Even Tolkien Felt Like A Failure


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.

* P.S. You can read Tolkien’s story, Leaf by Niggle here.

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14 responses to “Even Tolkien Felt Like A Failure”

  1. Deanne Hunt says:

    Boy-o, did I need this today! Thank you, Lord Jesus…and my brother Scott!

  2. Stephanie Homburg says:

    This post was what I like to call “a hug from God.”

    You see, the staff of my church is reading The Magnificent Story by James Bryan Smith. We JUST discussed a chapter yesterday, where Smith uses the Niggle story to illustrate how all will be complete in Glory. And while I have been sharing that little tidbit with a few friends of mine in the last 24 hours, encouraging them to keep plugging along, I was just sitting here at my desk stressing over all on my to do list and that hamster wheel feeling.

    And then your blog email popped up, and that familiar Niggle story reminded me the promise is for ME TOO. My work is part of the tree. It doesn’t always feel like it, and it often doesn’t turn out the way I think it should, but the promise is there.

    Thanks for the reminder

  3. pat says:

    all of our works are as fifty rags. BUT God extracts that little part of our works that is not tainted by flesh and puts it to our account, Hallelujah!

  4. Debbie says:

    I really needed this today. Thank you.

  5. Diane K Jackson says:

    I was fretting in prayer about grieving lost dreams when GOD said: “Who put those dreams in your heart? If I put them there, I will make them come true. Stop fretting….you have all of eternity to fulfill my plans and your hearts desires.”

  6. […] When It Seems Your Life Is Going Nowhere […]

  7. Kenton Killebrew says:

    Really encouraged to read this, Scott!

  8. […] This article originally appeared on ScottSauls.com. You can view the original article and learn more about Scott Sauls here. […]

  9. Edmund Akintunde says:

    I am literally transfixed reading this. A new rest and calm just came over me. No more frustration and no more fear of failure. Am just gonna do my utmost and rest in the unfailing love of the Great Finisher. Thanks Scott.

  10. Rinda Smith says:

    It was from this story years ago that I named my art studio One Leaf Studio.

  11. Gayle says:

    Today was the day that I needed this. I have been in the midst of “painting a leaf” and feeling frustrated, disheartened that my efforts have been stalled by illness and me allowing the deceiver to tell me that I am not worthy to complete several tasks that I set out to do.
    I love the way that God uses individual’s gifts, in this case Scott Sauls writing, to spur us on to acts of love and good works. Thank you Scott.

  12. hayes says:

    thank you, Pastor!

  13. […] Even Tolkien Felt Like A Failure | Scott Sauls — Read on scottsauls.com/blog/2022/08/14/going-nowhere/ […]

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