In his short story “Leaf by Niggle,” J.R.R. Tolkien provides insight to the struggle many of us face in our lives. Specifically, how do we labor effectively under the curse of sin in our world, families, careers, and the daily grind of our existence? The piece was first published in The Dublin Review and came at a point in Tolkien’s life when he despaired that he would ever complete his epic work The Lord of the Rings.
Niggle, the story’s title character, is a painter whose unique name means “to work in a fiddling or ineffective way, spending time unnecessarily on petty details.” In the story, Niggle is inspired to paint a mural of a grand tree surrounded by a beautiful landscape. But throughout the story he is distracted from his work and is plagued by the thought that he is about to die, which Tolkien describes with the metaphor of a journey. Niggle tells himself, “I shall get this one picture done, my real picture, before I have to go on that wretched journey.” At the end of his life he has managed only to paint a single leaf.
As he journeys to the afterlife, Niggle hears two voices, one that derides him for wasting his life by answering all of the distractions which consisted mostly of helping others, and another voice that comforts him because he was willing to help others. When Niggle arrives at his destination, he finds a picturesque landscape with the beautiful tree that he had labored all of his life to create.
Like Niggle, all of us struggle with the meaning of our lives. In the final analysis, what is it that we have contributed? What of note have we created? The good news of Niggle’s story is that in eternity the perfection he longed for in his created work was realized. In 1 John 3:2 we read these inspiring words, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” The realization of our desires to be in Christ and to be like Christ will be realized when Christ returns.
But until that day, we are called to be faithful to the task to which all of us have been called. We labor in faith knowing that God and the power of the Holy Spirit will make up the difference between what we have imagined and what we have accomplished. Often the key is in discovering what God has uniquely asked you to do and then doing it with purpose and sincerity. For example, God has privileged me to lead a church. As a pastor I am charged with proclaiming the gospel of Christ and serving the people of our congregation. Many days I feel I do an inadequate job of accomplishing the task set before me, but I take comfort knowing the grace of God that has called me to this position is the same grace that keeps me. And I know that one day the people that I serve will be presented before Christ, perfected by the grace of God.
You may not be a pastor, but whatever your calling in the context of your family and life, know that you are not laboring alone and that one day your labor will be perfected in Christ. As Tim Keller observes about Tolkien’s short story, “The world before death – his old country – had forgotten Niggle almost completely, and there his work had ended unfinished and helpful to only a few. But in his new country, the permanently real world, he finds that his tree, in full detail and finished, was not just a fancy of his that had died with him. No, it was indeed part of the true reality that would live and be enjoyed forever.”