What does James 4:14 mean that life is a vapor?

Even though eighty or so years seems like a substantial time to live, the Bible urges us not to take it for granted. In fact, the Bible emphasizes the fleeting nature of humans' lives compared to eternity (Psalm 102:11–12; Job 8:9). James 4:14 says that life is a vapor or a mist (James 4:14).

To understand what is meant in James 4:14 that life is "even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away" (NKJV), it is important to look at the larger context of the passage. James writes, "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 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.' As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin" (James 4:13–17).

In this passage, James is talking about people who live in the confidence of themselves. They take for granted that each day is given to them and that their own plans will work out. They do not live depending on God for their needs because they are confident in their own plans and ability. They do not consider whether their plans are pleasing to God, nor are they making time to serve others. This attitude stems from their belief of a guaranteed life.

While we are young, our time on earth seems like an eternity, but truly our days are like a vapor, here one moment and gone the next. A vapor cannot make its existence last any longer, and it leaves the space it occupied virtually unchanged. James is pointing out the self-importance we give to our lives and our plans without considering eternity.

A psalm written by Moses says, "For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh. The years of our life are seventy or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away…So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom" (Psalm 90:9–12). When we learn to look at our lives as fleeting and short, we understand that the true importance of our lives lies not with business deals and schemes for success, rather we can make an eternal impact on peoples' lives by being a witness for Christ.

The Bible says that we should live our lives ready for Christ's coming in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2). We are to consider ourselves sojourners on this earth because our eternity will be spent elsewhere, and what we do here impacts our lives, and potentially the lives of others, for eternity (1 Chronicles 29:15). Our lives should not be lived in arrogance towards God and confidence in ourselves. Rather we should live as Paul directed: "Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel" (Philippians 1:27). "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Colossians 3:2–4).

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