Your work isn’t in vain, part 2

Photo by Roger Kirby
Photo by Roger Kirby

It’s not easy being faithful in a broken world. Sometimes, in fact, it can be downright discouraging, when troubles are many and rewards few, or ministries seem to go nowhere.

Perhaps one of these situations will sound familiar:

  • You’ve prayed and prayed for a beloved friend or family member to come to know the Lord. You’ve talked, you’ve listened, you’ve tried to be a good example — but all apparently to no avail.
  • You usually try to do the right and godly thing, but the people around you think you’re a little nuts.  To make matters worse, their lives often seem to be going better than yours.
  • You’re pastoring a church, and no matter what you do or how hard you work, the flock just doesn’t quite “get it,” at least not in the way you’d hoped.  Indeed, sometimes they flat out resist your leadership.
  • You’re committed to serving the underserved in your community, but the needs keep growing, and you wonder if you’ll ever make a dent.

The list, of course, could go on and on.  Despite the promises of advice manuals, how-to books, and our so-called “best practices,” not everything we do, even with the best of intentions, will bring the results we want.  We know this, but it can still be discouraging.

That’s why I find it so significant that the climactic words of Paul’s lengthy letter to the Corinthians are these: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58, NRSV).  This could well describe Paul’s own state of mind as a man constantly under the gun for the gospel.  Whatever his arguments with the Corinthians, he still loved them, and wanted them to benefit from his own hard-won sense of hope.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes from N. T. Wright, on the nature of that specifically Christian hope.  The resurrection for which Paul argues so passionately in 1 Corinthians 15 is part of God’s work of new creation.  Even if our work doesn’t accomplish everything we would hope in this lifetime, Wright encourages us to look even further into the future.  When we work to build God’s kingdom in the present, we are building for the kingdom that is still yet to come:

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)

The hope of resurrection isn’t just about our individual destinies.  It’s about the restoration of all that is broken about the old creation.  And against the background of a success-oriented culture that prizes outcomes over process, results over effort, it’s somehow encouraging to imagine God honoring and even “resurrecting” the things we do in obedience to our kingdom vocation.

Don’t give up; rejoice in resurrection.  You may not see the fruit of your labor.  But if your work is in the Lord, it won’t be in vain.