Grace and Peace
We’ve been reflecting on the Letter of James over the past few weeks. We noted that James is rather blunt. James dares to say what we are afraid to even think. The letter is short and to the point (around 2000 words) and touches a large number of very varied issues. It should be on our annual reading list.
In one section (which the Sunday lectionary readings do not cover) James says:
Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, 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 is from this scripture that some people decide to end their sentences with the phrase: “God willing”. As in, “See you next week … God willing.” The sentiment behind the phrase is to live every moment within God’s will as well as recognising that the future is not ours to possess but a gift to receive. This is beautiful and well meaning.
Yet this phrase is not without problems. To punctuate our sentences with these words can sometimes come across as if our future is all mapped out and predetermined by God. If this were the case we would be puppets on divine strings. Furthermore, if I don’t make it to see you next week for whatever reason, are we really saying that God changed my diary or worse, intervened through some disaster or other? And if we are even tempted to answer yes to this question – we best check it against the life and teachings of Jesus. The Jesus of the Gospels did not meddle with people’s calendars. The danger of repeating the phrase is that we may begin to believe that whatever happens actually is the will of God because otherwise (we falsely reason) it wouldn’t have happened. This is extremely dangerous especially in the area of suffering. A healthy principle is to check all our beliefs in the light of suffering on a massive scale like with the Holocaust or Apartheid. If we do we can see clearly how horrific the reasoning “it happened, so it must have been God’s will” is.
James wants to temper our arrogance and idolatrous sense of certainty with humility, openness, curiosity and gratitude for every gifted second of life. He reminds us so beautifully: “For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes”. With equal beauty Annie Dillard reminds us: “Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery”. Or again in Mitch Albom’s delightful little book, Tuesdays with Morrie, as Morrie nears the end of his life he states: “Everyone knows they’re going to die, but nobody believes it. If we did, we would do things differently … [you would] be more involved in your life while you’re living.” When we live within the realisation that we are mist or that we are a faint tracing or simply that we are going to die it is then that every breath is preciously appreciated.
A faint tracing,