Unless the Lord builds the house,Psalm 127:1-2
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
Are these verses comforting to you, or do they feel like a little bit of a punch in the gut? If I’m being honest, more often, it feels like the latter to me. I am very good at eating the bread of anxious toil. Whether I’m missing a few hours of sleep to study for midterms or staying an extra hour at work to make sure I get everything done, I am no stranger to rising up early and going late to rest.
It’s not that rising up early and going late to rest is in itself a bad thing. In the morning, the Proverbs 31 woman “rises while it is yet night” and, at the end of the day, “her lamp does not go out at night” (Proverbs 31:15, 18). Rather, it’s the heart motivation behind the early rising and late bedtime that’s concerning.
When we desire to build our own house rather than working for God’s glory and recognizing His sovereignty over our lives, then we labor in vain. The harsh truth is that we can work as hard as possible toward a good goal, but if God’s plan doesn’t align with that goal, then all our work toward it is in vain. If our work is not for God’s glory, founded on His power, then all that we do is in vain.
Does this mean that our work doesn’t matter? Not at all. Houses are worth building, and cities are worth watching over. Relationships are worth working on, and schoolwork is worth giving our best effort to, and jobs are worth applying for. But the responsibility for success in these pursuits does not lie on our shoulders, and our efforts toward them should not be rooted in anxious toil.
Anxious toil is rooted in the mistaken belief that the responsibility of shaping our lives lies on our shoulders. If it did, my goodness, would we need to toil! After all, we’d have to love everyone around us perfectly. We would have to know exactly which opportunities to take and which to turn down. We would have to make the best choice about school, work, and family every single time, because it would be possible to make a choice that would lead us in a direction from which we could never recover. If our lives were in our hands, our self-centered labor would certainly not be in vain, but it would have very high stakes. We wouldn’t have room to rest, because we could always get ahead a little further or make a somewhat better choice with the help of an additional hour of work. This is the anxious toil that can threaten to consume us: the constant worry that we aren’t doing enough, the nail-biting, heart-racing pressure to live up to the expectations we’ve set for ourselves. We begin to believe that the responsibility for the outcome rests on us alone instead of recognizing that it’s God who builds the house, God who gives us good test grades and good opportunities, and God who writes our story.
Yet “God gives to his beloved sleep.” Ultimately, as God’s beloved, we can’t make a wrong choice. God’s will is going to prevail no matter what, and His will works for our good and His glory to give us a hope and a future (Romans 8:28, Jeremiah 29:11). Because we know this, we can rest. God knows that we need food and shelter and clothes, and more than that, He knows the desires of our hearts. So Jesus tells us, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:32-34). As God’s beloved, we can rest in the knowledge that our anxious toil cannot bring us any closer to Him or change the plans He has set out for us.
Paul echoes this theme in 1 Corinthians 15:58: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” In the Lord is not a throwaway bit of Christianese, but an important qualifier: we are called to abound in the work of the Lord. Outside of His will, our labor is in vain, but in Him, it is abundantly worthwhile. And because God is ultimately in control, we can rest, knowing that we are not the ones building this house.