Your labour is never in vain


In the spring of 1980, my good friends Robert and Alice Ward were married at St Mark’s Church Kennington in central London. As an aside to this story, Alice’s grandfather, Lord Eccles, was responsible for founding the British Library located today near King’s Cross station in London, which I visited in 2014. It houses Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete copy of the New Testament dating from only three hundred years after Christ. When I saw it, I was so moved I began to weep. Beside it lay a fragment of one of the ancient Oxyrhyncus papyri with the opening words of Revelation on it, inscribed not much more than 100 years after the apostle John  first wrote down his vision. How people can question the veracity of the New Testament in the face of thousands of textual witnesses like this is beyond me! But back to the story. Robert and Alice’s wedding reception was held in the House of Lords, part of the edifice known as the Palace of Westminster, which houses the British Parliament, the most prominent feature of which is Big Ben. Following the reception, I stayed overnight with an architect and his wife, who recounted to me their sad story of being married for nearly twenty years without any children. That was the first time I ever prayed for a childless couple, and nine months later their baby was born. That set me on a lifelong journey of praying for couples and seeing babies born, the two most recent of which at the time of writing are just a few months old.

The following morning I had the honour of preaching (for the first time in my life) in an Anglican church. St Mark’s Kennington was at that time one of the great spiritual centres of London. The vicar (pastor) was a very godly man, Sir Nicholas Rivett-Carnac, who had previously had a distinguished career in the military. I asked him for permission to pray for the sick, in line with a word I felt I had received from the Lord to “preach the gospel and heal the sick.” He took a chance on me! Following the message, I gave an invitation for anyone who wanted prayer. To my astonishment, scores of people came forward. I wound up praying for people well into the afternoon and did not leave the church until around 2 pm.

Here is the point of my story. I was at that time in the early stages of founding Emmanuel Church in the cathedral city of Durham in northern England. I (and those with me) experienced vociferous opposition from local pastors, who felt our intention was to steal their sheep rather than see the kingdom advanced. This opposition, along with some severe spiritual warfare we encountered in relation to other matters, had left me at a very low ebb. In fact, I felt all I had done was for nothing. One morning I was sitting at my desk, reading Scripture. I came to 1 Cor. 15:58, which reads, “Therefore my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain." The words leapt out at me from the page, and God encouraged me greatly. Life flooded back into my spirit. And at that moment, the mail arrived. When I went to fetch it, I found a letter addressed to me. It was from a young lawyer who had been at that service at St Mark’s many months before. She wrote in the letter how she had been suffering from clinical depression so severe she had had to give up her practice and for the most part remain housebound. Somehow that morning friends had managed to bring her to church. She came forward for prayer. When I laid hands on her and prayed, she was instantly and completely healed. She had been able to resume work and had entered into a relationship with a young man she hoped would lead to marriage.

Whenever in my cycle of Scripture readings I come to 1 Cor. 15:58, the emotions of that day, the letter and its contents come back into my mind. We can experience times in our walk with God when we seem to hit rock bottom. Like the Psalmist, we cry out for deliverance, and sometimes God does not show up in the way or at the time we want. The apostle Paul himself appears to have suffered times of desperation we would probably describe today as some form of depression, where the “sentence of death” was passed on him (2 Cor. 1:9). His struggles with the Corinthian Christians, documented particularly in the first seven chapters of 2 Corinthians, are a testament to that. Yet even in our affliction, God’s comfort overflows. In fact, if my reading of 2 Corinthians 1 is correct, it may well be that it is only through affliction that the greatest, deepest and most powerful comfort truly comes.

His comfort came to me that day. The letter could have come and brought encouragement at any time in the months since the woman had been healed. But the fact is it arrived on my doorstep moments after God spoke those powerful words to me through Scripture. If God had turned up visibly along with the letter and said, “I told you so!” it could hardly have had a more powerful effect. It often comes back to me when times are tough.

I pray God will bring a measure of His comfort and encouragement to you through my story. Maybe it will land on your doorstep at just the right time!