Once upon a time, a traveler came upon three men at a building site who were laboring with great blocks of stone. He asked the first man, “What are you doing?” The man barely looked up from his work. “Isn’t it obvious?” he replied. “We have to move these stones wherever we’re told. It’s backbreaking work, but it’s all I can get.” The traveler went to the second man and asked the same question. “We’re building a wall,” he replied. “That’s all I know.” But the third man, when asked the question, wiped the sweat from his brow and smiled: “What are we doing? We’re building a great cathedral to the glory of God.”
A little perspective goes a long way.
Near the end of his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote at length about the future bodily resurrection that believers can anticipate because of Christ. Some of the Corinthians, apparently, didn’t believe this, a position that Paul takes as gutting the gospel of its hope. If there is no future resurrection, then all who have labored for the gospel have suffered in vain:
If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. …Why do we endanger ourselves every hour? I face death every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor 15:19, 30-32, NIV)
No, Paul insists, Christ’s triumph over death in physical resurrection is not an optional idea. It is the very hope that sustains us in our work:
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Cor 15:58, NIV)
One of my favorite passages from N. T. Wright suggests how this future-oriented hope can shape our perspective and give significance to our labors now:
What we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom. …You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are… accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness…every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world–all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God. (Surprised by Hope, p. 208)
How, exactly, will all this happen? Wright declines to speculate, and rightly so. But he raises the crucial question of how we understand our Christian vocation. It’s one thing to merely grunt and sweat while hammering at and lugging around rocks, eyes looking down. It’s another to believe that what we do now for the sake of God and his kingdom will somehow become part of what God is building for the future.
We don’t always get to see the fruit of our labor. But nothing we do that builds for God’s kingdom is in vain. If we believe that, in faith, then we also have hope.