The Church teaches that we need we need to cooperate with God’s grace, but sometimes it seems like our efforts amount to very little.
That may be the whole point, as St. Therese explains in her account of a deeper conversion of the heart she experienced one Christmas.
St. Therese had been suffering from emotional fragility for a decade — ever since her mother’s death. On Christmas 1886, her father announced that it would be the last time the family would be observing the tradition of putting out her shoes, filled with gifts, in the fireplace. As St. Therese tells us, normally this would have greatly upset her. But, on that night, she was able to take it in stride.
In a moment, after ten years of struggle, Jesus had healed the young saint from her emotional vulnerability.
Here is how St. Therese reflects on the transformation:
Jesus, satisfied with my goodwill, accomplished in an instant, what I had been unable to do in ten years. Like the apostles, we could say: ‘Master, I have toiled all the night, and caught nothing’ (Story of a Soul, 53).
St. Therese is quoting from Luke 5, where the disciples are told to cast out their nets once more after a night of unsuccessful fishing. (Another version of the story also appears in John 21.) Except in her case, Jesus did all the work:
Jesus was more merciful to me than His disciples. He Himself took the net, cast it, and drew it up full of fishes (Story of a Soul, 53).
The lesson here appears to be that ,on our side of the ledger, it is not so much the works we do — those add up to very little in the grand scheme of things — but the goodwill behind the works. Only when God works through us do our ‘works’ pay off, as St. Paul explains in Philippians 2:12-13,
[W]ork out your salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work.
Likewise, in John 15:5, Jesus declares, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”
In a way, St. Therese’s long years of effort were very necessary. This isn’t because her work itself was effective but because her perseverance and patience proved her goodwill and openness to God’s action in her life.
The point is also illustrated by the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20. As the story goes, groups of workers show up progressively later and later in the day. But once the day is over, all are paid the same daily wage. When the early arrivals protested, the vineyard owner notes that he did not go back on his contract with them—he just was more generous with the latecomers.
The principle at work in St. Therese’s story further explains why it doesn’t matter how long the laborers had been toiling. Ultimately, the number of hours logged in matter much less than the inner disposition of the will.
There might be yet another reason God asks us to do some work of our own. Perhaps it’s to show us how little we can accomplish on our own. As Psalm 127:1-2 says,
Unless the LORD build the house,
they labor in vain who build.
Unless the LORD guard the city,
in vain does the guard keep watch.
It is vain for you to rise early
and put off your rest at night,
To eat bread earned by hard toil—
all this God gives to his beloved in sleep.
The message, that long years of toil may produce nothing, may seem depressing. But ultimately there’s a hidden comfort in this truth: all your hard work may indeed amount to very little, but the intention behind these efforts does matter a great deal. While God won’t be impressed with your achievements, He will be impressed with how completely disposed your will is to Him. So all your hard work is making a difference, just not in the way one would normally think of it.
So, whatever your task is — growth in a certain virtue, pursuit of your vocation, deepening a devotion or your commitment to holiness — go ahead and work away. But also trust in God and wait for Him to deliver the results. That is the paradox of freedom and grace. It may be exceedingly frustrating at times, but it is also a great consolation.