My sister-in-law was tired, weary, and in extreme pain delivering her firstborn when the doctor paused and said, “It’s called labor for a reason.” Though insensitive and borderline cruel, the obstetrician was right. Labor is hard.
Webster’s Dictionary defines labor as “the expenditure of physical or mental effort especially when difficult or compulsory.” As followers of Christ, there is no way around it. We were created for hard work. For labor. For toil. From the time God set Adam and Eve in the garden to care for the land and subdue it, Biblical narrative reveals that action is expected. We are workers. Whether laboring as stay-at-home parents, students, teachers, landscapers, artists, truck drivers, accountants, or lawyers, each and every one of us is called to a life of productivity.
King Solomon introduces us to vain labor in Psalm 127:
Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. (Psalm 127:1-2)
To toil or labor in vain means to waste our work – To nullify it or make it void. Solomon knew that unless God was overseeing and at the core ambition of building, the final product wasn’t even worthy of a watchman. The house was useless. The work – however difficult, cumbersome, emotionally draining, yields a worthless result.
Prophets shared the same lament of useless toil as they warned a godless Israel to repent:
You will eat but not be satisfied; your stomach will still be empty. You will store up but save nothing, because what you save I will give to the sword. You will plant but not harvest; you will press olives but not use the oil, you will crush grapes but not drink the wine. Micah 6:13-15
Though they build houses, they will not live in them; though they plant vineyards, they will not drink the wine. Zephaniah 1:12-13
You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it. This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored, ‘ says the LORD. ‘You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. Haggai 1:6-9
There are ways we as followers of Christ can yield worthless results as well – Approaches to work that leave us “busy with our own house” (Haggai 1:6-9) while effectively producing nothing. Here are three surefire ways even followers of Christ end up laboring in vain.
1) We Follow Our Passion
Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford’s 2005 graduation ceremony was legendary. Many believe the catch-phrase “follow your passion” came from Steve’s poignant call for students to “have the courage to follow your heart and intuition” and to “find what you love and do it.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with doing what we love. It’s freeing and beautiful when God’s will and our passion projects collide, but a simple look at the Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles reveal that labor for the Lord doesn’t always mean we’ll enjoy it. Rather, it may land us in Ninevah, a flaming furnace, or with the beloved John exiled to the island of Patmos.
Labor for the Lord means serving who we love rather than doing what we love. There’s a stark contrast. One leads to selfish ambition, temporal gain, and earthly reward – A possible shifting from one thing to another as we surmise that, ‘If I don’t love it, I must be on the wrong path.’ The other promises everlasting life and bountiful fruit.
Following our own passion without prioritizing Kingdom needs, God-given gifts and talents, and where He is asking us to go may yield immediate pleasure, but following Christ’s passion ensures true satisfaction – A life of purposeful toil rather than worthless labor.
2) We Work For Our Own Glory
Paul’s message to New Testament believers was clear: Whoever you are and whatever you do, do it with grit and a heart that’s invested. Be ALL IN, but not for earthly gain.
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Colossians 3:23-24
But as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men. Ephesians 6:6-7
If we truly work for the Lord, we won’t require human glory, appreciation, or approval. Daily surrender as service to Christ Jesus may not bring earthly recompense, but we’re promised the greatest reward possible: A share in the Kingdom, everlasting life, and a forever home with our worthy God.
So when we study, we study for the Lord. When we sing, we sing for His glory. When we raise children, we raise them in an effort to please Him, and when we build a home, we build it for His purpose.
3) We Diminish the Significance of Our Work
I’ve said it more often than I want to admit: “I’m just a stay-at-home mom,” or, “I used to be a teacher.” I minimize the value of my labor and have heard some of you do it, too.
We need to remember that ALL of our work is ministry work. Each dish washed, coffee served, class passed, corporate deal secured, house sold or lesson taught is for His glory. Every aspect of our labor is significant. Our toil is important. No work surrendered to His purpose and for His glory is in vain.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul argues that an attitude of selfless work for God’s mission should make us glad and cause us to shine as lights in this dark world. We don’t complain about our work because we know how valuable it is to the Kingdom.
Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.
We rejoice as a “poured out drink offering” not because our work feels significant, is enjoyable, or fulfills a void in our lives. We rejoice because our labor has Kingdom purpose and forever consequence.
So when we feel overwhelmed, empty, bored, threatened and weary in our labor, we need to remember who we’re really working for. In the words of Paul, we must “hold fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ [we] may be proud that [we] did not run in vain or labor in vain.”
Toil for His passion, work for His glory, and believe that your efforts matter for eternity.
For Further Study
Read and reflect on 2 Corinthians 4.
In what context was this passage written (pay attention to the “therefore” at the beginning of the chapter). Who wrote it and for what purpose?
- Based on the text, what can we expect from a life in service to Christ? Consider making a list in the margin of your Bible or in a separate notebook.
- If everything in the list you created is true, why should we “not lose heart” (v. 1 and v.16)? What will we receive?
- Do you find yourself laboring in vain? Unsure of why or for whom you are working? Take time to write a prayer of confession and determine a plan of action. Remember, we must be “doers of the word, and not just hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:22).
About the Author: Lisa DaSilva is a wife, mom of two teenagers, and advocate for women to love God with their heart, soul and mind as they engage in responsible study of His Word.
Lisa is a teacher by trade and passion, voice for the marginalized, recovering striver, and lover of simplicity, authenticity, and all things pretty. She enjoys thrift store shopping and often has to convince people she’s an introvert. Just a loud one.
Lisa loves the local church and is proud to call Summit View Community Church in Vancouver, WA home.
Loving Jesus and making Him known really is her everything.