Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late toiling for food to eat--for he grants rest to his beloved. (Psalm 127:1-2)
This life is a constant battle between being whom and what God made us to be—in all of its truth and all of its beauty—and trying to be something, or someone, other than that. It is the difference between receiving a self (a true, God-breathed self) and trying to manufacture one. It is the difference between being organic (or authentic) and being synthetic.
We are builders by nature, even when it comes to the self. We are always, it seems, trying to build a life, a career, or a reputation—trying to make a name for ourselves—when who we are has already been whispered into us before the foundations of the world. We just need to find out who that is and be that. A dear friend once said, “I think I’ve been asking the wrong question most of my life. I’ve been asking, ‘God, what do you want me to do?’ when I should have been asking, ‘God, who do you want me to be, and help me to do whatever helps me to be that.’”
That’s where this Psalm comes in. It is a reminder from God about the order and essence of real life. Whenever we start building (even a self to be), our labor will most likely be in vain. The true self is God-built. We just need to discover who that is and what that looks like in the world. When we start trying to make something of ourselves, we just end up creating layer upon layer of falseness, “putting on coats against the cold” as Frederick Buechner once called it. And that is the definition of toil—laboring in vain.
Give me the wisdom, O Lord, to know the difference—this day and every day—between who you truly made me to be and what I have merely tried to manufacture as a result of my own fears and insecurities.