What do you do when you experience fruitlessness or even failure in your work? How do you respond when your hard work yields poor results?
Whether you’re a faithful pastor with a struggling church, a diligent college student with poor grades, or a involved parent with a prodigal child — all of us experience the frustration of fruitless work. At times it doesn’t seem fair, but the reality remains: hard work doesn’t always guarantee successful outcomes. Sometimes projects fail and deadlines are missed despite our very best efforts.
In our performance-driven world, fruitlessness is usually a difficult pill to swallow (especially for the more driven personalities among us). We expect immediate results and we can quickly become discouraged when we fall short of our own expectations.
In times of fruitlessness, I’m tempted to unhealthy introspection or blaming others for my failures. In my darkest moments, I can doubt God’s good disposition toward me — wondering why he isn’t blessing my present work (while conveniently forgetting all the ways in which he already has).
Four Reminders for Seasons of Setback
In seasons of fruitless despair, I’m often helped by a story from John 21. The disciples embarked on an all-night fishing expedition, only “they caught nothing” (John 21:3). As dawn breaks, Jesus asks them if they caught any fish. They hadn’t. Jesus then instructs them to “cast the net on the right side of the boat” (John 21:5–6). The result is miraculous. After utterly failing all night, the nets fill with so many fish, they begin to rip.
This story offers four helpful reminders to encourage us during seasons of fruitlessness and setbacks.
1. Fruitless work is a common experience.
We might excuse the disciples if they set out with high expectations for successful fishing. After all, they devoted their lives to Jesus, leaving family, homes, and occupations to follow him. Some of them were also experienced commercial fishermen. They seem to have the right credentials: committed Christians and competent professionals. And yet their efforts failed.
We might not understand why our diligent efforts fail, and be tempted toward exasperation. But we must remember that as Christians we aren’t guaranteed success in our work. In his wisdom, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). Seasons of fruitlessness are simply part and parcel of living in a world cursed by the effects of the fall. Our work in this present world is subject to “thorns and thistles” that impede progress and hinder fruitful outcomes (Genesis 3:18).
When success seems elusive, it’s important to remember that fruitlessness is a common experience for everyone. Our struggle isn’t evidence of God’s displeasure toward us, but a reminder that the world we live in is still awaiting full redemption (Romans 8:20–21).
2. Jesus will meet us in our failures.
When our labors are met with significant setbacks or failure, God can seem distant to us. We can be tempted to think Jesus cares little for our situation or for the outcomes that seem so important to us — that critical project gone awry or the struggling business venture.
In these moments, we must be careful not to relegate Jesus to a detached, unfeeling Savior who neither understands nor cares for our present needs. Rather, as Hebrews 4:15 states, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Remember, Jesus experienced all the limitations of working in a fallen world and he understands our struggle for fruitful outcomes. Most of all, remember he cares.
In this account, Jesus’s care for his disciples was evident in his tender address to them: “Children, do you have any fish?” (John 21:5) After a long night of fruitless labor, Jesus met the disciples at the very point of their need and weakness.
This is a Savior who draws near to us in times of perplexing trouble. He concerns himself with the ordinary — with fish and nets — to perform the miraculous for the good of his children. When we’re discouraged about our lack of success or progress, we can turn to Christ with confidence that he cares about our struggles.
3. God gives help in times of need.
Too often, I do not seek God’s help when facing obstacles and setbacks. Instead I “lean in” with my own abilities and forget to look to God. In fact, I’ve realized that much of my despair in fruitless seasons stems from my inability to succeed on my own.
The disciples’ empty nets are reminders that we need God to work in ways that are beyond our capacities and resources. The disciples’ experiences and competencies alone weren’t enough to produce a fruitful outcome. Like the feeding of the 5,000, this situation was designed to reveal the limitations of human power and reveal Jesus’s unlimited power to more than meet human need.
When we encounter obstacles beyond our strength or skill, let us not discount God’s ability to help through providential — sometimes even miraculous — means. God is in the business of displaying his glory in the face of our need. Let us lean into him for help.
4. Jesus is the true prize of our work.
“When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment . . . and threw himself into the sea” (John 21:7).
Don’t you love Peter’s response? Upon discovering it was Jesus on the shore, he plunged in and swam to him. Weariness from fruitlessly working all night didn’t matter, neither did the huge haul of fish. For Peter, nothing mattered more than the fact that Jesus was present. Fellowship with his risen Savior was incomparably more rewarding than a net bursting with fish.
Oh, to have Peter’s perspective whether our work succeeds or fails! May our (very legitimate) pursuit for good results never obscure the true prize of our labors: to know and treasure Jesus Christ. In fact, it’s often in our struggles, not successes, where we experience the life-giving presence of our Savior.
Only when we realize worldly success alone is bankrupt do we swell with hope in our “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for [us]” (1 Peter 1:4).
Only when we come to the end of our strength do we discover that God’s “grace is sufficient for [us]” and that his “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Only after the discouragement of empty harvests are we able to receive this infusion of divine joy in our souls: “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7).
Often, our struggles clarify our vision and strengthen our resolve to value eternal good over temporal success. Struggles often succeed in anchoring our hope and identity to Christ, rather than our achievements.
The ultimate prize of our work isn’t the successful outcomes themselves, but seeing and savoring Jesus in our diligent labors. This is true in success or failure, in seasons of fruitfulness or fruitlessness.
Whether your current nets are empty or bursting, if you hope in him, your labor will never be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).