Even Tolkien Felt Like a Failure

by Scott Sauls April 20, 2023

One time J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a short story to help him process his own frustration with work. The story, Leaf by Niggle, was about an artist who had been commissioned to paint a mural on the side of city hall. Niggle spent the rest of his career attempting to complete that mural, a large and colorful tree that would inspire for years to come. But in the end, the artist was only able to eek out one, single leaf.

And then he died.

On the train to heaven, Niggle saw a vague, but familiar, image in the distance. He asked the conductor to immediately stop the train. When Niggle got off he approached the object and discovered that it was a tree—his tree—complete and lovelier than he had ever imagined. And there, in the middle of the tree, was his contribution—Niggle’s leaf for the whole world to see. In the end, Niggle discovered that all of it, the tree and even his single leaf, was a glorious, completed gift.

Tolkien wrote Leaf by Niggle as a way to process his frustration with another work of his, one that he had spent years creating but was convinced would never be completed or appreciated by anyone. The name of that frustrating work was Lord of the Rings.

If only Tolkien had known then what we know now about his “unsuccessful” work. And if only we knew now what we will one day know about our own work and how it fits into God’s overall plan to save and heal the world.

In those moments when you are tempted to stop pressing on and to give up, in those moments when you might be tempted to use the word “just” about your work—”I’m just an accountant, just a stay at home parent, just a musician without a label, just a landscaper, just a clerk, just a pastor…”—I encourage you to visit, and then revisit, the story of Leaf by Niggle. I encourage you to consider not only the past but also the future, where the significance of your life’s work, which may seem like only a leaf or two, will be revealed as an essential part of the tree that God will place right in the middle of his City—the great Tree of Life, which will be for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:2).

Although it is sometimes hard to believe that your work, done for God’s glory, has enduring significance, it absolutely does. In their book, Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller and Katherine Alsdorf do a tremendous job of explaining the significance of Niggle’s leaf and how it relates to our present stories:

“There really is a tree. Whatever you are seeking in your work—the city of justice and peace, the world of brilliance and beauty, the story, the order, the healing, it is there. There is a God, there is a future healed world that He will bring about and your work is showing it (in part) to others. Your work will only be partially successful on your best days, in bringing that world about. But inevitably, that whole tree that you see—the beauty, the harmony, justice, comfort, joy and community—will come to fruition. If you know all this, you will not be despondent that you can only get a leaf or two out of this life. You will work with satisfaction and joy.”

These comments help me see that my work, whether I recognize it or not—whether anyone else recognizes it or not—fits in God’s overarching plan.

Scripture promises, “No eye has seen, no ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). It also promises that the good work he has begun in us, every good work—whether it be the work of becoming more like Jesus in our character, or the work of painting just a leaf when we dream of a tree—will be completed. The God who is Creator and Restorer and Architect and Builder of his great city—will be faithful to complete that work (Philippians 1:6). And as he completes that work, he will also look toward us through the finished work of Jesus and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23).

The work you do now will go on into eternity. It’s a leaf on the Creator’s tree.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at scottsauls.com