James 4:13-17—A Tale of Two Stories
As Dickens began his great novel, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, so is the story of our lives according to the Bible. As long as we live within a loving abiding relationship with God it is the best of times, but when we make life all about ourselves and our selfish plans-then it never finishes well. In James 4:13-17, James admonishes his audience to stop making all their big selfish plans as if God doesn’t exist and sovereignly control all things. They make their big plans to travel, enjoy themselves, and get rich, but they forget that there is the God in heaven that we were all created to serve. Is life about glorifying me, or God? The fact is that even though we should wisely plan ahead, God has already known the day we “appear and then like a vapor vanish away” as James wrote. In making plans it is important to humbly acknowledge that God is actually sovereign over life, and we live only at His good pleasure. When we truly sincerely say in our heart, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that” then we are living by faith in dependence upon our Maker (which God made us to do). But if we make our big plans and live our lives while excluding God, then we are arrogantly living independent of Him. James had written earlier in James 4:6, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” If we believe that, and I do, then when I make life all about me and my plans, I am living in opposition to God. You could even say that we are usurping God’s authority over life. We all have to decide on one of two stories—the story of me which is tiny and finite and temporal, or the story of God and me which is big and eternal.
The Example of Moses
About 3500 years ago a stuttering shepherd was tending a flock of goats in the most barren wilderness you can imagine. In his own mind, he was approaching the end of his life, and he had been a miserable failure. The idea of being God’s representative, and revealing the living God to the whole world was the farthest thing from possible he could imagine. He had made his own plans when he was in his prime to represent his people and have them freed from slavery in Egypt. Instead, he had been rejected by his own people and run out of town as a fugitive. Nevertheless, God delights in the unexpected. When Moses was 80 years old, God spoke to him through a burning bush, and said, “Go back to Egypt and be My ambassador, my spokesperson.” Moses reply was just what mine would have been, “What will I say, a bush talked to me and sent me here?” Moses was wondering why they would listen to an old fugitive crazy man who talks to a bush. If they wouldn’t listen to him before, why would they now? God’s answer was simple—“Because I will be with you” this time. Before you were acting independently from God according to your own emotions and interests, but now you will be acting in obedience to God who will empower you.
If we go through the stories in the whole Bible this is a recurring theme—Joseph was a prisoner in a dungeon so why would Pharoah listen to him, Moses was a stuttering shepherd, Gideon was the least person in the least family in the least tribe so how could he defeat the Midianites, Jephthah was the son of a prostitute, David was a skinny teenager, Elijah was a burlap sack wearing guy who ate locusts, Hosea had a wife that was an unfaithful harlot, most of the Apostles of Jesus were uneducated fishermen, and Jesus’ spokesperson to the Gentiles, Paul, was the leading murderer of Christians. In every story we read that they had fulfilling meaningful lives because they were faithfully obedient to the Lord. Meanwhile the world around them was living lives spinning out of control because they were living apart from God. The Lord had one awesome answer for all the believers in the Bible who questioned Him—I AM WITH YOU. Apart from God we live in frail weak aging bodies, we have an infatuation with materialism, and we are consumed with our own agenda, therefore it is the worst of times. But when the story of God is being carried out in our lives, it is the best of times. Therefore the big decision in our lives is—Is our life the story of us, or the story of God?
Why do I Love James Bond ?
The latest in the longest lasting and most popular series of sequels is out about the secret agent James Bond. It did almost $90 million at the box office in this country alone on its first weekend. I can’t think of any other series that has come close to Bond’s popularity or longevity. I believe as long as they keep making them people will keep going. Why is Bond the most popular action hero ever? How can dozens of bad guys fire machine guns, rocket launchers, and laser beams at him, and never hit him? My answer is that he is the ultimate fantasy of every guy. He has everything, and he is everything—without really trying. He is everything we dream we could be. For instance:
- He’s bullet proof, he never gets hit, but if he does he heals quickly, and it never limits his ability.
- He is ageless, he never ages and he never dies. Of course he has to morph from Sean Connery to Roger Moore to Timothy Dalton to Pierce Brosnan to Roger Craig, but he is always tall, dark, athletic, and handsome.
- He’s never been whipped, never been beaten. Remember that odd-Job guy who could crush golf balls with his bare hand, or Jaws who was 7 feet tall? He goes up against all the evil geniuses, yet Bond always wins.
- Wherever he goes, there are incredibly beautiful women who are available, and all of them want him. Even the evil ones become his love slaves. If he is at the beach doing surveillance, an incredible babe in a bikini will walk up out of the ocean next to him. Next scene they are in the sack. No expensive dinners, no courting, just right to it with no commitment, full freedom.
- He’s a natural, he knows everything, how to do everything whether it’s fighting or driving or skiing or card playing—he’s the best at all of it. He never has to say “I can’t do that, or I don’t understand”
- He is self reliant, independent, goes his own way, doesn’t need anybody—instead the world needs him. He single handedly saves the world in every movie.
- He has no fear, no worries, is always cool, especially under pressure. In every scene somebody is trying to kill him, yet he is relaxed and making jokes.
- That cool music is always playing in the background.
- He always ends up with the coolest car with the coolest gadgets.
How is all this possible? The obvious answer is that it is fictional fantasy. So why is it so appealing? Because it is the way we want to be. We don’t want to die, and we always want to win, and be the hero. We want all our desires for pleasure to be fulfilled. We’d rather be a natural at everything than to have to work hard and learn things. Instead of diet and exercise, we’d like to be in great shape naturally. We don’t want to be dependent, and we hate fear and anxiety. In short, we like James Bond’s life better than our own.
Problem—God made us like we are. God loves us like we are. God has a plan for us just like we are. People, within their own power, work at becoming significant, secure, and fulfilled—yet it is all fiction, it can’t be. The only significance, security, and fulfillment is in Christ. God made us to find these things only in Christ. The good news is that according to 1 Corinthians 15:35-50, some day through Christ we will have the perfect body, we will be bullet proof, fulfilled, secure, and significant. If your hope is in Christ, then relish that in eternity you will have it better than James Bond.
The Example of John the Baptist
One of the greatest stories of someone who found their significance and security in an abiding relationship with Christ is John the Baptist in The Gospel of John 1:19-34. John had every opportunity to “go for the gusto” on his own. He could have reached out for that brass ring, elevated himself to be worshipped and revered by his audience and his peers, but he wisely chose to put the spotlight on Jesus where it belongs. He wanted to be a part of the story of Jesus, and so John said “Jesus must become greater, and I must become less” (Jn.3:29-30). Instead of taking the opportunity to exalt himself, he knew a real meaningful life meant exalting Jesus Christ. In Jn.1:19-34, the religious leaders came out to the Jordan River where John was preaching to a huge audience. Because of his large following, his authoritative teaching, and his commanding presence, the religious leaders asked him if was the long awaited Messiah of Israel. Now think of the temptation of having crowds willing to revere you and worship you—all you have to say is “I am”. Instead John said “I am not.” Then they asked him, “Are you Elijah?” This would have been the great temptation for me, because John looked like Elijah and had a ministry like Elijah, so it would not be a very big lie, and I could definitely pull it off. Still, John said “I am not.” Finally they asked him who he was in his own estimation, and he answered truthfully according to God’s appointed plan. Isaiah had predicted that the Messiah would have a spokesperson who would pave the way for the Messiah and introduce Him. This was God’s plan for John the Baptist, and he faithfully carried it out. In all humility John went on to compare himself to Christ—“I am not worthy to untie His sandals. Jesus has a much higher rank than me, and He has existed in eternity. God sent me as a messenger to testify that Jesus is the Son of God.”
In the Gospel of John, the author’s purpose is to reveal the deity of Christ. One of his methods is the use of the holy name of God given by God to Moses in Exodus 3. In Hebrew it is YHWH, which means “I am”. This name of God simply reveals that God is self existent, eternal, all-powerful, and all-knowing. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus uses the name of God to refer to Himself. When Jesus walked on water, and got into the boat, his disciples were amazed and wondering who he was to be able to do that, and Jesus simply said, “I AM”. Your English translation may say “It is I”, but make no mistake, Jesus said “I AM”. Therefore when I read in John 1 that the religious leaders asked John the Baptist if he was the Messiah, and he replied “I am not”, I can’t help but draw a connection. They were giving John a chance to live his own selfish story and claim to be the Lord, but he declined. John the Baptist’s claim to fame was that “I am not” but I know “I AM” (Jesus).
Let’s be honest. To varying degrees, we all have a desire to be top dog. We are competitive. If given the chance, we want to finish first. We love to get credit, acclimation, and atta boys. Many of us love the spotlight. John was really the first guy in the New Testament to be given the chance to userp the power and authority of God and take center stage. All he had to do was say, “I am”, but he said “I am not”. In the same way, in our lives, we must make a choice of living our own self centered lives and in a sense say “I am”, or choosing to be a part of Jesus’ life by saying “I am not, but I know I AM (Jesus). We may be competitive and desire the spotlight, but Jesus Christ alone has a permanent hold on being I AM. Therefore James 4:13-14 says it well. We are not all knowing, and our life is like a vapor that just appears for a short while and then vanishes, so how could we expect to live apart from the great awesome eternal story of God? We need to live our lives in dependence on the One Who is all knowing and eternal, and take a supporting role in that great drama as John the Baptist did. By taking that supporting role, and sincerely saying “Jesus must become greater, and I must become less”, God exalted John the Baptist so that Jesus said of him in Matt.11:11, “among those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!”