I have been reflecting a lot on Ecclesiastes’ concept of vanity or meaninglessness. As every one of us can testify, this life can grow tiresome and we often wonder if anything we do really has any real significance. I came across a good little illustration in Gordon Cheng’s Encouragement: How Words Change Lives as he describes an occasion where work, futile though it may have seemed, really did make a difference.
First, let me share a little glimpse of my own life. When I was a child my father would occasionally take me to work with him. Dad did not work in an office so this was not a typical “take your child to work” situation. Dad was a landscaper and a day with dad was a day in the hot sun. It was a day of hard work, hauling, digging, planting, watering, tending. As a child I would grow discouraged at how little I could do in comparison to dad. By the time I had hauled a couple of flats of plants from the truck to the garden, he would have hauled a hundred. By the time I had dug a hole big enough to fit a rose, he would have finished a dozen. Even when I did get something done quickly, he would almost inevitably tell me that I had done it poorly and would tell me to go back and do it properly. After a while I would wonder if there was any reason at all to even help him. What could I really accomplish in comparison?
And yet at the end of the day dad would thank me for my help and would stop and buy me an ice cream or another treat. And he would give me a few dollars as payment for what I had done. Despite false starts, despite carelessness, despite weakness, I really was able to help dad out. Together we got the job done, even if my half of the work was, well, a lot less than half.
A few days ago I was reflecting on how good God is to allow us to work with him and to sometimes do his work on his behalf. When we share the gospel with unbelievers or when we preach the gospel to our brothers and sisters in Christ, it is easy to see our own inadequacy, our own shortcomings. It is easy to grow discouraged, knowing how little we can accomplish. Why bother with our fractional percent when God is the one who must provide all of the power?
And now to Gordon Cheng.
When the entire family decides to plant baby lettuce on a Saturday afternoon in the backyard, certain realities apply and certain home truths about family dynamics and gardening knowledge must be taken into account. My wife is extremely well aware of these realities; the rest of us are somewhat aware in a descending order that begins with me, and gradually drops down to our seven-year-old (who, truth be known, is starting to get quite good and is beginning to ask question about my ability in this area), down to our four-year-old and finally to our three-year-old. The latter two contribute enthusiasm and a certain degree of, let’s say, unrestrained passion about how things ought to be done and who ought to do them first. As a direct result of this scenario, it is fair to suggest that every single task that needs to be completed in the garden takes three to five times longer than if Fiona (my wife) were to do it herself. Digging a furrow takes longer. Putting plants into the furrow takes longer. It is an activity fraught with risk both to the baby lettuce and to the dogs underfoot. At least one adult is employed for the entire gardening period keeping an eye on the most recent location of the pitchfork, and helping recover small plants from under a layer of newly thrown mulch. Snails, as the oldest of us have now realized, are not potential pets–but we haven’t yet had the heart to tell the two youngest, and so the location of their mollusc collection has also turned out to be one of those things that just has to be carefully monitored.
But for all the slow, distracting and sometimes dangerous things that happen in our garden, there is no doubt that all of us really are gardening. Every single one of the children’s mistakes, and a good number of mine as well, will be overruled by grace. The good things we do really are good things. In the kindness and providence of God, the children (and I) are becoming better gardeners than when we first began. When we stand in the garden in the summer sunshine we will be happy because we really did it.
And that is how it is with God and us, his fellow workers, in his church. We really are helping him. Those who see our efforts may laugh at what we do. We ourselves may become frustrated and upset by mistakes and lack of competence. We may become dimly aware, from time to time, that what we thought was useful and helpful was, unfortunately, nothing of the sort. But provided that we keep our focus on what God says in his word, and continue to speak that same truth in love, the gospel we speak will continue to transform our own lives and the lives of others. And that gospel work will result in a growth that bears fruit into eternity.