My Dad and I were touring the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, and he was especially taken with the museum’s impressive collection of mint-condition cars. When he looked at them, I could see by the way his wrinkle-encased, blue eyes sparkled, that that the cars took him back to his teenage years. And while standing there looking at a 1956 Ford Thunderbird, he said, “Those old words from the Bible are true: Life is a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. It seems like just yesterday I was a young man, dreaming about a car like that.”
Dad, whose name happens to be James, was quoting a truism from James chapter 4:14. When we hear a truism, we resonate with it because it is obviously true. We affirm in response: That is true.
From Mark Twain, a connoisseur of truism: "It is better to deserve honours and not have them than to have them and not to deserve them." True. And from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Money often costs too much." True.
And this is a truism: You do not know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist - you are a little puff of smoke - that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
James wants us to hear his statement and resonate with it, to acknowledge, as my Dad and I did, that life is fragile and fast.
The days go slow but the years go fast. True.
But ultimately, James, like most employers of truism, wants us to go beyond that initial reaction when we resonate with the truth of his statement. He doesn’t just want us to say – “Yeah, that’s true. Life is a mist” and be done with it.
James is confronting us, if we look at the entire context.
Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. So then, if you know the good you ought to do and don't do it, you sin. (James 4:13-17)
Now listen, you - That sets James’ tone, and it’s in the imperative. He continues, You do not even know… and, You boast in your arrogant schemes … I don’t know about you, but when someone uses that tone with me, I’m offended.
I get defensive.
And then James lays it all on the line: You sin.
James and his cute little truism are really not so cute anymore.
That’s when James draws his very confrontational word picture: You arrogant people think you can grasp mist. You think you can hold onto a puff of smoke and boast about how you are holding onto smoke, when your lives are that very puff of smoke.
Imagine trying to hold onto smoke or mist! You can grasp and grasp all you want, but you won’t hold it.
It’s like a satirical cartoon that looks funny on the surface, but it makes a serious point. It’s a vivid picture designed to mock you, to leave your pride wounded when you visualize yourself in it.
In this entire section of his little diatribe, in the wider context surrounding his statement about mist, James condemns arrogance.
And here in 4:13-17, there’s a particular sting for businessmen and women.
It’s not that James is opposed to honest business, but he, and Jesus for that matter, are opposed to people who arrogantly leave God out of their plans, behaving like self-appointed, mini-business-gods themselves.
The person in 4:13 is someone who
boasts that he or she is self-made.
But, boasting is not simply obnoxious.
It is sin.
And, most of us, whether we would call ourselves business entrepreneurs or not, have some arrogance issues in relationship to our hard-earned money and self-made status. We likely do not want to see a satirical cartoon that depicts our relationships with
our piggy banks,
or Coach purses,
or Visa bills,
or our hard-earned higher education.
So today, we are not supposed to read James, sigh at the speed of life, and comment that life is a mist - transitory and vulnerable.
James is asking us to confess arrogance and live like people who know that God is in control,
to share our money like God is in control,
to use our education like God is in control.
He’s asking us to speak like people who know that God is in control, proclaiming, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.”
Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up.
It’s true that human beings cannot grasp or hold onto this misty life.
But God can.
Chaplain, Pepperdine University