Tuesday, July 06, 2010

"Your labor is not in vain"

To wrap up this series summarizing what was memorable to me in N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope, I'd like to focus on a particular verse that Wright points out as significant, and which ended up being perhaps the most significant insight in the book for me. It occurs at the end of 1 Corinthians 15--that is, at the end of Paul's powerful defense of physical resurrection as a necessary future event, and of his description of the resurrection body.  In verse 58, Paul writes:
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.
Here's the point: the traditional view of the afterlife, with us being whisked off into heaven and this present creation being destroyed, tends to leave a futile view of our actions in the present life. It's often said in Evangelical churches that the only thing that really counts is how many people we bring along with us into heaven. Although it's seldom directly stated, we're left to infer that everything else in life is pretty much just marking time until we die or until Jesus comes.

Even a view that takes resurrection seriously can be liable to the same distortion. This present life is just marking time. God's going to remake both our bodies and our world, so what we do in this lifetime doesn't ultimately have any value. What we do to this world, or to our bodies, might be regrettable--as when we give ourselves cancer through smoking or a poor diet, or poke a hole in the bottom of the ocean and let it spew oil into our oceans--but it's ultimately unimportant. God's going to right it all.

But that's not at all the point of view that Paul is espousing in this verse. Rather than ending his treatise on resurrection by saying, "Therefore, relax. Continue trusting in Jesus, and know that God will resurrect your bodies and remake this world," Paul specifically affirms to his readers the value of their work in the Lord.  In some sense, our work is going to endure. What we do in the Lord's service, in this present fallen world, matters.

Most Evangelicals would see "your labor in the Lord" as referring, in some sense, to evangelism. What Paul means here is that  our labor produces new followers of Jesus, who will then be resurrected and inhabit God's new creation: in that way, our labor is not in vain. That is how it endures.

Certainly that is at least part of what Paul means here. But it's hard to see that that's everything that he means. For one thing, there's very little about overt evangelism either in the context of this verse, or in 1 Corinthians in general--which deals much more with Christian character and behavior than it does with evangelism--or, to be honest, in the Pauline epistles in general. This is not to say that evangelism is unimportant; but taking "your labor in the Lord" to refer exclusively to evangelism is an assumption that has to be imported into the text. You can't get it out of what Paul writes here.

It seems much more likely to me that "your labor in the Lord" refers to anything and everything that we do in this life because we are followers of Jesus--whether it's fighting against the slave trade, conducting one's business in an honorable and charitable manner, working toward conservation of the environment, reaching people for Christ, standing against abortion, helping those who are oppressed, sharing grace and mercy to people, opposing unjust business or governmental practices, or anything else we do to live out Jesus' life in us. It all matters. It's all going to carry over into the future creation that God has envisioned for us.

As a matter of fact, it might be instructive to look at how prophecies in the Old Testament were fulfilled. Let's take the one about the city of Tyre in Ezekiel 26. While Ezekiel makes clear that God is accomplishing the judgment against Tyre, the actual fulfillment occurred through the actions of human beings. God worked through people, including some who were not following him and were not consciously trying to fulfill the prophecy, to accomplish his work.

While the new heavens and the new earth spoken of in Revelation 21:1 and Romans 8:21-22 certainly seem to involve a supernatural transformation, there may be in some sense a redemptive aspect to what we do in this age. Perhaps, instead of God just speaking the word and the world's transformation happening, we will be a part of it happening. Perhaps we are supposed to be a part of it happening even now. And maybe that's the way in which our labor is not in vain.