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Planning in Pencil

FAITH AT WORK: Devotions through the book of James

“You do not know what tomorrow will bring.” (James 4:14, ESV) 

My wife and I had a well-planned, web-researched, reservation-booked, mostly paid for trip to Ireland all set up for 2020. Then COVID hit with a vengeance. Countries shut down. Plans were scuttled. The good news is that we were able to recoup all the money we laid out. Also good news is that our shelved itinerary sits at the ready for when things open up again. 

All of us can relate to this scenario, whether for plans big or small. James’s counsel to us is this: “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’” (James 4:13–15). 

James is not saying that we should not plan. Rather, he is urging us to plan in pencil, ready to be erased or revised. The point is not merely adjusting to unforeseen circumstances, like COVID, but submitting ourselves and our plans to God.   

Involved is more than what we include on our calendars. It is the perspective we bring to life as believers. James opened his letter by telling us to consider it all joy when we encounter trials of various kinds. The perspective that enables us to consider difficult circumstances joyful also instructs us to roll with the providence of the God who governs those circumstances for His perfect purposes. That is the way of wisdom. 

Wisdom is not static; it is dynamic. As the saying goes, you can’t steer a parked car. Wisdom is the firm hand on the steering wheel that acts and reacts with respect to God. Oriented around the fear of the Lord, wisdom negotiates the twists and turns of life in recognition of the Sovereign Lord, in deference to His secret will, and in compliance with His revealed will. 

Moses juxtaposed these two considerations when he wrote: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). The secret things are hidden to us not to God, but they are there, at work. The revealed things have been written down for us to take into account and obey. Both aspects are embraced by faith. 

The problem is we are often discontent with not knowing and malcontent when our plans are waylaid. That’s why when James says, “Come now, you who say…,” he writes with a bit of an edge to those who may not like what he has to say. 

1. What does it mean to plan in pencil?

2. How does wisdom contribute to joy in trials and flexibility in planning? 

“Father, teach me to number my days that I may gain a heart of wisdom.”

Stan Gale

Stanley D. Gale (MDiv Westminster, DMin Covenant) has pastored churches in Maryland and Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He is the author of several books, including A Vine-Ripened Life: Spiritual Fruitfulness through Abiding in Christ and The Christian’s Creed: Embracing the Apostolic Faith. He has been married to his wife, Linda, since 1975. They have four children and nine grandchildren. He lives in West Chester, Pa.
Books by Stan Gale

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