Have you ever tried to do the right thing, only to have the situation backfire? Or tried to do something nice for someone, only to be rebuffed, scolded, or misunderstood? You wish people would acknowledge–ideally, with appropriate gratitude!–the caring sacrifices you’ve made. But it doesn’t always work that way.
At such times, I’ve often heard people quote a wry bit of folk wisdom: “No good deed goes unpunished.” Usually, they say it with some irony and aren’t being entirely serious. But there are those days in which you wonder why one should even bother trying to do what’s right.
Being obedient to Jesus sometimes leaves us feeling exhausted and unappreciated. Some, like Paul, do it in the context of a clear vision of future glory and heavenly reward. That may be motivation enough. We live and minister in the hope of hearing those precious words from the lips of Jesus: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” Or, using other images of eternal reward, we might speak of earning jewels for our crowns, or heavenly mansions.
But I wonder if there’s more to it than that. There’s an intriguing image given to us in the book of Revelation:
Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.) (Rev 19:6-9, NIV)
Think about it. Though we can’t know with certainty everything that John’s apocalyptic imagery means, he interprets the vision as suggesting that something about our acts of righteousness in this world survives into the next. We know how important it is to get the bridal gown right, don’t we? Well, look at what the bride of Christ is wearing.
Or consider the following passage from Paul. He’s writing to the church in Corinth, trying to turn them aside from their inordinate and divisive fondness for name-dropping. “We’re not celebrities,” he seems to say, “just servants, builders. And what matters is the quality of the work.” Here’s the text:
Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation like an expert builder. Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ. Anyone who builds on that foundation may use a variety of materials—gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay, or straw. But on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value. If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward. But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames. (1 Cor 3:10-15, NLT)
On Judgment Day, our life’s work will be tested by fire. On the one hand, even those who have done shoddy work will be saved–though their work itself will be consumed, and the builders, having supplied an abundance of combustible fuel, may get toasted a bit as the flames roar hot and high. On the other hand, those who have done good work, carefully building with the best materials available, will not only be saved, but will receive a reward.
But here’s the question (and I realize I may be stretching Paul’s metaphor further than he intended): what happens to the work that passed the test? Things built with wood, hay, and straw vanish into smoke. But what of the gold, silver, and jewels? Personally, I can’t imagine that kind of precious work being consigned to the rubbish heap.
This, of course, is all speculation. We only get hints and glimpses of the future that the Bible describes as the New Heaven and the New Earth. But it’s both intriguing and hopeful to think that the good we do today might somehow survive into God’s future tomorrow.
The idea is reminiscent of a scene near the end of C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, the book that brings the beloved Chronicles of Narnia to a fitting conclusion. The battle of good and evil is done, and those on Aslan’s side have passed through a magic door in search of his country. Gradually, they realize that the old Narnia hasn’t been destroyed–it was but the shadow of the true Narnia in which they are now walking. As their eyes adjust to the new reality, they recognize Narnian landmarks that seem familiar and yet somehow different, transformed.
And then Lucy, staring intently at one spot of land, realizes that she can also see England–the new England. She calls excitedly to her brothers Peter and Edmund. Together, they can see not only England but the very house which held the wardrobe through which they first entered Narnia as children. Edmund muses aloud that he thought the house had been destroyed. Tumnus, the faun with whom Lucy’s adventures began, replies:
“So it was,” said the Faun. “But you are now looking at the England within England, the real England just as this is the real Narnia. And in that inner England no good thing is destroyed.”
No good thing is destroyed.
I find that a hopeful idea. In this world, people give large donations to have their name inscribed into a paving stone or plaque, to be displayed as a seemingly eternal tribute to their largesse. But that kind of immortality is illusory, part of the old Earth that is even now passing away, just as the home I grew up in burned to the ground several years ago, leaving no trace of our family’s life there.
But what if every good thing we did in accordance with God’s healing and restorative purposes, every true act of peacemaking, was not just rewarded and then cast aside, but became part of the New Heaven and New Earth that is our destiny as believers?
I don’t know about you, but that’s a game-changer for me. Because when I tire of doing what’s right, when I’m tempted to despair that nothing I do matters, it makes a difference to think that I live inside of a storied hope in which no truly good thing is destroyed.