Genre: Christian Living
Author: Tim Keller
Title: Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (Buy the Book)
It is often said that there are only two certainties in life – death and taxes. While it may not make it into that exclusive club, work is certainly a close third. Almost everyone has to work for at least part of their life, and as the world grows more and more competitive, the idea of work has become increasingly complex and fraught with stress and anxiety.
In the modern world, people are forced to confront a number of issues when it comes to their work: Why do I want to work? Why is it so hard to work? How can I find satisfaction in my work? In Every Great Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work, Timothy Keller addresses these questions through the perspective of the Christian faith, using Biblical teachings to explore the confusing and often contradictory feelings we all have toward this universal aspect of human existence.
The first issue Keller addresses
At the same time, however, it is important that work is not the sole source of meaning. God rests in Genesis as well, showing that work is most fulfilling when balanced with meaningful rest. The Bible also endows the idea of work with a sense of pride, even “secular” work separate from the spiritual work of ministers or missionaries – after all, Jesus himself was a carpenter.
What gives work meaning is not the form it takes, but that it is a “calling,” a vocation in which a person can use the tools and abilities granted by God to best serve the needs of others.
Unfortunately, work has another aspect to it, which Keller addresses in his section on why it is so hard to work. Later in Genesis, when Adam and Eve fall into sin, the idea of work transitions from one focused on fulfillment to one of “painful labor,” a decidedly more earthly interpretation.
When people are no longer working for the good of others, work takes on different meanings that are ultimately unsatisfying. In Keller’s view, modern society has set up false idols of self-image and profit, which have misdirected our motivations for work. Like the builders of the Tower of Babel, who sought to “make a name for [themselves],” people today work to gain status, or to define themselves socially or financially.
Unfortunately, once work becomes a necessity rather than a vocation, it becomes in some people’s minds the ultimate solution, a way to get ahead in the world, serving one’s self rather than others.
So how can one find satisfaction in work? How can society get back to the notion of work as a service to others? Keller believes that attitudes toward work have shifted due to a change in worldview – the perspective from which we interpret all of reality.
By focusing on a return to a Biblical worldview, we will be able to return toward a healthier attitude toward work, rather than the corrupted attitude brought about by the idolization of status and profits. Whether as employers or employees, we must orient ourselves toward fully utilizing our position and talents to work for the right reasons.
Rather than getting caught up in the frustration of working for a paycheck, one must work for something bigger than himself. Understanding this allows us to view work as a calling, be passionate about the work we were called to do, and have that passion lead us ultimately to excel in our work. By doing so, we can look back on a life of work
In Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah wrote, “To make a real difference…[there would have to be] a reappropriation of the idea of vocation or calling, a return in a new way to the idea of work as a contribution to the good of all and not merely as a means to one’s own advancement.”
In his book Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work, Timothy Keller explores the idea of work as a calling and illuminates the connection between Christian faith and the workplace.
The amount of information regarding the integration of faith and work has increased drastically in the last twenty years. Christian ethics, motives, identity, witness, and worldview shape an individual’s work in different ways. Keller seeks to provide clarity on this increasingly complex subject by dividing it into three parts: God’s Plan for Work, Our Problems with Work, and The Gospel as it relates to Work.
However, with the current state of the world, how does one even begin to integrate something that can be as deeply frustrating as work with something as spiritual and uplifting as faith? Keller offers J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle” as hope in this pursuit of vocation.
At the beginning of the
Niggle had a vision of a tree he wanted to paint before embarking on the desolate journey toward death. He began by laying out a canvas so large that he needed a ladder to reach the top. As Niggle worked, his neighbors called out to him, and he kindly put his work on hold to help them.
He focused so much time on each individual leaf of the tree that he saw little progress toward his ultimate goal of finishing the painting. After going out into the cold to fetch a doctor for his neighbor’s sick wife, Niggle becomes sick and starts the journey he has put off for so long, leaving behind only “one beautiful leaf.”
Thankfully, the story goes on and Niggle hears two voices on his journey to the afterlife. One, whom Niggle believes to be Justice, says Niggle wasted time and accomplished nothing. The other, whom Niggle believes to be Mercy, says Niggle chose to sacrifice for others, knowing the potential consequences. As a reward for his sacrifice, his tree stood before his heavenly destination forever a part of the true, eternal reality where it would live and be enjoyed forever.
The word “niggle” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “to work… in a fiddling or ineffective way… to spend time unnecessarily on petty details.” Therefore, Tolkien names his character Niggle who, in many ways, embodies each of us. Everyone seeks to accomplish some task that he or she is unable to complete.
We all want to make a difference and be remembered, but if life in this world is all there is, then every good endeavor is fruitless. Conversely, if this life is not the only life, and the God of the Bible exists, then every good endeavor matters eternally, allowing us to complete our “tree” one leaf at a time.
In order to work in this way, however, and complete our “tree” we must know the Bible’s answer to three questions: Why do you want to work? Why is it so hard to work? How can we overcome the difficulties and find satisfaction in our work through the gospel?
WHY DO YOU WANT TO WORK?
Work Has a Specific Design The book of Genesis uses the word work to describe God creating the world. “Work” did not carry the same connotation that it does today. In fact, the beginning of work could not have a more illustrious introduction. God enjoyed His work and worked for enjoyment.
We are made in the image of that very God; we are created to enjoy work and find happiness in and through our work.
It makes perfect sense then, that we feel a desire to work and experience emptiness when we do not have meaningful work. Work allows us to contribute to the good of others, rather than simply living a life seeking self-advancement. By working, we are acting innately with our nature as God intended.
Consider, is a fish imprisoned because it is restricted to water? If the fish were to be “set free” from the water’s limits, onto land, would it not soon lose every aspect of its freedom? This translates into numerous areas of the human life.
We are, in effect, set free by the very boundaries that constrain us. Similarly, God’s commandments for each of our lives liberate us, as they provide us with boundaries that allow us the freedom to be everything that God intended for us to be.
While God intended for work to give our lives meaning, he did not intend for work to become the meaning of our lives. Many people treat rest as a necessary evil, something we do for the mere purpose of returning to work this week with the same level of energy we brought to work the prior week.
Genesis 2 verse 2 tells us God rested. The notion of God resting is important because he did not need to rest in order to recharge for the next week. God rested to affirm that there is meaning in life outside of work as well. Thus, we must understand that God designed work to be most fulfilling when balanced with meaningful rest.
Work Has Pride
Upon creating the world and every creature in it, God only chose to assign a job to man. Man was to rule over the earth. This is consistent with the fact that man was created in God’s image. It is important to make the distinction between the ancient Greek view of work and God’s view of work.
The ancient Greeks likened individuals doing manual work to animals, but God designed work specifically for man, elevating human beings above all earthly creatures regardless of the type of work. In fact, God was depicted in the Bible as a gardener and Jesus as a carpenter.
This is an important concept for “secular” work as well. It shows that God values all work, for he was both a preacher and a carpenter. Therefore, we have the freedom to do work that fits our gifts and passions – work that we were designed to do.
We are then just as much involved in work that matters to God whether we are producing products for the advancement of society or working as missionaries to spread God’s word.
All Work Enriches
Mankind was given the ability to innovate so that we may carry on God’s work in the world. By using the raw materials at our disposal to further develop the world, we allow the world and people to grow and flourish. Keller says, “A biblical understanding of work energizes our desire to create value from the resources available to us.”
Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Seminary, was speaking to a group of bankers in New York when he encouraged them to think of God as an investment banker.
He utilized his skills and abilities to create an entirely new world filled with life. In the same way, investment bankers invest resources at their own risk and cost to meet the needs of individuals. The result leads to a better quality of life through new jobs and better products.
While not every investment banker seeks to serve the common good, not every individual in investment banking is in it for the primary purpose of making money either. We do not have to make judgments about Godly and ungodly work because, with the right intentions, we have the ability to serve God through all work.
We are freed by our work because our salvation is through grace, not by any effort of our own. There is no superior form of labor, because no particular form of work, not even ministry, does anything to earn favor with God. He has given us salvation through His grace, allowing us to work for the sole purpose of loving God and our neighbors.
Work as a Calling
In order for work to be a vocation or calling, someone else has to call us to do it, and we have to do it for the sake of others rather than for our own. Therefore, to work in the way God intended, we have to be working toward the greater good of others. We are not to be self-seeking in our work by searching for the job that pays the most or promotes our status.
Ironically, if we work toward something beyond ourselves, we will likely work harder and become more successful than we would otherwise. This is because we feel a calling to our work and are therefore, set free by our work.
The best way to serve others through work is to be competent.
Competence allows us to do our job better and, in turn, serve others more
Work was designed to be a calling and therefore, will not be fulfilling unless we understand our work as such. We have the ability to worship the God who equipped us with the tools to work, regardless of the kind of work we are doing, if we identify our calling and work to serve others through it.
WHY IS IT SO HARD TO WORK?
The Fall of Work
Genesis 2 verse 17 states that Adam and Eve were not to eat from the forbidden tree or they would “surely die.” In eating from the forbidden tree, Adam and Eve fell into sin, changing the world forever. Work is cursed because of Adam and Eve’s (mankind’s) fall, and the presence of sin has distorted work by giving it a “worldly” meaning.
The introduction of sin on earth altered the very structure of the world. The book of Genesis transitions from focusing on work as fulfillment to work as “painful labor.”
This is not because work itself has changed but because work, like all other aspects of the physical world, has fallen under the curse of sin. This explains then why so many of us, like Niggle, envision much more than we will ever be able to accomplish.
A proper interpretation of work reveals that we need work for happiness due to our design, but work is also regularly frustrating due to the fall of mankind. However, we can find comfort and hope in the fact that work in the paradise of the future will be as God intended, free from the curse of sin. We will find our work infinitely more fulfilling and complete in that paradise, just as Niggle’s leaf stood before him complete, as a tree in front of his heavenly destination.
An Altered View of Work
Many today tend to choose work that enhances their own self-image. We seek high-status jobs that pay well, directly work on society’s needs, or are “cool.” We no longer look at the gifts that have been bestowed upon us and think about how we can best use them to serve others.
Rather, we think about career selection as a defining moment in our lives, and work begins to define who we are. We no longer seek to love our neighbors through work, but rather use work as a distinguisher to differentiate ourselves from our neighbors.
Genesis 11 presents the story of the building of the Tower of Babel.
The story ends with God “confusing their languages,” preventing them from communicating. The book of Genesis gives us two reasons for building the Tower. First, they had discovered how to build with bricks rather than stone, allowing them to build a much taller structure than ever before. There is nothing wrong with this intention.
In fact, if this were the only reason, they would be serving God through their competence in their work. However, the second reason given is to “make a name for [themselves].” To
The Impact of Idols on Work
The First Commandment orders: “Thou shalt have no other gods…” When we turn a good thing, like work, into an ultimate thing, it can quickly become a powerful force, controlling our actions by controlling our hearts. However, idols can also be created out of collective sins and problems.
When a group or country makes and serves an idol, it creates social and cultural trouble much like the fall of man into sin. Traditional cultures made idols out of religion, tribe, and tradition. The idol of tribe is a good example of the dangers of making a good thing an ultimate thing.
Traditional cultures began by valuing their community. This was a good thing that helped them build relationships and protect one another. However, when it turned into an ultimate thing, the idol of race was created. Racism caused businesses to deny service to people from different backgrounds and hurt the company’s competitiveness as well as the community’s health.
Modern cultures made idols out of reason, empiricism, and individual freedom.
The idol of reason gave way to the absolute necessity for explanation through science. The idol of the individual elevated the rights of the individual above all others. Modern societies placed individual interests and desires as the highest cause, paving the way for work to become the defining characteristic of individuals.
Postmodern culture has made idols out of technology, uncertainty, and the market. The postmodern culture is marked by cynicism and far less optimism. People no longer desire to go into education or science, but rather business and finance. We have begun to view work as a means to make money to free ourselves to live a fulfilling life.
It is a means without an end and is characterized by the deception, fraud, and greed displayed by the financial companies in the midst of the 2008 recession. Naomi Wolf wrote, “The media’s ‘bad apple’ thesis no longer works. We’re seeing systemic corruption in banking — and systemic collusion.”
The effect of personal and cultural idols on our work has further distorted the worldview of work. It is no wonder then, that work has become filled with greed and riddled with controversy.
Humanity’s idols are seeping into their worldviews and destroying the possibility of working toward vocation. However, even in the midst of selfish ambition and a distorted worldview, God can use us through our work if we humbly consider why we are where we have come to be.
God Works for the Good in Every Situation
The book of Esther tells a story about a woman named Esther who finds favor with King Xerxes, hides her Jewish identity, and becomes his queen. Many question the moral compromises Esther makes on her way to becoming queen. It causes us to question whether God will still work with us and through us in these circumstances.
Esther 4 reveals that a high official has convinced the king that the Jews are a danger to the empire and should be killed.
Esther now has the opportunity to serve others in her role by speaking out against this and sparing the lives of many Jews. Mordecai, a Jewish leader, appeals to Esther for help saying “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
We can get to a position of power through deceit, yet God still gives us the opportunity to serve others through our position. If we ignore the opportunities to serve others, we are serving our position and the position owns us. It is actually freeing that God gives us the opportunity amidst all of our sin to utilize work as he intended.
Esther decides to go to the king to attempt to remove his hatred toward the Jewish people. She recognized that her life was at stake and was willing to sacrifice herself in an attempt to save others.
Esther did not rise to hold the position of power without the help of God. God has a purpose for Esther in her position of power and recognizes her authority in that position after she uses it to save others. Esther is called Queen Esther fourteen times in the book of Esther; thirteen of those occur after she put her life on the line to save others.
There are many examples of situations like this today. No one’s conscious is ever completely clear, but we are still given opportunities to liberate ourselves from the sin that has enslaved us. Keller tells a story of his friend who felt uncomfortable about an investment his firm was thinking about making. The investment was not illegal, but it damaged society.
If his friend’s firm did not make the investment, another bank would. Therefore, Keller’s friend decided not to veto the investment, but decided not to participate in any bonuses that were rewarded based off the investment’s performance. This is a great example of capitalizing on an opportunity to show others God’s purpose for work in the world.
HOW CAN WE FIND SATISFACTION IN OUR WORK?
Hope in Our Work
All work is driven by a worldview, and, as Christians, we are able to thrive in our work when we operate under the appropriate worldview. The Christian faith allows us to value work done by both believers and nonbelievers and identify ways to work uniquely as Christians.
We remain grounded by the ethical guidelines we look to for guidance when making decisions. Although our work will never be exactly what God intended it to be until the “Day of Christ,” we can find hope in the Gospel’s story for work.
How Our Worldview Impacts Work
The term “worldview” means the comprehensive perspective from which we interpret all of reality. It answers what human life in the world should be like, what has knocked it off balance, and what can be done to make it right.
Therefore, everyone operates under a particular worldview that is impacted by the groups and cultures in which he or she belongs. For work, this means that our worldview will shape our individual interactions and decisions.
The Biblical worldview is unique in that it specifies the world itself as the problem, not any part of the world, and it specifies the solution to be God’s grace.
If we do not operate under the Biblical worldview, we are blaming something that is not possibly bad enough to explain the chaos we are in and idolizing something that does not have the power to get us out. Businesses should advance the social good under this worldview and not fall victim to the idols of corporate profits and influence.
For example, in 2009, James Murdoch told an audience that the “only reliable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.” Yet after the phone-hacking scandal in the UK was revealed, his sister, Elisabeth Murdoch, said that declaring “profit without purpose is a recipe for disaster” and emphasized the need for an organization to develop a set of values and a statement of purpose.
To be a Christian in business, then, means thinking about the implications of the Biblical worldview and God’s purpose for work in your life as well as the organization under your influence. It is a mistake to think that we have to be a pastor or minister to serve God in our work. Rather, we should work passionately for any initiative that serves the common good.
Why Non-Christians Can Produce Excellent Work
God undoubtedly continues to work through everyone regardless of whether or not they are Christians. As an extension of God’s creative work, the Christian’s labor has its orientation toward God himself. As an extension of God’s providential work, our labor has its orientation toward our neighbor. The latter of the previous statements is available to Christians and non- Christians alike. This explains why the majority of work that Christians do does not look any different than non-Christians’ work.
All humans are made in the image of God and all are given the talents and skills for work; therefore, Christians should value all human work.
Work, as God’s loving provision for the world, denies elitism and sectarianism from creeping into the minds of the Christian worker. As we gain an understanding of this aspect of work and truly operate under the Biblical worldview, we can begin to understand the notion of “common grace.”
Common grace allows everyone to grasp aspects of the Biblical worldview to some degree, regardless of the worldview in which he or she operates. This explains, then, why Mozart’s music sounded like a gift from God – because it was. Mozart’s spiritual and moral condition is irrelevant because he was made in the image of God and given the skills and abilities to serve others through music.
Therefore, under the doctrine of common grace, we can understand why skills and abilities are sometimes given to non-Christians that exceed those given to Christians. In addition, the doctrine of sin means that believers are never as good as our true worldview should make us, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Similarly, the doctrine of grace means that non-believers are never as broken as their false worldview could make them.
A New Thought Process for Work
Modern and postmodern idols push us to think about decisions at work in terms of legality and profitability. We too often evaluate ethics on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis. While over the long run integrity is profitable, that does not mean that profitability should be the only reason for our integrity.
Bruce Waltke, a biblical scholar, uses the Bible to define righteous people as “disadvantaging themselves to the advantage of others, while the wicked… are willing to disadvantage the community to advantage themselves.”
This contradicts the modern and postmodern worldviews that use cost-benefit analysis as a tool in ethical decision-making. Colossians 3 verse 23 tells us, “Whatever [we] do, work at it with all [our] heart, as working for the Lord.” If working for the Lord, would we be basing our decisions of right and wrong on legality and cost-benefit analyses?
A Biblical worldview allows us to see we were made by and for eternal love – this is the meaning of life.
We are to utilize this eternal love by loving God and loving our neighbors. Therefore, instead of asking ourselves if we will wish we had spent more time at the office at the end our lives, we should be asking ourselves if we will wish that we had plunged more time, passion, and skills into work environments and products that helped people to give and receive more love.
Workers are to serve the Lord through their work and do their work to the best of their ability. Keller writes, “Christians are to be fully engaged at work as whole persons, giving their minds, hearts, and bodies fully to doing the best job possible on the task at hand.”
We are going to receive the ultimate reward through Christ and are; therefore, not bound by the earthly rewards we receive for our work. Through Christ’s reward, we have been “set free” to pursue the work we desire and that we are able to serve others best by doing.
Thus, work is not a weight to carry but a gift that provides a way to serve. Christians are to serve with fear, respect, and sincerity of heart. We are to be ethical in our actions and work hard without expecting recognition. To work with cheerfulness and joy is to work wholeheartedly. This is the kind of employee God would want us to be and the type of employee every employer wants to have.
In Ephesians 6, Paul tells masters that they are also slaves – slaves of Christ. This is a radical concept in many cultures. Paul is making the points that not only are we equal before the Lord, but also that the Lord is impartial, finding no favoritism with anyone.
The implications of this are great. First, employers should not use guilt or intimidation as a means for motivation. Everyone is equal under God and, thus, should not use a position of authority to threaten employees.
Second, we should take an interest in the whole lives of our subordinates so that we may further their interests, not just the interests of the organization. We should not be ruthless. Instead we should be fair and caring.
Keller tells a story of a woman who had been visiting Redeemer Church in New York City and quickly left at the conclusion of each service.
He decided to intercept her one Sunday to talk with her. She told him that she was trying to learn more about Christianity and, while she did not believe at that point, found much of it interesting. Keller asked her how she came to find Redeemer and she told him the following story:
The woman was working for a company in Manhattan and made a “job-threatening” mistake. However, her boss took complete responsibility for the mistake, putting his reputation on the line. She approached her boss to ask what made him different than any other superior she had worked under in the past.
After deflecting the question and being modest, he responded, “I am a Christian. That means among other things that God accepts me because Jesus Christ took the blame for things that I have done wrong. He did that on the cross. That is why I have the desire and sometimes the ability to take the blame for others.”
Through his actions and care for his employee, the man was able to transform the
As an owner or founder of a new company, we have the opportunity to change how work is done. Ultimately, our hope is that we will be able to influence other businesses in our profession through our example. For instance, what if the leader of a financial services company decided to be unusually transparent to its investors and customers?
In a sector of the U.S. economy that has been filled with controversy over the last few years, a firm promoting transparency could potentially force other companies to operate with more integrity. Now imagine that every new venture began with this ambition in mind. The impact we could have on work and individuals would have tremendous reach.
Work for the Right Reasons
God changes our relationship to our work. When we are working in the way God intended – being called to our work – we do not get caught up in the frustration of working only toward a paycheck. When Jesus called the disciples to follow him, it was at a time when their nets were overflowing.
Yet they left their nets behind; they were freed from their work and it no longer controlled them. However, the disciples do not completely abandon their “secular” work. In fact, they continue to fish even after becoming disciples. This reveals the freedom in their work.
While this is a simplistic example in which the disciples were “easily” able to put down their work and pick it back up as they pleased, it forces us to ask important questions. Do we let our work control us to such an extent that we fail to recognize when God comes knocking on the door with a new opportunity?
Do we receive our financial reward for our work and immediately think about how we can make more? How can we become freed from our work but still keep our job? Keller refers us back to the story of his friend in private equity that waived his right to a bonus from an investment that did not promote the common good. In doing so, his friend broke free of the idol the world has made of money and used it as an opportunity to set an example for Christian work.
Work We Were Called to Do
We are passionate about work we were called to do, and passion leads us to excel in that work. However, in order to have true passion, we have to be working for something bigger than ourselves. The Bible describes true passion as the sacrifice of our own freedom for someone else, similar to the Passion of Christ.
Jesus’ passion was for us and for his Father, not for himself. When we fully understand His passion, only then can we generate the passion for our work He has called us specifically to do. We have to die to our own worldly interests to be freed to live for God.
Looking Beyond Work
When we take a step back from our work, we can see that there is more to life than work. There is a symbiotic relationship between work and rest that allows us to return to our work after rest to complete better work.
However, when we worry in our rest, we are not resting in the way God intended. God gave us rest so that we may enjoy the gifts the earth has provided us. Only in Him and through Him can we find freedom from the worries and trials of the world to achieve true rest.
C.S. Lewis tells us to “give up [ourselves] and we will find our real self.” If in our rest we continually worry about the impression we will make, we will not be able to make a good impression. For example, the film Chariots of Fire presents two Olympians.
The first ran to “justify [his] existence,” the second “to feel [God’s] pleasure.” The first man had to get a medal to enhance his self-image. The second man did not run on Sunday in order to practice the Sabbath. The first man was struggling for self-identity while the second, Christian Eric Liddell, was delighting in the gifts God had given him.
Keller presents us with God’s plan for work, our problems with work, and what the Gospel says about work. To find our true calling, we have to understand the way we were created. We are not all destined to be Olympic athletes or the next Mozart, but by serving through the work he has put before us, we are serving him.
We are freed in our work to be both passionate and rested, because, through God, our work will lay before us complete in our true country – the new heavens and new earth. Therefore, in every endeavor, seek to produce the “leaves” God has enabled you to complete on this earth, knowing what awaits you in your true, eternal home so that you may say “Nunc dimittis” – “I could die happy now.”
Britt always taught us Titans that Wisdom is Cheap, and principal can find treasure troves of the good stuff in books. We hope only will also express their thanks to the Titans if the book review brought wisdom into their lives.
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