Business Forecasting (James 4:13–17)
James moves to a new application in giving a warning specifically about business forecasting. Somewhat unusually, he focuses first on the principle of trusting God. He opens with sobering words: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:13–14). It might seem that James is condemning even short-term business planning. Planning ahead, however, is not his concern. Imagining that we are in control of what happens is the problem.
The following verse helps us see James’s real point: “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15). The problem is not planning; it is planning as if the future lies in our hands. We are responsible to use wisely the resources, abilities, connections, and time that God gives us. But we are not in control of the outcomes. Most businesses are well aware how unpredictable outcomes are, despite the best planning and execution that money can buy. The annual report of any publicly traded corporation will feature a detailed section on risks the company faces, often running ten or twenty pages. Statements such as “Our stock price may fluctuate based on factors beyond our control” make it clear that secular corporations are highly attuned to the unpredictability James is talking about.
Why then does James have to remind believers of what ordinary businesses know so well? Perhaps believers sometimes delude themselves that following Christ will make them immune to the unpredictability of life and work. This is a mistake. Instead, James’s words should make Christians more aware of the need to continually reassess, adapt, and adjust. Our plans should be flexible and our execution responsive to changing conditions. In one sense, this is simply good business practice. Yet in a deeper sense, it is a spiritual matter, for we need to respond not only to market conditions but also to God’s leading in our work. This brings us back to James’s exhortation to listen with deep attention. Christian leadership consists not in forcing others to comply with our plans and actions, but in adapting ourselves to God’s word and God’s unfolding guidance in our lives.
These warnings seem to echo both Jesus’ teaching and the Old Testament prophets. See, for example, Ezekiel 34:3; Amos 2:6–7; 5:12; Micah 2:2; 6:12–16; Matthew 6:19; Luke 6:24–25; 12:13–21; 32–34; 16:19–31; 18:18–30. Note also that James 1:1–18 focuses on understanding past and present success and failure, while this section focuses on forecasting the future.