Sunday, February 28, 2021

Doing Business Planning God’s Way: James 4:13-17


Dominican Bay in Boca Chica on the Caribbean Sea is not Punta-Cana upscale but a relaxed resort for the people. The staff is all Dominican and sweet. While my husband was putting down all his compliments for an exit survey for this gracious and hard-working staff, I wondered if Spaniards owned this hotel like they did Barcelo Capella, where we used to go before it closed. So, I asked guest services. The answer? It was owned by Israelis! Who could have guessed? That reminds me that my mother, born and reared in Puerto Rico, when young used to work for her father, my grandfather, in a business that sold metals and large burlap bags. At one point the business grew so much that she extended it to neighboring Dominican Republic, and that is how she met my father, who worked for the Curacao Trading company in Santo Domingo.

Businesses can be international. That is the group to which James addresses his letter in chapter 4: “The ones saying: ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a city and we will be active there a year and we will carry on business and we will make a profit’” (4:13). James speaks to the world-traveling person, “one on a journey, whether by sea or by land,” someone trading, buying, and selling some kind of product, a merchant, not so much the local retailer.[1]

In the first century, such merchants might trade gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple garments, silk, scarlet robes, scented and costly wood, ivory, bronze, iron, marble, cinnamon and other spices, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, flour, wheat, cattle, sheep, horses, chariots, and slaves (Rev. 18:3, 11-13, 15-17). Tyre, renowned for trade, would sell gold, iron, tin, lead, mules, ebony, turquoise, coral, rubies, elephants’ teeth, honey, wool, cane, camels, and lambs (Ezek. 27:3, 12-24).

As I perused the free newspaper that we received every day, el Diario Libre, I discovered the many commodities that merchants traded now in the Dominican Republic: fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, avocados, mangos, potatoes, pineapples, tomatoes, yucas, and sugar, fish, tobacco, organic chocolate, and even electricity. Marble is still a major commodity. Merchants also prepare and sell entertainment sites for tourists, such as hotels and beaches, and now they sell internet services, such as Netflix, Uber, Amazon, UPS, and FedEx. Banks and presidents of countries and companies and even the Mafia serve as international merchants.[2] They are all interested in a profit.

What does James advise such world traveling business entities? “You do not understand what kind of tomorrow [will be] your life— for a mist you are, the one for a little appearing, then also disappearing” (James 4:14).

What is a mist (atmis)? A mist is a onetime appearance of minute globules of water or simply a fine spray,[3] on the earth’s surface, as opposed to a cloud (nephos),[4] a visible collection of particles of water or ice suspended in the air, usually high up above the earth’s surface. A mist is only “cloud-like.” In the Bible, atmis refers to smoky vapor (Acts 2:19) or vapor from a furnace or pan[5] or to the mist or smoke from incense[6] or even to the haze before one’s eyes from tears (Hos. 13:3 LXX). Jesus son of Sirach uses atmis to describe the “fiery vapors” that the sun sends forth as bright beams (Ecclus. 43:4). It is the type of mist or vapor that appears for a brief time, then no longer appears. Whether you are wealthy, or you are poor, you are still a “mist.” What does this mean practically? We humans are not going to live forever. After the flood, God appears to have set a maximum age for humans of 120 years (Gen. 6:3; Deut. 34:7). According to Moses, people can expect to live until 70 or 80 years of age (Ps. 90:10), if ill health or persecution or an accident or war do not intervene. We may have eternity in our hearts, but, because of a fallen world, our bodies live in a world of mortality (Eccles. 3:11)

What does James suggest that businesspersons should do? “Instead, you should say: ‘If the Lord might will, then we will live and we will do this or that’” (4:15). Plans are a necessary part of life and profit is a necessary part of business. James does not complain against all businesspeople who make future plans to make a profit. There is nothing inherently wrong in planning for the future or making a profit. Proverbs 6 directs people to plan ahead and to work: “Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways, and be wise… it prepares its food in summer, and gathers its sustenance in harvest. How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from your sleep?  A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior” (Prov. 6:6-11 NRSV). The capable wife described by King Lemuel’s mother in Proverbs 31 is a merchant who brings her food from far away. She buys fields and makes and sells fine linen.[7] However, she is also trustworthy, kind, wise, and provides for the poor. Joseph is blessed by God. At thirty years of age, he becomes the second in command in Egypt and builds on God’s foretelling by accumulating and then selling Pharaoh’s crops (Gen. 41:33-57). Jesus also uses a businessperson as a positive model for those who seek the kingdom of God (Matt. 13:44-46). The slaves who invest the five and two talents (a talent is equal to over $1000 or over fifteen years of wages in that day) and thereby double the master’s money are lauded by Jesus (Matt. 25:16-27). What is not lauded is “shameful profit” (Titus 1:11).

However, plans should be hypothetical because God is in control of our lives. Future planning has several contingencies that cannot be ignored: what happens tomorrow is unknown to ourselves, for we are temporal (4:14), and the Lord’s will for us is not fully known (4:15). Not taking these contingencies seriously results in arrogant boasting (4:16). Commentator Scot McKnight explains that the merchants “think their time, the locations to which they can go, their business activities, and their profits are all under their control.” Their sin is “presumptuous planning and arrogant confidence that they can control life and profits.”[8] These activities are part of friendship with the world—wanting something and not having it and therefore fighting for it by organizing one’s life to obtain it (4:1-3, 13).

We expect our plans to happen, but we have some doubt. Our future plans should be subsumed in a subjunctive attitude (“the Lord might will”), describing what is likely to occur in an attitude of expectation or anticipation. The subjunctive is a mood of doubt, hesitation, and hope.[9] Under the umbrella of “if the Lord might will,” comes our future plans: “we will live and we will do this or that” (4:15). What is the result? The readers will be less arrogant and boastful about future accomplishments (4:16). One way to humble oneself before the Lord (4:10) is to make tentative plans. Then we trust the Lord to lift us up because we trust the Lord who is the good Parent who gives every good gift (1:17). We commit our work to the Lord and our plans can then be established by God (Prov. 16:3). Proverbs 16:9 explains: “the human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps” (NRSV). Placing one’s plans under God’s will helps one receive the implanted word that has the power to save. It pleases God. It helps one be a doer of the word and mature as a Christian (James 1:21-22). On the other hand, once a businessperson understands this good concept, not to do it is “sin” (4:17).

James applies this principle to believers in business. However, the Apostle Paul used similar wording in all his plans of travel. For instance, when the Ephesians asked Paul to stay longer, he told them he would return “God willing” (Acts 18:21). He did return (Acts 19). Even when Paul wrote the Corinthians that he would visit them, he clarified “if the Lord might will” (1 Cor. 4:19; 16:7). He did make a quick trip to Corinth, but he did not make a second promised visit, because, after deliberating, he concluded that the Lord did not want him to go to Corinth at that time (2 Cor. 1:15-17; 2:1-4). Paul also told the Romans that he hoped to visit them, “praying” “by God’s will to come” to them (Rom. 1:10). He asks the Romans to pray too so that by God’s will, he might visit them (Rom. 15:32). He did visit them, but on his way to prison (Acts 28:14-16)! Then, Paul told the Philippians that he hoped to leave prison in Rome and visit them “in the Lord” (Phil. 2:24). By saying “if the Lord wills,” travelers and merchants[10] are reminded, as are others to whom they communicate, that the Lord is ultimately in control and that they want ultimately to please God more than to make a profit in their work.

James wants a fully integrated personality with a Christ-like worldview and lifestyle. Such Christian worldviews are desperately needed today in Christianity because, instead of desiring to please God, Christians who only talk about faith but do not act on it serve their own desires and worldly friendship. Many business entrepreneurs go into business only to achieve financial security, not to thank and honor God.

For example, John Henry Womack, who founded and was the president and CEO of three businesses, first began his businesses as solely a means for him to provide for his family. But later he realized God had a bigger plan for his companies: to serve and build capability within communities, specifically, to develop the economic opportunities for African American people. Every meeting was begun in prayer, even in the board of directors, where participants were not all Christian. Notwithstanding, in 1989-90 his business was rated as one of the top one hundred African American owned and operated companies in the United States by Black Enterprise Magazine.[11]

God provides the resources to transform greedy and embattled business practices. God’s grace responds to us when we draw near to God. Humans should not strive to take God’s place in judgment and business (4:10-16). But whether recognized or not, God is in control of life’s events and humans need to be humble if they want to succeed in life.


[1] The biblical material in this blog may be found also in A Commentary on James by Aída Besançon Spencer (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2020), 234-39.

[2] E.g., Diario Libre: “Chocolate orgánico dominicano recibe premio mundial,” 21 Jan. 2020, 10; Tania Molina, “Disputados indagan uso de US$8 millones en ingenios,” 27 Jan. 2020, 8; “Diferentes usos de la piedra caliza natural y procesada,” 27 Jan. 2020, 22; “Presidente ordena detener proyecto hotelero zona parque,” 29 Jan. 2020, 4; Suhelis Tejero Puntes, “Exportaciones de angulas se disparan en 2019 en medio de la fiebre por su pesca,” 29 Jan. 2020, 16; Joaquín Caraballo, “Las exportaciones agropecuarias crecen durante el 2019,” 31 Jan. 2020, 16; Alan Beattie, “Trump ha convertido el dólar en un arma para engrandecer a EEUU,” 3 Feb. 2020, 26; “Inician exportación de vegetales y frutas a Estados Unidos,” 3 Feb. 2020, 26; David Pilling, “EEUU y Kenia iniciarán conversaciones sobre acuerdo comercial ‘modelo’ para África,” 4 Feb. 2020, 16; Joaquín Caraballo, “El turismo dominicano generó más de US$7,689 millones en 2019,” 4 Feb. 2020, 14; Narciso Pérez, “Aportes del tabaco en 2019 superaron los US$934 millones,” 7 Feb. 2020, 16; “Lanzan servicio de energía renovable,” 10 Feb. 2020, 17; “Inversionistas sector eléctrico se reúnen con Valdez Albizu,” 10 Feb. 2020, 19.

[3] Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary1987, 390, 1231.

[4] Joseph Henry Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Marshallton, DL: National foundation for Christian Education, 1885), 83, 424.

[5] Gen. 19:28; Sir. 22:24; 38:28; 2 Macc. 7:5.

[6] Lev. 16:13; Ezek. 8:11; Sir. 24:15.

[7] Prov. 31:11-14, 16, 18, 20, 24, 26, 31.

[8] Scot McKnight, The Letter of James, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 377.

[9] A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman, 1934), 927-78.

[10] See also Heb. 6:3.

[11] Aída Besançon Spencer, “Toppling the Silent Idol: Assessing Greed as Part of an Idolatrous Meta-System and Promoting Holiness as an Antidote to Greed,” Africanus Journal 7:2 (Nov. 2015): 45-46; John Henry Womack, Sharecropper to Entrepreneur to Pastor: Looking Back and Giving Thanks (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2016), ch. 6.


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