The Value of Futility

“You will be unsuccessful in everything you do” (Deuteronomy 28:29, NIV). This is an apt description of some of us. We have a history of failed relationships, unfulfilling work, abandoned dreams, moral and spiritual defeat. With Job, we can say, “I have been allotted months of futility” (Job7:3); “when I hoped for good, evil came” (30:26).

Yet the Bible says of the righteous man, “Whatever he does prospers” (Psalm 1:3). The verdict “unsuccessful in everything” is part of a long passage describing the curses that come upon those who disobey God. Similarly, a sketch of people who “earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it” (Haggai 1:6) applies to those who fail to put God first and give to His work.

Why is it, then, that some of us who love Jesus lead lives characterized by frustration and futility? Does a failure to prosper always indicate that we are walking in disobedience?

Futility’s Many Levels

Taken as a whole, the Bible may be black and white about moral standards but it is faithful to the complexity of human experience. And so statements that the wicked “will sow wheat but reap thorns; they will wear themselves out but gain nothing” (Jeremiah 12:13) do not exhaust its teachings on futility. The poor, simply because they are poor and in a fallen world, also see their plans frustrated (Psalm 14:6).

In fact, God has subjected the entire creation to frustration and futility (Romans 8:20-22). The Lord Almighty has determined that our labor goes for nothing (Habakkuk 2:13). This is a universal experience, above all because we all must die (Ecclesiastes 2:15-16). “For what futility You have created all men! What man can . . . save himself from the power of the grave?” (Psalm 89:47-48).

In this setting, believers, no less than the most disobedient, are tempted to conclude, “It is futile to serve God” (Malachi 3:14); “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure” (Psalm 73:13); “I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing” (Isaiah 49:4). We are tested precisely in this regard. The patriarchs spent their lives wandering (Hebrews 11:8-9). Job lost everything and felt, “. . . my days have no meaning” (Job7:16). David was a fugitive, wondering if his integrity was “useless” (1 Samuel 25:21). Several of the prophets were commissioned specifically to speak to people who wouldn’t listen (Isaiah 6:9-10; Ezekiel 2:3-5). Jeremiah recorded one set of prophecies only to have them burned, and another set only to be told to sink it in a river (Jeremiah 36; 45; 51:60-64).

God Himself — whose every word accomplishes its purpose (Isaiah 55:10) — at times expresses frustration. “In vain I punished your people; they did not respond to correction” (Jeremiah 2:30; 6:29). He looks in vain for the righteous (Isaiah 59:15-16; Ezekiel 22:30). Jesus weeps over Jerusalem: “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34; Isaiah 65:2)

Futility and Hope

God grieves (Genesis 6:6; Isaiah 53:3), yet He does not succumb to despair. Rather, in a wonderful paradox, it is “in hope” that He has subjected creation to futility — hope in the glory that will be revealed when we have despaired of our flesh and put it to death (Romans 8:18-21). He frustrates human wisdom and striving in order that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord” (Habakkuk 2:14; 1 Corinthians 1:19).

There is a suspense about our lives. We groan with creation, and grieve with God and neighbors. Like farmers, we sow our seeds of effort and obedience, but may wait a long time for any indication of fruit. Yet because “we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7; 4:18; Romans 8:24), we continue to hope for a harvest and to trust that our work is not in vain. Sometimes, like Habakkuk (3:17-18), we must resolve to rejoice even in the absence of any prosperity.

We see this tension in Paul. At times he worries that he has wasted his efforts and labored for nothing with some converts (Galatians 4:11; Philippians 2:16) — that he, or they, might thwart or nullify the grace of God, receiving it in vain (Galatians 2:21; 2 Corinthians 6:1). At other times, he is confident that godliness is profitable (1 Timothy 4:8) and labor fruitful (Philippians 1:22), that our work “in the Lord” is never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58; Galatians 6:9-10; 2 Peter 1:5-8).

If Paul’s confidence occasionally wavers, it’s because he is “hard pressed on every side, . . . perplexed, . . . persecuted, . . . struck down, . . . We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). He compares himself to a broken jar (verse 7). Our English word futile comes from a Latin term meaning leaky or easily poured out. Paul lives with precisely this frustrating inability to retain and accumulate. Yet he refuses to “lose heart” (verses 1, 16) because, by the grace of God, what leaks out of him is “the glory of God in the face of Christ” (verse 6).

Paul also reminds us that, no matter who we are, our real work is other people. His converts are his joy and crown (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20; Philippians 4:1), his boast (2 Corinthians 1:14), the result of his work (1 Corinthians 9:1). If they frustrate him and cause him anxiety, still they are in his heart for life or death (2 Corinthians 7:3): that is, he is so identified with them that his own salvation is bound up with theirs. For their sake, he is willing, not only to leak, but to be “poured out like a drink offering” (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6).

We are not apostles, but on this point we are not so very different. Wittingly or unwittingly, we all sow into the lives of those around us. People watch us. Some may even be “won over without words” by our behavior (1 Peter 3:1). When we die, they may present evidence of our good works (Acts 9:39).

I sometimes wish that we could retire the phrase “full-time Christian service.” Of course we should honor our leaders, but every believer is a full-time servant of Jesus and of our neighbors. Paul makes this clear when he tells even slaves — who had little freedom to choose how they spent their time — that they are “serving the Lord, not men” (Ephesians 6:7; Colossians 3:23). In truth, we are all slaves marching in a procession that honors Christ (1 Corinthians 4:9).

So failure shouldn’t surprise or overwhelm us. I am not called to realize my artistic vision, but to be a vessel shaped by the finger of God. I may never inherit the promises in this life, but I can die still living by faith (Hebrews 11:13). I may never prosper, but I can sow abundantly. I may never proclaim, but I can leak.