The Best Laid Schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

Disney - Happy Birthday Walt! by Express Monorail
Disney – Happy Birthday Walt! by Express Monorail
Each New Year’s Eve, whoever we’re spending it with, we tend to go round the table and each say one thing we’re thankful for and one thing we’re looking forward to in the coming year. And if we’re feeling a bit more committal, we set a goal or two of things we would like to achieve in the next 12 months. It’s often one of the really enjoyable parts of the evening, remembering what goals we’d set the previous year and seeing how far we’d come.

This year I wasn’t so keen… I could do the “thankful for” and “looking forward to” bits (we were only asking for one of each after all, and I’m not that much of a grinch!) but I found myself a little reluctant to set a goal for the next year. Not that I don’t have goals, of course… but as I remembered what I’d said the year before, I realised I was no closer to achieving either of my goals than I had been then.

It wasn’t that I’d aimed too high at the end of 2011. It wasn’t that I’d been lazy for a year and brushed my aspirations under the carpet. It’s just that I hadn’t reckoned with the fact that life doesn’t always go the way you expect. It has a habit of throwing up the odd curveball. Something unexpected. Something that torpedoes your best laid schemes with barely a moment’s notice.

As I cast my mind over my friendship circle I can think of many who ended last year in quite a different place to how they might have imagined 12 months ago – many of them in far worse positions than I. Unexpected illness, an accident, redundancy, challenges at work, at home or in the family… the locusts dined well in 2012!

I’ve been reflecting on this passage from James over the last few days:

‘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.’ (James 4:13-16)

It’s a sobering passage towards the end of a challenging letter. It’s addressed to the well-off; the traders; the wealthy business class; people who know what they’re capable of, are confident in their skills and who seem to have relatively good business sense. The trouble is, for all their goal-setting, these people fail to take into account the sovereignty of God and the frailty of life and their planning amounts to little more than boasting.

I can’t help but wonder if some of my previous New Year goal-setting may fall into the same category?

Now of course James isn’t asking us to plan nothing, shrug our shoulders and just ‘go with the flow’. He’s not advocating a lazy or pessimistic view of the future. He is simply saying ‘don’t presume’. It seems to me that there is a balance to be struck between setting faith-goals, striving for your dreams, and holding the future lightly, because none of us truly knows what God has up His sleeve.

The rest of the letter helps us by painting a picture of this Lord whose will shapes our lives. He is generous (1:5), gives good and perfect gifts (1:17), is unchanging (1:17), promises us an inheritance (2:5), gives grace to the humble (4:6) and heals the sick (5:15). He gives wisdom to those who ask (1:5) – wisdom that brings peace, mercy and good fruits (3:17).

He doesn’t tempt us with evil (1:13-14) but when we submit ourselves to Him, He banishes our tempter (4:7). He brings forth fruit as we trust Him patiently (5:7-8) and though He allows us to be tested at times, our testing produces steadfastness and works for our perfection (1:2-4).

In all that we go through – suffering, sickness and joy – the proper response is prayer (5:13-14); a powerful act (5:16), when done with faith (1:6) and good motives (4:3). And perhaps – just perhaps – if we asked more we might receive more (4:2).

Do your 2013 goals make space for the sovereignty of God, or do they say too much about you and not enough about Him? 

You see, the preface “if the Lord wills…” is not some pious loophole we attach to statements so we can pass the blame to Him if we fail. It’s not an excuse to aim small or an invitation to under-achieve. It’s not an exhortation to disregard planning or abdicate responsibility. It’s an encouragement to be realistic; to have an honest assessment of yourself and of Him.

If 2012 has taught me anything it’s that my life is more ‘mist-like’ than I previously thought, that prayer in every circumstance is both vital and a privilege, and that God knows what He’s doing, even when I don’t. Though life is frail, He is strong.

At the beginning of a new year, having your perspective readjusted is no bad thing. After all James reminds us, ‘God gives grace to the humble […] Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you’ (4:6, 10)

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