When Plans Fail
I hesitated to write this article. I even pushed it aside and wrote half of another one before finally resigning myself back to this one you are reading now. Part of my hesitation is that it kind of feels like stepping on my own toes a little, and I fear maybe some will think this an article of condemnation. Please know that if anything in this article “hits a nerve” it is hitting mine, too. This is written from the perspective of my own struggles in this area, but we’re all in the same proverbial boat, so it’s probably where many of you are, too.
Of course, the news of the moment is the sweeping COVID-19 pandemic, and perhaps more prescient to each of us, the government’s response to the pandemic in the forms of quarantines, closings, and social distancing. Every day, it seems, comes with more restrictions, more guidelines, more struggles, all getting closer and closer to home. You’re experiencing this right now reading this article, most likely in a digital format on your computer at home, rather than on a printed page in the church building.
Since most of us haven’t gotten sick, our more immediate experience is of the governmental and societal restrictions. And without getting sick, or knowing anyone personally who is sick, it can seem like perhaps these actions are “over-reactions.” The more of us that experience disruption in our jobs, our income, our personal lives, etc. the more and more we can feel anger, resentment, despair, fear, and a whole host of other emotions. This article is not to discuss whether government is over-reacting or not. Things like this are hard to know in the moment (but certainly by next year everyone will “know” for certain what the right course of action should have been).
Rather, I want to discuss what the Bible says about our feelings that life “should go the way I expect it” and the various emotions we encounter when the uncertainty of the world and this life make themselves apparent (as it currently is). I want to focus primarily on this passage from James 4:13-17.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
I want to bring your attention to a few things in this passage (though, of course, much could be said). The first is James rebukes a very common practice among all people: Making modest business plans a year into the future. I’m sure most of us have experienced our plans for the near future thrown into uncertainty, and perhaps vanish in front of our eyes. Personally, our sixth anniversary travel plans had to be delayed and then entirely scrapped. Plans for my business are being delayed, reevaluated, or discarded all together. I am sure those things and more are happening to you as well. We’re all finding our plans go down the drain.
So what’s wrong with making plans? Is James condemning the very act of making plans? I don’t think so. Jesus talks about the importance of making plans and not being foolish to start things before counting the cost (see Luke 14:25-33). Instead, it seems James is condemning the belief that the act of making plans means that the universe has to and will cooperate with you. For James says, “What is your life? …you are a mist…” While we can make plans, we are not in control of whether they can actually come about or not. In fact, we are virtually powerless to ensure the world bends to our will. We are but mist.
James tells us to instead say “If the Lord wills…” I don’t believe James is giving this as a formula or an incantation to recite before any and every plan we make (as if by saying those words we’ll make things so). Instead he is telling us to remember who it is that is truly responsible for EVERYTHING happening or not happening. It is not us. It is the Lord. That is why James calls this certain type of plan-making without considering the Lord’s will as “boasting” and “arrogance” and “evil.” If we think that because we make plans, and if those plans don’t go the way we want, that we have some justification to shake our fists at the heavens, then we need to step back and reevaluate our beliefs and actions. Who do we believe is actually in charge of the universe? Us or God?
This world is filled with uncertainty, pain, and suffering. We’re experiencing that now. Perhaps we’ve been so blessed in the past, that we’ve forgotten that we’re not actually the one’s in control. Let us take this time to refocus on the One who is in control. Let us beseech Him to take care of us. Let us place on Him our every care and concern. Let us love each other and our fellow man in these hard times, not loving in word only, but in word and in deed. Let this crisis bring about a revival within ourselves and in our nation.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Psalm 46:1