|Lighthouse, Holland (MI) State Park|
As I was nearing the end of writing my doctoral dissertation at Northwestern University a few things happened that threatened to stop me from completing it. One was a policy decision in NU's philosophy department that directly affected the research I was doing. When that decision was shared with me, I went to the campus chapel and prayed. I was discouraged. After years of working on this project, which I believed God had called me to do, would I not now be able to finish it? My labor, it seemed, would be in vain.
"Vain labor" is work that counts for nothing. It's like writing a letter on your computer, then pressing the wrong button and losing the entire thing. All that writing was in vain. It's like preparing for a vacation for weeks, with great anticipation, having your bags packed, and something happens so you can't go. All that planning and packing and anticipating was in vain.
It;' possible to "do church" in vain. It's possible to attend meetings and put together programs and dinners and Sunday worship services and sing songs and collect money and still the whole enterprise be an exercise in vanity. How? If God isn't behind them. Famously, Psalm 127:1 states: Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.
Some pastors and church leaders never consult God. I'm not judging here. They have confessed this to me. I'll never forget a seminary doctoral classs I was teaching. The subject was: authentic pastoral leadership emerges out of the presence of God. After my teaching and a time of discussion one of the pastors stopped us and said, "I can't believe we're talking about consulting God. When I get together with other pastors we never consult God or talk about God. "God" isn't taken into account. Instead, we just combine our own minds and intellectual powers and work at figuring things."
This pastor's astonishment and confession came with a look of shock on his face, accompanied by the discernment that something was going very wrong, essentially, in his leadership. He was "building a house" on his own, without the leading and empowerment of God. Therefore his "building" was in vain. This God-insight led him to a prolonged period of self-examination, as he looked at the labors of his hands while wondering if God's handprints were anywhere to be found.
"Church" is inauthentic and irrelevant if it is not the handiwork of God. God is the architect and builder, we are his instruction-followers.
It is also possible to do "life" in vain. For the same reasons. Not living after the counsel of God is practical atheism. And on atheism, for many at least (e.g., th eFrench existentialists), life without a God is a futile exercise in nothingness.
The apostle Paul was concerned that he not live for nothing. In 1 Corinthians 15:58 he writes: 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. Relevant labor involves "the work of the Lord." What the Lord is doing. Discern this. Then activate. Let your doing emerge from slow-cooking in the presence of God. "Work out your salvation," Paul said, "with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose." (Phil. 2:12-13)
God works in you. God "wills" in you and "acts" through you. To what end? "To fulfill HIS good purpose." An authentic life is the handiwork of God. Beyond that, no mere human purposes qualify as good.
Paul trembled at the thought of living an insignificant life. The insignificant life is the life of practical, "no time for God" atheism. Paul wanted to boast "on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain." Paul's crowning achievemente would be: "I sought the Lord; he answered; I followed Him."
Labor with significance. Which means:
Prayerfully counsel with God.
Hear His voice.
Boast of the handprints of God, all over you.
In my new book I talk about prayer as purposeful activity - Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.