Not in vain
You know that your labour is not in vain.
Is it just me, or does every bone in your body ache for that to be true? Not in vain. Not pointless, not come to nothing, not forgotten and crumbled to dust. Not in vain.
Because, again, maybe this is just me, but isn’t that one of our ultimate fears? There’s an amazing bit in a play I saw a while ago where a travelling acting troupe come across the two main characters in a wood and convince them to pay for a performance, and while the performance is happening the two men slip away and carry on with their journey. Later, they meet them again and the lead actor is absolutely furious with them – it’s almost heart-breaking how he describes what they did. He talks about how utterly absurd it is to act without an audience –
“There we were - demented children mincing about in clothes that no one ever wore, speaking as no man ever spoke, swearing love in wigs and rhymed couplets, killing each other with wooden swords... – and every gesture, every pose, vanishing into the thin unpopulated air.”
He talks about the creeping fear as they performed that they couldn’t see where the audience was, and the dread that they might have gone; he says,
“Even then, habit and stubborn trust that our audience spied upon us from behind the nearest bush, forced our bodies to blunder on long after they had emptied of meaning, until like runaway carts they dragged to a halt. No one came forward. No one shouted at us.”
They are faced with a nothing much more awful than any something ever could be, the silence that says: No one has been watching. You have poured yourself into this, and it was all for nothing.
Do you have that quiet, low-level fear sometimes that what you’re pouring yourself into is going to turn out to be pointless? That you will work and struggle and fight and sacrifice and when you finally get to the end of mile twenty-three of the marathon you will realise that there is no finish line and no one is watching and you’ve been running the wrong way? Personally, I find that thought really, deeply dark. And that is why these words are so precious to me:
Those words are true, and I am sure of it. Those words carry the authority of Jesus. And they promise that our labour, our work, the efforts that we pour ourselves into, if we and those efforts are in Jesus the Lord, are not in vain. Never in vain. Not a drop wasted.
And you know what? I think if I really know that, if I really believe that, with God’s help that is all the courage I need to keep going. It might sound weird to talk about courage for keeping going – courage sounds like the thing you need at the start, to take the big step, to make the big move, and of course that is true. But actually, I think it takes a different, deeper kind of courage when you’ve started something that you know is important, and you know it’s right, but it just doesn’t feel like it’s working. An author I used to love talked about kayaking across an inlet. At first you feel you’re moving fast and you’ll be there in minutes, and then you get towards the middle, and you paddle and you paddle and you’re getting more and more tired, but the far shore never seems to look any closer and the shore you just left never seems further away; and you’re so tempted just to drop the paddle, and relax your aching muscles, and just drift with the current. It was the same with my degree. It’s the same with any big project or goal. I haven’t been around for long enough to experience it yet, but I’m guessing it’s going to be the same in marriage, the same in having kids. There’s a different, deeper kind of courage you need to be tired and be frustrated, and feel like this is going nowhere, and to keep putting the paddle in the water and pushing.
I spend most of my working life trying to help people to meet and trust Jesus – trying to help others and trying myself to hold out Jesus to people and show him who he is, and invite them to follow him for themselves. And to be honest, it’s quite hard work. And sometimes, it gets tiring and it gets frustrating, and it feels like nothing is happening, like I’m just paddling and paddling and I can’t see any kind of shoreline getting any closer. But those words are so precious to me: it’s not in vain. Nothing I do in Jesus is in vain. And those words come in a letter by one of the very first Christians, Paul, to a group of people in Corinth and they come at the end of this huge, amazing section talking about the reality that Jesus rose from the dead into everlasting life and he’s bringing us with him. And Paul is saying: because of that, you can give yourself to the work of Jesus, you can pour yourself out for him day after day after day and you know, you know for a fact, that not one bit of it will be wasted. Not one drop of it will be lost. You will not grind to a halt and find that no one has been watching and none of it has meant a thing. You will get to the end and you will be raised to new and permanent and glorious life, and you will see his face and he will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” and there is no higher prize to be had in the universe. And you will look around, you will spend eternity discovering and delighting in the new world that he was crafted – renewed and redeemed and saturated with himself – out of the old one that he gave to us and you will find there that nothing you did in him was in vain.
If death has the last word, we are all pouring ourselves out onto dusty ground and all our efforts will trickle downwards and away and nothing will grow there. But if Jesus has risen – and he has – then we are planting good seeds in eternally fertile soil and he will surprise and delight us with what he brings to flourish from them. That’s the courage I need for keeping going.