Practical Atheism

Foolishness, Faith, Trust, God's Will

The book of James is an encouragement but also a warning to the church.  It appears that James saw something in the church that troubled him.  He saw what we might call “practical atheism”.  Intellectual atheism is when a person says they do not believe in God.  Sometimes the intellectual atheist says they do not believe yet by the way they live they show they actually do believe in something.  “Practical” atheism is just the opposite.  A person may profess faith in Christ but they do not show that faith in the way they live.  They live without regard for God.

This is really the theme of the entire book of James.  He has urged us to walk by faith.  James tells us,

  • In trials we should trust God
  • We should not only declare the truth; we should practice it
  • We should care for those who are hurting and beaten up by society
  • We should not be party to favoritism
  • We should speak as those who have the heart and mind of God
  • We should live differently than the world
  • We should be free from selfish quarrels,
  • We should truly repent for sin
  • We should honor each other with our words

This morning James continues his challenge to us to live as those who believe.  In James 4:13-17 he talks about making plans. I think you may be surprised at how relevant this topic is.

A Foolish Approach to Planning the Future

James begins,

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”

James thinks about those who have a detailed business plan.  They have their goals, their projections and their targets.  They have it all together. They are prepared to conquer the world.

James is not saying we should throw out our calendars and Blackberries and cancel all our planning meetings. What he is condemning is the making of plans without a thought given to God. There is no mention in these plans of seeking the counsel of the Lord.  There is no concern for honoring the Lord in what we do.  He is not even considered! We are much more likely to govern our lives by what our peers and friends are doing than by what God has commanded.  We want to fit it. We want to be popular.  And it appears that this is far more important than whether or not we are faithful.

Kent Hughes writes,

So pervasive is our culture’s arrogant independence of God that even many (most?) Christians attend church, marry, choose their vocations, have children, buy and sell homes, expand their portfolios, and numbly ride the currents of culture without substantial reference to the will of God. More Christians never seriously pray about God’s will regarding their vocation, family direction, or entertainments than actually seek God’s will. St. Augustine used to say “Love God and do as you please” (because if you truly love God you will want to do what pleases Him). We have changed that to “Do as you please and say that you love God.”

James gives two reasons why this is foolish.   First, We do not know what the future holds.  We don’t know what our circumstance will be tomorrow.  We could get in an accident and be incapacitated for awhile, get sick, or receive a devastating diagnosis.  The place where we work could close down, the market could crash and our retirement savings could be destroyed, you could find out you are pregnant or find out that your unwed child was pregnant.

In truth, we don’t know if our plans will ultimately be good or bad.  We are short-sighted.  We can only see to the next bend in the road which is just a couple of steps in front of us.  Think about how often people make the wrong plans,

  • You put off investing in the work of God and the lives of others financially so you can accumulate for your retirement but all that money you saved ends up going to a Nursing Home because of a disability.
  • You drop out of school to work in a “great job” but when the company closes down you now can’t find work.
  • You decide to “prove your love” to a boyfriend but you don’t see the scars, resentment and/or pregnancy you will have to live with in the future.  You don’t even know if this boyfriend will still be around after he gets what he wants.
  • You run yourself ragged so your kids can be involved in everything because you want them to “be happy” even though it means not being involved in church, youth group and Sunday School.  What you don’t see is how handicapped these same children will be when they face secular Professors in school, or face difficult trials in life, or must make decisions about right and wrong in the world. Your choice to indulge them now (and by example teaching them that their relationship with God is of secondary importance) may lead to their spiritual ruin.
  • Your desire to be married leads you to marry a person who is not a believer or one who is not ready for marriage in the belief that you can change them, you don’t see is the heartache and misery this will bring in the future.
  • You want a bigger home and you convince yourself that you can make the mortgage payments but what you don’t see is the rise interest rates or the job layoff that leads to foreclosure.

The point is this: only God sees the future.  Only God knows what is best for us in the long run.  To live our lives without seeking His guidance is arrogant and foolish.

But there is a second reason why leaving God out of our planning is a mistake: Life is Short. James says, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”  In Luke 12 Jesus told a story,

The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’

20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

21 “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” [Luke 12:15-21]

In October of 1997 economist William Vickery was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics.  He was sixty two.  The prize was a high point in his life. Twenty-four hours later he was dead.  We have all known the suddenness of loss.  One day someone is healthy, the next day they are gone.

How many people do you know who say, “I plan to follow Jesus someday, but right now I want to have a little fun?” How many professed Christians seem to live this way? The foolishness of the statement is found first in the notion that following Christ is an unpleasant experience.  People seem to think that life will be much more enjoyable if we could just do our own thing.  Those who have truly followed Christ know that nothing enriches life more than a genuine relationship with the Lord of life.

The other reason this is foolish is because it assumes we will have plenty of time to change the course of our lives.  There are no guarantees.  We are not even sure about tomorrow.  The person who delays establishing a relationship with Christ is gambling with eternity!  It is a fool’s bet.

So, what’s the point? James challenges us to start living our lives for the Lord!  Rather than ignoring Him we should seek Him! Let me give you three simple principles:

  1. Since we cannot know what is ahead we should trust the one who knows the future.  God sees every contingency and can lead us through the maze of surprising circumstances.
  2. You are never wrong to pursue that which is eternal. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all     these other things will be added to you.”  Jesus was telling us that if we will live by God’s priorities and pursue His heart the other things will fall into place and we will be ready for anything.
  3. It is always the right choice to be faithful right now.  Think about a couple who gets married.  They get jobs and work hard so they can buy a home of their own.  They work long hours because they want to build a good life together.  As the years go by the couple begins to grow apart.  Before long their assets are divided and their marriage is over.  What happened?  They would tell you that they “fell out of love” but in truth the flame of love died from neglect. They were so busy planning for the future they failed to give attention to building their relationship.

The Wise Approach to the Future 

James doesn’t stop at telling us what we are doing wrong.  He points us in a positive direction.  He says there is a better way to live than that of the practical atheist. He writes, “Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

We need to learn to think differently (Romans 12:2). Instead of viewing the Christian life as one of our many commitments in life, we need to realize that everything we do is about serving the Lord! Our plans should be in His plans.  We should desire most of all to live as He directs.  True faith means realizing God’s sufficiency, appreciating God’s mercy, and trusting His love. Faith is about trusting Christ from one moment and circumstance to the next.

O.K., so how do we go about doing this? Probably it would help if we simply remembered to add the words, “If God is willing” to our planning. They are just words that can become meaningless but it is a place to start.

Johann Sebastian Bach had a similar practice.  At the end of his works he would write, SDG. These letters stood for Soli Deo Gloria (to God Alone be the Glory).  This was Bach’s way of reminding himself that His music was not the way he “made a living” it was the way he honored the Lord.

Pastor Hughes writes,

It is said that long ago when an eastern emperor was crowned at Constantinople, the royal mason would set before his majesty a certain number of marble slabs. One he was to choose then and there for his tombstone. The ancients thought it wise for him to remember his funeral at the time of his elevation, for his life would not last forever. If we could sense how short life is, and how unpredictable, it would perhaps be so much easier to give it all to Christ.

Somehow we need to remind ourselves that “we are not our own, we are bought with a price.” However that raises another problem, doesn’t it?  How do we know what God wants?  We get frustrated because God’s way seems unclear. Perhaps you, like me, have said, “I wish God would just tell me what to do.”

We all want our children to grow up to be responsible adults who make good decisions for their lives.  How do we train our children?  Do we tell them what they should do in every situation?  No. If we did that they would either rebel or be unable to function in the world.  They would be unable to think or make any decisions for themselves.

Instead we try to help them learn to make good decisions by giving them an example (by the decisions we make both good and bad).  We explain why we are making certain choices.  And we try to teach them general principles that can guide their decision making. (“don’t spend money you don’t have”, “always say please and thank you”, “don’t mouth off to people in authority”, “think before you speak”).  Then we gradually let them make their own decisions.  We let them learn through experience even as we stand ready to give guidance if they want it or pick them up when they fall.

God doesn’t simply shout out instructions for the same reasons. He wants us to learn to think His thoughts and to desire what He desires. He wants us to mature in the faith. So, God sets out to teach us as we teach our children. He has given us the Bible which is filled with examples of people who made decisions; some good, some bad.  All are designed to teach us how to walk with God.

God has also given us principles to guide our lives. God’s Word may not tell us who specifically to marry but he does give us a simple principle: “do not be unequally joined with an unbeliever”.  The Bible may not tell us what activities to become involved in but the Bible does tell us that anything that takes us away from Him is an idol.  The Bible may not tell us whether or not to make that major purchase but the Bible does tell us not to covet what others have.  In other words, if we want this new thing because it is what others have, we would be better served to focus on contentment.  It does not tell us specifically what to do about parents who intrude into our married lives but it does tell us to treat our parents with honor and respect. Part of the reason we must dedicate ourselves to the study of God’s Word is so we can learn these life principles that will show us God’s way.

We need to stop looking at the commands of Scripture like a grocery aisle where we choose that which is appealing and leave the rest. If we want to live God’s way we need to listen to and apply everything that is said.

Through it all God remains willing to help us. In the very first chapter of our book James told us that the first step to walking in God’s wisdom and will is to ask.  He said “if anyone lacks wisdom, let him ask.”  I know that sounds trite but let me ask you: Have you ever asked for God’s wisdom believing that He would give it to you?  God is eager to guide us to good decisions, but like a good parent He waits to be asked.

Now if you ask and God seems silent, it may be that God wants you to wait. Just like children sometimes we get into trouble because we act impulsively.  It is always best to stop and look at a decision before us.  Jesus was constantly saying, “It is not time yet”. The Bible exhorts us to “wait on the Lord”.  Resist the urge to push ahead.  The main point James is making is that we cannot live in God’s will if we give God no consideration in our lives.

An Enduring Principle 

There is one more thing.  James drives home his point with these words,

Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.

We recognize that it is wrong to do that which is forbidden by God’s Word.  We call these sins, “sins of commission”.  These are things we do that are wrong. James wants us to realize that it is just as wrong to know what you should do and then do nothing!  These are sins of omission (things we omit).

I believe James is warning us.  He has pointed us in the right direction.  As we have studied James we should know what we are supposed to do. If we refuse to pay attention, it will be charged as rebellion in our soul.  It is sinful to sit in church every Sunday and marvel at the practical nature of the Book of James yet do nothing about changing the way you live.

So here’s the question: What is God speaking to you about today?  Are you a person who goes to church and talks about being spiritual but is living as a practical atheist? Are you racing through life without any consideration given to what God wants you to do? Are you more concerned with fitting in with your friends than you are with walking with God?  Are you so concerned about planning for the future that you are neglecting opportunities to serve God and love others right now?  Have you put off getting serious about eternal issues until some future day?

As you identify these areas in your life confess them before the Lord.  Ask Him to help you live for His glory.  Seek His will.  Be attentive to the wisdom of God’s Word. Before you make your plans and make choices on your course of behavior ask that simple question: “What does God want me to do?”

If we follow God’s direction we will know and experience the life that can only be found through Him.  We will know a supernatural strength and experience a greater depth, satisfaction, joy in our lives.  But most of all, we will not have to walk alone, for the Lord will walk with us.

James challenges us to do more than profess our faith and then live as we please.  He calls us to a genuine faith that is willing to follow Christ not just someday in Heaven.  He challenges to follow Him right now in the everyday decisions of our lives.

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Scripture:

James 4:13-17