Spiritual Arrogance

Reflections on James 4:13-16 —

We love stories of visionary people who made plans for the future and willed their plans into reality.  We are fascinated by stories of Sam Crock and McDonald’s, the Wright brothers and the airplane, and my local favorite, Art Collins and the Radio Factory where I now work.  Another local visionary is Richard Pankey, a successful restaurant owner in Cedar Rapids.  His popular chain of “Riley’s”  restaurants started with a single store 14 years ago.  Now Riley’s is a local icon, and one of my favorites.

However, for every successful plan there are hundreds of failures. “Rocktop” is one such example.  This new-start Cedar Rapids brewery folded four months after opening.  We have known about the risk of failed planning for a long time–Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” in 1785!!!  The list of failed plans is endless…the Titanic, the Edsel, Betamax, Pets.com, Enron, Commodore computers, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, etc., etc.  All good ideas.  All epic failures. Great plans can fail.  

Plans fail because the future is untamable.  It takes a fearless soul to plan, to stare in the face of an uncertain future and dictate terms.  Such fearless entrepreneurial businessmen and women were the target audience in James 4:13-16.  That’s right–God cares about business.  He didn’t just fill His book with a bunch of old stories and fables that are esoteric, allegorical, and irrelevant.  He filled it with pertinent lessons about stuff we think about all the time.  Look how James introduces this next topic in his letter:

“Come now, you who say, ‘today or tomorrow, I will go to such and such a city, and stay a year there, engage in business, and make a profit’…” (James 4:13)

A Certain Future

The entrepreneurs James addresses were already thinking about their next business venture, already speaking with certainty about what tomorrow will look like.  They were planning with certainty where they’re going, how long they plan to stay, and what they will do. They were confident that their business ventures would work.  Maybe too confident.  The phrase “come now” suggests James’ audience was predisposed to overconfidence.  

One certainty we can never be certain about is the future.  The future is a great equalizer.  As diverse as we are–young or old, rich or poor–none of us can see or tame the future.  It is a vast unknown, a great uncertainty, as James asserts:

“…you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow…” (James 4:14a)

God gives us little clues to remind us that He is different than us, beyond us, that we need Him.  The future is one of those clues.  Even the best planners in the world cannot guarantee what the future will be like.  We can plan.  We can prepare.  We can build, plant, water, save, study, train, equip, ration, and protect.  But no matter what we do, it is an inescapable truth that we can never be certain of our future, can never be sure our plans will work out.

God uses the future to test us, to see how we will address its uncertainty.  Most of us are anxious about the future.  That goes with the territory.  The important thing is how we handle that anxiety.

Jesus taught a parable about a foolish landowner who thought he could cure anxiety of the future by building bigger barns to store his grain (1), completely trusting in his agricultural skills and systematic production to provide for himself the rest of his days.  To everyone’s surprise, Jesus called him a “fool.”  Why?  Because he thought he could shape the future.

We need to right-size our assessment of our ability to tame the future.  As James says:

“…you are but a vapor that appears for a little while then vanishes away…” (James 4:14b)

Our plans, indeed our very lives, are wispy, fleeting gusts of air, easily dissipated, completely at the mercy of the unrelenting and powerful wind that is the future.

Plan, But Be Flexible

I need to pause for a second and clarify something.  It’s not evil to engage in profitable business.  It’s not evil to make plans.  We should engage in business.  We should try to make a profit.  We certainly ought to plan for success. Nothing wrong with that. God is a planner, and we ought to be like Him.  Our plan ought to be good and noble, for by noble plans, we stand (2).

But in our planning we need to be flexible.  As wise Solomon said (3), “…the mind of a man plans his ways, but the Lord directs his steps…”  We should plan, but in our planning, realize that God also has a plan.  His plans are accomplishing many things of which we’re not aware. His plans are higher than ours (4) and were established before the world existed (5).  His plans take priority over ours, but that’s a good thing.  His plans are for good, He knows what we need, and He loves us more than we love ourselves (6).  

So, plan, but in our planning, be flexible, following Christ’s lead as we step out day by day.  As former president and leader of the Allied Expeditionary Army at D-Day, Dwight D. Eisenhower knew a thing or two about planning in the chaos of war.  He once said, “…in preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”  

James suggests the words spoken by a planner who is flexible, who respects God’s sovereignty over the future, should sound something like this:

“‘…if the Lord wills, we shall live, and also do this or that…’” (James 4:15)

The flexible planner acknowledges that his plans–even his life and breath (7)–are at the mercy of God’s plans.

God sees the future.  He is not constrained by the dimensional limits of space and time like we are.  Furthermore, as we shall see, God not only sees the future, He owns it.  He has a plan and is working all things out in execution of that plan.  He has an end goal in sight, and we are all part of it.  

The truth of God’s sovereignty over the future should affect you.  It should cause a bit of unsettling in your soul, make you a little less confident that things will go as you expect, a little more willing to adapt.  If it does not, James says you could be one of many who have a problem with boasting.

Two Forms of Boasting

“…but as it is, you boast in your arrogance, and all such boasting is evil.” (James 4:16)

There is a form of boasting that is annoying but tolerable.  The egotistical guy at work who is full of himself, who talks big and walks big, whose ego and conceit enter the room 30 seconds before he does…that guy is annoying, but is relatively harmless.  Usually you can avoid him.  If you were to consider him rude, you would not be alone.  Our society does not think highly of such an attitude.  We know better than to talk up ourselves while we look down our noses at others.  

But there is another form of boasting. “Boasting in your arrogance”, according to James, is downright evil.  What’s the difference?  “Boasting in arrogance”, according to James, is more than an annoyance; it is evil because it considers the future an unplanned, random ending and holds God and His plan in contempt.  It is a spiritual arrogance, a dangerous form of arrogance because it is not only evil, it is common, and difficult to detect.

Spiritual Arrogance

Spiritual arrogance is a belief that life is our story; it’s a belief that the future is waiting for us to define it.  We are OK with a God who loves and rewards good people, but we are uncomfortable with a God who is orchestrating us and everything around us. We imagine Him as a God who doesn’t interfere, a courteous parent who watches and hopes His children make good choices.  We think of Him as a God who knows what He wants, but has no ability to influence people to achieve the outcome. 

I read James’ letter one word at a time, just like you.  When I hear him say, “if the Lord wills, we shall live, and also do this or that…”, I can’t help but understand that our plans–indeed, our very lives–are at the mercy of His plans.  According to James, contrary thinking is spiritual arrogance.  God is a planner.  Unlike our plans, God’s plans will always work out they way He intends. This is how God sets Himself apart from us–from the beginning, He declared with certainty what the future will be and He guarantees the fulfillment of His plans (8):  

“For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure.’”

God owns the future.  He declared it from “ancient times”, stating how this world will end up before it began.  He orchestrates every event so that His objective is reached, not by chance, but by design.  When Paul preached in Athens, he revealed that God “determined the appointed times and boundaries of man’s habitation” (9).  God planned from the beginning of time when and where we would live!  

An Attitude of Dependence

We don’t like being robots whom God just moves about as He pleases, so we usually reject such notions.  I would like to suggest there’s a better way to look at this.  In that Athens speech, Paul says such knowledge should make us yearn for God.  The knowledge that God is sovereign should cause us to look heavenward and cry out for God, to know His plan, and to be a willing part in it.  It ought to comfort us that His plans for us are good.  It ought to drive you to His loving arms, to cling to Him day after day.  In fact, clinging to God is what we were made to do (10):  

“For as the waistband clings to the waist of a man, so I made the whole household of Israel and the whole household of Judah cling to Me,’ declares the Lord, ‘that they might be for Me a people, for renown, for praise and for glory…”

It is this sense of clinging, this dependency on God that I think we’ve lost today.  Because we subconsciously feel little need to cling, we do things on our own power, and feel pretty good about ourselves.  This is the form of arrogance James warns us about.

Take a cross section of sermons preached over the last ten years–you will find our sermons have a very one-dimensional perspective.  When we’re not speaking about evangelism, we’re settling for easy, three-step applications.  You would be hard-pressed to hear messages on the weightier themes of scripture that drive us to dependence on God–topics such as the deceitful and corrupt heart of man, submission to the Spirit, the virtues of waiting and contentment, denial of our fleshly nature, transformation of the mind, and the importance of righteousness in our relationships.  When we neglect subjects like these, we downplay the need for dependence on God.

Spiritual arrogance deceives us.  It gives us a primped-up, false impression of our righteousness and ability and it deadens our sense of neediness.  Scripture is full of cautions and warnings against spiritual arrogance.  Let’s take a look at one example.

Luke-Warm Laodiceans

In Revelations chapters 2-3, John records messages given by Jesus to seven representative churches, many believe these seven churches represent a cross-section of churches starting from the time of Christ’s death and resurrection until modern times.  The last church in the series is the church at Laodicea.  I would suggest that in many ways, this church describes contemporary Christianity.  In a word, the Laodiceans were a “luke-warm” church, neither on fire for the Lord nor obstinately against Him.  They were just somewhere in the middle, neutral, ineffective, and therefore displeasing to the Lord.  He’d rather us take sides–be “all in”…or not.  Don’t ever pretend you’re with Him when your heart is not.  

The root cause of Laodicea’s luke-warmness was their spiritual arrogance.  They were completely unaware of their needy state and therefore they lacked dependence on  God.  Jesus’ sharp words to the church at Laodicea testify that an entire church can be spiritually arrogant and not even know it (11):

“…you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked…”

The Laodicean church believed it had nothing to worry about.  They were arrogant, self-reliant, and naively over-confident that their future was looking good.  In God’s reality, they were spiritually impoverished and bankrupt because they weren’t dependent on Him.  What a disconcerting thing to come to the end of your journey only to find you’ve reached the wrong destination.

Let us not be like the Laodicean church.  Let’s be hungry for God, seeking our part in His plan.  Let us fear the One who orchestrates all things according to His plan.

Conclusion

Bragging about your achievements is one thing; self-reliance is a deeper, more serious form of spiritual arrogance that is harmful to the church. It denies the reason we were created in the first place.  We can see ourselves as “humble” people, but unless our dependence on God is our driving motivation, unless we look at the future with trepidations that force us look heavenward, we totter on the precipice of spiritual arrogance, and evil itself.  The future is untamable.  If we could see into it, make it work out the way we want, what great planners we would be!  But we can’t see or shape the future. Like a strong wind, it is unyielding, unbending.  It can turn the greatest ideas into splinters in a matter of seconds.

James teaches us that when we look at the future, we have a choice.  We can ignore God and arrogantly try to force the future into submission, or we can be flexible planners; intentional, but willing to bend.  Have a healthy recognition that life is about God’s story, not ours.  Let us flex and bend in step with His lead.  The outcome of our plans are uncertain; they can be overruled by God’s plans. So cling to Him.  His plans are good for you.  Follow Him one step at a time, into the future.

Notes:

  1. Luke 12:16-21
  2. Isaiah 32:8
  3. Proverbs 16:9
  4. Isaiah 55:8-9
  5. Ephesians 1:4
  6. Jeremiah 29:11
  7. Daniel 5:22-23
  8. Isaiah 46:9-10
  9. Acts 17:26-27
  10. Jeremiah 13:11
  11. Revelation 3:17-18

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