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  • Writer's pictureJohn Piper

Overcome Anxiety: Don’t Labor In Vain (Psalm 127:1)

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. —Psalm 127:1

This post is an excerpt from the sermon Don’t Eat the Bread of Anxious Toil by John Piper.

Four Ways to Labor in Vain

That is the main point, I think: God’s beloved ought not to undertake his labors fretfully. Then besides the main point I see two reasons given why it is pointless and unnecessary and indeed wrong for God’s beloved to eat the bread of anxious toil. The first reason is given in verse 1: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” What would it mean to build in vain and to watch a city in vain? How might the efforts of a man to build himself a house be shown to be futile and empty and vain? I can think of four ways:

1) If God Isn’t with You

First, if God isn’t with him in the building he simply may not be able to finish it. You remember of course the builders of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. They built, but God was not in it, and so they labored in vain—he did not allow them to finish it. That is the first way our labor could be shown up as vain when God is not in it.

2) If the Building Collapses in a Year

The second way is that the building may in God’s providence be completed and yet later collapse because of a poor foundation. “The foolish man built his house upon the sand, and the rain fell and the floods came and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell and great was the fall of it.” God might sustain us and allow us to go right on building utterly oblivious to his secret support; and then when our buttons are bursting and our nose is in the air, the sand crumbles and we fall flat on our backs, and hopefully learn before it is too late that unless we rely on the Lord in our building, we labor in vain.

3) If You Die Before Entering

But there is a third way that my labor may be in vain. The project is completed with no interruptions, the achievement is sound and long lasting. But on the very day for entering, I drop dead of a heart attack. Solomon was painfully aware of what he wrote in Ecclesiastes 2:20f:

So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a man who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by a man who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.

Life and death are in the hand of the Lord and none of us can lengthen our lives one cubit beyond our appointed time.

But someone may argue, the psalm says that our labor is in vain only if the Lord isn’t in our labor, but people die even when the Lord is in their labor. Can it be that they too have labored in vain, even though they relied on God for help in their building? My answer is, No indeed, for death is not the end for God’s beloved. When they die, to be sure, they do not take their house or business or family with them, but all their labor done in reliance on the Lord does go with them and testifies to their faith before God. As Revelation 14:13 says, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth. Blessed indeed, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.” And as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

Yet for those who labor in this life without relying on the Lord a third way that this is shown to be vain is that when the achievement is complete and ready for their use, they may die and get no pleasure from it.

4) If It Becomes a House of Tragedy

The fourth way that our labor may be in vain if God is not in it is this: the mansion may be completed smoothly; it may be fine and long lasting and we in God’s providence may be granted to enter and live in it only to find it has become a house of tragedy—a broken marriage, rebellious children, amid an abundance of meaningless knick-knacks on marble shelves. Emptiness, futility, vanity because God did not build the house.

It seems to me that the point of verse 1 is that no matter how hard you work to achieve anything, its achievement and the fulfilling enjoyment of it depend decisively on God. If we do not trust in God with all our heart but instead rely on our own insight, then we might, if he wills, produce a monument, but in the end it will only be a monument to futility.

I said that verse 1 was the first of two reasons why God’s beloved should not be anxious in his labor. How does it, then, help us overcome anxiety? It worked like this for me. As I walked out of my office on the way to class, I reasoned that if my highest efforts are only in vain without God’s special help, then the success or failure of this class lies ultimately on him, not me. And with that a weight was lifted off my back that I was never created to carry, namely, the final responsibility for the success or failure of any venture.

Sometimes the truth of that would well up in me so much I felt as light as a butterfly. I can’t carry the weight of whether this class likes me today, Lord. I can’t carry the weight of whether they may ask me questions beyond my ability, Lord. I can’t carry the weight of opening their hearts to believe the doctrine of your sovereignty, Lord. These weights are too heavy! They are yours! And I have found that God is not only willing but eager to take the burden of final responsibility for whether the house gets built and the city is saved. And for me that is a great reason not to be anxious in my labor.

Excerpted from the sermon Don’t Eat the Bread of Anxious Toil by John Piper.


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