—Psalm civ. 23.
This verse, taken from one of the most familiar Psalms, brings with it a very deep sense of our daily life. Until the evening of the day, until the evening of our life, we go forth unto our work and to our labor. This is our appointed lot, which we accept without querulous repining. The best of us have the conviction that somewhere in it, although our eyes may not always know the place, lies the blessedness of life. To fill the day with action, and to make our life replete with deeds worthily done, is what, moreover, we call our duty; and our usual sensibility continually prompts us that in our duty is to be found the secret and meaning of our life, and that of life itself, which we recognize as its satisfactory part. "To labor is to pray," says an old Latin proverb which has been subjected to much hackneyed usage; but whatever we have made it mean at various times, it does mean, among the rest of things, that in labor there is even a divine element.
Work is the antidote of a wretched spirit. As distinguished from pleasures which tend to diminish as they are contemplated, our sorrows, by meditation and brooding, tend to increase. The right spirit in which to encounter trouble is created by one method only, by plunging headlong into work and beating against the waters of despair. Such men swim, keeping their faces to the skies, while others sink into the depths like plummets bound for the bottom. The greatest men I have read of, buried their griefs not in their hearts, but in their labors, biding not the hour, but in the immediate time working out their peace and salvation. And so may we. We should prepare ourselves to "bear with meekness the sorrows and losses which few of us can escape, and when once they are upon us we shall bear them best by still deeper engagement in active tasks which lever make for our fuller life. Labor can overcome the sorrow that besets us.
The motto of my old town declares that "Labor overcomes all things." It is a worthy phrase for the community to ponder. Those words of Christ, "I have overcome the world”—and it is worth notice in passing that the sword in the Greek Testament for "overcome" has exactly the same meaning as the Latin word used in the town’s motto—these words of Christ, which have purely a spiritual reference, always strike me—and they come into my mind very often—as expressing fundamental truth, without the recognition of which our life may be spent without much purpose and aim and achievement. Life is a continued wrestling with an adversary. The very earth must lie broken at man’s feet—vanquished, as it were—before he may eat bread. That fact was the old historian telling us when he wrote, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread. The relative value of our occupations, be they chiefly of hand or of brain, is determined by their difficulty; those callings which call for most power, for the reason that they furnish for our surmounting more hard duties than others, are the most honored, and in some respects are the most necessary. There against us, whether our station be high or low, stand and challenge us things to be overcome, and we must cope with them, and get the better of them—only honestly; they may trip us otherwise—if we would win something more seemly than plain existence, beautiful life.
And we can only overcome with labor. That which draws the powers to their full tension is the condition of strength; and strenuousness, with all its painful zeal, that of life. The man exhausted on the morrow is he who is idle today, not he who gives the real energy of hand and brain and heart to the mastery of his task. And without this daily expenditure what we call life may become a very empty thing.
Labor, the suffering we experience in toil, overcomes all things. We go forth, laboring until the evening, with this faith, that as we suffer in them so we fulfill our tasks, as we are spent in them so we find life. I can be no prophet of an easy future, or I should be false to the truth God discovers to my mind. It is not for any one of us to seek pleasures as children gather flowers, which already begin to die in their hands. Neither pleasure nor pain can any life command. But we are commanded in duties, trivial things of the home and the marketplace, little kindnesses for other lives and great purposes for the ordering of the world. Says the Spirit in the allegory of the book of Revelation, "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” It is the dream of heaven not far removed from any human soul.
—From The Christian Life