is why in the context James rebuked them for their worldliness, as he called them spiritual adulterers and said their friendship with the world was enmity with God (Jam 4:4). Life had turned into, “What can I achieve and get for myself?” instead of, “How can I serve God and others?” Surely, they occasionally prayed, but instead of seeking God’s will, it was probably simply to ask his blessings over their plans. James 4:3 says, “you ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, so you can spend it on your passions.” Even their prayers were selfish and all about their profit!

Sadly, we are often the same way, as we seek to build our kingdoms and achieve our successes, without truly considering God’s plans and kingdom. Kent Hughes said this:

They were so like us. We are such children of our times that we cannot conceive it would ever be God’s will that we not become rich and prosperous. Sadly, we have often advised our children the same way: “Be sure you get into a profession where you will make a good living, son, so you won’t have to struggle like I did.” Some have even objected to their children going into Christian work because it is not lucrative. Despite Christian trappings and evangelical nods, we often live without serious reference to God’s will. This is practical atheism.[2]

Hughes’ comment about practical atheism is a very apt description of how many Christians live. Intellectual atheism means professing to not believe in God. However, when talking to atheists, one will often find that they live like theists. They will say things like, “Well, I just believe everything happens for a purpose!” When hearing something like that, the natural question is, “Why? Why do you believe everything happens for a purpose, especially if you don’t believe in God?” See, though many profess atheism, they live as theists—living as though some higher power or energy is ordering things for their good. Likewise, many Christians who profess to believe in God live as practical atheists. They profess Christ, go to church, and maybe even read their Bibles but on a daily, practical level, including their work, family, and planning for the future, their professed belief really doesn’t guide them. They live a contradiction. They profess Christ, but solely depend on themselves and their hearts as their guide, apart from God, which is what these Jewish Christian businessmen were doing.

This has been James’ major theme throughout the whole book. True faith must affect how we live (cf. Jam 1:22, 26-27, 2:14-26). If our faith doesn’t produce works, including how we plan, then it is not real. For this reason, we must avoid planning like the world—considering only things such as how many likes we will get on social media, how much money we will make, and how to move up the corporate ladder. If we build a house, a business, or a future, and God doesn’t build with us, we build in vain (Ps 127:1). When we plan, we must not neglect God.

Application Question: What is “practical atheism” as Kent Hughes mentioned, and why is it so common in the church, especially in planning for the future? In what ways do you commonly neglect God in your daily or future planning and how is he challenging you to seek him more?

To Plan God’s Way, We Must Recognize the Foolishness of Relying Solely on Human Wisdom and Strength

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into this or that town and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” You do not know about tomorrow. What is your life like? For you are a puff of smoke that appears for a short time and then vanishes.

James 4:13-14

Observation Question: What human limitations to our planning does James refer to in James 4:13-14?

In James 4:13-14, James teaches these Jewish Christian businessmen why it was unwise to neglect God in their planning. (1) Though they could make projections, these businessmen could not predict the future because of the complexity and uncertainty of life. In verse 14, James says, “You do not know about tomorrow.” They couldn’t accurately predict what would happen the next day and certainly not what would happen in a year. There are so many complexities in life: People might experience a major sickness, which limits them physically, like broken bones, cancer, multiple sclerosis, etc. They could lose their job. The stock market could crash. There could be a major war or natural disaster, like a pandemic, that drastically changes life as we know it. It is foolish to neglect God in our planning, since there are so many unforeseen complexities and uncertainties in life.

(2) In addition, it is foolish to neglect God in planning because of the brevity of life. In 4:14, James says, “What is your life like? For you are a puff of smoke that appears for a short time and then vanishes.” He compared life to smoke or a vapor that goes up into the air and quickly dissipates. In Psalm 90:10, Moses said: “The days of our lives add up to seventy years, or eighty, if one is especially strong. But even one’s best years are marred by trouble and oppression. Yes, they pass quickly and we fly away.” He said most will live to their seventies and only eighties and beyond if they are especially strong. The years of life pass quickly. Some have even joked that when you get it old, life is like a roll of toilet paper, it goes even faster the closer you get to the end.

Since life is so short, it is even more important for our plans to involve God and be guided by him. Some won’t live pass high school, others college; some will only make it to their thirties or forties. Whatever time frame God gives us, we must plan wisely, so we can maximize it for the kingdom. Christ only lived into his early thirties, but during that time, he laid the foundation for turning the world upside down. Moses didn’t really get on fire for God until his eighties, but he maximized that last part of his life for the kingdom. To neglect God in our planning is to waste our lives. Many of us can look back at earlier years we regrettably wasted, as far as profitability for the kingdom.

One of Solomon’s conclusions in the book of Ecclesiastes as he considered all of life was to remember God in one’s youth. In Ecclesiastes 12:1, he said this: “So remember your Creator in the days of your youth— before the difficult days come, and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’”. Again, this was one of his primary conclusions after considering the vanity of life. He said, “Don’t waste your younger years! Dedicate them to the Lord and plan to use them to the best of your ability, by God’s grace!”

Likewise, Moses, in considering the complexity and brevity of life, in Psalm 90:12 (NIV), prayed this: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” He prayed for the ability to understand the brevity of life, so he could be wise with his time—redeeming it for the glory of God. When one realizes how scarce something is, it becomes more valuable and we become more particular about how we handle it. Rocks aren’t valuable because we have an abundance of them, but gold, diamonds, and jewels are valuable because they are rare. Because of how rare they are, we just don’t walk around with them in our pocket or play with them outside. They are too valuable. Likewise, when we understand how valuable and rare our time is, then we’ll be more prone to prayerfully plan to use it, instead of wasting it. Our lives are like the vapor, quickly dissipating in the air.

James points out our human limitations to show us how foolish it is to trust in human wisdom and strength alone, as those businessmen did. Proverbs 28:26 says, “The one who trusts in his own heart is a fool.” Jeremiah 17:5 says, “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord.”

Are we trusting in ourselves, the counsel of parents, or society alone? If so, it is foolish. God created us, loves us, and wants to guide us. We should seek him and seek to be guided by him, which leads to our next point.

Application Question: Why is it so important to recognize our human limitations, especially our limited wisdom and the brevity of life, so we can plan better? If you could redeem a specific period of your life, what would it be, why would you change it, and how would you change it?

To Plan God’s Way, We Must Seek, Trust, and Obey God’s Will

You ought to say instead, “If the Lord is willing, then we will live and do this or that.” … So whoever knows what is good to do and does not do it is guilty of sin.

James 4:15, 17

James says to these businessmen, that instead of boasting of what they will and will not do (v. 13, 16), they should say, “If the Lord is willing, then we will live and do this or that” (v. 15). This was common language that Paul used when planning. In Acts 18:21, he said, “I will come back to you again if God wills.” Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 4:19, he said, “But I will come to you soon, if the Lord is willing.” With that said, James was not referring to a formula that we should constantly use in our planning or speech, though it is good practice. He ultimately referred to our manner of heart in everything we do. As believers, we should always seek to know the Lord’s will, trust it, and obey it.

Application Question: What does James’ challenge to say, “If the Lord is willing,” mean for our planning?

1. The statement, “If the Lord is willing,” challenges us to discern God’s will, as we plan.

Interpretation Question: How do we discern God’s will?

  • We discern God’s will by being in his Word.

David said that God’s Word was lamp unto his feet and a light unto his path (Ps 119:105). When meditating on God’s Word (Ps 1:2), it was like the lights were on, and he could better discern direction. (1) In Scripture, God tells us directly what to do or not to do when it comes to moral issues. We should not lie by exaggerating the truth on our resume. We shouldn’t cheat on our taxes. We should not seek vengeance on those who hurt us. Whatever we do, we must work heartily at it, because we’re ultimately serving God and he will reward us (Col 3:23). (2) In addition to telling us directly what to do or not to do, God’s Word gives us many principles to guide us in decision making, such as we should avoid things, that might not be sinful, but that might cause a weaker believer to stumble. Romans 14:21 says, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” Also, another biblical principle for decision making is that as we obey God’s general will, as taught in God’s Word, he will often clearly reveal his specific will—such as who to marry, what job to take, etc. Consider the following verses: Psalm 25:14 says, “The Lord’s loyal followers receive his guidance, and he reveals his covenantal demands to them.” When we are loyal, by obeying God’s Word, we receive his guidance. Mark 4:24-25 says:

And he said to them, “Take care about what you hear. The measure you use will be the measure you receive, and more will be added to you. For whoever has will be given more, but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”

If we faithfully obey what God teaches us, he will give us more knowledge. So, we discern God’s will by knowing and obeying Scripture.

  • We discern God’s will by prayer.

In James 1:5, James said, “But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him.” In planning for our career, family, and even daily endeavors, believers should pray for God’s guidance. When Christ chose his twelve apostles, he spent the whole night in prayer (Lk 6:12-13). As we pray, God will guide us in a variety of ways; however, even when he does not give us clear direction, which will be most times, we can trust that he is guiding us, as we make our decisions. First John 5:14-15 says,

And this is the confidence that we have before him: that whenever we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in regard to whatever we ask, then we know that we have the requests that we have asked from him.

Do we know that God wants to guide his children? Certainly! Romans 8:14 says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God.” God wants to guide his children and does so through a myriad of ways. Therefore, in decision making, we shouldn’t become paralyzed when God’s will is not clear. Most times, it won’t be. We should pray, study God’s Word, seek godly counsel, wait, then make a decision, as we trust and rely on God.

  • We discern God’s will by what God is doing in our hearts.

Philippians 2:12-13 says, “… continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort—for the sake of his good pleasure—is God.” God works in us by giving us “desires”—for a certain job, ministry, activity, or even person. He also gives us the “effort” or ability to accomplish these things. Therefore, though our heart is deceitful (Jer 17:9), it is a medium which God often uses to guide us. This is why it is so important for us to be in God’s Word and prayer, so God can guide our hearts, instead of Satan, the world, or our flesh. God often will specifically guide our hearts through peace or lack of it. Colossians 3:15 says, “Let the peace of Christ be in control in your heart.” “Control” can also be translated “rule” or “decide.” It was used of an umpire in an athletic game deciding on the winner. Likewise, God may guide us to or away from certain paths or people based on peace or lack of peace.

  • We discern God’s will by getting godly counsel.

Proverbs 11:14 says, “there is success in the abundance of counselors.” Often God will guide us through the counsel of other godly saints. In fact, we’re encouraged to talk to many people. There is success in the “abundance of counselors.”

  • We discern God’s will by God’s sovereign control over events.

Scripture clearly teaches that God is in control of everything and using everything for our ultimate good (Rom 8:28). Ephesians 1:11 says, he “accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will.” Often God will guide us through circumstances, including open or close doors. A close door will often be God saying, no or not yet. An open door, if not a clear, yes, is at least an indication to investigate further.

In our planning, we must first discern God’s will, which he reveals through many ways, including reading Scripture, prayer, his work in our hearts, godly counsel, and his sovereignty over events.

2. The statement, “If the Lord is willing,” challenges us to not only discern God’s will, but also trust God’s will, as we plan.

As mentioned, because of human limitations, we don’t know what will happen in the future, but that doesn’t deliver us from our need to prayerfully forecast and plan. However, when we plan, we must realize that God is ultimately in control and his plans are best. Often his plans won’t be fully revealed until the event is done. He will open doors, close doors, change our hearts, change other people’s hearts. This can be difficult in planning, especially as we’ve prayed, sought wise counsel, and possibly thought we had discerned God’s will. Sometimes, people are tempted to get mad at God or complain, when their plans fall a part or God closes doors. This is why it is so important to not only seek God’s will in planning but trust God. Proverbs 3:5-6 says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding. Acknowledge him in all your ways, and he will make your paths straight.” God’s ways are not our ways, and our ways are not God’s ways (Is 55:8-9). God’s ways are greater than ours, because he is all-knowing, all-wise, all-powerful, and perfectly righteous. We must trust God when his revealed will doesn’t seem to make sense to us or is painful. Christ models this in Luke 22:42, when he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but yours be done.” He was declaring his ultimate trust in God, though it meant his going to the cross. We must do the same. We must resolve to not only seek to discern God’s will but to trust it.

One of the ways we demonstrate our trust is by giving God thanks instead of complaining or getting angry at God’s will. When Job suffered, he said, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” (Job 13:15 KJV). He also said, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. May the name of the Lord be blessed!” (Job 1:21). Likewise, in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Paul said, “in everything give thanks. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Certainly, there is an appropriate time for mourning and lament when evil events happen in our life or the world. However, even lament should be done in faith because we trust that God is sovereignly in control of evil and that he will eventually bring justice.

As we plan, are we willing to trust God, especially when his will doesn’t make sense or causes pain?

3. The statement, “If the Lord is willing,” challenges us ultimately to obey God’s will, as we plan.

When James says, “So whoever knows what is good to do and does not do it is guilty of sin” (4:17). This could refer generally to everything James has taught in the epistle up to this point. In accordance with our faith, we should not only be hearers of God’s Word but doers (Jam 1:22). We should care for those who have needs (Jam 1:27). We should not honor the rich over the poor (Jam 2:1-7). We should turn away from the worldliness and draw near God (Jam 4:1-10). However, in the immediate context, it specifically refers to our need to not neglect God in our planning. We should seek his will, trust and obey it, as we declare with our hearts and mouths, “If the Lord is willing…” (v. 15).

To not do God’s revealed will—especially from Scripture, like our call to pray, serve others, evangelize, etc.—is called a sin of omission. Most times, when thinking of sins, we think of sins of commission. These are when we commit something against God’s law, like lying or coveting.

Again, in the context, James is saying, if we are going to plan, we must not neglect God but seek, trust, and obey his will instead of independently pursuing our own will and plans. When we don’t do that in our planning, it is sin and worldliness, because that’s how people who don’t know the Lord live (cf. Jam 4:4).

Are we daily seeking God’s will for our future? Are we trusting him, as he reveals it? Are we willing to obey, even if it’s difficult—like persevering through a difficult marriage, conflict at work, or other relationships? In our planning, we must seek, trust, and obey God, whether on the enjoyable hilltops of life or the difficult valleys.

Application Question: Share a time where God clearly guided you on a major decision and how he did so. Why is it so difficult to trust God when he allows difficult circumstances or guides us to a difficult path? How can we trust and obey God in spite of those difficulties?

Further Principles for Planning

Here are a few more principles to consider in planning God’s way:

1. To plan God’s way, we must discern the gifts God has given us and seek to maximize the use of them, whether they be natural talents or spiritual gifts.

Second Timothy 1:6 (NIV) says, “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.” To fan his gift into flame, Timothy had to develop it and maximize its use—no doubt by making his gift a skill and using it often. It’s the same for us. Are we gifted in administration? If so, we should plan to develop and use our gift to glorify God. Are we gifted in leadership, teaching, or service, etc.? If so, we should develop our gift and plan to use it for the glory of God.

How do we find our gifts? We find them by both discerning what we enjoy—what builds us up—and what blesses others. In 1 Corinthians 14:4 says, “The one who speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.” Tongues is probably the only gift, without interpretation, that only builds up the user. Other gifts will typically edify both us and others. If we love to sing but nobody else enjoys it, that’s probably not our gift. Therefore, we discern our gifts by how it builds us and others up.

When planning God’s way, we must discern how God has gifted us, how we can maximize the use of those gifts for God’s glory and the edification of others.

2. To plan God’s way, we must prayerfully make short and long-term plans.

We should prayerfully make daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly plans. If we don’t plan our days, weeks, months, and years, we will find that we waste a lot of time and miss many opportunities, both to build ourselves up and others. To begin this type of planning, consider prayerfully making a weekly plan by mapping out every hour of the day. In those hours, plan in work, sleep, spiritual disciplines, exercise, social activities, and recreation. Get rid of time killers, like too much time on social media or TV. Then, begin to prayerfully plan out a year, five years, and ten years. As mentioned, because of human limitations, we can’t foresee the future, including personal or global trials; however, planning often will make us better prepared to respond to various trials that come our way, especially as we trust that God is in control and guiding those unexpected events for our good. As we prayerfully plan days, months, and years, we’ll be able to better maximize our life for the kingdom and not waste it.

Application Question: What are some other principles that are helpful with planning God’s way? How is God calling you to prayerfully plan to maximize your present and future for God’s kingdom and glory?


How should we, as believers, rely on God as we plan for the future?

  1. To Plan God’s Way, We Must Avoid Neglecting God in Our Planning

  2. To Plan God’s Way, We Must Recognize the Foolishness of Relying Solely on Human Wisdom and Strength

  3. To Plan God’s Way, We Must Seek, Trust, and Obey God’s Will

Prayer Prompts

  • Pray for forgiveness for living independently of God by not pursuing his will and kingdom in every aspect of our lives.

  • Pray for God to grant us wisdom to plan, lead, and serve, according to his will.

  • Pray for God to maximize the impact of our lives, families, churches, and nations for his kingdom.


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (p. 231). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Hughes, R. K. (1991). James: faith that works (p. 203). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

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