Day in and day out, so much of our lives is spent doing the tasks we have in front of us, not for any sense of “higher purpose,” but just to get them done. And there may be moments in which we stop in the middle of whatever we’re doing, and wonder, “What’s this all for?” or “Where is my life going?” or even “Will any of this matter after I’m gone?”
I’m reminded of an image from 1 Corinthians 3:11-15. Paul describes a day in which the work we’ve done for the sake of Christ and his church will be tested with fire. If, on the one hand, we’ve done shoddy work, it will go up in flames; we ourselves will be saved, though perhaps slightly singed and with the smell of smoke on us. On the other hand, if our work survives the test, we’ll receive a reward.
But what Paul doesn’t tell us (if it’s not stretching the imagery too much!) is what happens to the work that survives that fiery final examination. Does God simply say, “Okay, you’ve passed the test — here’s your reward,” and then cast our work on the rubbish heap as no longer being of any relevance? The fact that Paul would describe such work as being made with gems and precious metals (vs. 12) would suggest not.
Or consider the image, from the book of Revelation, of heavenly rejoicing at the wedding day of the Lamb: the bride “was given fine, pure white linen to wear, for the fine linen is the saints’ acts of justice” (Rev 19:8, CEB). Wait: the righteous deeds of God’s people are actually part of the bridal gown?
What these images suggest is stunning: some way, somehow, the work we do for God in this lifetime will in some fashion survive beyond our present earthly existence, and into his eternal kingdom.
As we’ve seen in several posts, Paul saves his lengthy argument with the Corinthians about resurrection for the very climax of the letter. He ends on a triumphant note of divine victory: God will one day make the defeat of death, already begun in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, full and final. But that anticipated victory, Paul suggests, is already ours through Jesus (1 Cor 15:54-57). He therefore ends the chapter with this word of encouragement:
As a result of all this, my loved brothers and sisters, you must stand firm, unshakable, excelling in the work of the Lord as always, because you know that your labor isn’t going to be for nothing in the Lord. (1 Cor 15:58, CEB)
Hang in there, don’t give up, stay the course. Keep doing God’s work, keep living the life of a true disciple. Why? Because your work isn’t in vain.
Certainly, that’s Paul’s own attitude. As he’s already made clear in the chapter, considering all that he suffers as an apostle (vs. 31), if there is nothing beyond this present life, then he and his colleagues are the most pitiable of creatures (vs. 19). But there is something more, which is why he so strongly insists that for the Corinthians to disbelieve in resurrection is the death-blow to their faith.
Your work isn’t in vain. What kind of encouragement does that bring? We’ll explore that a bit in the next post.