The Perennial Temptation to Play God (James 4:13–17)

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Who’s in charge here?

William Ernest Henley, an English writer of the late 19th-century, is famous primarily for a single poem called “Invictus” which is latin for unconquered.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

As I was reading about this poem, I learned that it was written by a young man suffering with Tuberculosis in his bones. The disease had already caused him to lose a leg and would eventually take his life in his early 50’s. 

Henley, being a committed atheist, could look for comfort, hope, and strength nowhere other than himself. To him, there was no purpose or plan in his pain. His struggles were simply “the bludgeonings of chance” which he resolved to endure with grit and an unconquerable will.

Ultimately, this poem is a literary shaking the fist at the cosmos and against God, if he exists at all, culminating in the closing twin declarations: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

For those familiar with the Bible this sentiment isn’t surprising. The desire to govern ones’ own life, be ones’ own sovereign, and ultimately, operate as ones’ own god, has been a hallmark of humanity ever since Adam and Eve disobeyed God in an attempt to “be like God” (Gen. 3).

From the Garden of Eden to the Tower of Babel, from Pharaoh in Egypt to Israel in captivity, from the rejection of God’s prophets to the crucifixion of God’s Messiah, Scripture showcases the perennial temptation for creatures to declare themselves independent of their Creator.

Example of people playing God

In verse 13, of James 4, we find the same sentiment expressed as the author provides yet another example of people playing God.

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit” (Jas. 4:13).

Do you see the Invictus mindset? They’re claiming autonomy. They’re the master, the captain of every facet of their lives.

  • They’re in charge of their own schedule: “Today or tomorrow …” It’s their timetable.

  • They pick their own path: “… we will go to this or that city …” No one’s going to tell us where to go or what to do.

  • They set their own limits: “… [we’ll] spend a year there …” They make the call when to pack it in, when they’ve learned enough, experienced enough, or have lost interest. 

  • They choose their own activities: “… carry on business …” What they do with their time is their choice and nobody else’s.

  • Finally, they predict their own outcomes: “… and make money.” They’ve charted out how life is going to work.

Verse 13 gives an example of what playing God may look like: It’s an individual who has decided they are their own ultimate authority. What they do with their time, their life, their talents, and their future is nobody’s business but their own.

This is different than simply planning ahead. Proverbs encourages us to be wise in this way (see 6:6–8). Paul planned ahead (see Acts 15:36) as did Jesus (see Matt. 26:17–19).

The Bible isn’t against wise planning, but planning ahead and playing God are not the same thing. The former is good stewardship. The latter cuts God out of the equation. Biblical planning includes God, is sensitive to him, and submits to him. Playing God ignores, rejects, and dismisses him.

There’s another example of playing God in Luke 12.

And [Jesus] told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’

Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared’” (vv. 16–20)?

Perhaps, in your heart, you can relate a little to this rich man and to the person James is addressing in verse 13. Could James be quoting you in verse 13?

Maybe you’re not in the habit of including God in your planning. Maybe you never even thought about it. Perhaps your open to his involvement in most areas of your life, but, if you’re honest, there are spots that you’ve deemed off-limits for the Almighty. 

If we’re honest and we allow the Holy Spirit of God to search our hearts, I’m guessing that each of us is vulnerable to the temptation to play God is some aspect of our lives.

Problems with playing God

But there are problems associated with trying to play God, and James, in the next verse points our three. 

The first is that we’re not all-knowing like God is.

Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow (v. 14a).

How are we capable of being the gods of our own lives—of plotting our courses, planning our futures, and governing our relationships—when our scope of understanding is so narrow, so restricted, so human? 

It’s like hiring an art critic who has severe cataracts—their vision is dramatically impaired and, thus, so is their ability to do the job. Likewise, we don’t have the all-knowing sight to play God with our lives.

In comparison, God does:

O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You understand my thought from afar.
You ascrutinize my path and my lying down,
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.
Even before there is a word on my tongue,
Behold, O Lord, You know it all (Psa. 139:1–4).

The problem with playing God is that we’re not all knowing like God is.

A second problem is that we’re not all-powerful like God is.

You are just a vapour that appears for a little while and then vanishes away (Jas. 4:14b).

And this:

O Lord, what is man, that You take knowledge of him?
Or the son of man, that You think of him?
Man is like a mere breath;
His days are like a passing shadow (Psa. 144:3–4).

Our lives are short, unstable, and unpredictable. If you speak with anyone in their seventh or eighth decade of life, often you’ll be told: “It goes quickly.”

Our lives are fleeting and vulnerable and we are powerless to change much about that reality, so how am I qualified to govern my own life? 

I’m no handymen but even I’m aware that it’s futile to drive a nail into a piece of wood using a banana, a lawnmower, or a toothbrush. You need a hammer—a tool that is fit for the job.

That we do need a final authority to govern of our lives is undeniable. What James is saying is that we are not fit for that job. The problem with playing God in our lives is that we’re using a banana when we need a hammer. We’re not powerful enough.

But, God, on the other hand, is powerful.

Bow Your heavens, O Lord, and come down;
Touch the mountains, that they may smoke.
Flash forth lightning and scatter them;
Send out Your arrows and confuse them.
Stretch forth Your hand from on high;
Rescue me and deliver me out of great waters,
Out of the hand of aliens (Psa. 144:5–7).

The problem with playing God is that we’re not all-powerful like God is.

A final problem is that we’re not worthy like God is.

But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin (Jas. 4:16–17).

When we think, speak, and act like James’ opponent in verse 13, we are elevating ourselves above our status as creatures and into the position of Creator. We’re pretending to be infinite when we’re finite. We’re pretending to be limitless when we have very clear limits.  We’re pretending to have power that we don’t possess. 

This is sinful pride. It’s delusional self-worship rooted in a misunderstanding of who we are and who God is.

James sees some problems with playing God in our own lives: we’re not wise enough, powerful enough, and we’re not worthy of such attention. 

Corrective to playing God

What’s the alternative? James concludes by providing us a corrective to playing God. This is the truth we must cling to in order to combat potential drift into self-governance.

Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that” (4:15).

Instead of plotting your own course in life, assuming the results, and deciding your own path, we are to humbly submit to God’s sovereign will in all things! That is, in our activities and in our very lives—all things.

When you buy a house, you assume you’ll have access to every room in that house. What would happen if you found out after you moved in that two of the rooms didn’t come with the sale? You’d have a problem with that, right!? You’d say, “But I bought the whole thing! I want access to the whole thing!”

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body (1 Cor. 6:19–20).

As Christians, we have been purchased by the blood of Jesus. Redeemed. And thank God he bought all of who I am! Does that not mean, however, that he should have access to my whole self? Does that not mean we should submit everything to the will of God?

According to James, that’s exactly what it means.

It’s not that we don’t plan ahead. Rather, it’s that everything we do plan is submitted to him. Our finances, our retirement, our jobs, our schooling, our careers, relationships, goals, hobbies … you name it!

There is not a corner of our lives nor a facet of our days over which God does not deeply care, sovereignly govern, and in which he longs to be involved. And we are invited, as God’s people, is to humbly submit to his will in all things. 

James has given us an example of what it looks like to play God with our lives. He’s also shown us some problems with that way of living and prescribed a corrective—to submit to God’s will.

So, how do we do that? What does that look like?

We must let God be God! Acknowledge that we are not gods, we are not captains, we are not masters, but instead, admit the reality that he is.

I want to kill any verse 13 that exists in my life and I want to become more like verse 15 prescribes. I want to grow in my ability to submit all things in my life to the only one who is able and worthy. I want to be more like my Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who, though facing an agonizing death, said “Father, not my will, but yours be done.” I want to acknowledge more consistently in my life that he is King, not me, and I want to let God be God.

And I’m confident, if you’re reading this, you can sympathize with those desires. But, as with all of the Christian life, we are dependant on God to help us, to humble us, and to shape our hearts. We grow in our ability to let God be God when we are overwhelmed by his beauty, power, majesty, goodness, and sovereignty. As we know who he is more and more, the more we want him to govern all things. 

I opened with a poem and I want to close the same way. Years after “Invictus” was published, giving words to the sinful human longing for autonomy, a response was written by an author named Dorthy Day to which she attached the title, “Conquered.”

Out of the light that dazzles me,
Bright as the sun from pole to pole,
I thank the God I know to be,
For Christ - the Conqueror of my soul.

Since His the sway of circumstance,
I would not wince nor cry aloud.
Under the rule which men call chance,
My head, with joy, is humbly bowed.

Beyond this place of sin and tears,
That Life with Him and His the Aid,
That, spite the menace of the years,
Keeps, and will keep me unafraid.

I have no fear though straight the gate:
He cleared from punishment the scroll.
Christ is the Master of my fate!
Christ is the Captain of my soul!