Retraining Our Hearts
June 28, 2020 – Evening Service
Faith Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA
Pastor Nathaniel H. Gutiérrez
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”— 14 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. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
As I read the message, I couldn’t believe it. I checked the news; it was on every single news outlet in Peru. “Uncle” Vladimir Paz de la Barra, my dad’s cousin, had died. Uncle Vladi was a former Supreme Court Justice, and one of the most prestigious lawyers of Peru. He was the President of the Bar Association of Lawyers three terms in a row and was one of the wealthiest people I knew.
Last time we visited him, his chauffer picked us up in one of his many luxurious cars, and he took us to an exclusive restaurant that I didn’t even know existed. We loved each other dearly and my dad would witness to him relentlessly. Vladimir made a profession of faith, and his children assure us of his faith, for which we are grateful. At the same time, I know he struggled with his ties to this world. He had a lot going for him in this world. He was powerful and had houses and prosperities all over. He had built an empire for himself, one that he admired and loved to show us and talk about.
I think Uncle Vladi is a helpful example to us, because though he loved the Lord, he struggled. And though many of us, as Christians, might seek to use our resources and gifts to serve the Lord to the best of our ability, and even make plans to use our gains and resources for his glory, we can still struggle with the treasures of this world. We struggle to live for God, and often get tied up in our own little “empires.” And those empires can be whatever we treasure most in this world.
This passage in James highlights the finitude of life and challenges us to hold loosely to the things of this world. He reminds us of the fact that we are fragile and that like “mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
And we are to live our lives in a way that reflects that. We are to be careful not to seek to build up empires on this earth and set our hearts on earthly securities.
In this message, James writes about what it means to develop a posture of humility.
In it he calls us to abandon all sense of security in this world, and to develop a posture in life that reflects our submission to the Lord’s will.
To begin, James starts with a typical scenario. He paints a picture of a person who is going around telling people that he plans on taking a trip to some destination, and that upon arrival at that destination, he plans on not only staying for a full year, but also turning a profit.
This hypothetical situation provides an opportunity for James to rebuke a practice that might have become prevalent in the church. And that was the practice of living like “practical atheists” as one theologian puts it. (Henry Krabbendam)
They called themselves Christians, but in practice, they were living as if God had nothing to do with their lives. They were boasting about their plans and assuming that they had everything under control as they established their small empires.
But the words of James 1:10-11 ring loudly in our ears:
“like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also, will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.”
And James 4:14:
“…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.”
The Lord is reminding us of the fragility of our lives, that we are weaker than we suppose, and that our lives on this earth are but a blink of the eye.
As we dig deeper into what James is teaching, and we think of this picture of the traveling planner, we should remember that James (or Jim, as I apparently call him for short) should be thought of generally. James was not limiting his message merely to the travelling businessman, nor to the wise entrepreneur who thinks ahead and who is a strategic planner
We know that because throughout Scripture we are reminded that Christians are to be good stewards. We are not to be lazy, nor passive with the gifts God has given us. Even the ant is commended as an example for her wise and diligent efforts – working ahead and gathering in summer.
Prov. 6:6 Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.7 Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, 8 she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.
There is godly wisdom in planning for the future, in investing and making profit. James is not going after frequent flyers or people who move around from place to place. All of these things play into the cultural mandate – to go forth and be fruitful. These are good things.
As Henry Krabbendam writes,
“No, it is the apparent assumption of self-confidence, self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and self-determination of the man that is the target of James’ grievance and grief. He goes about his business as if God has no plan, in fact as if God does not exist.”
This comes as no surprise, as on numerous occasions we see the disastrous results that fell upon the kings and leaders of Israel when they did not consult God or seek after him before taking action in war. They acted independently of God and conducted themselves in ways that seemed to indicate that they thought themselves self-sufficient.
You see, the problem was not going to war; the problem wasn’t traveling and making profits. The problem was doing so without seeking God’s face or seeking his counsel.
The good efforts of the travelling businessman are a good example of how something good can quickly slide into a tool in the enemy’s hands.
What starts out as a diligent, responsible and fruitful effort, can quickly turn into a source of false security.
I can remember many instances in which I have agonized over some big decision – where to go to school, what house to live in, what car to buy, what kind of computer. Whenever you head down the road of Amazon.com options, reading reviews and seeing alternatives, you can find yourself researching the best kind of anything – all in the name of being a good steward.
I remember deciding once that I didn’t really need to research something that much, and just bought one of the first items I saw. When the item arrived, it was absolute garbage. It was so bad I just put it back into the package and went to return it. But when I tried to return it, the seller’s account had been deleted.
From that point forward, I spend a lot more time looking into what items to buy and looking at their reviews and then going to Fakespot to see the reviews of the reviews! Ridiculous I know. But the thing is, I’m not the only one who uses a service that reviews reviews to see if the reviews are legitimate.
I know many of us have spent way too much time trying to decide which product to buy. We don’t want to get burned, so we try to do our research to avoid that.
But don’t we take that a little too far? What is behind all the research? What are we really trying to do?
Have our intentions of being good stewards of our money and our purchases turned into obsessions? Are we doing our research in order to cut off any potential mistake? Do we worry that we might order a bad product and so do everything in our power to be secure in our decisions? Sure, some of that is legitimate, but when does it become an obsession and an idol?
These big decisions and struggles don’t just take place on Amazon.com; they take place in our relationships, health decisions, work decisions and family decisions. When we toss and turn in bed, when we spend hours watching the news, or researching the best way to handle X, Y or Z, what is it that we are trying to do with all our researching?
What is the root problem here? What are we trying to do by investing so much time into making our decisions? Is it not that we are trying to anticipate problems and control them from happening?
Could it be that we are trying to eliminate risk or danger? Again, we would be foolish not to try to plan be ready for dangerous situations, but how quickly do we switch from wisdom, to folly? How quickly do we switch from diligence to paranoia?
Fear of the Unknown
When I was a kid, I remember taking out the garbage at night. For some reason, as I would take it out, I would become really, really aware of the sounds around me. I’d hear twigs breaking in the darkness. I would have this feeling of someone watching me, but I would play it cool. I would take the trash and put it into the bin, but as soon as that lid closed, I would run to the door for dear life as if someone was chasing after me.
And I believe that James is calling us out on our God-less planning because he knows that part of the reason we are planning out our lives so much, and worrying about things so much, is because we don’t like the idea of the unknown. We hate being in the dark. We are afraid of what we do not know.
And the future is like that. We don’t know what it brings. It could be a terrible sickness, a virus, financial hardships, a difficult relationship or worse.
We get a bad experience and we build up fortresses to ensure it never happens again.
There are many stories of people who went through economic depressions, that have amassed small fortunes due to their concern of something similar happening to them again.
And while saving is wise and good stewardship, it can also become a source of false security. It can become a treasure or an idol.
Think about the fears that dominate your thinking.
What consumes you, what fills your mind? Whatever it is, there is probably a legitimate reason as to why it concerns you or why you are thinking about it. But then something begins to consume you, to the point that you can’t stop thinking about it. Note that this most likely is a source of worry. And worry is a companion of pride.
James and the Sermon on the Mount & Proverbs
You might remember that I’ve mentioned in previously that much of James’ material relates heavily to Proverbs and the Sermon on the Mount. It seems that he is often writing almost directly from the sermons Jesus gave in Matthew 5-7.
And in the middle of that sermon, in Matthew 6, Jesus tells us not to be anxious – not to worry about tomorrow, not to worry about what you will eat or wear and not to be anxious about your life. He calls his disciples not to act like orphans, but to remember that God will provide.
And just previous to that, he says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth.” (Mt. 6.19) He reminds them that God will provide all of these things for you, just as he does for “the birds of the air who neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns.”(Mt. 6:26)
In James we see the same warning, but a different angle. Rather than focusing on worrying about not having food or clothing or about one’s life, James warns us not to try to achieve food, clothing or financial gain without God.
He cautions us to not turn our worry about the unknown into an effort to provide for ourselves to such a degree that we won’t have to wait on our Father in heaven.
You see, either way you look at it, in those actions, we are trying to act independently.
• In worrying, we act as if we have no Father to care for us.
• In obsessive planning, we act as though God is not part of our life.
Both of these ways of living highlight our desire to provide for ourselves, and be independent of God’s timing and care.
Worry puts us at the center of the solution, rather than relying on God’s provision. It is self-determination, self-sufficiency and self-reliance.
Worry is an emotion that says, “If I don’t plan for or think through how to deal with this issue enough, everything will fall apart.”
And the fruit of worry can be obsessive planning, or obsessively thinking about something. God-less planning out our life’s years in advance, with the intention of not being a failure.
All of these things focus us on building up our little empires, building up our security in our self. And rather than build our lives on the rock of Jesus, we build on shifting sand.
And that false security, or little empire, can be your workplace. Are you a workaholic? Has your diligent and godly work ethic started to turn a corner into becoming obsessed with your work?
Has an effort to do well in school, or as a mother or father, or as an employee become so
important to you that a godly work ethic has slid into perfectionism?
We can obsess about money, school, jobs, relationships, the right house to buy or the right city to live in. We can obsess about raising our children, or about our bodies and even about our Christian lives. Christians can obsess about their children being good Christian kids.
All of these things are fruits of our worry and pride. When we obsess about researching the right things, or making sure everything is just perfect, are we not trying to control? Are we not acting for self and focusing on creating a safety net or building up a little empire for ourselves?
In Matthew 7:24, Jesus gives us an example of a wise man and a foolish man. The wise man heard Jesus’ words and obeyed them. He is like a man who built his house on an immovable rock.
But the foolish man does not hear the word of God. He continues to live according to his own understanding, wise in his own eyes. He builds up his house on the sand of his own wisdom and his house comes crashing down.
This passage reminds us that our wisdom, just like our life, is like shifting sands. We can try to build our future on our plans, or we can make plans based on God’s perfect will.
If our hearts are seeking after God’s will, and trusting in his perfect plan, we will not be as devastated when trips get cancelled, or weddings get postponed, or your family is struggling with health or finances.
Because your security will not be in your created empire here on earth, but on the established kingdom of God, guaranteed and protected by his power.
And that is where James is taking us. That is his solution. To turn away from ourselves and turn to God’s will.
James’ solution to this problem of self-reliance, and the pursuit of our own security, seems to be summed up in a simple phrase.
“Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’”
Now this is no spell. It does, however, have two effects:
1) It demonstrates our willingness to be in submission to the Father.
2) It vocally states what we want to believe in our hearts.
I recently interviewed the graduating seniors in youth group. I asked them what some of their big takeaways were over their four years as high school students.
One of the bigger takeaways that I heard repeated more than a few times was that they had learned the importance of holding onto the things of this world loosely and trusting in God’s timing through the faithful and small discipline of saying “Lord willing.”
They said that one of their professors, Mr. Hannula, would say “Lord willing” all the time. Some quietly admitted that sometimes they would grow tired of hearing him say that so often. Because he would say it about everything, about the Great Britain trip, about upcoming events, about other matters of the high school, and everything.
But when COVID changed all the plans they had and the trips were cancelled, these graduating seniors said they gained a new appreciation for what Mr. Hannula was saying. They learned the importance of making plans with God in mind. They learned the importance of remembering that our lives are a mist and that if we live tomorrow, it is because the Lord wills. Nothing in this world, but God, is certain.
Mr. Hannula was being faithful in that small statement, and when it came time for that statement to be tested, he was prepared, and he helped many others prepare as well.
And I think that is why James is calling us to change the way we talk. Because as we train our tongues, we also train our hearts to remember that we live in God’s world, not our own.
“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” (Prov. 16:9)
It is easy to underestimate the power of the small things God calls us to, the small obediences he calls us to be faithful to. But he calls us to those things for a reason – for his glory, and also for our good.
And as our days become difficult and weary, we will be ready to face the trials that come our way.
See, this is not much different than what Jesus was saying in Matthew 6, and what he put into practice in his own life.
Rather than worry about tomorrow as if God is not present in the future or plan out our years as if God’s plan is not our plan, we ought to live our lives in constant submission and dependence on him.
So that means not only saying “Lord willing,” but trusting that if God changes our plans, it is for our good.
See, Jesus took time to pray. There were always more problems to be handled, but he went away and left it behind for the more important work. He left the crowds to go and pray. He tells us not to be anxious about anything, and to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, and thy will be done.”
Every Sunday we offer up our worship to God in our tithes and offerings. Many of us give 10% of our income in our tithes and that is an important obedience.
But I wonder how our lives would change if we gave up 10% of our worrying and God-less planning? If we gave up only 10% to the Lord?
If of the time that we spend researching the best schools, worrying about a relationship, or staring at those investments, we took 10% of that time and took a posture of humility, getting on our knees, saying, “Lord, your will, not mine.”
How would that change us? How would that train our hearts? How would that change our lives?
If we spent 5min of every hour that we dedicated to solving our worries, do you know how that would change our posture and change our thinking? We would retrain our hearts and minds to the Lord’s will, not our own.
I know that if we were to pursue this practice, and give up this offering, we would be living in obedience to what James is teaching here.
In those 3 hours that we plan and stress over whatever it is that we plan and stress over, how would we change if we spent only 5 minutes of each of those hours in prayer?
I believe that our lives would change drastically. That we would be less anxious people and more trusting in the Lord’s sovereign plan.
We would live less like orphans and more like children of the King of the Universe.
You see, when we get down on our knees and utter the words, “Lord, if you will….”, we are physically, spiritually and vocally saying to the Lord that we are at his disposal. We are here and willing to serve.
We are his servants, with no agenda but to bring him glory and we will rejoice in him, and not in the treasures of this world.
You see, we need to be careful not to confuse our false securities and little empires on earth as a solid fall back. They are nothing but shifting sands. They will pass away, like the flowers of the field that are here today and gone tomorrow.
Our hope must not be in the securities of this world, but in our only true security: our Rock, Jesus Christ.
As we go about our week, may we retrain our hearts away from our own will and back toward submission to God’s. May we develop the faithful and small obedience of training our tongues to say “if the Lord wills,” and may we also at the same time bend our knees in faithful obedience to God.
And when we bend our knees and submit our heart to his will, may we remember that he will hold us up. He will sustain us. For He is our rock. He is our life.
For “‘In him we live and move and have our being.’” (Acts 17:28)
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