Laboring in Vain

Today I drove past an unfinished church in Mansfield, Ohio. I am not quite sure what happened, but for several years this church has sat vacant. The structure is mostly completed, but little work has been done on the interior of the building. As far as I know, there are no plans to re-start the construction process. This means that tens of thousands of dollars were wasted on this half-completed church. Ironically, there is still a sign in front of the structure that reads, “To God be the glory.”

How much of what is done in the name of Christ actually done in the power of the Holy Spirit? In case you didn’t notice, Christianity is big business these days and all kinds of things are done under the label of Christianity. I don’t simply mean that there are a lot of churches around – we have Christian bookstores, Christian music, Christian counseling, Christian movies, Christian clothing, and on and on the list goes. It’s not that those things are bad, but it would be naïve to think that all things marketed in this manner are genuinely “Christian.”

King Solomon writes, “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 in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” (Psalm 127:1-2) In other words, no matter what you are doing (building a house, protecting a city, earning a living or something else), unless the Lord is in it, you are only wasting your time. All too often, we have a high view of man and are optimistic about what “we” can do in our own strength. This is complemented by a low view of God and unbelief in the sufficiency of His power for our lives. We would rather work our buts off “doing things for God” then to let the Holy Spirit work in us and through us.

As we read through the pages of Scripture, we see a pattern develop. We see how God takes the impossible and makes it possible through His great power. Whether it be Moses parting the Red Sea, David defeating Goliath, Gideon’s 300 soldiers defeating an army of thousands, or any one of a hundred other examples, it is the power of God at work in His people. Why would we want to rely on our own feeble resources when we can rely on the Creator God – the One who has all the power in the world? God can do more in one day than we can do in 50 years of toil and labor. Often we think that as long we are working hard for God, God will be pleased with us. But if what we are doing is not of faith, it is only being done in vain.

Recently, the Crystal Cathedral has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The well-known church is on the verge of bankruptcy, with a debt-load of over $50 million. Robert Schuller, long-time pastor of the Crystal Cathedral and famous for his “self-esteem theology” is learning the hard way that when you try to build a church in your own strength and your own ways, it is bound to crumble.

It is true that there is something we are forced to give up when we allow the power of God to work in us and for us. I am referring to the credit or the glory for what is done. Many people are not willing to let go of that and so they continue to “labor in vain.” Like Schuller, they will soon discover that in failing to build on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ and His gospel, their structure (life work) is now falling apart. As the Scriptures tell us, one day this will be revealed for all to see. Paul writes:

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15 ESV)

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