“I have Laboured to no Purpose”

I was speaking with some ministerial colleagues recently about a conference one had just attended. The conference had been great, but to his surprise, after one of the sessions, a friend next to him put his head in his hands and said, ‘I’m a failure!’ Having just listened to an inspiring account of how a church on the verge of closure had been remarkably revitalised, this dear brother could only see what hadn’t happened in his similar situation despite his faithful labours.

No doubt there are many in the Christian ministry, serving as missionaries, or who have been involved in Christian work for more years than they care to remember who can identify with these words. They have laboured long and faithfully, but there seems to little visible fruit for their labours.

It may be tempting to try and analyse and resolve such tensions purely in terms of ministerial psychology. (Many Christian workers reach for such solutions in a desperate attempt to recover some sense of self worth or usefulness.) But such answers are little more than Band Aids that may provide some short-term comfort, but do little or nothing to explain the deeper issues or provide the wherewithal to press on in our ministerial or missionary vocation.

Strangely, the one source of genuine help in such circumstances is the one that is literally in our hands as we seek to minister to others, but all too often fail to use as we seek to minister to our own souls. It is, of course, God’s word in Scripture. Indeed, we too easily forget the axiom that before we can effectively minister that word to those around us, we must first minister it to ourselves.

Despite our failure to do that consistently, if at all, God has his own way of surprising us from his word: often from passages we have read repeatedly, but failed to appreciate in all their fullness. So when it comes to the sense of abject failure that grips so many pastors, the prophet Isaiah speaks words that are quite remarkable.

More accurately and even more surprisingly, it is not the prophet speaking, but the Servant of the Lord doing so through Isaiah’s message. It comes in the second of the four so-called ‘Servant Songs’ of Isaiah. Songs that are placed on the lips of the Suffering Servant who God had promised to send as the Saviour King for his people. We hear him say, ‘I have laboured to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing’ (Isa 49.4).

Students of Isaiah will be well aware of the debate surrounding the identity of this ‘Servant of the Lord’. It is undoubtedly a term that is shrouded in a degree of mystery. Some have seen the prophet himself as fitting its designation, given his unique calling and mission during these critical decades of Israel’s history. And if it were him who was intended as the primary focus of this epithet, then it would make perfect sense. In terms of depth of truth and eloquence in its delivery, he is widely acknowledged to be the greatest of the prophet-expositors of the Old Testament era. Yet despite his giftedness, the quantifiable response to his ministry was negligible. We could well imagine him at least thinking, if not saying in his darker moments, ‘I have laboured to no purpose’.

Others have suggested that Israel as the nation designated as the People of God is in view as the Servant of the Lord. Again there is merit in such an interpretation. Elsewhere God does indeed describe Israel as his servant and her calling under God is to be a light to the Gentiles and to be the agent of his work in the world. And with this too, the complaint about fruitless labour would be perfectly legitimate. Israel the nation had spent more time serving itself and its own interests rather than serving God and the world to which he had sent them.

The problem with both these views is that, when taken in the context of the Servant Songs in their totality – especially the fourth (Isa 52.13-53.12) – neither Isaiah nor Israel could possibly fulfil all that they express. Only Christ can do that. He alone perfectly matches the descriptions of the Servant and only he – with chilling accuracy – would do what God required to make atonement for the sins of his people.

If that is the case, therefore, is it not all the more astonishing that it is from the lips of Christ that we hear, ‘I have laboured to no purpose’? Yet, if we look again at the downward trajectory that he followed from the moment of his incarnation to his cry of dereliction on the cross, it makes perfect sense to see these words as accurately expressing his sentiments at different points along the way.

Not least in terms of the quantifiable ‘results’ of his 33 years of life and three years of public ministry on earth. Despite the brief expression of public favour with large crowds in the early stages of his ministry, its latter part was very different. The crowds that lauded him were replaced by growing numbers who opposed him. The religious establishment was against him. His own followers failed and ultimately deserted him. And his cry of forsakenness on the cross was the darkest moment of his soul.

It is doubtless very significant that, even by the time of his Ascension, Jesus did not leave a mega-church behind him on earth. Rather, it was through his weak and bumbling disciples that he began to build his church in the face of the hellish powers that sought to withstand it.

Jesus as the supreme Pastor of his people, fully empathises with each and every pastor he calls into his service, every missionary, Christian worker, Sunday School teacher, youth and children’s leader – every Christian who seeks to serve where he or she has been placed. He is with us when we quietly think, ‘I have laboured to no purpose’; but more than that, he reminds us there is more going on than we can see. Because in his very next breath, reminding himself of the Father’s promise, he says, ‘Yet what is due to me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God’ (Isa 49.4).

It was St. Paul, who himself must have questioned his effectiveness in ministry, who said, ‘Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourself to the work of the Lord, because you know your labour in the Lord is not in vain’ (1Co 15.58).

Mark Johnston