Wherever there are people whose hearts are not fretful or anxious or in a resentful frenzy, but instead have a tranquility of heart and a kind of peaceful abandon in which they take thought for other's concerns instead of being all wound up in their own—wherever there are people like that, the world sits up and takes notice. And rightly so because in all likelihood something out of this world is at work there, something that people everywhere are hungry for—even if they are not sure what it is. The world is full of anxious people: students anxious about whether people will laugh at their new shoes, about getting good grades, about giving a book report in front of the class; adults anxious about impressing the boss, losing a client, finishing a report on time, getting out of a foolish investment, a strange pain in the chest. From time to time there settles over everyone that dark, grey, heavy blanket of depressing anxiety that in the moment makes everything look dark and seems impossible to throw off. The experience is so common, that those who live in peace and freedom and joy shine like stars in the darkness. Those who have found the way to obey Jesus' command, "Be anxious for nothing" . . . these are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. They bring savor and sunshine to places where the creeping grey fog of anxiety has made everything tasteless and dark.
Don't Be Anxious
In the past year, one text above all has blown away more of that fog for me than any other, and I've used it repeatedly. I can remember time after time going out of my office door on the way to teach my classes on 1 Peter and Romans 9-11 with a stack of books and notes under my arm and saying: "Father, unless you teach the class, all my preparation is in vain." And I would comfort my heart with the good news that ultimately it was God who would bring fruit from my efforts or not.
The text is Psalm 127:1–2. "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 vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil, for he gives to his beloved in his sleep." I think the main point of these three verses is: "Don't eat the bread of anxious toil." It means just the same thing Jesus meant when he said, "Don't be anxious about what you shall eat." When we grow up we must all work for our bread. And we can either work nervously, worrying about what men will think of us—and so eat the bread of anxious toil. Or we can work with serenity in our hearts, as serving Christ and not men—and so eat the bread of peace. God's will for his children, indeed the sign of whether we are children or not, is that we not eat the bread of anxious toil.
God does not lay down specific rules for how early we rise for work and how late we knock off at night. But he does lay down this principle for his beloved: Don't rise early and go late to rest out of anxiety, out of fear and fretfulness. If the joy of fruitful labor lures you to work 12 hours a day, so be it. But take heed lest you are really deceiving yourself, and in fact are being driven by anxiety, or by her twin sister, selfish-ambition. Christians will work hard, but they will work more for the joy of all the good their work can bring to others than they will out of fear at what men will think if they fail. So,
Be diligent as God may lead
And eat the bread you earn,
But fret not over what you need
And let not worry burn.
Four Ways to Labor in Vain
That is the main point, I think: God's beloved ought not to undertake his labors fretfully. Then besides the main point I see two reasons given why it is pointless and unnecessary and indeed wrong for God's beloved to eat the bread of anxious toil. The first reason is given in verse 1: "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." What would it mean to build in vain and to watch a city in vain? How might the efforts of a man to build himself a house be shown to be futile and empty and vain? I can think of four ways:
1) If God Isn't with You
First, if God isn't with him in the building he simply may not be able to finish it. You remember of course the builders of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. They built, but God was not in it, and so they labored in vain—he did not allow them to finish it. That is the first way our labor could be shown up as vain when God is not in it.
2) If the Building Collapses in a Year
The second way is that the building may in God's providence be completed and yet later collapse because of a poor foundation. "The foolish man built his house upon the sand, and the rain fell and the floods came and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell and great was the fall of it." God might sustain us and allow us to go right on building utterly oblivious to his secret support; and then when our buttons are bursting and our nose is in the air, the sand crumbles and we fall flat on our backs, and hopefully learn before it is too late that unless we rely on the Lord in our building, we labor in vain.
3) If You Die Before Entering
But there is a third way that my labor may be in vain. The project is completed with no interruptions, the achievement is sound and long lasting. But on the very day for entering, I drop dead of a heart attack. Solomon was painfully aware of what he wrote in Ecclesiastes 2:20f.:
So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a man who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by a man who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.
Life and death are in the hand of the Lord and none of us can lengthen our lives one cubit beyond our appointed time.
But someone may argue, the psalm says that our labor is in vain only if the Lord isn't in our labor, but people die even when the Lord is in their labor. Can it be that they too have labored in vain, even though they relied on God for help in their building? My answer is, No indeed, for death is not the end for God's beloved. When they die, to be sure, they do not take their house or business or family with them, but all their labor done in reliance on the Lord does go with them and testifies to their faith before God. As Revelation 14:13 says, "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth. Blessed indeed, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them." And as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:58, "Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain."
Yet for those who labor in this life without relying on the Lord a third way that this is shown to be vain is that when the achievement is complete and ready for their use, they may die and get no pleasure from it.
4) If It Becomes a House of Tragedy
The fourth way that our labor may be in vain if God is not in it is this: the mansion may be completed smoothly; it may be fine and long lasting and we in God's providence may be granted to enter and live in it only to find it has become a house of tragedy—a broken marriage, rebellious children, amid an abundance of meaningless knick-knacks on marble shelves. Emptiness, futility, vanity because God did not build the house.
It seems to me that the point of verse 1 is that no matter how hard you work to achieve anything, its achievement and the fulfilling enjoyment of it depend decisively on God. If we do not trust in God with all our heart but instead rely on our own insight, then we might, if he wills, produce a monument, but in the end it will only be a monument to futility.
I said that verse 1 was the first of two reasons why God's beloved should not be anxious in his labor. How does it, then, help us overcome anxiety? It worked like this for me. As I walked out of my office on the way to class, I reasoned that if my highest efforts are only in vain without God's special help, then the success or failure of this class lies ultimately on him, not me. And with that a weight was lifted off my back that I was never created to carry, namely, the final responsibility for the success or failure of any venture. Sometimes the truth of that would well up in me so much I felt as light as a butterfly. I can't carry the weight of whether this class likes me today, Lord. I can't carry the weight of whether they may ask me questions beyond my ability, Lord. I can't carry the weight of opening their hearts to believe the doctrine of your sovereignty, Lord. These weights are too heavy! They are yours! And I have found that God is not only willing but eager to take the burden of final responsibility for whether the house gets built and the city is saved. And for me that is a great reason not to be anxious in my labor.
God Gives to His Beloved in His Sleep
The second reason is given in verse 2: Don't eat the bread of anxious toil because "God gives to his beloved in his sleep." Some translations say, "He gives his beloved sleep." Either is a possible translation from the Hebrew. One implies that God helps a person rest at night, the other implies that while a person is resting God is busily at work in the world to bless him. Which fits the context better?
The first half of verse 2 says that it is vain to rise early and go late to rest, but how would the simple statement that God gives sleep discourage a person from rising early and going to bed late? He is not interested in his sleep; he's worried and wants to be about his work. But if Solomon meant, as I think he did, "God gives to his beloved in his sleep," then there is a tremendously strong incentive to stop being anxious and cutting our sleep short. The incentive is this: God can perform more good for those who trust him while they sleep than they can perform with anxious labor for themselves while awake. Can you think of a better reason not to rise early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil?
Have you ever wondered why God made us in such a way that we have to sleep away a third of our lives? God could have designed a human being that was always fresh and rested and needed no sleep. Why did he decree that sleep be part of human experience? I'll give you my opinion. He wanted to give a universal reminder to the human race that we are but children and ought to own up to it. We are so frail that we have to become helpless and unconscious and blind and weak every day in order to live at all. Sleep is a terribly humbling experience. We are never more weak, never more childlike than when we sleep in faith. And has not God said, "My power is made perfect in weakness"! And, "Unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of God."
If God's power is made perfect in our weakness, then surely we may believe this psalm that when we hand over our anxieties to God and lay our heads down in peace, God works with all his might through the night on our behalf.
The great test of faith is to believe that when we can see only a bleak outcome to some situation and no good coming of it, yet the sovereign God can and will bring out of nowhere, as it were, a turn of events or attitudes that brings great blessing. And he can do it while we sleep! Beware lest you try to interpret his work too hastily; it may not be what you expect and he may not be finished. William Cowper wrote a great hymn that has helped me a lot at this point.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust him for his grace,
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast
Unfolding every hour.
The bud may have a bitter taste
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan his works in vain.
God is his own interpreter
And he will make it plain.
I close with a personal experience. I remember a time a few years ago when I went through some weeks of not being able to get to sleep. Even my reasonings about why it was futile to be anxious kept me awake. The solution finally came in the form of a scene that I brought before my eyes each night.
I was on a boat in a rough sea and the crew was working with frenzy to keep the bow into the wind and secure all the cargo. As I climbed down into the small hold of the ship there was Jesus asleep on the cot. There was no tension in his face and his head rocked back and forth with the waves. I walked over and shook his shoulder, "Jesus, I can't sleep; please help me." He got up slowly, moved to the end of the cot, and sat down. He motioned me to lie down and put my head in his lap. Then with his hand on my shoulder he said, "I'll take care of you tonight, and don't worry. I'll be sure you are ready for class tomorrow."
I can't tell you how many nights I went to sleep in that position. But there were a lot. And I still go there when sleep won't come. For he gives to his beloved in sleep.
So don't eat the bread of anxious toil, because no matter how hard you work to achieve anything, God has lifted off your back the final responsibility for its success, and God can accomplish more good for those who trust him while they sleep than they can accomplish with anxious labor while awake.
1 Cor 3:7; 15:10; Phil 2:13; 1 Pet 5:7; 4:19
Who is the "beloved"? Cf. Ps 146:8 (Ps 32:8, 11); Jn 16:27
1 Kings 3:3–15—Solomon's reception of promise in his sleep
Is 43:13—I work and who can hinder it
Ps 60:11; 108:12—vain is the help of man
Jer 46:11—in vain you used mediums