Unless the Lord builds the house,
They labor in vain who build it;
Unless the Lord guards the city,
The watchman stays awake in vain.
WITHOUT GOD, IT IS VAIN. Nisi Dominus frustra. This was the Latin saying, from Psalm 127:1, found over the door of many English homes in years gone by. It would be hard to find another handful of words that contain a greater store of wisdom.
To seek worldly ends without seeking God is to doom ourselves to eventual failure. Accomplishments that may appear significant right now will be seen to have fallen short when the final accounting is made. And the reason is simple. If we work at cross purposes with the Creator we fight against reality, and no one can do that and win in the end. “There is no wisdom or understanding or counsel against the Lord” (Proverbs 21:30).
Obviously if what we’re doing involves sinful behavior, our work can’t ultimately succeed. But even if there is nothing wrong with our deeds themselves, if we simply leave God out of our plans and work in our own strength to our own glory, we still will not accomplish anything meaningful. “Apart from God every activity is merely a passing whiff of insignificance” (Alfred North Whitehead). Mortal efforts alone are simply not sufficient to achieve anything more than temporary success.
Since it takes time for the real consequences of our actions to show up, the emptiness of work that disregards God is not always apparent right now. But eventually the failure of godless activity will become clear. In the long run, if not in the short, the law of the harvest always prevails: we reap what we sow. We can’t break this law, we can only break ourselves against it.
It is said that man proposes, but God disposes. “There are many plans in a man’s heart; nevertheless the Lord’s counsel, that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21). To seek anything less than God’s will in our work is to exhaust ourselves in labor that must finally fail. The wise are willing to be warned about this.
Ancient of Days! Except thou deign
Upon the finished tasks to smile,
The workman’s hand hath toiled in vain,
To hew the rock and rear the pile.
(William Cullen Bryant)