I give you my disclaimer up front – this is not even close to a review or analysis. It is purely devotional. If you can handle that, then, by all means, proceed.
I read this story a couple of years ago and enjoyed it. I didn’t take the time to reflect on it at that point. Recently, my 7-year-old daughter has been boldly stating that she wants to be an artist, and so, I thought this might be a good story to read together. And so we did.
I understood after my first reading that this story was somewhat autobiographical. Tolkien admitted as much. In some sense it is a fictional, imaginative account of his own insecurities and hopes. But, as it happened, the very night I began reading the little book with my daughter, I listened to a talk given by Tim Keller at a recent Gospel Coalition event. The talk (HERE) is entitled Redefining Work.
During the talk, Keller uses Leaf by Niggle as an illustration of a point he is making about work. He essentially says (I’m paraphrasing), that Leaf by Niggle captures a very important principle that Christians need to understand about vocation and work: What are Christians working for? We are working for God’s glory, for the good of God’s creation, for human flourishing, and for distinct elements of existence that lead to those ends. And, here’s the kicker, we will not see any of those things fully realized in our lifetimes.
Christian lawyers work for justice, and the world remains unjust. Christian doctors, nurses, and pharmacists (and others of course) work for the health and well-being of people – all of whom eventually die. Christian business people work to provide products and services that will promote human flourishing, and ultimately those products and services become a byword along with the humans they serve. Ditch-diggers dig ditches that don’t last. Mail Carriers deliver letters that wind up in the trash. Supermarket cashiers serve in order allow hungry people to walk out of the store with food. But, nevertheless, the fact remains that said food will end up in the toilet.
If you’re just there to collect a paycheck, then who cares anyway? It doesn’t matter. ‘Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity,’ says the pundit.
Tolkien cared about his work. He had passion to run the race that was his life’s writing. But, before it was completed, he saw this: he spent most of his life writing a series of books that he wasn’t sure would ever be completed. He spent so much time working on the leaves, he feared he would never see the tree to maturity. Hence Leaf by Niggle. It is the story of an artist who never sees his great landscape to completion because of endless distractions and obsession over details.
And then, something happens, and in a new life, he finds his portrait to be a living reality. And he finds himself to be no longer a painter, but a gardener. Along with the aid of his gardening neighbor, whom he failed to appreciate in his first life, he sees his life work to completion, not on canvas, but in the real stuff of nature.
I am restating Keller here, but from all this we glean an insight into reality. You spend your life working on the painting, only to find it complete in the next. Yes, from this story we can glean the lesson that even small, seemingly insignificant contributions we make to this world can have a lasting impact. But Tolkien goes beyond this. Niggle’s tree is forgotten in the end. His tree is forgotten, but trees are not forgotten. His tree is forgotten, but his tree exists nonetheless.
Tolkien spent his life envisioning a world of beauty and magic. He imagined a world in which good prevailed despite great loss. All of those things will prove true in the end – in this world – because Christ is returning, and he is bringing heaven with him.
So, let’s say you are a lawyer and/or a judge. You spend your life working for justice while injustice remains all around you. The Scriptures declare to you that there will be justice in the end. Or you are a lover of mercy-ministry and you desire to see the end of world hunger. You spend your life feeding the underfed, knowing full well that hunger will continue. But food is coming, the true Bread, which comes down from heaven, who gives his flesh as food for the world, is coming – and he comes to feast us. Or, let’s say, you are a preacher, like me, and you desire with all your heart to see the earth covered with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters fill the sea. You desire to see every knee bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father. You desire to present every saint under your care to the Father in the full maturity of the image and likeness of Christ. It’s going to happen, despite your failures.
In the midst of the fight that we call work, it always appears to be a losing battle for those who seriously desire justice, mercy, peace, love, and human prosperity. Remember that in the end Jesus wins. And his victory is our victory. You are not fighting a losing battle. There are no lost causes, so long as the cause of Christ stands first and foremost.
Go paint your tree, even if you only finish a leaf. Fight the insecurity and cling to the hope.