One of the things I most hated about my work towards the end of my career was the annual appraisal. Not because I was performing poorly or had difficulties with any aspect of my job, but because I was obliged to write out a ‘personal development plan’ for the next twelve months, listing my aims and intentions, with deadlines for their achievement. I found this especially tiresome, since all the major developments in my career had been totally unplanned! While my original ambitions were derailed by circumstances outside my control, other opportunities presented themselves out of the blue. But that’s not good enough for the modern professional, who is expected to have their progress well mapped out and documented, year after year. So every year the ‘PDP’ had to be done, regardless; but in practice, fortunately, nobody seemed to care that much whether or not any of it was fulfilled.
In Western Europe, life expectancy has been increasing steadily over the last century, as society has become richer, healthier and more stable. Most of us can anticipate living well beyond 70 years, so James’ description of human life as “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (verse 14) doesn’t resonate with us as it should. When we announce our plans for the future, the custom of adding ‘God willing’ has completely died out. Many of us have grand schemes for our retirement, maybe travelling the world or even embarking on second careers; nobody expects to die or become disabled in their sixties.
What James describes as ‘arrogance’ has therefore become normal for us; and as the appraisal system reveals, it is now enshrined in our culture. We are so confident that we will be able to do whatever we want, when we want to, that we have got into the habit of leaving God out of the equation altogether. But since we don’t know what His plans are, it’s wise to ‘hold the future lightly’.
“Do not boast about tomorrow,
for you do not know what a day may bring.” (Proverbs 27:1)
At any time, an illness, economic slump or family crisis may upset our calculations. A certain amount of forward planning is unavoidable; but we should always bear in mind that there are some pretty major factors in life that are outside our control.
It is because life always has that element of uncertainty that procrastination is a sin (verse 17). A good deed put off until tomorrow may well never be done, for tomorrow may never come; and an opportunity missed may turn out to be lost for ever. Instead of dreaming (or worrying) about the future, most of us need to focus more on – and take action in – the present.