The routine is the same: get up, get ready and get to work. Our commute is a fog. Sometimes our day is, too. And many of us find ourselves wondering, “Is there really a point to all this?”
It seems like work is, at best, a necessary evil. But is that how we should view work? More importantly, is that how God views work?
Tim Keller wants you to see that your work really does matter—and more than that, it’s a fundamental way in which we worship our Creator. Our problem is, we lack a theological foundation to understand how. Providing that is the purpose behind his recently released effort, Every Good Endeavor, where Keller examines God’s original plans for work, how sin distorts it and how the gospel restores and redeems it.
Keller’s greatest pastoral strength is applying doctrine to everyday life—showing the practical nature of the Christian faith. This book is no exception. Each chapter is rich with implications for the reader in how he or she approaches work.
Among the most helpful aspects of chapter one is Keller’s reminder that the Hebrew word used to describe God at work, “mlkh,” is the very same word used to describe normal human work. This reminds us that:
Work was not a necessary evil that came into the picture later, or something human beings were created to do but that was beneath the great God himself. No, God worked for the sheer joy of it. Work could not have a more exalted inauguration. (34-35)
This is an important reminder for us today. With so many books on the market offering new ways to look at work—particularly those focused on “results only”—it’s easy to get caught in the trap that work isn’t as important as the rest of your life. It’s the thing you do to do the rest of your life, but it’s a means to an end only. But God values it because He does it. He created it and it is fundamentally good.
More importantly, while there are certainly some kinds of work that are morally wrong, there isn’t really a type of work work that is of lesser value than another. Keller writes, “The Greeks understood that life in the world required work, but they believed that not all work was created equal. Work that used the mind rather than the body was nobler, less beastly. The highest form of work was the most cognitive and the least manual” (46).
This is essential for us to understand, particularly as we see the rise of a new underclass—extremely well educated young people who have no real career prospects. Our education system and culture has for so long pushed the Greek ideal Keller describes that many are left on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars of debt and only a Barista job to pay for it. All because we placed more value on teaching jobs than plumbing.
Work has dignity because it is something that God does and because we do it in God’s place, as his representatives. We learn not only that work has dignity in itself, but also that all kinds of work have dignity. . . . No task is too small a vessel to hold the immense dignity of work given by God. (49)
This is also essential for us to understand in the Church because it reminds us there isn’t a higher value on “sacred” work (vocational church, parachurch ministry) than on “secular” work (for-profit organizations, manufacturing, and everything in between). Being a pastor isn’t better than being a plumber. Both can equally glorify God, and the sooner we get that through our heads, the sooner we may find we’re sending fewer young people to be trained for something that doesn’t bring them joy—and as a result, a healthier clergy and church culture may emerge.
But even in recognizing the dignity and value of work, we cannot neglect that sin has still tainted it. Work is harder than it was ever intended to be. It is plagued by “thorns and thistles” (literally and figuratively). Things fall apart. Colleagues flake out and fail us. Our work becomes fruitless toiling under the sun.
Worse, work too easily becomes our means of salvation apart from Christ—we derive our identity from it, and when we lose it, we are devastated. We put our value as people in what we do. This is where the gospel restores and redeems our view of work, something Keller spends the bulk of the book unpacking.
The gospel gives us a new worldview and conception of work, a new moral compass and a new power, all of which we miss without the finished work of Christ:
When the extent and depth of Jesus’ passion for you fully dawns on your heart, it will generate passion for the work he has called you uniquely to do in the world. When you realize what he has done to rescue you, your pride and envy begin to disappear because you don’t need to get your self-worth from being richer, cooler, more powerful or more comfortable.
Instead of working out of the false passion of acedia, which is born of selfishness, you are working out of true passion, which is born of selflessness. You are adopted into God’s family, so you already have your affirmation. You are justified in God’s sight, so you have nothing to prove. You have been saved through a dying sacrifice, so you are free to be a living one. You are loved ceaselessly, so you can work tirelessly in response to a quiet inner fullness. (233)
This understanding is so important because it really does change everything. If we see our affirmation as coming from God, not from others, how does it impact the way we related to our colleagues and supervisors? We can drop the unhealthy competition and one upmanship games we play and celebrate each other’s accomplishments more fully. This is is such good news for us, and so desperately needed by many.
Where most books on this subject wind up swinging wildly in one of two directions—work is either a necessary evil or work is our god—Every Good Endeavor reminds us that while we “will not have a meaningful life without work, [we] cannot say that [our] work is the meaning of [our] life” (40). Our work—whether “secular” or “sacred”—is a chief means by which we glorify God. I trust reading this very fine book will remind you that this is good news indeed.
Title: Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: Dutton (2012)