On April 26, 1865, almost two weeks after Abraham Lincoln’s death, the man who killed the President was finally tracked down. Cornered in a tobacco barn in a quiet backwater of the Virginia countryside, John Wilkes Booth refused to surrender. Even after the Union soldiers surrounding the barn set it on fire, Booth stayed in the burning structure until a shot cracked through the side of the barn and into Booth’s neck.
Mortally wounded, Booth was dragged out of the barn as flames continued to consume it. Just before he died, Booth requested that his hands be lifted up in front of his face so that he could see them. Gazing for a moment at his own hands, Booth’s last recorded words were said to be, “Useless, useless.”
In stark contrast, consider the words of the Apostle Paul as he looked back on his own life. It’s unlikely that he was looking at his hands as he did so, yet 2 Timothy 4:6-7 (ESV) records this moment, and Paul’s sentiments, in the following way:
I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
Unless we die suddenly and unexpectedly, or the Lord returns before our death, there’s a good chance that you and I will have the opportunity one day to look back at our lives and ponder what it is that our own hands have wrought. In the light of eternity, will the words we speak resemble those of John Wilkes Booth, or the Apostle Paul?
Will we be able to say to ourselves with sincerity that we fought the good fight, that we kept the faith, and that we finished the race? Will we sense that we accomplished on this earth that for which we were created? It’s vitally important as we consider these questions that we never succumb to the temptation to compare ourselves with others. Certainly few could ever compare the work of their own hands to the efforts of Paul.
And yet, it seems clear that God has created each one of us with meaning and purpose. Ephesians 2:8-10 (ESV) speaks to this point:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Not all are called to be what the Apostle Paul was. The Bible makes it clear that there are various gifts given to people as God determines. When these are combined with our talents and experiences, the particular “race” that we have been called by God to run and to finish will likely look very different than the course run by other Christ followers.
And yet, two things we all have in common are that we are to love God and to love others. God’s love working in and through us will be different than it will be for anyone else. There are countless ways that we can experience God’s love, and regardless of our age or occupation there are innumerable ways that God’s love working through us can impact the lives of others.
I was somewhat discouraged recently. This was primarily caused by what I sensed to be a lack of progress in an effort to serve God that I’ve poured my heart into for a number of years. As I prayed about this discouragement, I sensed the Lord reminding me that no effort to serve him, however impactful or not, should ever take the place of God as my first love.
As I pondered this sense in my heart I was reminded of a few other times in the past when my desire to do something for God started to, in subtle and almost unrecognizable ways, take more of my attention than did my relationship with God. Each time, the Lord called me back to himself as my first love as he did again recently.
This realignment of biblical priorities is vital. And yet, sometimes a degree of disappointment about how things are going in our efforts to serve God can linger. This was the case for me last week. Then something caught my eye in my reading time. As part of my normal reading schedule I opened 1 Corinthians chapter 15. At the very end of this chapter, I read 1 Corinthians 15:58. In the NIV this states:
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, 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 not in vain.
This verse was like a breath of fresh air to me. It reminded me that no matter how we struggle, our efforts in the Lord are not in vain. In fact, when I looked up in the Greek the word translated in this verse as “labor,” I found that it means toil, pain, and weariness.
In other words, it’s not just the impactful and well-received work for the Lord that is of value. When the Lord clearly leads us to undertake something for him, and when the effort is in accordance with clear biblical teaching, and when we step out in obedience and faith, God is pleased. No such efforts are in vain. God alone knows what impact our efforts may eventually have, and his purposes are more important than our feelings.
As we consider this, let’s remember something. Today, right now, we have a choice. We can ask God to lead us to discover what it is he has created us to do. We may not receive the full answer right away, yet there’s no doubt that God will honor a willing heart and lead us through small steps to the course he wants us to run.
As we respond with faith and obedience to God’s leading, no matter how grand or common our efforts for God may seem, let’s recall that they are not in vain. And let’s remember that as we faithfully follow God’s continued leading we will one day be able to look back with joy. We will be able to look at our hands and say that by God’s grace he has allowed us to fight the good fight, to finish the race, and to keep the faith. What could be more thrilling than this as we face the threshold of eternity and prepare to meet our Lord face-to-face? May God be glorified as he continues to work in and through us for his purpose and pleasure. Amen!