JAMES 4:13–15.—“Go to now, ye that say, To-day, or to-morrow, we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell and get gain: Whereas, ye know not what shall be on the morrow: For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say: If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.”
THE movements of human society are like those of the ocean; calm and storm, light and darkness, level surfaces and mountain billows, succeed each other in swift and sudden contrast. Human life like a wave of the sea is driven of the wind and tossed. Men are constantly forming new plans, beginning new enterprises, and entering upon new and uncertain experiences. Hence it behooves them reverently to acknowledge their relation to the Almighty Being who inhabits eternity—their Maker, their Sovereign Ruler, their Judge, and their God. From amid the vicissitudes and uncertainties of this mortal life, it is their duty and privilege to look up to Him “with whom is no variableness or shadow of turning,” that He may be the strength of their heart in their frailty and impotence. As the years of time lapse one after another, dying men should be reminded of the eternal years of God, and of their own destination to another world and an endless life. That we may be thus impressed, let us attend to some reflections suggested by the text, relative to the duty of dependence upon God, and reference to Him, in all the undertakings and experiences of life.
I. The first remark suggested by the words of St. James is, that mankind naturally do not feel and acknowledge their dependence upon their Maker.
The language of the natural heart is that which is rebuked by the Apostle: “Today, or tomorrow, I will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain.” God is not spontaneously in the thoughts and plans of men, and human enterprises have little reference to the sustaining and controlling power of the Almighty. Schleiermacher defined the essence of religion to be the sense of dependence upon the Infinite Being. Tried by this test, multitudes of men are destitute of religion.
We shall find this practical atheism, whether we scrutinize the narrow life of the individual, or the broader life of the nation or the race. How rare it is to meet a man imbued with the Old Testament spirit, saying, with Moses, in the outset of every undertaking, “If thy presence go not with me, carry me not up hence.” How few possess the spirit of the patriarchs, who were bold as lions provided that God led the way, but timid as lambs when they could not see his footsteps.
Many men rely upon second causes, and never fall back upon the great First Cause. They calculate upon a long life, because they inherit a good constitution; they fear an early death, because their frame is slender; they expect a successful issue of their plans, because they are regarded by others as shrewd and far-reaching men. In each of these instances, the dependence is placed upon something this side of God. The mind does not penetrate beyond all secondary causes and agencies, and say, when “He taketh away our breath we die,” and “Except the Lord build the house they labor in vain that build it: Except the Lord keep the city the watchman waketh but in vain.”
How few are in the habit of looking to God that they may be assisted and guided. Many men live as if there were no presiding mind in the universe; as if all the actions of mankind, and all the events of earth, were but the chance movements of an endless series controlled by no overruling power. If we should translate human conduct into words, would it not say: “All things are moving on aimless and without a guide; I will cast myself upon the current and trust to fortune for success. I am not a steward, and there is no account to be given hereafter. I will follow the inclination of my heart. Time is all and everything. Earth is the sum and substance. Man is his own center, and ultimate end. I will look only to myself for resources of action, and will depend upon my own right arm for the accomplishment of my purposes. I will go into that great and prosperous city, and continue there twenty years, and buy, and sell, and get gain.”
Though he might start back at the thought of deliberately uttering such language as this, yet does not every prayerless man utter the substance of it in his daily and hourly conduct? And there are millions of prayerless men in the world. Actions are louder and deeper-voiced than words, and does not a self-seeking, self-reliant, and prayerless life continually say to Almighty God, “I have no need of thee?” As we look back over the past years of our lives, do we not see that some of them have gone into eternity with no proper sense of dependence upon our Creator? Have we not planned and executed, toiled and studied, bought and sold, without any filial reference to our Maker and our Maker’s will?
And what is true of the individual is true of mankind at large. We are not an humble, submissive, and trustful race of beings. Though created in the image of God, and living, moving, and having being in him, mankind have not acknowledged their relationship, and have not looked up to the Infinite Ruler of the universe for guidance and support. There is no fact taught by the history of the world more plain, and more sad to a right mind, than this. The nations of the earth, when left to themselves and uninfluenced by the truth and Spirit of God, have uniformly forgotten the Supreme Governor, and national life, like that of the individual, has not been marked by a humble confidence in Him before whom “the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance.” Had this been an unfallen world, and had righteousness been its stability and harmony, it would in all ages, with one heart and mind, have acknowledged its entire dependence upon the King of kings. The universal human species, like the angelic host, would have looked upwards with a reverential eye, and sought the illumination that radiates from the Father of lights, and the counsel of Him who cannot err, and the strength of the Lord God Omnipotent. Such, however, has not been the attitude which man has taken before his Maker. He has founded and destroyed empires without a single glance of his eye upwards; he has enacted laws and abrogated them without taking counsel of the Supreme Law-Giver; he has gone to battle without reference to the will of the God of Battles, and has concluded peace with no offering of thanks to the Prince of Peace.
The thoughtful and Christian reader is struck with the atheism that pervades the secular history of man. Look, for example, at those great ancient empires: the Assyrian, the Macedonian, and the Roman. These immense bodies rose slowly, reached their culminating point, and declined gradually below the horizon, without any reference to the living and true God, so far as the aims and purposes of their founders, and heroes, and monarchs, were concerned. It is true that God controlled them, and employed them for his own wise purposes, and so he does the vast masses of inanimate and unconscious matter that crowd the material heavens. But what cared Ninus, Romulus, and Alexander for that Being who sat upon the circle of the earth while they were prosecuting their ambitious designs, and who has since judged them, these thousands of years, according to the deeds done in the body? The conduct of Nebuchadnezzar is a specimen of the conduct of the kings and kingdoms of the earth. “The king walked in the palace of the kingdom of Babylon, and spake and said, Is not this great Babylon that I have built for the house of the kingdom, by the might of my power, and for the honor of my majesty?”
II. The second reflection suggested by the text is, that the ignorance and frailty of man is a strong reason why he should feel his dependence upon his Maker.
“Ye know not what shall be on the morrow: for what is your life? It is even a vapor that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.”
Man is a very ignorant being. Philosophers are disputing whether the human mind can have a “positive” knowledge of the Infinite as well as of the Finite. In the discussion, a positive perception is sometimes confounded with an exhaustive and perfect one. It is assumed that man’s knowledge of the Finite is exhaustive and perfect, and the conclusion follows that his knowledge of the Infinite must be different. But man has no exhaustive and perfect understanding of any finite thing. His knowledge in this direction, too, has limits as much as in the other. The blade of grass which he picks up in his fingers, and subjects to the microscope and chemical analysis, contains an ultimate mystery which he can no more completely clear up, than he can the mystery of the Divine eternity, or trinality. For the constitution of the smallest atom of matter involves such baffling questions as, What is matter? and, How is it created from nothing? In reference, then, to a perfect comprehension that excludes all mystery, the Finite is as really beyond the reach of the human mind as the Infinite. In relation to both of them alike, we may concede a positive and valid apprehension, but not an exhaustive and perfect one. In respect to all beings and things alike, be they finite or be they infinite, men must say, “We see through a glass darkly, and we know in part.”
Again, man’s knowledge is limited by time, as well as by the nature of objects. His knowledge of the present is imperfect, and he has no knowledge at all of the future. The past and present are the only provinces into which he can enter. The future is an inaccessible region, and he can know nothing of it until the providence of God guides him slowly into its secret and dark recesses. The morrow is separated from us by only a few hours, and yet we cannot predict with absolute certainty what the morrow will bring forth, any more than what eternity will bring forth. If by knowledge we do not mean mere probability, but absolute certainty, we are as ignorant of what will be on the morrow, as we are of what will be a million of years from now. Living in the sphere of change and experience, we are of necessity ignorant of all that time has not brought to our view. We wait in order to know, and we live to learn.
But God is in eternity, and the terms past and future do not apply to his existence. There is no succession of events in his omniscient consciousness. All that has been, is now, and ever shall be—the whole mass and amount of all history, so to speak—is constantly before his eye. Hence his omniscience is a fixed quantity. It is a cognition that is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever. It undergoes no increase, and no diminution. There is no future that is to disclose any new thing to him; and there is no past out of which his memory can bring anything forgotten by him. That part of our existence which we have not yet lived, is now as well known to his mind, as what we are thinking and doing this very moment.
It is not so with our knowledge. We have forgotten much that we once knew. It is probable, that in some instances more has been lost out of the memory than the faculty contains at any one time. An excursive student ranging from his youth over the whole field of knowledge, yet having an unretentive memory, at the close of life is not in conscious possession of one-half of the sum-total of all his acquisitions. The past is thus very inadequately known by us. The present glides by with so noiseless and insensible a motion, and we are so unreflecting, that we have but a partial knowledge of that. It is before our very eyes; yet seeing, we see not. And the future we do not know at all. Verily, man is of yesterday, and knows nothing.
Is not this ignorance of ours a strong reason why we should rely upon the all-knowing God? Though we know nothing in an exhaustive and perfect manner; though mystery enwraps us like a cloud; though the future is all uncertain, and we cannot even conjecture what it has in store for us; yet we are not shut up to the unhappiness that would result from such a sense of ignorance if unrelieved by other considerations. For a profound consciousness of human ignorance, taken by itself, has a direct tendency to render man desponding and despairing. This is the cause of the misanthropy and atheism which too often meet us in the world of letters. The enterprising and self-confident thinker believed that he could speculate his way through all the mystery, and attain a perfectly clear understanding and mastery of the problems of human life. Baffled and repulsed at a hundred points, he became the subject of an awful reaction, and sank into the belief that there is no such thing as truth, and no such being as God. But there is no need of this. Trust in God’s wisdom, power, and goodness, cheers up the mind in these hours when the immensity and complexity of the universe is weighing upon it. Every man may say: “It is true that I am a being of limited powers. The ultimate essence of everything is beyond my ken, and I know not what will be on the morrow. But I am the creature of the great and wise God, and he graciously permits me to take hold of his strength, and to ask for his wisdom. He is the Father of lights, and giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not.”
By thus resting upon God, amidst all the ignorance and mutability of this existence, man derives to himself some of the calm wisdom and immutability of the Eternal One. If we were possessed of a simple and constant trust in Jehovah, our little life would repose upon his unchangeable existence, and would be embosomed in it. And although it would still have its changes, its ignorance, and its motion, yet these would occur in a region where there is no change, and in which there is perfect security. Our globe has its complex and swift motions, but the serene and ancient heavens contain it and all its orbit. Go where it may, it is still within a sphere of order and safety. It can never get beyond the reign of law. That immensity in which it moves is the dwelling-place of God, and “He who stretcheth out the heavens like a curtain, who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters, and maketh the clouds his chariots,” will impart harmony and regularity to all its movements. In like manner, if man would consciously live, move, and have his being in God, he would be filled with a glad and cheerful sense of security, firmness, and power, amidst the violent and rapid changes incident to this life, and the dark mystery that overhangs it. “He that trusteth in the Lord shall be as Mount Zion, that cannot be moved.”
Again, the brevity and uncertainty of human life is another strong reason why man should feel his dependence upon God. “For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” To employ the language of the Psalmist: “Men are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth and groweth up: in the evening it is cut down and withereth.” The longest life here in time seems short, and there is no one, however his years may have been lengthened out, who will not say with the aged Jacob in the one hundred and thirtieth year of his age, “Few and evil have the days of the years of my life been.” Any length of life upon earth must appear brief to beings who like man were made to live in eternity. If our years were prolonged to the longevity of those who lived before the flood, the same sense of their brevity would possess us upon our deathbeds, which will soon fill our souls as we come individually to lie down and die. Nothing but a fixed and unalterable existence can be free from the sensation of shortness and transitoriness.
But not only does human life seem short: it is so in reality. It has the transiency of the morning vapor, which hangs upon the edge of the horizon for a few moments, and then is dissipated by the wind and the sun. In thinking of human life, we are apt to think of the whole life of the entire race of man. The millions that have walked the earth for six thousand years become a single individual for us, and thus we are not so vividly impressed with the transiency of man’s existence as we are when a friend or neighbor is struck down by our side, or when we are ourselves summoned to die. Yet every individual of the human family lived only his brief hour, was occupied with only his few personal interests, and then dropped a solitary unit into the abyss of eternity.
One after one, for six thousand years, men have been living short lives, and the aggregate of them all is not a second of time, when compared with that endless duration which is the residence and the fixed state of each. “The whole time of the world’s endurance,” says Leighton, “is as but one instant or twinkling of an eye, betwixt eternity before and eternity after.” What then is man, and what is man’s life? “He dwelleth in houses of clay; his foundation is in the dust; he is crushed before the moth; he is destroyed from morning to evening; he perisheth forever, without any regarding it.”
III. The third remark suggested by the text is, that the proper way for men to acknowledge their dependence upon God is to refer to his will, in all their plans and undertakings.
“Ye ought to say: If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this or that.”
It is right and reasonable that the will of God should prevail everywhere, and in all time. The will of some being or other must be supreme and ultimate; otherwise, the universe would be a theatre of contending factions. The old doctrine of dualism has always been regarded as uncommonly irrational, and never has had much currency. That there should be two eternal wills in everlasting conflict has appeared so very absurd, that errorists have been much more ready to adopt pantheism than dualism, and to absorb all wills into one. The chief work consequently for a creature is, to subject his purposes to those of the one Supreme Will. He must not for a moment suppose that he is at liberty to proceed without any reference to any one but himself. No such license as this is granted to him. It may be wickedly taken, but it is not granted. Man may have his own will only as it harmonizes with that of God. An arbitrary choice is not conceded to any subject of the Divine government. By the law, he is shut to one course, and one only. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart. I have set before you life and death: choose life.”
That creature, therefore, be he angel or man, who claims the right to do as he pleases; to choose either life or death; to have his own way without reference to the law and will of the Creator, sets up an unlawful claim. It is like the claim which a tyrant sets up to arbitrary power. “He has arbitrary power!”—said Edmund Burke, in reference to Warren Hastings—“my lords, the East India company have not arbitrary power to give him; the king has not arbitrary power to give him; your lordships have not; nor the commons; nor the whole legislature. We have no arbitrary power to give, because arbitrary power is a thing which neither any man can hold nor any man can give. No man can lawfully govern himself according to his own will. We are all born in subjection to one great immutable pre-existent law, prior to all our devices, and prior to all our contrivances, paramount to all our ideas, and all our sensations, antecedent to our very existence, by which we are knit and connected in the eternal frame of the universe, out of which we cannot stir.” Subjection to God’s will is not the destruction of man’s voluntariness; but if it were, he would be obligated to come under it. For God’s supremacy is of more consequence than any attribute of a creature, however noble and precious it may be in itself. “Let God be true, and every man a liar!” cries the apostle in his inspired zeal for God. “Let God be supreme, though all finite wills should be annihilated.”
But there is no necessity that all men should be liars, in order to save the veracity of God; and there is no necessity that they should be forced to obedience, in order to save his supremacy. Obedience is free agency. The self-subjection of ourselves to the claims and plans of God is one of the freest, most genial, most joyful acts of which we are conscious. Most of our misery, nay, all of it, arises from our asserting our own wills. The instant we yield the point, and submit to our Maker, we are at rest. And this is proof that we are free; for wherever there is any compulsion, there is dissatisfaction and restlessness.
Man must, therefore, in his plans and purposes, refer first of all to the Divine Will. His prayer, and the real desire of his heart, must be: “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” This is the way in which he best shows his dependence upon his Maker. If he does not take a step without consulting God, and would not for the world form a purpose in opposition to Him, he is unquestionably a submissive and reliant creature. He is also a happy one. For God’s will is the only firm ground to stand upon. All events occur in conformity with it, and whoever falls in with it is truly blessed. It is a remark of Lord Bacon, that if man would rule over nature he must first obey nature; that if he would be benefited by the great laws and forces of the material world, he must live and work in conformity with these laws; that if he attempts to resist or force nature, he brings failure and ruin upon himself. It is equally true, that if man would obtain happiness and peace from the Divine Government, he must conform to it. If he opposes and resists the will of God, he will in the end be ground to powder as it moves on in its eternal, irresistible, and wise course.
Let us, then, learn to say in all the circumstances of life:
“If the Lord will we shall live, and do this, or that.”
It is a lesson slowly learned by proud and selfish man. Oftentimes it must be beaten into him by repeated blows from a severe yet kind Providence. If such blows fall upon us, we must be dumb with silence because it is God that does it, and because we need it for our soul’s good. But by a wise and thoughtful course, we may preclude the necessity of such a severe process. If we start with the doctrine that “no man liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself;” if we fix it in our habits of thought that we are creatures of God, and not sovereigns in our own right; if we work upon this theory of human life; we shall be likely to keep ourselves in such a docile and dependent attitude that stern methods will not be needed. But even if severe trials should come upon us, we shall be the better prepared to bear them, and we shall find it easier to kiss the rod, and say, “Thy will O God, and not mine, be done.”
William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 116–128.