Would it shock you to know that Jesus experienced the feeling of having accomplished little?
In Isaiah 49:4 we read these words: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing 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 matrix of my mother…The Lord…formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, so that Israel is gathered to Him” (49:1, 5).
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” were a response to the Father who had just declared, “You are 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 nothing” (49:4).
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.”
Christ came into the world to fulfill the will of God by reviving Israel. And he did just as he was commanded. But Israel rejected him: “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11).
Why would Jesus, or any man or woman of God, speak such despairing words as these: “I have labored in vain”? How could the 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.
The truth is, we’re all called to one grand, common purpose, and to one ministry: that is, to be like Jesus. We are called to grow in his likeness, to be changed into his express image.
Luke 15:3-7 talks about the shepherd who leaves his flock of 99 sheep in order to search for one lost sheep, and we usually focus on the lost sheep, but what about the others who were left behind?
I imagine that out of those 100 sheep, there were probably three or four who were always right at the shepherd’s knees wherever he went. These were the sheep who thought, “Man, we’re not leaving you.” They knew what time the shepherd woke up in the morning, and if he woke up at 6:00 a.m. then at 5:59 those were the sheep nudging his arm. These were the sheep who would notice the moment the shepherd became alarmed and start bleating.
These are the sheep who are the diligent seekers. They not only know the Lord’s voice like most of the other sheep, but they also love being in his presence.
So when that one sheep wanders off, the shepherd goes out to search for it, and he leaves (momentarily) the sheep who are diligently seeking him. Have you ever noticed that, those of you who diligently seek God? Sometimes you wonder, “Where did he go? I was following him; I was close to him. I was feeling his presence, and now I can’t.”
How many times did Jesus leave his disciples to spend time with God or talk to someone who was socially outcast? He always found his disciples again, or they found him, but usually it was under circumstances that made them wonder, “What is he doing now?”
God is about his business, and his business is glorifying himself through the saving of his people. He’s going out after the lost sheep. As often as not, it happens in ways that even we who closely follow him don’t understand. These are the moments when our faith is stretched and refined, to continue trusting that, even when we don’t understand his actions or he seems to leave us, our shepherd is merciful and just.
In the days when the Philistines gathered to fight against Israel with 30,000 chariots, 6,000 horsemen and people as numerous as the sand of the seashore, King Saul and the men of Israel perceived that they were in danger and began to hide in caves and holes. The Scripture says that others followed Saul in Gilgal, trembling. Yet there was one who was not found among the fearful. Jonathan, son of Saul, turned to his armor bearer and said, “Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised; it may be that the Lord will work for us. For nothing restrains the Lord from saving by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6).
Jonathan was not afraid to face his enemies, despite being accompanied by only his armor bearer. He understood that it was the Lord’s battle, and so he confidently asserted, “The Lord has delivered [the enemy] into the hand of Israel” (14:12).
Jonathan and his armor bearer took only half an acre. It might have seemed like a small and insignificant victory, but when they claimed that half acre, it sent a shudder right through the ranks of hell. The Bible says that an earthquake and a great trembling went through the whole host. The Philistines trembled because finally somebody chose to believe God. They definitely did not regard this victory as insignificant!
Likewise, we can stand our ground in any situation. “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).
Freedom from fear comes when you remember the reason for the opposition — when you remember that God has allowed it in your life in order to sustain and nurture you. When you choose to face your enemies, it is actually a key to unlocking the provision of God for your life and the lives of those around you. You see, the battle is not yours, it is the Lord’s.
Carter Conlon joined the pastoral staff of Times Square Church in 1994 and was appointed Senior Pastor in 2001. In May of 2020 he transitioned into a continuing role as General Overseer of Times Square Church, Inc.
We have learned from Isaiah 49 that the Lord knows your battle. He has fought it before you. And it is no sin to endure thoughts that your labor has been in vain, or to be cast down with a sense of failure over shattered expectations. Jesus himself experienced this and was without sin.
It is very dangerous, however, 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 just reward 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 such things until we stand before him in eternity.
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: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
The Lord appeared to Abraham one day and gave him an incredible command: “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).
How did Abraham respond to this incredible word from the Lord? “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8).
What was God up to? Why would he search the nations for one man, and then call him to forsake everything and go on a journey with no map, no preconceived direction, no known destination? Think about what God was asking of Abraham. He never showed him how he would feed or support his family. He didn’t tell him how far to go or when he would arrive. He only told him two things in the beginning: “Go,” and, “I will show you the way.”
The place God wanted to lead Abraham is a place he wants to take every member of Christ’s body. Abraham is what Bible scholars call a “pattern man,” someone who serves as an example of how to walk before the Lord. Abraham’s example shows us what is required of all who would seek to please God.
Make no mistake, Abraham was not a young man when God called him to make this commitment. He probably had plans in place to secure his family’s future, so he had to be concerned over many considerations as he weighed God’s call. Yet Abraham “believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).
The apostle Paul tells us that all who believe and trust in Christ are the children of Abraham. And, like Abraham, we are counted as righteous because we heed the same call to entrust all our tomorrows into the Lord’s hands.