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The Illusion of Control

You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. James 4:14

Ellen Langer’s 1975 study titled The Illusion of Control examined the level of influence we exert over life’s events. She found that we overestimate our degree of control in most situations. The study also demonstrated how reality nearly always shatters our illusion.

Langer’s conclusions are supported by experiments carried out by others since the study was published. However, James identified the phenomenon long before she named it. In James 4, he wrote, “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.’ 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” (vv. 13–14).

Then James provides a cure for the delusion, pointing to the One who’s in absolute control: “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’” (v. 15). In these few verses, James summarized both a key failing of the human condition and its antidote.

May we understand that our fate doesn’t rest in our own hands. Because God holds all things in His capable hands, we can trust His plans!

In what ways have you given in to the illusion that you’re in control of your fate? How can you turn over your plans to God and leave your future in His hands?

Heavenly Father, I place all of my life in Your loving hands. Thank You for Your good plans for me.


There are reasons to believe the New Testament letter of James bears the signature of a half-brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3). Though the letter isn’t mentioned by church fathers until the third and fourth centuries, the apostle Paul wrote of meeting with James, “the Lord’s brother,” who’d become a leader of the Jerusalem church (Galatians 1:19; 2:9). Paul seems to be referring to the James who played an important role in resolving an ethnic and religious disagreement that was dividing Jesus’s followers (Acts 15:13–21). By speaking with grace and perspective, James expressed the kind of wisdom emphasized throughout the letter of James (James 1:5; 3:17).

Such calming counsel leaves us with an intriguing possibility. A younger James might have learned something from his older brother—long before describing the kind of wisdom that comes from being servants and extended family of Jesus (James 1:1; 2:1).

Visit christianuniversity.org/NT336 to learn more about the book of James.

Mart DeHaan

By |2019-08-12T17:11:35-04:00August 14th, 2019|
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