In his book Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller talks about a little-known short story by J. R. R. Tolkien that comes with a deep, spiritual truth.
In the story, the main character longs to make a painting of a tree; it’s his life goal. He buys a huge canvas on which to paint the tree, and even though he realizes that he’s getting old and may never finish the tree before dying, he can’t seem to work past the very first leaf. He works very hard day after day, putting gratuitous detail into the painting, but unfortunately he can’t make it past the single leaf. He passes away before the tree is complete, leaving behind a piece of canvas with one very detailed leaf painted on it. The canvas is put on display in a museum, but it receives little attention.
However, his story does not end with his death. The artist finds himself in heaven, and there he sees it—his tree, finished exactly as he had always imagined it, in all its glory.
Sometimes we may feel like this character, working day-by-day on a tiny portion of a greater goal; painting the same leaf over and over again; struggling and suffering through the frustrations and disappointments of life. We all want to be successful and not forgotten. Whatever our work, we long to make a difference. But if this life is all there is, then everything will eventually burn up, and our work will have been in vain all along.
Unless there is a God.
And we labor knowing that there is, and that He has in store for us a true reality and a lasting one. We know that “in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:58) Whatever your work in life, you need to know this: there is a tree. Your work for God here and now will only be partially successful, and rarely in life will you feel like you have completed even one leaf, but one day the whole tree that you seek will come to fruition.
There is a day of complete restoration coming that won’t be like these days; when we will know the full glory of God and where tears, sorrow, and mourning will be no more. We are being restored by God and soon we - along with all of creation - will become fully restored, made again just exactly as we were meant to be.
But in the meantime, let’s work to bring that restoration to the here and now. Let’s do our best to instill hope and love and compassion in the world around us. When we work for God, even though our work will be incomplete in life, we bring a little bit of heaven to earth and hope to those who need it.