A different approach to planning has been forced on us in recent years. It is unsettling to experience instability that throws all our plans up in the air. Even more so because we have a natural tendency to proud self-sufficiency. When this is thwarted we sometimes go to the opposite extreme of despair. But it is good for us since it reminds us that we are not in ultimate control, God is. This is part of the mindset we need, not fatalism but responsiveness and submission to God’s providence.
Thomas Manton asks the important question about planning for uncertainty to the glory of God: what is it to submit all our actions to the will of God? He shows how uncertainty reminds us of that God’s will is ultimate not ours. In expounding James 4:13-15 he says that everything we do must be subject to the will of God, not only spiritual but also secular activities. Manton says it is no wonder we meet with difficulties if this submission is neglected “they do not come from your hard luck, but your profane neglect.” What then does it mean to submit all our actions to the will of God in the face of uncertainty? Manton explains in this updated extract.
1. We Must Have the Right Kind of Plans
Worldly hearts are all for worldly plans. They plan how to spend their days and months in buying and selling and getting gain (Luke 12:17-18). This takes up all their thoughts (Philippians 3:19; 2 Peter 2:14); how to promote their gain and earthly aims. A gracious heart is for gracious plans, how to be more thankful (Psalm 116:12), more holy, more useful for God, more fruitful in every good work. They ponder what they shall do to inherit eternal life. This is a better concern more suitable to the purpose of our creation and the nature of our spirits. We were sent into the world, not to grow great and pompous, but to enrich our souls with spiritual excellences etc.
Godly people (called to be co-heirs with Christ) are pre-occupied with the bliss of their future condition, and so in a manner feel what they expect. So also worldly people charm their souls with whispers of vanity, and feed themselves with the pleasant anticipation of that fleshly delight which they look for. It is a sure sign of worldliness when the world runs in your thoughts so often and you always anticipate some outward enjoyment.
3. We Must Not Have a Worldly Presumption
Observe the confidence of future events here: “We will go, and continue there a year, etc.” (James 4:13) Note that worldly affections are usually accompanied with, and encouraged by, worldly confidence. They are doubly confident: of the success of their endeavours, “We will get gain” and of their lives being continued: “We will continue there a year.” Lust cannot be nourished without a presumption of success: when men multiply endeavours, they think little about God or the changes of providence. The world steals away our affections, and then it intercepts our trust; there is not only adultery in it, (James 4:4) but idolatry (Ephesians 5:5). It is not only our darling, but our god; and that is the reason why worldly people are always represented as secure and presumptuous (Luke 12:9; Job 29:18). They think now they have enough to secure them against all chances. Where does the assurance of your contentment lie, in the promises, or your outward welfare?
4. We Must Submit to God’s Will Prayerfully
It is a vain thing to promise ourselves great matters without the leave of providence. To say, “We will go,” “we will do thus and thus,” is vain (James 4:13). We are not lords of our lives, nor lords of our own actions (Psalm 31:15; Proverbs 27:1). ,To-day we are here, and to-morrow not: we cannot tell what may be in the womb of the next morning. It is the same for our actions (Ecclesiastes 9:1). We need counsel and a blessing to do them and for them to succeed (Jeremiah 10:23). When do people promise themselves great matters without the leave of providence?
(a) When they undertake things without prayer. You may speak of success when you have asked God’s leave (Job 22:28).
(b) When they are too confident of future possibilities and events, without any submission to the will of God (Exodus 15:11; Judges 5:28 30; 1 Kings 20:10,-11).
(c) When men’s endeavours are set up in God’s stead, we think all depends on the course of earthly causes, and so neglect God.
(d) When people promise themselves a later time to repent. Many think within themselves, “I will follow my pleasure and profits, and then spend my old age in a devout and retired privacy.” Foolish man decrees all future events as if all were in his own hands. It is useful for princes and men employed in counsels for public welfare. How often do they prove unhappy because they do not seek God! We should ask counsel from the oracle before we take it from one another.
5. We Must Acknowledge Even Tomorrow is Uncertain
James goes on to observe that tomorrow is uncertain (James 4:14), as if he had said, “You talk of a long time, and you know not what shall happen the next day.” Every day brings new providences and events with it. But you will say, “Is it simply unlawful to provide for tomorrow, or for time to come?” I answer—No; Solomon bids us learn from the ant (Proverbs 6:6-8; see also Proverbs 30:25). It is only wise foresight to secure ourselves against foreseeable inconveniences. Joseph is commended for laying up food in the cities against the years of famine (Genesis 41:35). And it was the practice of the apostles to lay up in store for the brethren at Jerusalem against the famine foretold by Agabus (Acts 11:29). Only remember this must be done with caution; such provision must not arise from distrust, or thinking that prejudicial to the care divine providence bestows (Matthew 6:30). It must not hinder us from the great concern of our lives, provision for heaven (Matthew 6:35). It must be with submission to God.
6. We Must Acknowledge Our Life is Uncertain
“For what is your life? It is even a vapour” Brevity of life is demonstrated by many comparisons in scripture: by the flower of the field (Isaiah 40:6-7); by the wind (Job 7:7); a leaf before the wind (Job 13:25); by a shadow (Job 14:2). The Word uses so many comparisons so that every fleeting and decaying object might remind us of our own mortality. It also serves to restrain our proud desires for an eternal abode and lasting happiness in this life. If life is short, then moderate your worldly cares and projects; do not cumber yourselves with too much provision for a short voyage. The ship goes the swifter the less it is burdened.
Give yourself more to spiritual projects, that you may lay up a foundation for a longer life than you have to live here. Do much work in a little time. We are all shortly to divest ourselves of the upper garment of the flesh; let us do all the good that we can (2 Peter 1:13). Christ lived only thirty-two years or thereabouts; He went about doing good therefore, and healing every sickness, and every disease.
7. We Must Measure Our Actions By God’s Will
God’s revealed will is the rule of duty and we must measure all our actions by this. We can look for no blessing except on ways that match with that. There must be a submission to His secret will, but first a conformity to His revealed will. Lust has its wills (Ephesians 2:2) but we are to serve the will of God till we fall asleep (Acts 13:36).
8. We Must See God’s Will in an Action
We must undertake any action with greater comfort when we see God in it; in Acts 16:10 Paul gathered that God had called him to Macedonia. So, when we see God, in the sweet means and course of his providence, or by inward instinct, leading us, we may with more encouragement walk in he hath opened to us. When we see God leading us by means of His providence or by inward instinct, we may walk in the way He has opened to us with greater encouragement.
9. We Must Be Content with God’s Will
In our desires and requests we must not bind the counsels of God but say “Not my will be done” Matthew 26:39). In temporal things we must submit to God’s will, for the mercy, the means, and time to attain them. Creatures, that cannot ascribe anything to themselves, must not prescribe to God and give laws to providence. Rather we must be content to be in need or have what the Lord pleases. If anything does not succeed well it was not the Lord’s will—that is enough to silence all discontents.
10. We Must Ask God’s Permission
We must constantly ask His leave in prayer. Our journeys must not be undertaken without asking His permission as Jacob and Abraham’s servant did (Genesis 28:20 and 24:12).
11. We Must Acknowledge God’s Sovereignty
We must still acknowledge the reserved power of God’s providence [reserve power is a power that may be exercised by a ruler without the approval of another]. We must say “If the Lord will,” “If the Lord permit.” God does not want us to be too confident in a worldly way; it is good to get the soul used to change.
However much wisdom and skill you are able to exercise in any enterprise, the Lord can nip it in the bud, or stop it at the very moment it is being carried out. I have observed that usually God is very sensitive about His honour in this and usually frustrates proud men that boast of what they will do, when the conceive their purposes are unlimited and have no thought of the limits they may receive in providence. It is a flower of the imperial crown of heaven and the bridle God puts on the rational reasonable creature that He manages the success of human affairs. God intends that He will be acknowledged (Proverbs 16:9).
We make plans but the implementation depends wholly on God’s will and providence. When we make absolute resolutions there is a contest between us and heaven about will and power. In such cases the answer of providence is more express and decisive to the creature’s loss. This is so that God may be acknowledged as Lord of success, and the first mover in all means and causes, without whom they have no force and efficacy.
12. We Must Acknowledge the Frailty of Our Lives
Consider the frailty and uncertainty of your own lives; our being is as uncertain as the events of providence. If we live and God wills, are the exceptions stated in this verse. They imply that there must be a conscious impression of our own frailty, as well as of the sovereignty of providence in order that the heart may submit to God better.
Frail men are full of thoughts and projects (Psalm 146:4). They will do this and they will do that. They will go to such a city, promote their interests by such an alliance, gain so much by such a purchase. They will then erect some stately building which will continue their name and memory to succeeding generations.
All this is because they do not remember that they carry the earth around them and how soon the hand of providence is able to crumble it into dust. Certainly man will never be wise till he is able to number his days, and sufficiently possess his soul of the uncertainty of his abode in the world (Psalm 90:12).
“We shall live and do this or that.” It is not enough that God permits us to live, He must also by the same will permit us to do or act. God’s will must concur to ensure not only with our lives, but actions. We may live, and yet not be able to do anything for the promotion of our plans. If God does not permit it, the creatures cannot act at least not with any success. Many think that prosperity is to be sought from God, but wisdom is to be gained by ourselves. But in Scripture we are taught otherwise, not only to seek success of God but direction. He gives abilities to perform and a blessing when the action is finished.
We can do nothing without the efficacious as well as permissive will of God. He must give us life and all things necessary to action. We must not only look up to Him as the author of the success, but the director of the action. It is by His direction and blessing that all things come to pass. Our very counsels and wills are subject to divine government, He can turn them as it pleases Him (Proverbs 21:1). We must therefore, not only commit our ways to His providence, but commend our hearts to the tuition of His Spirit In short, all things are done by His will, and must be ascribed to His praise.
13. We Must Have a “God Willing” Approach
James says we ought to say, “If the Lord will.” Must we always of necessity use this form of speech, or such an explicit qualification concerning providence?
(a) It is good to accustom the tongue to holy forms of speech; it is a great help: the heart is best when there are such explicit and express qualifications concerning providence: “If the Lord please”, “If the Lord will”, “If it please the Lord that I live”. A pure lip is fitting for a Christian so that they may be distinguished by their holy forms, as others are by their oaths, rotten speech, and unholy solicitations. Besides, it is useful to stir up reverence in ourselves, and for others, instruction. Such forms are confessions of divine providence and the uncertainty of human life.
(b) The children of God use them frequently (1 Corinthians 4:19; 1 Corinthians 16:7; Romans 1:10; Philippians 2:19). The children of God know that all their goings are ordered by the Lord; therefore, they often use these qualifications concerning His will and power (see also Genesis 28:20 and Hebrews 6:3).
(c) Even the very heathen of old through having the light of nature were accustomed to use these forms of speech with some religion and would seldom speak of any purpose of theirs without this (see Plato, Socrates and others).
(d) When we use these forms, the heart must go along with the tongue: common ways of speaking in which God’s name is used are profanations if the heart is not reverent. Augustine says, learn to have in your hearts what everyone has in their tongue. The words are common, but the meaning is useful.
(e) It is not necessary to always express these forms of speech explicitly. There must be always either implicitly or expressly a submission to the will of God, yet we cannot make it a sin to omit such phrases. The holy men of God have often purposed things to come, and yet not formally expressed such conditions (3 John 10; Romans 15:24).
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