Living our fleeting lives
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
28 Dec, 2023

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we persist in assuming that our lives here on earth will continue indefinitely, and that we are free to plan whatever we like. Everyone knows that life is short and uncertain, but we tend to treat it as a truism and we don’t let it impact us personally. James wrote in his epistle about the folly of this approach — it comes from misplaced pride and it must end in dreadful disappointment. It’s not me who’s in control, but God. Instead of rebelling against this, it would bring us contentment and safety to believingly and thankfully embrace it. In the following extract from his commentary on James, Thomas Manton shows that the wise response is to recognise God’s right to direct all things in His providence, and to use the short time we have to prepare for endless eternity.

Many passages in Scripture show how brief our life is. It is compared to “the flowers of the field” (Isaiah 40:6–7), the “wind” (Job 7:7), a leaf before the wind (Job 13:25), and a “shadow” (Job 14:2).

There is a heap of similes in Job 9:25–26 — “Now my days are swifter than a post: they flee away, they see no good. They are passed away as the swift ships: as the eagle that hasteth to the prey.”

The Word uses all these similes so that every fleeting and decaying object would remind us of our own mortality, as well as to check those proud human desires for an eternal abode here, and lasting happiness in this life. In that passage in Job human frailty is displayed in all the elements: on land, a runner; on water, a swift boat; in the air, an eagle.

The figure of speech used here by James is that of a vapour. “What is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” This is simply to show how quickly life passes, and because human life is just a little warm breath coming in and out by the nostrils — a narrow passage, and soon stopped up (Isaiah 2:22).

Our lives are undependable and brief

We have no assurance of our lives and comforts, or the events of the next day. This is a common observation. Well then, let every day’s care be enough for itself; live every day as the last day. Ludovicus Capellus tells us of Rabbi Eleazer, who advised people to repent only the day before their death — that is, right now (for it may be the last day before we die). It is a sad thing to promise ourselves many years and to have our souls taken away that night — to measure out our time and years by our worldly projects, then all of a sudden our whole thoughts perish.

Human life is very short. It is a vapour that soon appears and just as soon disappears — dispersed as soon as it is produced. “Surely every man walketh in a vain show” (Psalm 39:6). Though they toss to and fro, yet the whole course of their lives is just a fleeting shadow, a little spot of time between two eternities. Augustine is not sure whether to call it a dying life or a living death.

We should adjust our behaviours accordingly

This checks those who pass away their time, rather than redeem it. They waste their precious time, as if they had too much of it. Our moment is short, and we make it shorter. It is time for all of us to say, “The time past of our life is more than enough to have wrought the will of the flesh” (see 1 Peter 4:3); or, as Romans 13:11 puts it, “It is high time to awake out of sleep” (this was the verse that converted Augustine).

Seeing how short life is, moderate your worldly care and projects. Do not encumber yourselves with too much provisions for a short voyage. A ship goes more swiftly the less burdened it is; people take in too much cargo for a mere passage.

Devote yourselves more to spiritual projects, so that you may lay up a foundation for a longer life than you have to live here. Do a lot of work in your little time. Shall we lose any part of what is so short? Will our short life only make way for a long misery? The apostle says, “I will put you in remembrance, knowing that shortly I must put off this tabernacle” (2 Peter 1:13). We will all shortly put off the outer garment of the body, so let us do all the good that we can. Christ lived only thirty-two years, or thereabouts, so He “went about doing good, and healing every sickness, and every disease.” You only have a short time, so be all the more diligent.

God’s providence should be in both our heart and our words

Now that James has exposed the false confidence of the worldly, he proceeds to rectify their attitude by urging them to a holy and reverent remembrance of God’s providence and their own frailty. “For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” (James 4:15).

Here the question arises, Must we always and necessarily use this form of speech, or some similar explicit reference to providence, “If the Lord will …”?

It is good to accustom the tongue to holy forms of speech, including such explicit and clear references to providence, e.g., “If the Lord please,” “If the Lord will,” “If it please the Lord that I live,” etc. Pure lips are appropriate for a Christian, and it is useful for stirring up reverence in ourselves and for the instruction of others. Such forms are confessions of divine providence and the uncertainty of human life.

The children of God use phrases like these frequently. “I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will” (1 Corinthians 4:19); “I must tarry a while with you, if the Lord permit” (1 Corinthians 16:7); see also Romans 1:10 and Philippians 2:19. The children of God know that all their goings are ordered by the Lord; therefore they often make references like these to His will and power.

However, when we use these forms, the heart must go along with the tongue. Using God’s name in common sayings is only profanity if the heart is not reverent. The words are common, but it is the meaning that matters.

It is not always necessary use these terms explicitly, but there must always be either implicitly or explicitly a submission to the will of God. Holy men of God have often expressed the intention to do things and yet not formally expressed such conditions — for example, in 3 John, “When I come, I will remember his deeds,” and Romans 15:24, “Whensoever I take my journey to Spain, I will come to you,” etc.

All our actions should be referred to the will of God

All our undertakings must be referred to the will of God — not only religious ones, but secular actions too. For example, our journeys: “O Lord God of Abraham thy servant, send me good speed this day” (Genesis 24:12; see also Genesis 28:20). If this is neglected, no wonder you meet with so many frustrating things — they do not come from your hard luck, but your profane neglect.

But what does is it mean to submit all our actions to the will of God?

Measuring all our actions by His revealed will. That is the rule of duty. We can look for no blessing on anything except for what is consistent with God’s revealed will. We must submit to His secret will, but first we must conform to His revealed will. Worldly desire has its own will (see Ephesians 2:2), but we are to serve the will of God until we fall asleep (Acts 13:36).

Acting with confidence when we see God leading us. We must have all the greater comfort and confidence in undertaking any action when we see God in it (e.g., like Paul when he gathered that God had called him to Macedonia; Acts 16:10). When we see God guiding and leading us, whether in the sweet means and course of His providence, or by inward instinct, we may walk in the way He has opened to us with all the more encouragement.

Not restricting God’s plans. In our desires and requests we must not bind the counsels of God. “Not my will, but thine be done” (Matthew 26:39). In temporal things we must submit to God’s will, both for the mercy itself, for the means of getting it, and for time of obtaining it. Creatures must not prescribe to God, and give laws to providence, but must be content to have or go without as the Lord pleases. If anything does not have good success, the Lord did not will it, and that is enough to silence all discontents.

Constantly asking His leave in prayer.

Always remembering that God reserves the right to do His will. We must continue to reserve the power of God’s providence. “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 things changing.

We should remember God’s sovereignty and our frailty

There are two things we should often consider in this connection.

The sovereignty and dominion of providence

However much wisdom and skill you use in your enterprise, the Lord can bring it to nothing. He can nip it in the bud or stop it in the very moment you try to put it into effect. I have observed that God is usually very sensitive about His honour on this point, and usually frustrates those proud people who boast of what they will do, and think up unlimited plans, without any thought of how providence may stop them. “A man’s heart deviseth his way, but the Lord directeth his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). We make plans, but carrying them out depends wholly on God’s will and providence. When we make resolutions on our own authority, there is a contest between us and heaven about will and power; therefore, in such cases the answer of providence is more clearly and decisively to our loss, so that God would be acknowledged as Lord of success, and the first mover in all means and causes, without whom they have no force or efficacy.

The frailty and uncertainty of your own lives

Our being is as uncertain as the events of providence. “If we live,” and “If the Lord will,” are the caveats in the text, and together they imply that we must have a conscious awareness of our own frailty, as well as of the sovereignty of providence, so that our hearts will submit to God the better. “His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:4). Frail as we are, we are full of thoughts and projects. We will do this, and we will do that, and we will go to that city, and we will promote our interests by this alliance, and we will gain so much by this purchase, and then we will raise up some stately building which will continue our name and reputation to the generations to come — and all because we do not think of the earth we carry about with us, and how soon the hand of providence is able to crumble it into dust. Certainly we will never be wise until we are able to number our days, and have sufficiently grasped in our souls the uncertainty of our stay in the world (Psalm 90:12).

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