The full circuit of a human life is often referred to in the form of a circle: The Circle of Life. What is meant is the completion, from birth, to death. Often within that understanding is the concept that when you die, someone takes your place, perhaps in an effort to make us feel as if all is not lost, as if that Good Cause to which we dedicated our lives will be continued and carried on to its completion by another. And yet Ecclesiastes gives us a glimpse into a different perspective:
(17) So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
(18) I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.
(19) And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless.
To what end, then, do we labor? All of us as human beings wake up each day to a day full of tasks over which we pour out our life. From the time you are born, you are pressured to decide how to “make a living.” Often we are pushed to think of what career we will choose to devote our precious time to by the amount of money it will bring us and that that money is the measure of our mark on this life. Money and physical gain become the quantifier of Success, the goal of the human pursuit. “He who dies with the most toys wins.” It’s true that as we labor, as we invest our energy and resources into this life, we are given things in exchange: some are physical, some are emotional. In the above text, the Preacher discovers that life outside of serving God has no meaning, and Jesus cautioned his followers to be aware of the storehouses of their lives and where their labor was spent.
(19) “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.
(20) But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
(21) For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
I live in a house that is now 228 years old in the year 2008. It was built in 1780 by manual tools and manual labor. I can still see the effects of some of that original labor though the people who performed it have long been dead: the full, single tree trunks used in the basement as girders for the rest of the house; the shutters, marked with Roman numerals to keep them in order as sets, with their hand-hewn imperfections; the horse hair in the walls that was used for insulation; the four-seater outhouse in the ell. But we don’t cook over an open fire anymore or have to use the outhouse–in subsequent years, people have added to the house, repaired it or updated it for modern use. We enjoy electricity, indoor plumbing and an electric range. It takes generations of faithful workers to keep a house around this long, their labor evident in the structure, the quality of their work sustaining the structure. So it is with our lives and the proverbial “house” of God. Each day when you rise and set about the tasks before you, you are laboring to some end: either to gain the things of this world, the physical comforts that bring some ease or pleasure, or to the end of adding to God’s “house” and to the work of the ministry. In the first, you can gain much, and then leave it here to someone after you. In the latter, the beauty of Matthew 6:19-21 is that you actually can take it with you because it is stored–with God. What true gain has your labor earned if it is spent merely on this life?
(As a parenthetical note, while we’re speaking here of the rewards paid to you, the servant/laborer, we must note that not all the effects of your effort will show up only in your future life. As you labor for God now, spending your personal resources–your time, your money, your home, etc–in the service of the Body of Christ and for the house of God, you leave behind you an immediate outcome. Like the laborers who worked on my home over the years, you leave behind here, on this earth, even with its corruption, a beautiful work, a legacy for those who share this earth with you and those who will come after you.)
What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?
(13) Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
(14) Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”
(15) Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
(16) And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop.
(17) He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
(18) Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.
(19) And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
(20) But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
(21) “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”
God calls this man a fool.
What I am not saying: I am not saying that everyone working in a career or a job that is not directly connected to ministry work is wasting their labor. I am not saying that anyone who has the capacity to make a lot of money or who lives in a beautiful home has wasted their labor. It is not, nor has it ever been about the physical things, but it is and always has been about the posture of our heart, the willingness we have to use the “good crop” that our ground produced for any- and everything that God’s will might have us do.
1 Corinthians 3:10-15
(10) By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds.
(11) For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.
(12) If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw,
(13) his 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 man’s work.
(14) If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.
(15) If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
The labor you invest in this life will come to account on some future Day. While intangible when compared to the luxuries your labor could gain for your enjoyment on this earth, the labor you store with God will one day become very tangible. The promise of rewards is a very real truth in God’s Word and a wonderful motivator from a loving God. (While this article does not get into the details of this promise, see The Christian’s Hope for further research).
In a production of Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, there is a dust heap that has brought great physical wealth to its owner. The dust heap was born of the trash of the rich throughout many years, and while at first the owner was considered one of the lowest, he discovered when burning their trash that certain items do not burn–gold, silver and precious stones. He began to sift through the ashes discovering treasure until he became so rich he was able to offer the piles to the poor of the surrounding country, inviting them to come and take their hand at the piles and piles of gray dross. The analogy in Corinthians becomes very clear in the light of this ash heap–what you “dress” yourself with in this life will be tested by fire. We have the wonderful promise for Christians that they themselves will survive the “cremation” and enter into eternal life, but of our labor, only those things that survive that future fire will come through and be yours for future enjoyment. And the things considered costly to God, the things God would have you labor for, will be in direct opposition to the items valued by this world in this life.
1 Corinthians 3:18-20
(18) Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise.
(19) For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”,
(20) and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.”
Take it with you!
(23) Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men,
(24) since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
(25) Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.
If you find you grapple with greed, with the strong desire to labor for now, fight for your heart: turn off the television and its ads, open the Bible, force yourself to give, pray deeply (prayer does so much to change your heart), see clearly what has been done for you–that this is not all that there is to labor for, the fact that you even have a chance to labor for eternal rewards because eternal life has been offered to you is such a gift! Look not at the standards of “Success” that the world deems of value but God calls “Foolish.” God is faithful to note your labor. Even in what may appear wasted efforts, His accounting is just and right, and His books will be the only ones that stand.
1 Samuel 16:7
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”