James 4:14 states, “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” When James asks, “What is your life?” he’s asking a rhetorical question. He wants his readers to reflect on the brevity of their lives compared to God’s eternality. In other words, James challenges them to remember that their lives are short. Time is fleeting.
By asking “What is your life?” James also questions the significance and importance of our temporal plans. In the context of the verse, James rebukes arrogant people who boast about their future plans. He challenges them to not put too much confidence in their own efforts to take care of themselves, but rather to seek the Lord’s will and discover His plans for their lives (James 4:15).
As finite, sinful beings, we are unable to determine our futures and know for certain what will happen to us. In contrast, God is eternal and all-knowing, and He has a grand plan for His people (Jeremiah 29:11). He can and does determine the future and knows for certain what will happen (1 John 3:20). That’s why James encourages us to trust God and align our wills to His. In James 4:15 he says that, instead of declaring for certain what we will do, we should say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
James’ picture of the brevity of life is that it is like a breath, mist, or vapor. There are many other verses throughout the Bible that also reveal the fleeting and temporary nature of our lives. For example, in the Old Testament, Job refers to his life as “but a breath” (Job 7:7), and Psalm 102:3 says, “For my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers.”
The average lifespan of a human being in the twenty-first century is about 73 years. While that may seem like a long time and feel like a full and complete life, it is “but a breath” in the larger picture of God’s eternal plan for our lives. Second Peter 3:8 says, “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.”
Because God is eternal and all-knowing, we should trust Him with all of our lives and future plans, just as James encourages us in James 4:14–15.