J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of the epic novel The Lord of the Rings, wrote a fictional story entitled “Leaf: by Niggle” that inspired the conversation of productivity in the workplace and allows us to see how the gospel ensures our work will have an impact in this age and in the age to come.
Tolkien, a perfectionist dissatisfied with the works he produced, portrayed his own weaknesses in the character of Niggle, a character distracted by interruptions and insignificant details that hindered his main goals and dreams.
Niggle was a painter whose name in English alludes to an arduous and inefficient work that does not seem to bear the desired fruit, no matter how long you invested in it. He had to go on a long journey, though the idea itself was unpleasant. He didn’t want to travel, but the trip was inevitable. This long journey represents death.
“It is not finished yet!”
Niggle dreamed of painting a detailed leaf followed by an entire tree behind a beautiful field showing glimpses of a forest in the middle of a mountain range that exhibited its snow-capped boulders.
Niggle lost interest in his other painting projects and displayed a canvas so large that he needed a ladder to be able to paint the entire artwork. He knew he was going to die, but he said to himself: “No matter what it costs me, I will finish this painting, my real painting, before I have to leave for that miserable trip.”
So, he prepared to work on his canvas by brushing over here, and another brushstroke over there, but he never made much progress for two main reasons. Firstly, he was the type of artist capable of painting leaves rather than painting trees. He used to spend dead hours detailing a single leaf, displaying all the shadows, the lights, the green tones, the ribs, and the pores of the leaf that he visualized in his mind until it was perfect. But no matter how hard he worked, his canvas showed very little progress. The second reason was his kind heart. Niggle was constantly distracted by doing favors for his neighbors. In particular, he had a neighbor named Parish (a name alluding to ecclesiastical work in the ‘parish’ or community church), who did not appreciate Niggle’s painting at all and solely relied on his assistance in order to live.
On a cold, wet night, when Niggle sensed his time was near, Parish insisted that Niggle ride his bike to find a doctor for his sick wife. After exposure to the rain, Niggle fell ill with a fever and a cold. And while working desperately on his unfinished painting, the Driver arrives at Niggle’s house to take him on the journey he had frequently postponed. When he realizes he has to go, he burst into tears and exclaimed: “Oh no! It is not finished yet!”
The true end of the story
Sometime after his death, the new occupants who acquired Niggle’s house noticed that the canvas he was painting showed only a beautiful leaf that remained intact. That work was put in the town’s museum and hung there for a while under the title of “Leaf: by Niggle.” Maybe it was noticed by a few eyes in the museum.
But the story does not end there. After his departure, Niggle was mounted on a train to the mountains of the celestial beyond, where he finally reaches a certain place and sees something that catches his gaze. Before him stood the Tree, already finished. The leaves were open, and the branches grew and bent with the wind that Niggle had imagined on so many occasions but had failed to capture on his canvas. His gaze was fixed on the tree, and he slowly raised his arms, opened them wide, and said: “It’s a gift!”
The world before death — his former camp — had almost completely forgotten about Niggle, and his work had ended unfinished for the utility of a few. But in his new field, the permanent real world, Niggle finds his tree already finished and with all the details he had dreamed of. No longer bound to his imagination, this tree was part of that true reality that lives and will be enjoyed forever.
We are all Niggle
Tim Keller, in his book Every Good Endeavor, says that this story of Tolkien has often been told to people from various professions who, regardless of their beliefs about God and the afterlife, are always deeply moved.
Tolkien had a Christian understanding of art and work. He believed that God granted us gifts and talents so that we can do for one another what He wants to do for us and through us. Now Niggle was sure that the tree he had dreamed of was part of the true reality, and although Niggle’s Leaf was just a little bit of the tree that he was able to show the people of the earth, it gave a glimpse of the Truth.
Artists and entrepreneurs can immediately identify with Niggle. They work from visions of a world that only they can imagine. Actually, we’re all Niggle. We all imagine ourselves achieving projects and we all discover that we are unable to produce them as they were conceived. We all want to leave a legacy in this life, but that’s out of our control.
If this life is all that exists, nothing we do will make any difference, and every good deed, even the best of them, will be forgotten unless there is a God. But if this life is not the only life, and the God of the Bible exists in the midst of a true reality beyond, then every good work, even the most insignificant we have done in response to God’s call, will prevail forever because we have been promised that “in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor.15:58).
Working while fixing our eyes on the true Tree
Because of the gospel, the architect may dream of planning the ideal city because we know that after our journey, we will see the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev. 21-22); and the lawyer can dream of a vision of justice for the whole of society because we have been promised a kingdom of peace and equity where justice dwells (2 P. 3:13). Whatever you do in this world, in the end, you can only paint “one leaf”, but the day will come when your eyes will see the real tree and the whole forest!
There really is a tree. In fact, the Bible begins the story of redemption by speaking of the tree of life (Gen. 2:9) in a paradise that becomes forbidden because of sin and ends in Revelation with the same tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2). The tree is a figure of Jesus Christ, the Creator of all things (John 1:1-3; Col.1:16); the tree of wisdom (Pr. 3:18; 11:30; 13:12; 1 Co. 1:24,30; Col. 2:3), the only one worthy to be praised (Rev. 4:11; 5:12).
Although your work will only be partially successful in your best days, the whole tree you seek to accomplish in your work through the beauty, harmony, justice, joy, and peace of all good work is already prepared for you in Christ, in the house of his Father (John 14:1-6). So when you see that you can only make a leaf or two in the short span of your life, you shouldn’t brag about your success, or feel knocked down by your failures. As you believe and remember the promise of the gospel of Christ, you will work with satisfaction, joy, and hope in Jesus, the true Tree.