Have Labored In Vain -
A Message For All Who Carry A Sense of Failure
This is a message for everyone who's
living under a burden of discouragement. As you look at your life, you're
despondent over failed expectations. You feel you haven't accomplished much in
life, and as time slips by you see that many promises have gone unfulfilled. For
years you've prayed and prayed, but the things you believe God spoke to you
haven't come to pass. Other people around you seem to have it all together,
enjoying the fulfillment of many promises, but you carry a sense of failure.
As you look back over your life, you remember all the hard times. You've known rejection and feelings of total inadequacy. You've loved the Lord so much, giving body and soul to please him, doing all you've known to do. Yet a moment finally came when you became convinced, "I have labored in vain. I've spent my strength for nothing. It has all been futile." Now a nagging sense creeps up within, whispering, "You've missed the mark. You haven't been effective at all. Your life is evidence that you've made no difference in this world."
If you bear such feelings of failure, then you're in good company. In fact, you are standing among spiritual giants. Many great servants of God throughout history ended up feeling they failed in their calling.
The prophet Elijah looked at his life and cried, "Lord, take me home. I'm no better than my fathers, and all of them failed you. Please, take my life. Everything has been in vain" (paraphrased).
What about King David? He was so despondent over what he thought was a wasted anointing on his life, he wanted to fly away like a bird to an isolated place. "Oh that I had wings like a dove... Then would I wander far off, and remain in the wilderness" (Psalm 55:6-7).
Even the great apostle Paul trembled in fear at the thought of having spent his life as a useless laborer. He wrote to the Galatians, "Lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain" (Galatians 4:11).
John Calvin, one of the fathers of the Reformation, had the same awful experience. He said in his dying hour, "All that I have done has been of no value... The wicked will gladly seize on this word. But I repeat it again: all that I have done is of no value."
During his twenty-third year on the mission field, David Livingstone expressed the same awful doubts that his ministry had been all in vain.
Saint Bernard also endured this terrible despondency. He wrote in his latter days, "I have failed in my purpose.... My words and my writings have been a failure."
David Livingstone was one of the world's most useful missionaries, his achievement recognized even by the secular world. Livingstone opened up the African continent to the gospel, sowing much seed and being used by God to awaken
Yet, during his twenty-third year on the mission field, Livingstone expressed the same awful doubts as these other great servants. He too felt his ministry had been all in vain. His biographer quotes him in his despondency: "All that I have done has only opened up the African slave trade. The mission societies bear no fruit after twenty-three years of labor. All work seems to be in vain... I have labored in vain."
One of the great missionaries to have impacted my life is George Bowen. His life was a powerful example, and his book, Love Revealed, is one of the greatest books on Christ I've ever read. A single man, Bowen turned away from wealth and fame to become a missionary in
This amazingly devoted man had gone to
Today, George Bowen's humble life and powerful words still enflame my soul and the souls of others worldwide. Yet like so many before him, Bowen endured a terrible sense of failure. He wrote, "I am the most useless being in the church. God bruises and crushes me with disappointments. He builds me up, then permits me to fall back to nothing. I would like to sit with Job, and I sympathize with Elijah. My labor has all been in vain."
Some readers may say, "Great men of God shouldn't voice such language. They shouldn't even have such feelings. It sounds like fear and unbelief." Yet this is the language of many giants of faith, great men and women we hold up as faithful examples. They each endured the same awful feeling: "I haven't achieved what I thought God called me to. I've been a failure." I know the terrible sound of that language in my own heart.
Would it shock you to know that Jesus experienced this same feeling of having accomplished little?
In Isaiah 49:4 we read these words: "Then I said, I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain..." Note that these are not the words of Isaiah, who was called by God at a mature age. No, they are Christ's own words, spoken by One "called...from the womb; from the bowels of my mother... The Lord... formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him, (and to gather
When I came upon this passage, one that I'd read many times before, my heart was in wonder. I could hardly believe what I was reading. Jesus' words here about "laboring in vain" was a response to the Father, who had just declared, "Thou art my servant...in whom I will be glorified" (49:3). We read Jesus' surprising response in the next verse: "I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nought" (49:4).
After reading this, I stood to my feet in my study and said, "How wonderful. I can hardly believe that Christ was this vulnerable, confessing to the Father that he was experiencing what we humans face. In his humanity, he tasted the same discouragement, the same despondency, the same woundedness. He was having the same thoughts I've had about my own life: This isn't what I perceived was promised. I've wasted my strength. It has all been in vain.'"
Reading those words made me love Jesus all the more. I realized Hebrews 4:15 is not just a cliché: our Savior truly is touched with the feelings of our infirmities, and was tempted in all ways as we are, yet without sin. He'd known this very same temptation from Satan, hearing the same accusing voice: "Your mission is not accomplished. Your life has been a failure. You've got nothing to show for all your labors."
What exactly was Christ's mission? According to Isaiah, it was to bring
Jesus testified, "He hath...made me a polished shaft; in his quiver" (49:2). The Father had prepared him from the foundation of the world. And the mandate given to Christ was clear: "He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword" (49:2). Jesus was to preach a word as sharp as a two-edged sword that would pierce the hardest of hearts.
So Christ came into the world to fulfill the will of God by reviving
Think about this: Jesus preached to a generation that saw incredible miracles: blind eyes opened, deaf ears able to hear, the lame made to walk. Yet Christ's miracles were repudiated and belittled, and his words were ignored, unable to pierce the people's hardened hearts. In fact, his preaching only angered the religious sects. His own followers decided his word was too hard and walked away from him (see John 6:66). In the end, even his closest disciples, the chosen twelve, forsook him. And the nation that Jesus came to gather back to the Father cried, "Crucify him."
To any human eye, Christ failed utterly in his mission. We find him near the end of his ministry standing over
Imagine the pain Christ must have felt to utter these words. I can only speculate, but I believe this was the moment when Jesus cried out, "I have labored in vain." I picture Satan whispering to him at that moment, "Here is the house you were called to save, and you've left it desolate."
For a short season, Christ was allowed by the Father to experience this human despair over a sense of failure in life: "I've given my all, my strength, my labors, my obedience. What else could I do to save this people? All my labor has been in vain." He felt what every great warrior of God down through the ages has experienced: the temptation to accuse himself of failure, when a clear mandate from God seemed to go unfulfilled.
Why would Jesus, or any man or woman of God, speak such despairing words as these: "I have labored in vain"?
How could the very Son of God make such a statement? And why have generations of faithful believers been reduced to such despondent words? It is all the result of measuring little results against high expectations.
You may think, "This message sounds like it applies just to ministers, or to those called to do some great work for God. I can see it being meant for missionaries or the Bible prophets. But what does it have to do with me?"
The truth is, we're all called to one grand, common purpose, and to one ministry: that is, to be like Jesus. We're called to grow in his likeness, to be changed into his express image. You simply can't be a Christian unless this is your calling, your single goal in life: "I want to become more and more Christ-like. I want to be set free from all self, all human ambition, all jealousy, impatience, bad temper, thinking evil of others. I want to be all that Paul says I should be if I'm to walk in faith and love. Lord, my heart yearns to be like you."
What high expectations! And you have all of God's promises to support you. You hold the two-edged sword of God's Word in your hand, and you've purposed in your heart to be like Jesus. So you go to work at becoming like him.
In only a short time, some wonderful changes begin to happen. You're more patient. Every fleshly reaction that rises up in you, you put down, saying, "That isn't like Jesus." Your family and friends, neighbors and coworkers have noticed you've become kinder. Each night, you're able to soak in the victory of that day, and you congratulate yourself: "I made it! I was kinder today. This was a good, Jesus-likeness day."
Several months ago, I wrote a message titled "Called to Be Christ-like." In it I said that Christ-likeness starts by being like Jesus to those who are closest to us. I truly believe this. Therefore, if you're married, that person closest to you is your spouse. So I set out to become the most Christ-like husband any man could be. And I worked at it, striving to be more patient, understanding and caring.
That first week, I struggled to put down eruption after eruption. I kept reminding myself, "Jesus wouldn't do that. He wouldn't say what I want to say. So I'm not going to do it. I'm going to be like him."
At the end of the week, I asked my wife, Gwen, "Do you see more of Jesus in me?" She answered, "Yes, I do." I was so encouraged. I thought, "This is it! Finally, after all these years, I've discovered what it takes to become more like Jesus."
Then the worst week followed. I lost my Christ-likeness at seemingly every turn. At the end of that week, I asked Gwen, "How would you judge me now?" She said, "More like Paul."
I'd like to tell you that every day, in every way, I'm becoming more like Jesus. But my human struggle in the flesh to be Christ-like simply didn't work. And the fact is, it never will. I still battle with un-Christ-like thoughts, words and feelings. My flesh does not have the ability to cast out flesh. That work is done by the Holy Spirit alone: "If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live" (Romans 8:13). In short, yielding to the power of the Holy Spirit is the only way to become truly Christ-like.
It's in the midst of this battle with our flesh that we often fall into despondency. We're tempted to think, "I've been called, anointed, taught well by godly ministers. How could I continue to think such fleshly thoughts?" At times we succumb to the same thoughts that have echoed throughout the centuries among God's people: "I have labored in vain. I've wasted all my time and strength. I've never seen what God had promised me. I've failed to bring my thoughts and actions to any kind of fulfillment."
Ask any young person who's drifting away from Christ why he or she has grown cold toward him.
If you were to ask such a young man or woman, "Why have you gone back to your old ways?" you'd find the same demonic lie planted in their head: "I did my best. I prayed and read my Bible. I went to church, and I witnessed to my friends at school. I put every effort into living righteously. But I never got the miracle I needed. My prayers weren't answered, and I wasn't delivered. After all of that, I ended up a failure. I couldn't shake the thought that it was no use, that my flesh would never change. It was just a waste of time. I felt like everything I'd done was in vain."
What about their righteous parents, the moms and dads who've prayed for their drifting child so diligently? God gave them promises and they clung to them, crying out to him in faith. But as time passed, their child never responded. Now these devoted saints endure the same awful lie: "You're a failure, laboring in vain. You've wasted your strength all these years. The battle has only worn you down. It's all been for nothing."
Many reading this message are in despondency because they haven't experienced the promise God made to them. They're not jealous over the Lord's blessing on others. They don't compare themselves to somebody who seems to be enjoying a miracle. No, they're looking at their own life. And they're comparing what they believe God promised them with the way things look right now. To them, their lives look like a complete failure.
As they examine their walk in all honesty and sincerity, it appears they've made little progress. They've done everything God has told them to do, never veering from his Word and commands. But as time has gone by, all they can see is failure. And now they've become crushed, wounded in spirit. They think, "Lord, has this all been in vain? Did I hear the wrong voice? Have I been deceived? Has my mission ended up in ruins?"
There are two things I want to impress on you with this message.
First of all, you now know from Isaiah 49 that the Lord knows your battle. He has fought it before you. And it's no sin to endure such thoughts, or to be cast down with a sense of failure over shattered expectations. Jesus himself experienced this and was without sin.
Second, it's very dangerous to allow these hellish lies to fester and enflame your soul. Jesus showed us the way out of such despondency with this statement: "I have labored in vain...yet surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God" (Isaiah 49:4). The Hebrew word for judgment here is "verdict." Christ is saying, in effect, "The final verdict is with my Father. He alone passes judgment on all that I've done and how effective I've been."
God is urging us through this verse: "Stop passing a verdict over your work for me. You have no business judging how effective you've been. And you have no right to call yourself a failure. You don't yet know what kind of influence you've had. You simply don't have the vision to know the blessings that are coming to you." Indeed, we won't know many such things until we stand before him in eternity.
In Isaiah 49, Jesus heard the Father say in so many words: "So,
While the devil is lying to you, saying that all you've done is in vain, that you'll never see your expectations fulfilled, God in his glory is preparing a greater blessing. He has better things in store, beyond anything you could think or ask.
We're not to listen to the enemy's lies any longer. Instead, we're to rest in the Holy Spirit, believing him to fulfill the work of making us more like Christ. And we are to rise up from our despair and stand on this word: "Be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 15:58).
The time has come for you to abound in your labors. The Lord is telling you, in essence, "Forget all your failure thinking' and leave that behind. It's time to get back to work. Nothing has been in vain! There is much more coming for you, so stop moping and rejoice. I haven't bypassed you. I'm going to do abundantly more than you could think or ask!"