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Isaiah mourned, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for naught and in vain” (1 Nephi 21:4).
How many of us feel that we have spent our lives laboring in vain and spending our strength for naught? Is our life really without purpose?
My wife and I have been married forty-two years. During that time, we have experienced several long seasons of distress when no sign of relief was in sight. Looking back, we have wondered how we ever survived those times. In an effort to laugh off the difficulties, we invented a joke that we repeated each Thursday, as we wheeled the garbage cans to the edge of the road. “Well, we made it to another garbage day!”
Garbage daythat became the measuring stick of our survival. We felt that we were making progress if we could just make it to another garbage day.
The joke was not so funny, however. During those protracted periods, I would often survey my life and mourn. How much of my mortal existence had I wasted on trying to survive? How many opportunities had passed me by because I was not in a position to embrace them? Sometimes I felt that my life had been dedicated to enduring and that I had accomplished nothing of significance.
Of course I was wallowing in self-pity, but I wonder how many of us doubt that our lives have much substance when we, too, slip into extended periods that exhaust our strength and challenge the limits of our endurance? Is our life without purpose? Is our faith in God vain?
Once, when I felt that I was slogging uphill in the mud, I dreamed that I was on an airplane flying at 600 miles per hour. After a while, I noticed a crippled man stand and hobble toward the front of the plane. Each difficult stride covered a mere twelve inches, and the man seemed frustrated by his slow pace.
Then suddenly I was on the ground observing the same scene from a different vantage point. Now from my new position, every step that the crippled man took spanned several miles! From his point of view, he was hardly making any progress at all; but from my point of view he was covering incredible distances.
I wonder if that is how God sees usrocketing through space toward an eternal destination? Does He view something about us that we cannot see? Isaiah confessed, “The Lord hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name.”
God knows my name and He knew me before I was born! I have a relationship with Him.
Isaiah continues,” “And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me” (1 Nephi 21:1-2). Is it possible that God has been preparing me like a polished shaft, a secret weapon, hidden from view that He intends to draw from his quiver, one day, and shoot at the heart of His enemies?
What Profit Is It?
Speaking for God, the prophet Malachi chastised us for questioning how the Lord works with us: “Your words have been stout against me, saith the Lord.”
We are shocked by his denouncement. After all, we have been trying so hard. Incredulously, we ask, “What have we spoken against thee?”
Then the Lord answers, “Ye have said, It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the Lord of hosts?” In other words, we have kept our covenants; we have prayed and fasted to the point of exhaustion; we have served diligently in our callings; we have humbled ourselves and faithfully attended the temple and our lives never seem to improve! What profit is it?
Worse, we look around us and see people prospering who are not living the commandments. “And now we call the proud happy; yea, they that work wickedness are set up; yea, they that tempt God are even delivered” (Malachi 3:13-15).
What is going on here? Is it vain to serve God? We feel like the crippled man, who longs for a healing that eludes him. So he is forced to inch along while the proud experience happiness, the wicked prosper, and deliverance comes to those who are Godless. How can this be?
In the Shadow of God
I am fascinated by the story of a man named Bezaleel. You probably haven’t heard of him, and yet he is one of the most important people in the Old Testament. The responsibility for building the tabernacle fell to him (Exodus 31:1-11).
In Exodus, we are informed that he was a skilled artisan in all works of metal, wood, and stone. Where had he acquired these skills? In Egypt, as a slave. For Bezaleel, every day must have been garbage day.
Imagine the years of hopelessness, laboring day after day with no end in sight. I am certain that Bezaleel wondered about the purpose of his life. Would he ever be able to use his gift for anything more than constructing and beautifying the Pharaoh’s cities? Had God forsaken him?
Interesting, the name Bezaleel means “in the shadow or the protection of God.” God was watching out for him after all. Bezaleel was being prepared not only for deliverance but for a mighty work that he would do to bind Israel to her God. Bezaleel’s work would become the model for all subsequent Israelite temples and even has application today.
Isaiah learned that our apparent captivity is really the seedbed of preparation for greater things.
In time, the Lord will retrieve us from his sheath as a sharp sword or from his quiver as a polished shaft. Our being “hid” had purpose after all: “[I will be] glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and my God shall be my strength” (1 Nephi 21:5). What we cannot see now has purpose; a perfect plan is being worked outside our view.
When I Make Up My Jewels
Making it to the next garbage day seems to make all the difference.
Job didn’t enjoy the process of preparation any more than we do. He also experienced reaching out to heaven and temporarily receiving silence in return: “Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him: on the left hand, where he doth work, but I cannot behold him: he hideth himself on the right hand, that I cannot see him.”
But Job also understood that what he was going through was seasonal. The furnace associated with the baptism of fire is hot, but “when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:8-10) stunningly beautiful and infinitely valuable.
The Lord explains our emergence and value this way: “And they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him.” Our waiting patiently for the Lord to deliver us from the captivity of our circumstance while he sharpens and polishes us for a greater purpose serves to distinguish us between “the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not” (Malachi 3:17-18).
Each of us experiences times when we feel that God is distant. Regardless of our best efforts to serve him, we imagine that our prayers and righteous efforts are vain. We wake up every morning to face the same distress; we feel that our life is slipping away and that we are making no progress at all. That is from our point of view.
However, if we could step outside our present circumstance and see through the eyes of God, we might observe that we are traveling at light speed, and perhaps we are being prepared to construct a temple where we can meet our God and bring in others to meet him also.
Thursdays were more than garbage days, after all. They were preparation days. The captivity season of our life wasn’t wasted or in vain.