Just a Vapor: Part 1

Just a Vapor: Part 1

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series. Click here to read Part 2.

This passage is written as a warning to first century merchants and business owners.  They are thinking, “I heard the economy is booming in this other city!  Either today or tomorrow we’re going there to set up business for a year or so. We’ll sell, trade and grow our profits.”  

At first glance, this sounds like confident and strategic planning. We all have to make a living somehow (and there is nothing wrong with being a traveling merchant).  You can’t run a business, a ministry, or a family without plans.

In our world today, planning for work and family is part of life – it is a necessity.  We are a planning culture: calendars, budgets, schedules, reservations, investing, auto-reminders.  I have a Google Calendar with six different colors, each representing a different activity, planned out for months – even years ahead on some things!  

But there is a good and wise way to make plans, and there is another way that is sinful and foolish. 

Verse 14 brings up an obvious – yet often overlooked – reality. You can have big plans, but you don’t really know what tomorrow will bring! After all, what is your life?  You are just a vapor, a mist that appears on earth for a little while – and then, poof – it vanishes away. Gone!

A vapor is a liquid that, due to increased temperature or decreased pressure, vaporizes into a mist. Hair spray, perfume, and WD-40 come out as vapors. When you fill up your gas tank, gas vapor escapes. In recent years we’ve seen a boom of vapor technology in the form of vaping. The most common vapor is water in the form of steam or fog. Fog often appears in the morning, and then it vanishes away – either by drifting and spreading out, or reforming into water droplets as dew or rain.  By its nature, vapor is unstable, temporary, fading.  

Our lives are like the morning mist that appears at dawn but disappear once the sun is up.

So if this is our reality, is it even possible to make plans for next month? Is it bad to try and make plans? No, planning is not bad. But this passage cautions us against two major mistakes.  

First, the planning in these verses has an unrealistic degree of certainty. One commentator calls this “presumptuous living.” We presume we know what tomorrow will bring, but we don’t. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 taught us that. Planning is not wrong, but planning that tries to make certain an uncertain future is foolish. All our plans, schedules, investments, and priorities must be done in light of the reality that this life is temporary. We must live and plan in light of eternity. “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring” (Prov. 27:1). You are just a vapor.  

Secondly, James is talking about a type of planning being done from a selfish, arrogant, secular perspective. Verse 16 says that the plans this businessman has are self-centered, so his pursuits are just arrogant boasting: “Look at me!  I have it all figured out.  I’m going to move here, sell my product, hit my quarterly goals, and see a great return on investment!” A life like that is really just arrogant boasting; it is evil, selfish, godless. 

A person who plans like this is not submitted to God. Their plans are arrogant and presumptuous because God has been completely left out of the equation. To make plans without God is to arrogantly assume that you are in control. It is to act as though you are self-sufficient. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas. 4:6).

So then, how are we to live?  Verse 15 says we ought to live with the attitude, “I am just a vapor.  If the Lord wills, I will live – and also do this or that.” Our futures are in the Lord’s hands. If the Lord wills, we’ll have another day tomorrow – and also do “this or that.” How we live matters, and our lives are important, but to some extent all our planning, all the details of life, all the things we lose sleep about are really just “this or that.”  

Recognizing that our lives are just a vapor helps keep things in perspective. To live with an “if the Lord wills” attitude is an application of the command to “submit to God” (Jas. 4:7). It acknowledges that we are not in control; we are totally dependent creatures. Every day, every moment, every breath comes from God. Only God is sovereign. Only God knows the future. Only God does all that he desires to do.  Only God ordains all things that come to pass, and plans all things according to his will (Ps. 115:3, 135:6; Eph. 1:11). 

Don’t build your life on arrogant, self-centered plans. Live with the Lord, for the Lord, and in the Lord. God controls your life, not you. You are just a vapor. 

One Comment

  1. Wollein

    A good reminder of how short our lives really are and how perspective and attitudes are so important.

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