The English poet John Keats had the following written on his tombstone: “My name was writ in water.” Some mystery surrounds these words, but his epitaph most likely indicates a concern that plagues us all: We want our work to matter, and we want to be remembered and leave a lasting mark.
Though the world views meaningful work as making a name for ourselves, receiving recognition for an accomplishment, and/or amassing wealth and worldly goods — the Bible defines a life well-lived as one lived in obedience to God and one lived for the glory of God. Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). Similarly, when asked what work God required, Jesus answered, “Believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29). The word “believe” in the Greek is “pisteuó,” and it means not only to be persuaded, but to give oneself up to God. Jesus was saying that the work of God is to be entirely dependent on God and go where He leads.
Although, at times, such a life following Jesus’ lead may include accomplishments that draw the attention of others or accumulate wealth for us, sometimes the path will be one that is out of the public eye and will involve acts of service which may not be applauded or noticed by anyone other than God. In fact, living a life for God may even lead to a life that appears, from a worldly perspective, to be a failure.
If we find ourselves in such a position where success as the world defines it is not ours, even as we are familiar with Scriptures that speak of losing one’s life to gain it for Christ, we may feel disappointment or discouragement. I love how The Bible Dictionary of Themes defines disappointment: “The sadness experienced when people or circumstances do not fulfill expectations.” Disappointment happens where there is a discrepancy between our reality and what we envisioned in our head. Why are we not seeing visible results, God? Why do I appear to be hidden in this place of service? Why have you allowed so much pain in my life?
Truth to Dispel Our Disappointment
Isaiah 49:4 tells us this: “But I said, ‘I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all. Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.’” The Message Translation says: “But I said, ‘I’ve worked for nothing. I’ve nothing to show for a life of hard work. Nevertheless, I’ll let God have the last word, I’ll let him pronounce the verdict.”
Although these words were written by Isaiah, the speaker is most likely Jesus here. He refers to Himself as Israel in other parts of Isaiah 49, and that can be a little confusing as He also speaks about Israel in sections of the passage. But we can gather from the other details He gives in the passage that the Messiah is indeed the speaker. For instance, if we jump down to the very next verse, the speaker says that His purpose is to “bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself” (v. 5). Furthermore, Jesus notes in verse 6 that He will not only restore the tribes of Jacob to himself but will be “a light for the Gentiles” (v. 6). We might understand His reference of Himself as Israel because He embodies the ideal attributes of the nation. In addition, we might also understand His choice of name when we look at other sections of Scripture and note that it is not uncommon for individuals to have more than one name.
Interestingly, Jesus speaks of one aspect of the pain of His ministry on earth in the passage: “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all” (emphasis mine). He suffered in many ways, but one way that we don’t often think about in terms of His suffering is that Jesus spoke “in vain” to His own people. Certainly, His overall ministry was a success. He accomplished just what He came to do, and His death — perhaps what looked to be the biggest failure of all — was right in the Father’s will and accomplished what the Father wanted.
However, though He healed many and ushered in many to the kingdom, His own people, as a whole, rejected Him. In fact, only 120 disciples met after his ministry on earth ended (Acts 1:15). As Christ followers, we will have similar experiences when we minister. We, too, will suffer in that we won’t always get the results we hoped for. There will, many times, exist a discrepancy between our expectation and what actually happens, and this can lead to disappointment.
However, what can we take away from this passage? We have the encouragement provided in the second half of verse 4: “Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” In other words, the speaker reassures Himself with the idea that He is approved by God and His work will be evaluated by God — and God’s evaluation is the only one that matters. Because here’s where our unmet expectations will turn to disappointment and despair: If our desire to follow God hinges on the results we’ve envisioned in our mind and our happiness is determined by whether we meet our goals. We may not.
In fact, chances are God will re-write our goals and His ideas won’t be anything like ours. But success (i.e. meaningful work) is centered not on what the world thinks of us, but rather, whether or not we attempted to obey Him and labor in accordance to what He asked us to do. Of course we will slip up and slide away and fail Him. But He will keep pulling us back to our course and though our labor may feel like it’s in vain, it isn’t if we keep looking to Him and following where He leads. We read in 1 Corinthians 15:58: “Therefore my dear brothers, 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 never in vain.”
However, engaging in work that God directs may not always feel successful. Verse 5 tells us that Jesus was “honored in the eyes of the Lord,” but yet, as it says later in verse 7, “abhorred and despised by the nation.” He spent all his strength laboring for a people who refused to accept Him as the Messiah, but this wasn’t His only mission: He was to reach all the nations. And the moment that the Jews might point to as His biggest failure — His death — made it possible for us to receive salvation. And, we know from reading the rest of Scripture that a remnant of Israel will be saved. God is not done with the Jewish people yet.
Might this encourage us when we consider that the work we have done in service to God has a bigger purpose than we know, and that God is using our story for His glory, even though we can’t necessarily see His plan for our struggles at the moment?
This past week, we had a ladies event at our church and the speaker was a woman who recently adopted a child from China. The boy she adopted had only half a heart, and she knew when she adopted him that he had severe challenges associated with his health. It wasn’t clear how long he would live or what his needs would be, but as an 18-month-old, he lay in his crib all day long and couldn’t even move his hands.
Yet, she felt God nudging her to adopt him. Not even knowing if he would make it on the plane ride back to the states or through the heart surgeries that would have to be performed when he arrived, she took a leap of faith. She and her husband determined that they would love this little boy whether he lived a day, a week, a month, or many years. He did make it through the plane ride and heart surgery (and other successive surgeries), and he is now a thriving 4-year-old little boy. He is completely non-verbal and has special needs, but still manages to communicate in his own way and is well-loved by her family.
However, as she relayed her story to us, she told us that her family has had to make some major changes. They can’t stay out late or go certain places because her son gets over-stimulated very easily and simply can’t handle certain types of outings. She could easily sink into disappointment about what she can’t do in her life at this point because of the constant care she has to give to her son, but she emphasized that her work right now is to be the mommy of this little boy.
For all of us, our work is individually tailored to us. Our work that God gives us might not look like adopting a boy for China, but it may mean being a light to the co-workers at our office. It may look like teaching children in the public school system. It may look like being a missionary overseas. A verse that she shared during her talk that has been personally meaningful to me is 1 Corinthians 3:9-13:
For we are co-workers in God’s service … . But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.
As I wrote in a previous article, when we fulfill the tasks God ordains us to do and walk in His will, we build on the right foundation using “gold, silver, costly stones” (v. 12). In contrast, if we try to build in our own power, our work will not stand the test of time. As Bill Gillham notes in Lifetime Guarantee, our own fleshly pursuits are merely “the wood, hay or straw” that will not last, even if built on the right foundation (v. 12).
Even if we don’t like the place God has us, if we are doing work in the Father’s will, we can be encouraged that God is the evaluator of our work. Even if we don’t see any accolades or praise from others in this life, God knows just what we have done and promises to reward us.
Let’s pray: God, You may have some of us in difficult places that stretch us and make us uncomfortable. We might look at other people around us that appear to have more results or success and feel that our work isn’t important. However, if You have called us to the place we are in, we can find hope in your Word that our reward is with You. What appears to be failure may not be failure in Your eyes. Help us to use Your evaluation of us as a measuring stick for success, rather than the world’s measuring stick. When we’re disappointed by our circumstances, help us turn to You and continue to be faithful in the place You have called us to serve. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
This is the first post in a brand new series over Isaiah 49: “Hope in Disappointing Circumstances.” Check out the next few episodes to hear more on the hope we can have in the midst of challenging situations.
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Podcast Notes and Corrections:
John Keats example as one who had anxiety about leaving a legacy given in The Biblical Illustrator, commentary over Isaiah 49.
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