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Beyond pessimism

Are a Christian’s labors on earth in vain?


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Curious to peek down the road a few years to know what it feels like not to write a column, I read the swan song of Tom Fleming, outgoing editor of the monthly Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (June, 2015). It was not happy. Thirty years of raging against the dying of art, and corruption, and cupidity were rewarded with nothing but an increase in ugly art, corruption, and cupidity.

Evaluating his own epistolary efforts in the fray, Fleming compares himself to satirical bandleader Spike Jones (1911-1965), who retired when he saw that the serious music coming down the pike was worse than any satire he could concoct using cowbells and kitchen implements. Fleming complains: “If only I had followed his advice, I should have spared myself and my devoted handful of readers three decades of bitter satire that fell on blind eyes and deaf ears.”

“To be (a columnist) or not to be, that is the question.” Is Fleming correct that when all is said and done the conscienced writer labors for nothing against the forces of boorishness and immorality? Is he also right that in any case, “readers do not have to be reminded ad nauseam that rap and death-metal music are toxic waste for the mind and soul”? Would one or two whacks at transgenderism have been enough?

The veteran journalist raises one argument for the “yes” column that sends shivers through my soul: It is possible, he says, to be “spending so much time saving the planet or defending the family that we have no time to plant a garden or take care of our own children. … [A]long the way we betray our spouses and our children.”

‘I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God.’ —Isaiah 49:4

Ouch! (Or to copy Chronicles’ penchant for Latin: mea culpa.) I have in the bookcase beside me three score personal essays never sent—and never to be sent—to WORLD, each representing hours not playing with and talking to my children. (More on that in some future essay urging parents not to do as I have done.)

My husband helped immeasurably by offering new perspective on the decomposing paper stack: “They were your practices,” he said, salvaging the situation with one well-placed remark. I hope that this is true, at least in part.

It might fascinate the reader to know that Jesus Himself was bedeviled (literally, I would say) with the notion of failure and futility. We have it on good authority, of course, that this never slipped over into sin, for He was “in every respect … tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). But the sight of the eyes posed a challenge to the eye of faith with its counterfeit evidences of the vanity of the Messiah’s mission. Hear the lament of a wordsmith (like Fleming) in Jesus’ complaint:

“The Lord called me from the womb. … He made my mouth like a sharp sword. … And he said to me, ‘You are my servant. …’ But I said, ‘I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God’” (Isaiah 49:1-4, italics added).

Jesus, in taking the assignment, had “emptied himself” (Philippians 2:7) and was required “to be made like his brothers in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17), so in His voluntary limitations He may have had to study Isaiah, just like you and me, to be assured that things would work out well in the end (see verses 5 and 6). He went on to tell parables of unimpressive seeds that grow into large bushes, which indicates that He understood that servants of God should not “despise the day of small things” (Zechariah 4:10).

The Fleming farewell ends with him daydreaming about a retirement more focused on Palermo than Iraq, and eating fish at a place called Il Blu while watching “the sun rises blazing on the sea.” Before laying his quill down he pens his pessimistic conclusion, “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”

Maybe. It is good to peek ahead and think on how we’ve used our time; it yields a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12). It is also good to take heart if you find you are doing the Lord’s work, whatever your field of endeavor, “knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

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Andrée Seu Peterson

Andrée is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. Her commentary has been compiled into three books including Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me. Andrée resides in Philadelphia, Penn.

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