I don't know the name of the person who built the house I'm living in. It was constructed at the turn of the twentieth century, and as far as I know, there is no one who remembers the builder. He certainly never had any idea that I would be living in it 109 years later. All of that money and effort went to provide a place to live for someone he didn't even know. And I'm not even paying him (he's dead) or his descendants for the privilege. I'm paying some man living in Iowa. I wonder if this house meant a lot to the person who built it. It doesn't really mean a lot to me. If it wasn't here, I would have just gotten another one. Yes, sadly, the man who built this house is neither remembered, nor is his work appreciated by me: the only person who would likely care anyway, since I'm the one living in his house.
I wonder how different our work would be if we thought about it from the perspective of 109 years in the future. Right now, I'm toiling over writing this post, but in 109 years, no one will likely remember my name, and this data will have been long deleted. Should I have even started the work, then? What kinds of work are valuable anyway, and is there anything that will last?
I think of three things when I ask myself that question. The first is the book of Ecclesiastes, which says many times and in many ways something similar to the following, "I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity" (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19).
The second thing I think of is an old proverb (and not one of the biblical ones, although it is very good and very true): "Only one life, 'twill soon be past, only those things done for Christ will last." In a sort of ironic twist, no one even knows the name of the person who first penned that line.
And the third thing I think about is Jesus telling his disciples to not lay up treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal (and, we might add, will just go to your next of kin - or the IRS). But instead, He tells them that they should lay up treasures in heaven which will apparently last (Matthew 6:19-20).
So what sorts of things can we do that will last forever? What investment can I make deposits on here that will pay out for eternity over there?
As I ponder that question, I can really only come up with two answers. First, I can grow in my love and understanding of Jesus Christ to the point that meeting Him on the day that I die will truly seem like the greatest treasure imaginable. It's like what Jesus said in verse 21 of Matthew 6: "Where you treasure is, there your heart will be also." So I work to make Jesus my treasure, and I more and more look forward to going to see Him. This would lead a person to gradually get to where they can echo the apostle Paul's sentiments in Philippians chapter 1, where he says that he'd rather just die and be with Christ than anything. That seems like a good treasure to work for.
The second kind of lasting work that I can see is an investment into the spiritual life of other people. Communicating the gospel to someone so that they hear and obey and trust Christ for salvation means there's going to be an honest-to-goodness fruit of your labor that will last for eternity: another soul! But in addition to seeing folks get saved, being a part of a person's discipleship is also a great treasure. Helping someone else understand that Jesus is the greatest treasure is a toil that will pay eternal dividends. Thus Paul calls both the Philippian church (Philippians 4:1) and the Thessalonian church (1 Thessalonians 2:19) his "hope", "joy", and "crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at His coming."
So, if I want my toil to be meaningful and lasting, I should pour it into one of these two avenues, and - ideally - both at the same time. Building a house can be a great thing if it's needed in order to raise a family who will love and trust Jesus and therefore last forever. Working a job can be meaningful and lasting toil if it allows you to live in an area where you can broadcast the gospel and train believers to love their God. But we ought to think about our activities in those terms and not try to justify them on the grounds of temporary gains that will be quickly forgotten.