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Did God finish Niggle’s painting?

Series: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Work That Lasts Forever
Devotional: 2 of 4
Published: May 24, 2021

 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:23-24)

Last week, I recounted the depressing first half of Leaf by Niggle, the short autobiographical parable written by J.R.R. Tolkien. Niggle was an artist who spent many years working on a painting of an enormous tree. But tragically, Niggle died only having completed a single leaf which was soon forgotten, along with Niggle himself. 

Here’s the second half of the story: After his death, Niggle was sent to the afterlife where we find him riding a bicycle through a heavenly countryside. Suddenly, something caught Niggle’s eye that was so extraordinary, he simply fell off his bicycle. Tolkien writes: 

“Before [Niggle] stood the Tree, his Tree, finished…‘It’s a gift!’ he said….He went on looking at the Tree. All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time.”

Beautiful, isn’t it?

We saw last week that if this life is all there is, then Solomon was right: All of our work is “meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:17).

But we know that, through Christ, this life is not all there is, and thus we have hope. In this beautiful short story, Tolkien is illustrating what the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15—that because of Christ’s resurrection and the promise of eternal life, you can “know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Somehow, our work matters for eternity.

How? There are many answers to that question, most of which I have explored in past devotionals. But today, I want to focus on one promise that is beautifully illustrated by the “gift” of Niggle’s finished tree. 

Scripture makes clear that while salvation is by faith alone (see Ephesians 2:8-9), there are eternal rewards tied to how we work in this life (see Colossians 3:23-24). Scripture also makes clear that the New Earth will be filled with works of culture (see Isaiah 60 and Revelation 21:26). 

With these truths in mind, is it possible that the picture Tolkien is painting in his short story could be true? That one of our eternal rewards could be God graciously finishing and perfecting the work we leave unfinished in this life?

I don’t think that’s far-fetched at all. We worship a God who works—a God who takes joy in creating with his hands (see Genesis 1-2). A God who loves giving good gifts to his children (see Matthew 7:11). 

I pray Tolkien was onto something. Because if he was, we have even more reason to “work heartily, as for the Lord” today!

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