Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work
In Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller seeks to integrate one’s Christian faith and secular work by recovering the biblical idea of vocation. Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York City, and holds degrees from Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is also a former faculty member of Westminster Theological Seminary and a co-founder of The Gospel Coalition. His qualifications to write on this topic are born not only of his academic credentials but also from long experience in church ministry which includes extensive evangelistic dialogue with a secular and professional population. By bringing his knowledge of what God’s Word says about work together with his understanding of the culture’s views on work, Keller is able to identify what work ought to be, how sin turns it into a problem, and how the gospel transforms the Christian’s relationship to work.
The book is divided into three clear sections. The first part is “God’s Plan for Work”; the second part is “Our Problems with Work”; and the third part is “The Gospel and Work.” The first section deals particularly with God’s design for work, beginning with God’s own work of creation in Genesis 1. Work, Keller easily concludes, is a good thing and a fundamental part of reality—not a curse to be shunned or a necessary evil to be merely endured. God works, and as creatures made in his image, we also are meant to work. Work is very good—it is “our design and our dignity” (55), a way in which we imitate our Maker and participate in the cultivation and ornamentation of his creation. It is also a means by which we act out our love for one another and for God, “an act of worship to the God who called and equipped [us] to do it” (80).
The second section examines our broken relationship with work due to the effects of the Fall in and around us. Unfortunately, the sin which humanity embraced brings about “spiritual, physical, social, cultural, psychological, temporal, [and] eternal” decay and disintegration (85). Work is now difficult, exhausting, and painful; we commonly experience some measure of futility in both the process and the results of our work. Just like the difficulties of childbearing for women in a fallen world, the curse on the ground means that humankind’s work “is always painful, often miscarries, and sometimes kills us” (89). Additionally, our sinful hearts lead us to abuse the good gift of work. We become lazy or we become workaholics; we become possessive and selfish with our work; work becomes a realm in which we act out pride, envy, rivalry, and strife toward our fellow man.
Particularly enlightening in this section is Keller’s examination of work as a revealer of a culture’s idols. In a “traditional” culture, he notes, work often reflects long ingrained cultural prejudices of race or class, and is built upon the traditional idea that it is preferable to sacrifice the good of the individual for the sake of overall social stability and the welfare of the group. Reputation, status, and conformity are the ethical backbone of work for such cultures, which can lead to oppression and economic disaster. By contrast, a “modern” culture’s work habits reveal a preoccupation with individualism and self-realization. By making the freedom to realize personal desires the ultimate good, choice and feelings become paramount. Keller points out that in such a culture, people are prone to cultivate identity through consumerism, building an ideal self through what they choose or do not choose to purchase. They also put work in the role of a god, exalting it beyond “being a [merely] good thing to being nearly a form of salvation” (142). Because work is the means by which people gain financial security and the freedom to consume in accordance with their desires, it becomes an idol. Last of all, Keller examines what work reveals about the idols of a “postmodern” culture, in which the tension between complete personal freedom and moral structure is seen for what it is: a logical discrepancy (this side of glory, at least). He identifies the postmodernist’s idol as “reality as it is” (145). Cynicism and fear see the future as a dystopian horror rather than a progressive utopia, and work loses any meaning of its own, having no ultimate goal. Technology and the market rule the world, with no moral or ethical boundaries to restrict “what can be done” to “what should be done.” Work, like society, becomes a fragmented endeavor to capture fleeting temporal happiness, operating under the looming shadow of meaninglessness and existential despair.
The third section of Keller’s book deals with the gospel and how it transforms a Christian’s relationship to work. The gospel does this first by providing us with a new narrative of reality. “People cannot make sense of anything without attaching it to a storyline,” Keller says (155), and the gospel tells us a story which gives us context for our own lives, placing us in a radically transformed, radically hopeful world. It tells us three things about all creation: it is good, it is fallen, and it is being redeemed. In light of this good news, work takes on deeply satisfying significance. Whether you are a business owner, a doctor, an artist, a writer, a farmer, or anything else, you are able to tackle your work with an understanding that you were designed to work, that your work is a worthwhile service to God and to his creatures, and that your work is even a participation in the work of God. The gospel allows us to fully appreciate and delight in the goodness of work while keeping it in its rightful place—work is no longer clamoring to be our god, demanding strength beyond our allotment, demanding our souls. The result, Keller says, is that “in any time and place you can work with joy, satisfaction, and no regrets” (241). Work is integrated into the love, the worship, and the peaceful rest of our relationship with God.
Keller is successful in accomplishing his goal of integrating faith and secular work for the Christian and crafting a biblical picture of vocation. The book’s sections are clearly organized; parts and chapters are laid out in a way that is intuitive and easy to follow. Although it is a nonfiction book, its structure is similar to that of a three-act play—a classic comedy plot, with the good beginning, the fall into chaos, and the restoration of goodness at the end. This shows the understanding of good communication and persuasive speaking for which Keller is known. He is not simply throwing true propositions at his readers and asking them to agree with the progression of his logical argument; he is telling them a story which shapes their understanding of the subject and gives them meaningful context for the truth he is presenting.
Another strength of Every Good Endeavor is Keller’s knowledge and use of culture. Many authors reference classic books, popular movies, or famous philosophers in a way that seems contrived and awkward—you know they are trying to catch your wandering attention, convince the modern teen of their relevance, or impress the intellectuals by name-dropping Socrates or Kierkegaard. Keller, on the other hand, uses cultural references in a way that is meaningful and contributes to what he is trying to say. He borrows liberally from fiction and philosophy, science and business, pop culture and classic literature, and it enriches rather than distracts from his message.
I found this book true, helpful, and well-written. The style of Keller’s writing, though, may not appeal to every reader; while the book is clearly structured and laid out in an organized fashion, the content between the chapter headings sometimes sounds more like (intentional) rambling. It reads like an evening of deep discussion with a proficient conversationalist. I enjoy this style, but it may not be enjoyable for everyone. It also seems aimed at a particular demographic of reader—the culturally conversant modern-or-postmodern Western Christian. That said, most of the principles contained in it would apply to all Christians.