Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to walk our readers through James in order to help them understand what it teaches and how to apply it to our lives. This series is part of our larger commitment to help Christians learn to read, interpret, reflect, and apply the Bible to their own lives.

James 4:13, 15, “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.” … Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

In the previous study we saw that the epistle of James comes to a climax with a precious promise: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:10). We have so much reason to be humble that it really should be an easy command to heed. Vanity and pride lead to foolish deeds. Suppose a proud man goes skiing, but it has been years since his last run, and even at his peak his skills were only modest. Yet his friends easily talk him into starting on a difficult slope right away. Pride keeps him from admitting his limitations.

We all have many reasons to be humble and could probably profit by listing them. Yet, if we read James 4 carelessly, it seems that James drops the topic of humility. In the next paragraphs, he condemns the sins of slander, false judgment, overconfident business plans, indifference to God’s will, and oppression of the poor.

At first glance, James seems to take up a string of social sins, in no particular order. Yet, if we read closely—and we should always read God’s Word closely—connections to humility emerge. We see that James follows his summons to humility with a warning against several sins of arrogance, against attitudes that contradict gospel humility.

Sins against Gospel Humility (James 4:11–5:6)

The first sins, slander and judgment of others, are clearly acts of pride. For when we judge and condemn others, we appoint ourselves to a position over them. But what gives us the right to promote ourselves to that rank? Indeed, to take the post of judge is to usurp a role that belongs to God himself. So James asks, “Who are you to judge your neighbor?”

Second, anyone who says, “We will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money” surely suffers from pride (James 4:13). Anyone who says his travels and business ventures will certainly prove successful also presumes he can master his destiny. That, surely, is a proud thought. For God is Lord of history and we are not. James questions the self-appointed master of history: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14).

Third, it ought to humble us when we know the good and fail to do it (James 4:17).

Fourth, looking to the next paragraph, James 5:1–6 warns the rich against oppressing the poor. Oppression is certainly a sin of pride, since rich oppressors place themselves above the law that requires us to treat one another with justice. Oppressors, guided by envy and ambition, try to keep everything for themselves, even if they must defraud and oppress the poor to do so.

Notice that James treats these sins ever more sharply as he goes along. He begins with a blunt command, “Brothers, do not slander” (James 4:11), but soon he abandons his custom of calling his readers “brothers” (James 1:2; 1:19; 2:5; 2:14; 3:1). Next he says, “Now listen, you who say …” (James 4:13). The last section begins, “Now listen, you rich people …” (James 5:1). James also puts deflating questions to his readers: “Who are you to judge?” (4:12), and “What is your life?” (James 4:14).

The section continues to explore themes that James opened in James 3:13–4:4. He opposes the arrogance that illustrates the wisdom from the world, a wisdom that envies God’s position as ruler of all (James 3:14). Because arrogance questions God’s claims on the world, it is a form of friendship with a world that constantly questions God’s claims (James 4:4).

Theology in James 4:11–17

In each section of our passage, James notes that people forget their weaknesses and therefore forget their reason for humility. Each section raises a question. The answer to each one reminds us who we are and where we fit in this world:

  • “Who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12). That is, do you have what it takes to judge humanity?
  • “What is your life?” (James 4:14). Since you are no more than mist on a lake, since you cannot even guarantee your existence for one day, can you really declare what will happen in the future? Have you such control over history?
  • The last question is implicit: If you know what you ought to do, why don’t you do it?
  • The next section (James 5:1–6) implicitly asks the rich another question: Do you think you can secure your wealth? If you would grow richer by defrauding the poor, can you preserve your plunder? Remember, God hears the cry of the oppressed.

The sins of arrogance are ever more public too. James begins with personal speech that slanders and judges a brother or neighbor. Next he confronts “the public boasting that launches public projects.” Finally he indicts the systematic corruption of economic and judicial systems that allow the rich to defraud the poor with impunity.2

In each section, James also reminds us of a relevant principle of theology, a statement about God’s strength that balances his remarks about human frailties:

  • Humans pass judgment, but God is the Judge. He can save or destroy (James 4:12).
  • Humans make plans, but God determines the progress of our plans. He even sets the span of our days (James 4:15).
  • Humans may mistreat their workers, but God, the Lord of Hosts, hears the cry of the laborers. He will judge the oppressors (James 5:4–5).

These are the themes of our passage. Yet our passage fits within a larger section, running from James 3:13 to James 5:6. In the larger section, James says there are two approaches to life, two worldviews. Each particular deed flows from a heart commitment, a perspective on life. Either we serve God or we serve self. We live by his word or by the principle of arrogance (James 4:16).

Notice too that James suspects that some in his audience are unbelievers. Until now, he has almost always called his readers “brothers” (e. g., James 1:2; 2:1; 3:1). But now he questions some of his readers. He calls them “you who say” (James 4:13) and “you rich people” (James 5:1). Yet even if we are innocent of the boasting James describes, any one of us may forget his or her weakness and God’s greatness. So let us have a properly high view of God and a properly humble view of ourselves. We should all consider the sins of pride and their remedy.

Slander and Judgment (James 4:11–12)

“Brothers, do not slander one another,” James begins, adding, “Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it” (James 4:11). We see again that James has an ear for sins of speech. And slander is a sin that fits the discussion of ambition. For slander is a way to promote oneself, a way to defeat a rival (James 3:14, 16; James 4:1–2).

So then, James forbids slander. The Greek word literally means “speak against” another. It might either mean to speak against someone truly or to speak evil falsely. To gossip is to take a true story where it should not go. To slander is to create and spread false stories. Both gossip and slander are sins and cause real harm.

Here James seems to warn about slander (false charges), not gossip (true charges made in the wrong court). The reason is that James’s word (katalaleō) translated “slander” (niv) or “speak evil” (esv) appears alongside another term that clearly means “gossip” in New Testament vice lists (Rom. 1:30; 2 Cor. 12:20). Slander belongs in the same family of sin as gossip, even if they differ slightly.

But James quickly shifts from slander to the sin of judgment. Again, judgment can mean false condemnation of the innocent or improper condemnation of those who are truly guilty. We know what is wrong with false condemnation, but what is wrong with judgment of the actual sins of others?

James says: “When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11–12). James says the one who judges his brother judges the law. It is not immediately obvious what this means.

Why does James oppose judgment? Judgments are necessary at times. For example, Scripture requires leaders to discern or “judge” when a putative disciple commits a sin and refuses to repent. In that case, the supposed disciple must be put out of the church (Matt. 18:15–18; cf. Gal. 6:1). Leaders must likewise judge when a teacher is guilty of such an error or propounds such a falsehood that he must be confronted and possibly pronounced a false prophet and put out of the assembly (Deut. 13:1–11; Matt. 7:15–20; Gal. 2:11; 1 Tim. 1:3–4; 6:3–5). Finally, Jesus knew judgment is sometimes necessary. Thus, he told his disciples, “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (John 7:24).

But, James says, there is usually no need to judge the words or deeds of another; we should attend to ourselves. That is Jesus’ point at the end of the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.… Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?… You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:1, 3, 5).

In context, Jesus is not simply uttering a general principle. He knows that those who hear his teaching will be tempted to judge others, to point out how they have failed. He says: “Don’t do it. Don’t criticize others; attend to yourself.”

Consider, for example, how dangerous it is to attend a marriage seminar alone. Going alone changes the way a man listens. He may rejoice over his wife; he may examine himself. But sadly, we are prone to dwell on the counsel the speaker had for our spouse, who really needs to hear it. Reporting on the conference, we say: “You should have been there, honey. The speaker suggested three ways for me to be a better husband and nineteen ways for you to be a better wife. Let me share a few with you now.”

Preachers fear that the same principle is at work when someone greets them at the door after church and says: “Great sermon; I just wish my friend Zelda had been here. She sure needs it.” This prompts some preachers to wonder silently, “Yes, but were you here for it?

Judgment is also risky, Paul says, because if anyone should judge another, the same standard will be applied to him. Anyone who knows God’s standards well enough to judge another by them also knows them well enough to be judged by them (Rom. 2:1–3). When we violate the standards we enforce, we are without excuse. If we hope to receive mercy, we ought to show mercy.

James specifically forbids that brothers slander each other. The choice of address is apt, for we most often accuse against family—husband and wife, brother and sister, parent and child. We also criticize fellow Christians and fellow laborers.

Defamation of our brothers involves other sins too. Slanderers do not love. They are not humble. Slanderers appoint themselves to a position of superiority. To judge a brother is to deny that he is your peer. The judge exalts himself and diminishes his neighbor, for only superiors judge their inferiors.

This is what James has in mind when he says a slanderer speaks against the law and judges it. Everyone has felt the sting of misplaced criticism. Someone reproaches our manners, our clothing, our organization, our ideas. The censure may even be half right, but we ask, “What gives him the right to judge me?” We sense that the critic lacks humility and capriciously exalts himself over others.

Worse, the judge thinks he enforces the law while he actually violates it. The critic “speaks against the law and judges it” (James 4:11) in two ways. First, he violates the law of love. Second, he picks and chooses among its commands, deciding which to obey and which to disregard. When he disregards the law of love, he judges the law, saying, in essence, “I need not obey the laws that require love and that give all people roughly equal status before God.”

When we pick which commands to obey and which to ignore, we insult God’s person. For his commands are not arbitrary decrees. All of God’s commands express his nature, and all suit us perfectly. Each one tells us how to govern ourselves so that we become more like him. To reject God’s law is to reject him and to enthrone ourselves. But God is the one Lawgiver and Judge. He is the one who can save and destroy. We have no right to declare that another person is ripe for condemnation.

Judgment can occur at a grand level (“Go to hell!”) or a trivial level (“Your clothes clash”). Social behavior at parties can create tension between men and women. A husband accuses his wife, “You told that story poorly and completely botched the punch line of your joke.” The wife replies, “If I botched the line why did everyone laugh?” The wife thinks her husband has bad manners. “You put your elbows on the table tonight,” she says. He replies, “They weren’t my elbows, they were my forearms. Besides, real men don’t read Miss Manners. And they do put their elbows on the table if they please.”

Even if these little interchanges are jovial, we must ask ourselves: Did anyone appoint me to be the police of manners? The police of story-telling? God is the one Judge. Without his mercy, we would all suffer condemnation. Because of Christ’s work, he is willing to save and not destroy. Since we have received mercy, not judgment, we should show mercy, not judgment. We should not talk down to others; we should come down, to meet their needs. If there is a need, we should meet it, not broadcast it.

Clearly then, much judgment involves a decision to take a position superior to another, to dominate them. Envy and ambition, the sins that most contradict humility, cause slander and judgment.

Boastful Ambition and Presumptuous Planning (James 4:13–16)

As he so often does, James gets at the sin of presumption through our speech. He begins, “Come now, you who say,‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year and trade and make a profit’ ” (James 4:13 esv). James says such speech is presumptuous and arrogant in several ways.

  • It presumes we will live as long as we please.
  • It presumes we can make whatever plans we please: we can go today or tomorrow; the choice is ours.
  • It presumes we have the capacity to execute whatever plan we conceive. We declare that we will make a profit.

This way of thinking forgets three things. It forgets our ignorance. We think we can plan a year in advance and come and go as we please, but we do not even know what tomorrow will bring.

It forgets our frailty. James says: “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” (James 4:14). We think we can master our destiny, but our lives are as insubstantial and fleeting as the morning mist, that appears and disappears in hours. Many of us have spent time at a lake in the summer. If the nights grow cool, there will always be a mist on the lake early in the morning, at sunrise. The beauty of sunrise on a lake is a treasure, but by mid-morning, the mist is always gone. The Lord says that by the standards of eternity our lives are as ephemeral as a mist.

Presumptuous planning also forgets our dependence on God. Our frailty and ignorance lead to the conclusion that we should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15 esv). We may still say, “We will do this or that,” but James says we must have a preface: “If the Lord wills.” Although Jesus had more clarity than we ever can have, he modeled this spirit in Gethsemane. Facing the cross he said, “Your will be done” (Matt. 26:42). Paul modeled the same thing when he journeyed to Jerusalem where he knew he might suffer harm. He went where he had to go and said, “The Lord’s will be done” (Acts 21:14; cf. 18:21).

So then, it is still good to make plans. The Bible commends the ant for gathering food in the summer to guarantee a supply in the winter. Godly leaders often sense a God-given mission. The Bible commends Moses for planning to lead his people out of Egypt. God blessed Joshua for planning to lead Israel into Canaan. Paul rightly planned to take the gospel to places where Christ Jesus had never been preached. The saints do not hesitate to say, “I will” or “We will.”

Some prefer life goals. Others prefer five-years plans. Still others prefer a close script for the next one- or two-year plan and think anything more is like a whole week of weather forecasts—so loose and uncertain that they are more entertaining than informative. But God never censures all planning.

Planning is entirely proper as long we confess that God is sovereign and that we are frail, ignorant, and dependent upon him. The phrase “Lord willing” is no magical incantation. It does not ensure our humility. But the suffix “If the Lord wills” is helpful. It reminds us that our plans, even our lives, are as frail as the mist. Thus we plan, hoping that God will use the process so that our aspirations match his purposes.

Indeed, to refuse to plan may be a sign of sloth. It is easier to drift along with adequate food and funds, doing what others want, taking whatever comes along, hardly troubling over the future, as long as we have enough food and enough fun. But the Lord expects us to do more than take whatever pleasures each day affords.

Sadly, James says, much of our planning is boastful or arrogant. He writes: “As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil” (James 4:16). The boaster forgets God. He thinks he is the master of history. He presumes he can trade and make money when he does not even know if he will be alive tomorrow. Such planning manifests ambition for wealth (James 3:14, 16), since trade was the way to become wealthy in the first century. (People purchased land to stay wealthy). The desire to get rich to spend it on our own pleasures is a primary sign of the envy that James forbids (James 3:14; James 4:3).

But there are humble ways to plan. First, planners dedicate their plans to God.

Second, planners confess they need God’s favor. Humble planners know we can do everything right and still fail. We can buy a farm before a drought. We can buy an insurance firm right before a catastrophe. Unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain (Ps. 127:1). We cannot even live unless God sustains us. As James says, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15 esv).

Third, planners confess that whatever they achieve is through the gifts and favor of God. Some men inherit a thriving business from their earthly fathers. But we are all heirs of God’s generosity. If we do accomplish something notable, we can ask certain questions to instill humility: If a woman is intelligent, did she earn it or inherit it? If a man is an athlete, did he construct his muscle fibers? If a woman is great singer, did she engineer her vocal chords? If filled with energy, did a man choose his metabolism? If experienced, who earned the attention of his first mentor?

The achiever may think, “But I have worked hard to hone my skills.” Perhaps so. But even then, we can ask if God did not guide our desires and nudge us toward godly aspirations. So let us ever be humble, rejoice in God’s goodness, and use our gifts for him.

Failure of Duty (James 4:17)

The last sentence of James 4 seems like an isolated statement: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (James 4:17). In fact, it links the section of proud plans to the section on abuse of the poor. We should always do what we know, as James likes to say (James 1:21–25). James is also telling us not to forget God.

As you plan, remember to say “Lord willing” (James 4:13–16). As you consider those who work for you, remember to treat them well by paying them fairly and promptly. For God sees you and protects them even if no one else does (James 5:1–6).

Yet there is one more thing. We can never fully do the good we ought to do. If we have nothing beyond these commands, James will drive us to despair. Therefore we must remember the promise James so recently made, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:10). Indeed, humility is the way of the Lord Jesus. We remember that he humbled himself by taking human flesh and enduring all the troubles that attend human life. Above all, he humbled himself by dying on the cross. Yet that supreme act of self-denial led to his supreme glory, when God raised him from the dead and crowned him with honor. Thus when James says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up,” he bids us to follow the path of Christ.

James says that anyone “who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (James 4:17). Since we know we cannot simply “do the good” no matter how well we know it, we must humbly ask the Lord to lift us up. His grace does lift every penitent sinner who comes to him. The path of the gospel is the path of humility, says James. There is a path of meekness and peace or a path of ambition and grasping. There is a way of peace or a way of striving. There is a way of repentance and conversion or a way of arrogance and pride. James bids us join him on the path of gospel humility.