Even If You Labor “for Nought”

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Discouragement comes in many forms. So our weapons must be varied.

Before I accepted the call to become a pastor 33 years ago, my father wrote me a discouraging letter — a kind of warning about the pastorate. He gave me a long list of the discouragements, pitfalls, and hardships of pastoral ministry. Later, when I accepted the call, he rejoiced with me and said that the letter was not meant to stop me, but to prove the reality of my call. If I could move forward, he said, after reading this bleak picture, I must be called.

I have just spent half an hour looking for that letter in my files and journals. I can’t find it. But I did a computer search of 25 years of journals with the words “letter from.” There were dozens of results, and the effect on me was tears and thankfulness.

Tears because page after page of “letter from” results were letters of criticism. I had mercifully forgotten almost all of them. But to have them called up like that brought back the countless battles with discouragement. And I sit here thankful that I didn’t quit.

The Pangs of Unappreciated Labor

“Faithful, Christ-dependent labor is pleasing to the Lord.”

One of the pitfalls my father mentioned in his letter of “warning” was the life-quenching discouragement that comes from extended periods of apparent fruitlessness. My father traveled from church to church and dealt with thousands of pastors. He told me about how close so many of them were to throwing in the towel, oppressed by the lifelessness of their people and their own sense of hopelessness.

This is a threat not only to pastors, but to all believers. All of us can become oppressed that our work is of no value. Any one of us can be crushed by the feeling that others do not approve of how we do our work. Who has never felt the pang that he has labored in vain and spent his strength for nothing? When discouragement comes in this form, we need a special weapon to fight the fight of faith.

Look Always to the Lord

In an effort to refresh my spirit in my early days of pastoral ministry, I turned to a great old book by Charles Bridges and found a weapon suited for such a battle. Bridges said,

Our recompense is measured not according to “our success” but “our labor” and, as with our blessed Master, vouchsafed even in the failure of our ministration.

Then, for support, he cited this great text from the prophet Isaiah, who was sent to preach to people whom God knew would not repent (Isaiah 6:9).

I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God. (Isaiah 49:4)

That verse pierced my heart like a shot of spiritual adrenaline. I imagined a large-hearted, gentle, steady old pastor serving in a small church in the country. He was worn and weary and at the end of his life. He had been faithful for three decades through every crisis, never succumbing to the temptation to quit.

When a young replacement asked him how he had the endurance and strength of soul to keep on in the ministry all those years, he said, “The Lord measures the faithfulness of our labor, not our success. I look always to the Lord and not to man.”

As I took this weapon into my hand in those early days in the ministry, there were times when it shone so brightly I could scarcely contain my joy. I thought: What a vision! What a hope! To come to the end of my life after thirty years of pastoral labors and be able to say (gray-headed and full of joy), “My right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God.”

On This Labor Day

As you ponder your life’s labor on this Labor Day, don’t be undone by the thought that you have labored in vain. If you must, say with Isaiah, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” But then, with great boldness, in defiance of all of Satan’s attacks, speak the rest of the verse: “yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God” (Isaiah 49:4).

“The Lord measures the faithfulness of our labor, not our success.”

Then resolve with faith in God’s power (2 Thessalonians 1:11) to live and labor for the rest of your life in the hope that faithful, Christ-dependent labor is pleasing to the Lord. “Our recompense is measured not according to ‘our success’ but ‘our labor.’”

My chapter as pastor is over. And I am deeply thankful that I wielded this weapon against the temptations to quit. Now there are new battles to be fought. New discouragements to be withstood. Join me in this warfare, whatever your age. Be a people strong in the Scriptures, never flagging in zeal, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord (Romans 12:11) — no matter what!