In the closing minutes of the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring (part one of The Lord of the Rings), the story’s heroes face a hope-crushing defeat. They get trounced in battle, and scattered from one another.
Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn regroup. They are weary and shaken. “So it has all been in vain!” laments Gimli. Gimli is the stalwart dwarf-warrior, and the film’s only real source of comic relief. But not now.
Spoiler alert: Later, in the third and final LOTR film, the good guys win.
But Gimli’s reaction is true to life. And Christians have their all-in-vain moments: In doctors’ offices. In divorce courts. In projects that bear no visible fruit. Gimli’s lament reminds us of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities…All is vanity” (1:2).
Is that true? It was certainly true for the book of Ecclesiastes, which looked at life through a specific window: Genesis 3. In that chapter, Adam brought sin and death into the world. And in Ecclesiastes, sin and death took shape in death coming to all, and human efforts coming to nothing. It was all pointless. So: When we get trounced, is there any more to say? Are our efforts in vain?
The apostle Paul had an answer: “Therefore…be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,” he said in 1 Corinthians 15:58, “knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain”. (Note those last three words!)
That impacting promise was part of a new window. Ecclesiastes’ window was Adam bringing death. Paul’s window was Christ bringing life: Restored knowledge of God now, restored bodies on the Last Day (1 Corinthians 15).
In the meantime, in our trounced-and-scattered moments, how do we hold on to the “not in vain” promise? Here’s how: We pay attention to what the promise says: “In the Lord your labour is not in vain.” Paul “locates” our works. They, like us, are “in Christ.”
Think back to Christ lifting Peter out of the sea and setting him into the boat (Matthew 14:32). Even so, God has lifted us out of Adam and set us into Christ: “And because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:30). In themselves, our works are limited, flawed and prone to setbacks. But God has taken us up into Christ – and our works as well: “[In] the Lord your labour is not in vain.” That hope is the new window.
Our works: limited, flawed and setback-prone? Yes. In vain? No: Because they are “in the Lord”, God will work through them. Good and significant things will happen. And in the end, the good guys will win.