(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)

I am going to tackle this short but challenging passage by asking three questions. They are questions we should frequently ask ourselves. By doing so we will be helped to spend our lives pleasing God.

(B) Do we take God into our plans? You ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." v15.

We might not bother to consult God if:

    (1) We are over confident in our ability and sure that we know what is best for us.
    I used to coach a team of schoolboy footballers. Most of them knew what position they should play and were convinced that they were England stars of the future and didn't need any advice from me. The truth was that very few of the boys I trained were much good. They were real posers and hardly raised a sweat during the course of a match. Some even ducked the ball rather than get mud in their hair!

    James warns us against over confidence: Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. v14. Yesterday I watched a program on BBC TV about a Dane, Curt Stavis, who is trying to establish a cut price ferry company. The program illustrated perfectly the truth of James' words. Curt Stavis faced a succession of problems: his boat proved unreliable, the weather was unpredictable and his competitors tried one dirty trick after another. The remarkably cheerful and calm Dane needed more than confidence to keep going. One of the factors that strongly motivated Curt was his obligation to the investors in the company many of whom were also his friends.

    Some Christians are so sure of themselves that they are guilty of predicting the future. During our years without a pastor we had a visit from an American who was looking for a church to lead. He told me, "John, if I was your pastor I would build this church up. It would not stop the same - it would grow." The good looking, eloquent, confident young man made a good impression upon our members and he might well have been invited to be our minister if he had not received a call from another fellowship. The young American has just resigned from that church leaving it in a worse state than he found it! We must be very careful before we predict the future - we do not even know what will happen tomorrow.

    (2) We are afraid He might disaprove of our plans.
    In 1Chron21 we read of a decision David took without consulting God. He asked Joab to organise a census. Joab, the Commander in Chief, was hardly the most godly of men but even he realised this might offend the LORD. He warned David against his folly but the King insisted that the strength of Israel be assessed. David was trusting in numbers rather than in the LORD his God. Terrible repercussions followed from David's failure to act in the will of God.

    There is another story in 2Chron18 of a king who was very reluctant to consult God. Jehoshaphat and Ahab agreed to attack Ramoth Gilead. Jehoshaphat was anxious to seek counsel of the LORD. He asked Ahab, "Is there not a prophet of the LORD here whom we can enquire of?" 2Chron18v6." Ahab acknowledged that such a prophet existed - one Micaiah son of Imlah - but, he didn't want to hear from him because, to use his own words: "I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad." v7.

    Christians make many decisions that affect the welfare of their churches without talking those decisions over with their fellow Christians or public prayer for guidance by the members. Pastors retire or resign without consultation. Church officers, appointed by the church, seem to think that they can quit without taking God or their fellow believers into consideration. Ordinary members assume that they can move from one church to another without really seeking God's will. Surely if they are serious about doing what God wants there should be a period of sustained prayer by the whole fellowship to ascertain what this is. In my experience Christians often feel so guilty about their selfish choices that they deliberately keep their brothers and sisters, and even God himself, at arms length.

    Paul likens the church to a body and writes: ... there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 1Cor12v25. That is the will of God!

    (3) We think too little of Him.
    I have a brother, Peter, of who I am fond and with whom I generally get on well. There was a period in his career as a teacher that he was in conflict with his Headmistress. Sadly, Peter did not think of me highly enough to phone up and ask my advice on what to do. He would have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had!

    If we do not talk to God about the decisions we face we think too little of him and too much of ourselves. Our lives may be vastly important in our own eyes but James reminds us: What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. v14. This is hard for us to take.

    I was reminded of how self-centred we are while conducting a Bible quiz. I held up pieces of card on which were cryptic clues to the answers. On one of the cards I wrote: ME. People called out their own names first. Quite some time elapsed before someone got the right answer!

    Our lives only assume significance insofar as we are in God's will, both fulfilling his purpose and part of his plan.

(C) Do we know what we should do and then not do it? Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins. v17.

I am afraid that the short answer is: Yes - easily, for several reasons:

    (1) It's too hard.
    Sometimes I would ask a scared looking boy why he hadn't done his homework and he would reply, "It was too hard, Mr Reed." One of the fruits of long experience is that the teacher never sets an exercise that is too hard. It may be challenging but not too hard. Only an inept teacher provides his pupils with a ready-made excuse for not doing the work.

    God does not want us to fail and so he does not ask us to do what is too hard. This does not mean his demands are easy. We will be put to the test in order to come to spiritual maturity. See exposition on James1v2to4.

    (2) We have other priorities.
    Lizzie, a blunt girl, sidled up to me one day with the familiar refrain, "Mr Reed, h'aint done my homework." I have to admit that such statements were like a red rag to a bull! Of course I asked her, "Why not?" "Didn't have enough time." was the reply. "What do you mean: you didn't have enough time!" I snorted. "I had to look after my little brother, then I had music practice, then I went to the youth club, then I did my Drama homework ..... ," pleaded Lizzie. "It sounds to me that you had plenty of time," I thundered.

    Lizzie did not do her Geography homework because she had other priorities. Many of us fail to do what God wants for the very same reason. Instead of prayer we read the paper; instead of going to the Sunday evening service we go for a picnic; instead of visiting the sick we clean the house; instead of writing a letter of sympathy we watch TV. I am afraid that some Christians on retirement resign their church responsibilities so they can spend more time travelling. Since when did God say that on reaching 60 or 65 our time is our own to spend on leisure pursuits? Jesus never said, "Seek first the Kingdom of God - until you retire - then you can do just as you like."

    (3) It involves too much effort.
    Some of my students suffered from inertia. They found it very difficult to get started. A few had a whole routine to go through - sharpening pencils, laying out their equipment, yawning, massaging dead fingers and flexing muscles - before putting pen to paper. I have just finished typing out and arranging the Brockley Cricket Club Newsletter because my nephew Isaac kept putting it off and putting it off. His father finally lost patience and brought it to Uncle John.

    Some years ago I read a sad comment in the Grace Magazine about dear old George Stebbing, for many years Sunday School Superintendent and deacon at Otley Baptist Church. After his tragic death of brain cancer many letters of appreciation were sent to his widow. George, himself, received no letters of appreciation in his lifetime. It is truly distressing that we cannot make the effort to encourage others in well doing. I am always heartened when anyone e mails me a few words of appreciation for my web site.

    Another way that many of us fail God is by promising to pay a visit and then not paying it. My old history teacher lived not far from me. I also taught with him. We got on very well together. Just occasionally I bumped into him in town. He always said, "You know where I live. I would always be pleased to see you." Somehow I never went. It is not even as if I didn't like Dr Wood. I was one of his favoured pupils. Then there was Mr Mott! We lived together in Brockley for many years. Our paths frequently crossed in the village shop where I bought cigars. When Mr Mott kicked the habit he invariably teased me about persisting in mine. One dark December night I knocked on his door. I was out with the carol singers collecting for charity. Mr Mott had been ill but he came to the door and after much fumbling put his donation in the box. I asked him how he was. "Not too good bor," he said. "Come and see me." "I will," I replied. Mr Mott died before I got to see him.

    I recount these incidents because on the whole I am a man of my word. I do not lack integrity. It is just so easy to be overcome by inertia and thereby deny someone the help and encouragement that they need. I know a lovely couple who were very, very kind to a young girl when her mother walked out and set up home with someone else. My two friends are old, frail and handicapped now and nothing would give them greater pleasure than an occasional visit from the young woman they once treated as their own daughter. Jodie has fond memories of Arthur and Edna - but she has still to make the effort. It will soon be too late!

    (4) We think we can get away with doing the bare minimum.
    If anyone thought he could get away with doing very little it was Willy. He was the eternal optimist! Willy would waltz into my classroom confident that because he had spent five minutes on the bus turning over the pages of his Geography exercise book he would sail through his forthcoming test. After the ordeal was over he would say in his broad Suffolk accent, "Oi bin a prat Mr Reed. Oi'm jist useless. See ya at 1pm ol' boy." He knew that lunchtime detention was his inevitable fate! He was a likeable lad - but that did not save him!

    Jesus told a parable about a servant who decided to do very little in the absence of his master. He buried his talent - the capital entrusted to him. The servant passed up the limited opportunity he was given to work on behalf of his employer. When the master returned and called his servants to account the man who buried his talent was roundly condemned: "You wicked lazy servant! .... You should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that ... I would have received it back with interest." Mt25v26and27. Instructions were given to throw the worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

    This cautionary tale should galvanise us into action. It should put some backbone into flabby Christians who have forgotten that faith without works is dead.

              Must I be carried to the skies
              On flowery beds of ease,
              While others fought to win the prize
              And sailed through bloody seas.

              Since I must fight if I would reign,
              Increase my courage, Lord!
              I'll bear the toil, endure the pain,
              Supported by the Thy word.

    (5) We do not take the long view.
    Most of my under achieving students lacked the long view. The present was all that mattered to them. Faced with the choice of going out and enjoying themselves or stopping in and working on their Geography assignment they opted for gratification in the here and now. A lot of people are very much in sympathy with this approach to life. "You only live once," they say. "You're a long time dead," they jest.

    Raj Persaud, the Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry, wrote in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday 22nd of December 2005 about people who see themselves as victims of forces beyond their control: Nor do victims have much appetite for disciplining themselves to do difficult things in their long-term interest, such as saving money or paying debts.

    The research (done by Dr Twenge in America) also shows that each generation since the 1950's has become more impulsive and less prepared to delay gratification. No wonder the crime rate has risen since the 1950s; no wonder there have been such steep rises in depression and addiction levels and teenage pregnancy rates.
    And I would add - no wonder fewer and fewer take thought for the welfare of their mortal souls. What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul.

    Christians have to take a long view. The apostle Peter certainly did: Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 1Pet4v12and13. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. 1Pet5v4.

    It is important to look forward and to be spurred on by the certain knowledge that the Chief Shepherd will return. This will help us to do the good we know we ought to do and to suffer for Christ's sake.

(D) Are we in God's will?

(1) Do we believe God has a plan for our lives?
The Christian life is a bit like making pastry. There is a basic recipe for pastry that needs to be followed. Any deviations from the recipe will spoil the pastry. The New Testament provides all Christians with instructions that if heeded place them in the will of God.

However, the quality of pastry does not just depend upon sticking to the recipe. The pastry I make is very different in quality to the pastry my friend Jesse Underwood makes. Her apple tarts are something else! The difference lies in the handling. In order to conform to the will of God Christians need to be handled. Each requires something different to develop, as God desires. God fashions us through circumstances, providence, the Holy Spirit and the intervention of other Christians. Unlike flour, fat and water we are not entirely passive in the Great Cook's hands. We need to respond well to the handling.

All Christians believe in Christ's golden rule: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." Mt7v12. This wonderful recipe for godly living is practiced by people of many different faiths. Several years ago I greatly enjoyed a series of programs on BBC TV about village life in China. The local doctor, Dr Tang, had a daughter who gained entry to medical college to train for the same profession as her father. As the two drank a glass of wine together to celebrate her college place Dr Tang gave his daughter this advice, "Treat every patient's pain as if it was your own." The elderly Chinese doctor practiced among the poor. He did not work for money but to be loved and cherished in the memory of his patients.

I have no doubt that my old friend Jack accepted Christ's golden rule for living but this did not automatically put him in God's will. He needed handling. Jack attended our prayer meeting and specialised in long 'preaching' intercessions. In other words he tried to put over his strange religious views in his prayers. Our pastor advised him to be briefer, but Jack resisted. I encouraged him to develop the parts of his prayers that were helpful to us all, but without much success. Jack responded badly to handling. In the end I lost my temper with him over another issue and he never attended our prayer meeting again which was a relief but also sad.

When we are not turning out as God intends we may be reminded of an appropriate Scripture by the Holy Spirit or a fellow Christian. If we ignore such guidance there must be serious doubts about our desire to be in God's will.

(1) Are we eager to do God's will?
We can do God's will cheerfully or with a measure of reluctance.

Sometimes a pupil's attitude to work changed from being reluctant to being keen and enthusiastic. A boy in conflict with my will would become co-operative in all things. It wasn't usually because the student grew to like his teacher; it was because the pupil began to find satisfaction in doing well. He began to enjoy Geography. This takes a person a long, long way until the mature scholar gets immense satisfaction from doing Geographical research. He or she certainly sees the point of the subject!

Jesus said: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." Mt5v6. There is satisfaction in doing God's will. To actually do good is filling food. The more we eat the keener our appetite becomes. See exposition on Mt5v6.

Discontented and disgruntled Christians are invariably the ones who do very little. In my boyhood our chapel was heated by a large, coke burning, cast iron stove. An old member used to get up at 6am on Sunday morning to light it. There were some in our congregation who moaned incessantly about the stove - it was either too hot or too cold. The ones who complained the most did nothing for the church. They certainly would not get up early to light the fire!

Dissatisfaction is a sure sign that we are not eagerly doing the will of God. It is a symptom of spiritual immaturity. The only way to discover the point of Christ's teaching is to practice it. The only way to godly contentment is to hunger and thirst after righteousness.

ANY COMMENTS FOR JOHN REED: E-mail jfmreed@rtalktalk.net