Paul was “afraid” his work was “in vain”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. (Luke 2:16)

Since our first date 16 years ago, my wife Kara and I go to the historic Tampa Theatre every December to see It’s a Wonderful Life. And even though the film is more than 75 years old, the theater is packed every year. Why? Because the movie’s protagonist, George Bailey, encapsulates a timeless desire of the human heart to do work that matters.

If you haven’t seen the film, here’s the gist. George Bailey was raised in the small town of Bedford Falls, but he dreamed of doing “something big, something important.” But life got in the way and George remained stuck in his hometown working an obscure job he saw little purpose in. It took a literal miracle for him to see just how impactful his life and work had been.

Scripture tells us nothing about who made the manger Jesus slept in his first night on earth. But I’m willing to bet he felt much like George Bailey. He probably spent years hammering away at mangers and other works of wood doubting that any of it mattered beyond putting food on his family’s table. And yet God chose the work of this craftsman’s hands to hold the Creator of the world.

One of the most stunning promises in Scripture is that “your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). That term “labor in the Lord” means far more than the “spiritual” tasks of evangelism and prayer. The New Living Translation says it means any work we do “for the Lord.” Commenting on this passage, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says, “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future.”

That sounds incredible, but sometimes it can be difficult to see how. It’s comforting to me that even the great Apostle Paul doubted the significance of his work. In 1 Thessalonians 3:5, he admitted, “I was afraid that…our labors might have been in vain.” And yet he still wrote 1 Corinthians 15:58 assuring himself and his readers of God’s promise.

You see, this is an act of faith. Even when we can’t see how, we trust that God will use everything we do for him—even something as seemingly insignificant as nailing together a manger—for his glory and our good. Have faith in that promise today, believer. Bask in the knowledge that everything you do “for the Lord” will reverberate throughout eternity!


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