A Smoky Mountain morning was not something this family expected to see again until August of 2021. Though Tim’s parents’ cabin in western North Carolina is one of our favorite places on the planet, the 12-hour drive only makes it practical for us to visit every other year. So when the two-week school closure was announced, we immediately packed up and took advantage of the opportunity!
If you’ve never been here, perhaps you’ve seen pictures or know that what happens in the mornings here is how the “Smoky” Mountains got their name. It doesn’t happen every day, but very often the sun rises to reveal low clouds filling the gaps between the mountain peaks. Soft, cushiony blankets of white roll slowly through the valleys, the mist gradually disappearing into the blue sky.
If I had read James 4:13-15 even two months ago, I would have brushed over it with ease:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
I would have responded with a momentary wisp of repentance for my control issues, spoke a quick cliche reminder that “God is in control and I am only human,” and moved on.
But then March happened. And it seemed like every day something else was getting canceled due to the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus. First it was school, then large gatherings, then smaller gatherings, then all gatherings. Social distancing meant all of our near-future plans were crossed off the calendar and as we got more information, all of our not-so-near-future plans vaporized as well. James’ words, “you do not know what tomorrow will bring” became our actual reality.
But it wasn’t just the first part of verse 14 that became real-real, the second part did, too: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” Umm… Is there a skip button for that verse? Because I don’t like it. Especially not right now. With the statistics rolling in and case numbers multiplying exponentially, there’s no way to avoid being face-to-face with the reality that I or someone I love could die from COVID-19 or its long-term effects.
In recent times, technology and prosperity have lulled the vast majority of us – me included – into a false sense of security where we believe our life and plans to be a guarantee. In the great majority of our world’s past and in the great majority of our world today, this is not the case – ask anyone who lived through a world war or who currently lives in a war-, famine-, or disease-torn area. But COVID-19 has successfully popped the bubble of control we thought we had over our health and safety and we are shocked at the thought that tomorrow may not be a guarantee.*
The result of this shock is fear, which is only symptomatic of a deeper heart issue. A month ago it was easy for me to recite the words of James 4:15, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that,” believing that I really did believe in a God who is sovereign over all things, believing that I really did believe that all things are subject to His will, and believing that I really did believe that whatever He wills is the absolute best. But did I really believe it? I thought I did, but now that my bubble’s been popped, I’m pretty sure I didn’t.
These words of James weren’t his first mention of the frailty of life (see James 1:10-11) and this was not his first effort to convince the church to, therefore, take a stance of humility before God. James knew that a person’s actions and lifestyle were the proof of their beliefs, so:
If they believed God to be good, they would take a stance of humility by remaining joyful in trials, persevering because they knew God to be using any and every trial to produce the good fruit of maturity in them. (1:2-4)
If they believed God to be wise, they would take a stance of humility by asking for and listening to His wisdom rather than trusting the wisdom of the world or their own thoughts (1:5-8, 3:13-18)
If they believed God to be the only righteous Judge, they would take a stance of humility by staying out of the judgment seat (2:1-13, 3:1-12, 4:1-12)
If they believed God to be merciful, they would take a stance of humility by showing mercy themselves. (1:27, 2:14-16, 4:5-10)
If they believed God to be sovereign, they would take a stance of humility by steering clear of presumption in making their plans. (4:13-16)
Every life, though incredibly and eternally valuable to the God who created it, is still but a mist on this earth. In contrast to His solid, enduring Presence, we are a passing vapor. We exist here on the terms of His will and will cease to exist here on the terms of His will – and it is incredibly presumptive for me to believe that my plans for tomorrow, my life, or the lives of my loved ones are any sort of guarantee.
In an interview on the Crossway Podcast, Dr. Bob Cutillo suggested that the solution to living in fear (and therefore unbelief) is to view our health (and plans) as a gift rather than a possession. When we change our perspective from “guaranteed” to “gifted,” we can confidently say “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that,” knowing that even in this darkness, the Father of heavenly lights is showering down “good and perfect gift(s)” (James 1:17). Whatever He allows is ultimately for His glory and whatever is for His glory is, by default, the best for us.
This is not a “Well, if we get the virus, it probably won’t be that bad” facade of security. It’s not an “I’m not high risk, so I’ll be fine” facade of security. It’s not an “As long as we stay home and protect ourselves we’ll avoid getting sick” facade of security. It’s a “God is God and I am not” ROCK of security. It is an every moment stance of humility that says, “I am not guaranteed anything” and a bowed-down acknowledgment that though I didn’t get the gift I wanted, I’m getting something better.
When Paul said in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” he wasn’t speaking figuratively. Writing from prison, Paul was face-to-face with his own mortality, but he was so confident in God’s goodness and sovereignty that He saw even death as a gift. Paul knew His life was a mist, but He also knew the vanishing of the mist was not the end. Choosing this joy allowed Paul to continue sharing the good news of Jesus in the thick of darkness.
I’m not Paul or James and don’t feel like I’m even close to being able to say the words of Philippians 1:21 or James 4:15 with confidence, but here’s what I’ve been doing to fight my fear:
- Acknowledge the fear, doubt, and grief. (I have no reason to sugar-coat my true feelings with spiritually-correct words when the God I’m talking to knows my every thought!)
- Ask God to give you a vision of the unspeakable JOY that is found in His plans and His will for you and your loved ones’ futures. Ask God to fill you so full of this joy that, like Paul, you can’t help but overflow it to those around you.
- Open your hands, release your grip, and as you do it, thank God for the gift of this moment. (I say “this moment,” because I have to do this about a thousand times a day 🙌)
- Worship, worship, worship. Here are some lines from my current go-to, “Sovereign Over Us” by Aaron Keyes:
There is strength within the sorrow
There is beauty in our tears
And You meet us in our mourning
With a love that casts out fear
You are working in our waiting
You’re sanctifying us
When beyond our understanding
You’re teaching us to trust
Your plans are still to prosper
You have not forgotten us
You’re with us in the fire and the flood
You’re faithful forever
Perfect in love
You are sovereign over us
* “A Christian Doctor’s Guide to Thinking about Coronavirus (Bob Cutillo, MD)” Crossway Podcast, 3/19/2020 https://www.crossway.org/articles/podcast-a-christian-doctors-guide-to-thinking-about-coronavirus-bob-cutillo-md/