Come now, you who say,
“Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town,
spend a year there doing business, and make a profit”–
you have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow.
You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears.
Instead you should say,
“If the Lord wills it, we shall live to do this or that.” (James 4)
The longer we live the less surprising life seems to be. By the time you hit sixty it is no longer shocking to hear that someone has suddenly died—perhaps a bit surprising, but not truly breath-taking in its impact. Why? Because we have come to know better than to claim the right that somehow life should unfold in a manner conducive to what we expect, much less what we want for ourselves. We are no longer seventeen, trying to put together life the way we would a four-year academic plan, every day accounted for. We are no longer twenty or even thirty, thinking that we can count on our health our our incomes to move us forward into a secure future. For the longer we live, and the more enmeshed we become in life and its commitments, the more we know that we cannot predict how it will all turn out, or what new asteroid will next come tumbling down from the sunlit sky, creating its own massive crater, changing forever the landscape by its massive impact. It doesn’t take many deaths to teach us that our lives are indeed like puffs of smoke—and so are all our plans.
There is a wisdom here in James, then, which we can also find in Proverbs: do not be so presumptuous as to plan for the morrow as if it is going to turn out the way you’d like it to turn out; chances are it won’t work out that way. Is the alternative a stiff-lipped Stoicism? That isn’t what James counsels. Instead, in a proto-Ignatian fashion, he counsels a habit of praying, but with an intelligent hedge: “If it be your will, O Lord, then let this be…” That’s a hedge that contains a tacit caveat: “And if it not be your will, O Lord, then let me accept what is your deepest desire for me, for us, for the world.”
This deep acceptance, trust, is perhaps the hardest part of the life of faith—the part we resist the most. For it involves letting go of our presumptions, our plans, our ideas of what is right, and what should be. It involves surrendering all of our lives—everything—to God. It’s the scary part of the “Suscipe” of St. Ignatius Loyola: “Take, Lord, and receive my liberty, my understanding, my memory, my entire will.” This is not a prayer we can offer with any maturity at the beginning of the journey, but it is one that perhaps makes more sense toward the end of it. Praying in that spirit, we are not as liable to try to control the outcome of things.
I once know a man who even tried to choreograph the days of his dying from his death bed, planning who would visit, and when, down to the last dose of morphine. That was a truly sad spectacle. And, of course, we read of people who seriously aspire toward what they call immortality—ultimate control. Yet what James is saying here about giving up control is somewhat akin to what John (21:21) says toward the end of his Gospel: “Truly I tell you, when you were young, you dressed yourself, and walked where you wanted to. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you, and carry you where you do not want to go.” This is true wisdom: we have no ultimate control in the end. To allow that other person who will dress us— to allow that person to be the Lord—there lies the heart of surrender, the vulnerable spot in our life of faith.
Without hitting that spot, without this ultimate surrender, we risk staying forever ensconced in the illusion of security, or something we call faith, but which is a pale imitation. For the life of faith is anything but predictable or secure. It is lived out in the radical facticity of our “dying by installments” (cf. Karl Rahner). It is to radically contingent creatures such as ourselves—dying while living, living while dying—that God came, and to whom God entrusted as Son, as brother, the Word (cf. Denise Levertov).
Yes, we hold a treasure in these mere earthen jars (2 Cor 4:7), and precious as these vessels are and the life that sustains them and the hopes that surround them, neither they, nor even life itself, are absolutes or ends in themselves. In the end, all that will remain of them or of our plans is smoke, ash. And blowing away the smoke will be what what was first given in the creation itself: the all-powerful, abiding, and ever-generative love of God. It is God, known in the creative and regenerative power of his love, who upends all plans, and all forms of mere human finality.