JD and I recently led class at church during our study of James. We got the excerpt from James 4 that talks about the danger of making plans without taking into consideration what could happen between now and tomorrow. At first, it seems a little doomsday considering making plans about tomorrow is good business sense, but it taps into the fickleness of life–the anything could happen at the slight swerve of a steering wheel, a trip to the emergency room late into the night, a downsizing decision in your company, etc.
This seemed pretty standard to what I had read about this passage anyway. But then James asks a question:
“Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (TLV).
What kind of question is that? What is your life?
It reminded me of a poem I teach in British Literature, one of my favorite poems of all time because I identify so much with the speaker, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot.
Prufrock asks a lot of questions in this poem. He alludes to an “overwhelming question” that he never gets around to asking, but he asks other questions, that don’t seem so overwhelming, except for overwhelmingly tedious. He asks things like “Do I dare disturb the universe? Do I dare to each a peach? Shall I part my hair behind? How should I presume? Would it have been worth it?”
These questions tell us a lot about Prufrock, even though we don’t get his answers. They tell us he’s extremely self-conscious. He’s paralyzed. All of the questions are passive, pre-action questions. They’re not questions like, ‘Why did I do that?” or “What was I thinking?” They are questions from the sidelines.
This question in James, “What is your life?”, functions in the same way. Just asking this existential question shapes our identity because it forces us to confront the brevity and unpredictability of life. It forces us to consider the meaning of life, of our life.
How we answer the question informs our actions, our plans (such as going to the market tomorrow), and our worldview. What is life? What is the purpose? Why am I here? Who am I in relation to life?
But we have to ask it first. We have to look in the mirror and see the vapor reflected back at us, and ask, “What is my life?”
Encountering this reality of the brevity of life, of the fickleness of the world can seem stifling, paralyzing (I’m telling you, we’re all Prufrock), and perhaps at first it is. But it’s liberating as well. The pretenses are off, the masks are put aside. The levies and bluffs are broken down. In this state, we can move into the open-handed surrender that James goes onto to describe as the logical course of action.
Because the Spirit is like the wind, and she moves where she wishes, and you don’t soar on the wind with tightly-clenched fists or holding onto things. You have to relax your body and open your hands, and be picked up. This open-handed surrender is not giving up, it’s a transferal of power. It means we don’t worship the plan or the pretenses or the image.
We throw caution to the wind because the Spirit is the wind. What is my life?