Katie, a med student, has been feeling torn between the profession she’s studying and the spiritual needs she sees around her: ‘People say they’re meant to line up, but I’m struggling to see how that works!’
The answers she’s looking for haven’t been all that easy to find, and we’ve seen a similar story with many university students. ‘Faith and work’ has become a hot topic, says Tim Keller, but I suspect it’s still pretty unknown to many Christians here in Australia. Our pulpits are not known for reflecting on the workplace regularly, consistently or deeply. Our university student groups are not known for giving students more than a catch-all preparation for their future professions. We focus on many things — community, charity, evangelism, healing, discipleship — but how well are we tuned into the weekly world inhabited by most Australians?
And in my evangelical circles, we’ve got a tendency to speak about the workplace as if it’s good for little more than ‘evangelistic conversations’, or earning money with which to support ‘gospel work’ — because those are the things of ‘eternal value’. With phrases like these, we divide the world into all sorts of halves: Sunday/Monday, word/deed, sacred/secular, clergy/laity, earth/heaven.
In Every Good Endeavour: Connecting your work to God’s plan for the world, Keller quickly cuts beyond this with a more full and fruitful vision:
If the God of the Bible exists, and there is a True Reality beneath and behind this one, and this life is not the only life, then every good endeavour, even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever.
Any surprises here are only because we don’t know our own history. The first Protestants, as Keller outlines, had a tremendously high view of work, seeing it as an integral part of God’s provision of care and wholeness for humanity — and ‘as much a calling from God as the ministry of the monk or priest’.
But there are many traditions and perspectives on theology of work, and Keller’s aim here is not to be conclusive, but to show how these truths are complementary parts of a greater whole, and to cast them in their most concrete and useful light. The book progresses by exploring three foundations:
- Work is integral and vital to our human identity and dignity
- Work is hard and frustrating
- Work will be completed and satisfying
From my point of view as an Australian evangelical, the most important chapter in Every Good Endeavour is ‘A new conception of work’, which focuses on common grace. Keller is keen to show that while the gospel certainly provides identity and motivation for Christian workers, the ‘Christian worldview’ is not the only explanatory grid for work. In many ways, work is work, regardless of what someone believes: the creative process and end products may look pretty similar whether or not you’re a Christian. Why is that? And does this mean only ‘ministry’ is valuable for Christians?
Keller shows that an understanding of common grace is vital both to our own humility and to our recognition of God’s sovereign goodness. All work is valuable, because it’s an expression both of our identity as God’s image-bearers and of God’s providential care for the world. In this chapter, Keller calls us out of two ways of dualistic thinking. In one, we treat only ‘Christian’ work as important, and we ignore common ground with the world. In the other, we treat our ‘Christian’ life as being confined to church activities, and we ignore our true distinctiveness in the world.
Keller’s words about common grace will probably make sense to most Australian evangelicals, but how well do we know it? If indeed we understand common grace, I’m not sure how well it’s reflected in our practice and language. We talk eagerly about the gospel opportunities which the workplace might produce, but how much do we talk about cooperating with non-Christians to serve others? We talk eagerly about evangelising our workmates, but how much do we talk about learning better skills from them — skills which, as Keller points out, are an aspect of God’s truth for all creation? We talk eagerly about new music we’re singing on Sundays, but how well attuned are we to other communities whose creativity outstrips our own?
However, there’s one dualism which Every Good Endeavour doesn’t really address, and it’s a substantial one for evangelicals: the divide between eternal and temporal. We evangelicals talk a lot about ‘eternal things’, and a burning question for us is, ‘How can I be involved in things that will last?’ Unfortunately, our rhetoric often confines the answer to some sort of ‘ministry’. Perhaps we simply don’t know how to answer the question any other way. Every Good Endeavour is not without help: work is eternally valuable because it’s part of God’s own character, because it’s built into the nature of humanity, because it’s necessary for the cultivation of creation. But this doesn’t answer our question about ‘eternal things’, and evangelicals may remain unsatisfied — not that this is necessarily a shortcoming of the book. Of course, the question itself could be misguided — either that, or the answer doesn’t have to do with a job. We’re involved in what’s lasting by virtue of who we are: what counts is not whether I’m an engineer or a preacher, but that my life is identified with Christ.
In the post-Christian setting of New York City, Redeemer Presbyterian Church is setting a great model of what they call ‘exilic discipleship’:
We seek to draw others into a redeeming and renewing faith, but also to serve alongside those who don’t believe as we do, for the good of the city and the world. Discipleship for resident aliens, or exiles, is different from discipleship in a culture in which the Christian faith is assumed and the goal is to draw people back into something the culture already tells them they should do.
Every Good Endeavour is a stimulating and uplifting book, but it is more than that: with this popular-level and well-rounded theology of work, Keller points us to a more full-bodied Christian perspective. Theology of work is not just vital to the life of the Western church today, but is a remedy to some of our most ingrained dualisms and dichotomies. If Christians are to be seen to have a creative, useful contribution to our world today, it will be with the sort of approach displayed so engagingly here.
And be sure to check out Redeemer’s Center for Faith and Work
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.