When Your Work Seems to Be in Vain

By Mark D. Roberts

October 19, 2017

But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand,
and my reward is with my God.”

Isaiah 49:4


Working hard, knowing that it could topple at any moment, like in the game of Jenga.Have you ever felt that your work is in vain? Have you ever labored hard on a project, only to see it amount to nothing? Or were you once involved in a startup that had great promise but ended up failing? Maybe you go way out of your way to help one of your teenage children, but don’t even get a simple thank you. Or you serve tirelessly on your church’s evangelism committee, but attendance numbers continue to decline.

If you have ever felt as if your labor is in vain, you need the wisdom of Isaiah 49:4.

In chapter 49 of Isaiah, the Lord speaks to his Servant, sometimes pictured as Israel, and at other times pictured as an Israelite who embodies Israel’s own experience. This individual Servant of the Lord will restore Israel and bring salvation to the ends of the earth (49:6). Yet as Israel languishes in exile, it seems that her efforts to live for the Lord have accomplished nothing. The nation laments: “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all” (49:4). Nevertheless, Israel, as God’s Servant, decides to trust the Lord for the value of her work. “Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God” (49:4). Though God’s people cannot see how God will make use of their efforts, they are willing to entrust him with this concern.

There are many times in life when our labor seems to be in vain. We can’t see the value of our work. We can feel discouraged and hopeless. In these times, like Israel, we find peace and hope when we entrust our efforts to God. Rather than focusing on what has gone wrong, we present ourselves and our work to God as worship. We let go of our need to control the results, and we trust God to work in everything for good, according to his will.

I remember a particularly difficult stretch during my pastoral work in Irvine. I was receiving a lot of criticism for my leadership. It was hard to stand up and preach when I saw the angry faces of my critics staring at me. I wondered if I should continue on as a pastor. Quite honestly, part of me wanted to quit. Yet, in that time, I found that if I offered my work to God, he gave me the strength to persevere. As I stood up to preach, for example, I’d pray silently, “Lord, this sermon is for you. It’s for your glory. This is my worship today. Use what I say now as you wish.” I knew that even if nothing ever came from my preaching, God would be glorified, and that was enough.


Have you ever felt like your work was in vain?

When have you experienced that feeling?

What parts of your work right now seem to be fruitless?

What will help you to offer your work to God, to trust him with the results?


Gracious God, how encouraging it is to realize that I’m not alone among your servants in feeling that my work is sometimes in vain. I think back over the past twenty-five years of my work in various settings and remember so many times when it felt as if I was just spinning my wheels. Sermons preached bore so little obvious fruit. Pastoral counseling sessions seemed to make no difference. My leadership efforts were spurned. And so on.

How good it is, Lord, to be able to entrust my work to you. When I do, I don’t have to worry about the results. They are in your hands. Maybe someday I’ll learn how you used my efforts. Maybe I never will. But, in the meanwhile, what matters most to me is that I’m serving you. You are my Lord and Master. Your pleasure is what means the most to me.

I do thank you, Lord, for those times when you allow me to see that my work matters. You know how much I am encouraged to know how you have used my efforts in people’s lives. So, though I work for your delight, I thank you for sharing some of that delight with me. Nevertheless, may I entrust all that I do to you, offering my work as worship. Be glorified in my labor, Lord. Amen.


Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash.


Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online commentaryA Light to the Nations

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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