“Shackled” for the New Year (James 4:13-17)

From the DI archives — December 2009.

I love fresh starts. Clean slates. New beginnings. Therefore I love New Year’s day. It’s a time to take inventory of our lives’ rhythms and priorities, make necessary adjustments, or those pesky “resolutions” and all the rest.

For the Christian it is a time for inward reflection on our spiritual health and faith habits.  How’s my walk with God? How’s my prayer life? How’s my devotional life?  How’s my public witness? How am I being faithful to the Great Commission and Great Commandments?  New Years often drives us to ask these questions.

Well, each year amidst my own personal reflections on the New Year, I also devote one message to the youth group on the topic.  In the past one of my “default” messages for such an occasion focuses on beginning a new chapter in your life’s story.

You know the drill: Our lives are storybooks being written one day at a time by our personal choices under God’s sovereign reign. Our books are filled with happy chapters, sad chapters, painful chapters, healing chapters and boring, monotonous chapters. Each new year we’re given blank pages symbolizing the wide open opportunities and a new chance to make this chapter the best yet.

I love declaring the good news to teens that God is in the business of giving us clean, fresh, blank pages to begin afresh with renewed commitment and resolve to live life for his glory. The task of the Christian is to align their personal story plot with the overarching Plot of God’s redemptive Kingdom Story.

Yet, this New Year my heart and mind have been arrested by a more blunt and challenging New Year’s message. As I was writing our annual Christmas letter I landed on the no-nonsense, straight-shooting warning of James 4:13-17. I can’t think of a better scripture to meditate on as we “turn another page” and begin living out a new chapter in our story. Let these words mess with you and have their way:

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own plans, and all such boasting is evil. Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. (James 4:13-17)

And people say the Bible is old, outdated and hard to understand!  What if we made this passage our marching orders for this new chapter?  How would one go about applying this teaching to our busy, 21st century lives as we begin a new year?  Here’s my 2 cents.

  1. Reality check #1. Our life isn’t ours to do with as we please. Our life is on loan from God, a gift to be used in the service of his Kingdom purposes and for his glory. “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.”  While we have great freedom in one sense to choose our life’s course. In another sense, we are shackled to our Master and called to be slaves of God” as we live our lives under God’s ownership and rule. As Paul says, we are “slaves of Christ” (Rom 1:1) and “You were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Cor 6:20). Jesus brings it home saying, “You cannot serve two masters” (Matt 6:24).  Are we willing to give God complete control over this next year?  Are we willing to be “shackled to Christ” for the next year?
  2. Reality check #2. Our life is brief “like the morning fog — here a little while, then it’s gone.”  New Year’s has a way of reminding us that time doesn’t slow down for anyone.  It keeps going, faster and faster each year it seems, and our times around the sun are numbered. Depressing?  In a sense.  But for me it’s more sobering. I’m reminded that I can either waste my precious God-given days on earth away in trivial, “worldly things” or spend my time laboring for the Lord and making my life count for the Kingdom. As Paul put it, “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col 3:2). Are we willing to live as though this next year were our last year on earth?
  3. Reality check #3. James brings another bold punches to the gut. Apparently unaware of our 21st century sensibilities he uses two naughty words in a row: “evil” and “sin.” We may have struck those out of our politically correct version of Christianity but James still isn’t afraid to call things what they are. How many times have TV ads and self-help gurus tempted us to “grab life by the horns”, take control of our life and “become a better you” in the new year?  Whether it’s a diet, a new car, a career change or attitude adjustment, it borders on EVIL if it becomes a personal quest without reference to God and leads to boasting and a sense of self-sufficiency. Are we willing to “boast only in the cross of Christ” (Gal 6:14) this new year?  Are we willing to trust Jesus’ words that “Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self” (Matt 16:25 MSG)?
  4. Reality check #4. Finally, the other naughty word — “sin” — is used to drive us completely to our knees because we are all guilty of this. “Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it.”  Now we all feel even worse about all those failed New Year’s resolutions!  James tells us that it’s not just lazy sometimes when we don’t live up to what we ought to do; it’s sin!  Gulp. Christians are notorious for trying to avoid committing acts of sins. Here James reminds us of those less obvious, sneaky so-called “sins of omission” — of not doing what we ought. Well, there is good news. God’s grace is sufficient and his forgiveness covers all sins — even the gazillion ways we do not live as we ought and do what God has called us to do. But we ought to keep trying. Are we willing to recommit ourselves to being obedient to the things that God has commanded us to do in the new year?

There are times to rest in the grace of God and relish the freedom he has given us to leisurely fill in the blank pages in our life’s book.  However, there are times to be reminded that we are slaves of Christ, called to live our lives in service to a holy and loving God and be about maximizing our time on earth for his glory.  But don’t take it from me, or even James.  Let these words of Jesus set you on the right track for the new year!

“Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for? “Don’t be in such a hurry to go into business for yourself. Before you know it the Son of Man will arrive with all the splendor of his Father, accompanied by an army of angels. You’ll get everything you have coming to you, a personal gift” (Matt 16:25-27 MSG).

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