Every Good Endeavor (RJS)

Among other things of late I’ve been reading the new book by Tim Keller with Katherine Leary Alsdorf: Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work. If you happen to, oh say, teach at a seminary or pastor in a church it is relatively easy to see how your work connects to Gods work. If, on the other hand, you happen to run a business, work as a secretary, repair cars, or be on the faculty of a major secular University it can be somewhat harder.

This book grows out of the experience Keller has had with younger adults (and older adults I expect) as they wrestle with what it means to be Christian in all aspects of life, including work. The Center for Faith and Work is a ministry of Redeemer Presbyterian in NY directed explicitly toward this goal, Katherine Leary Alsdorf leads the Center. Every Good Endeavor is an interesting book, exhibiting some of the best of Keller as he focuses on a “merely Christian” approach to work. He draws on insights from Scripture (Both Genesis and Ecclesiastes plays a significant role) and from a broad range of scholars and thinkers, including Christian thinkers such as Dorothy Sayers, Andy Crouch, JRR Tolkien, Mark Noll, and many more.

The introduction to Every Good Endeavor highlights Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.”  Keller summarizes the story (Scot has also summarized it in a number of posts over the years, including most recently His Name was Niggle)  and then reflects on the story of Niggle:

But really – everyone is Niggle. Everyone imagines accomplishing things, and everyone finds him- or herself largely incapable of producing them. Everyone wants to be successful rather than forgotten, and everyone wants to make a difference in life. But that is beyond the control of any of us. If this life is all there is, then everything will eventually burn up in the death of the sun and no one will even be around to remember anything that has ever happened. Everyone will be forgotten, nothing we do will make any difference, and all good endeavors, even the best, will come to naught.

Unless there is God. 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 endeavor, even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever. (p. 29)

A Christian approach to work is not simply a question about how one can perform a job in keeping with Christian ethics (don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal, love your neighbor as yourself …). Nor is it simply a question of using one’s position as an evangelistic witness (bible studies, tracts, public prayer, inviting colleagues to church …) . A Christian approach to work involves directing one’s efforts toward kingdom goals, making the world a better place.

Keller begins the exploration of work with the creation narratives in Genesis. We are designed for work. Work was a part of the plan in Genesis 1 and 2. It did not come into the picture as a consequence of the fall in Genesis 3.

Work did not come in after a golden age of leisure. It was part of God’s perfect design for human life, because we were made in God’s image, and part of his glory and happiness is that he works, …

The fact that God put work in paradise is startling to us because we so often think of work as a necessary evil or even punishment. Yet we do not see work brought into our human story after the fall of Adam, as part of the resulting brokenness and curse; it is part of the blessedness of the garden of God. Work is as much a basic human need as food, beauty, rest, friendship, prayer, and sexuality; it is not simply medicine but food for our soul. (p. 36-37)

What can, or what should the church be doing to help Christians approach their work (whether in the home, as a volunteer, within church, or in a “secular” vocation) as a calling that will matter forever?  There is one other image I would like to bring into the discussion, and this comes from Keller’s chapter on Work as Cultivation.

Fuller seminary president Richard Mouw once addressed a number of bankers in New York City. He pointed them to Genesis and showed that God was a creator/investor who made the world as a home for all kinds of creativity. Mouw urged his audience to think of God as an investment banker. He leveraged his resources to create a whole new world of life. In the same way if you see a human need not being met, you see a talent or resources that can meet that need, and you then invest your resources – at your risk and cost – so that the need is met and the result is new jobs, new products, and better quality of life? What you are doing, Mouw concluded, is actually God-like. (p. 61-62)

Now the way that every investment banker carries out his or her job is not in step with God’s plan for the world. Some motives and initiatives do nothing to advance the common good. Keller’s discussion is filled with some standard points. One can not love both God and mammon, the ends do not justify the means, and the point of life is not to gain power, prestige, and wealth. Yet …

If ministers don’t yet see business as a way of making culture and of cultivating creation, they will fail to support, appreciate, and properly lead many members of their congregation. (p. 62)

It isn’t just true for investment bankers and businessmen and women of course. The same is true for teachers, professors, lawyers, scientists, artists, musicians, salesmen, homemakers, secretaries, and the list goes on. If the church doesn’t teach this, or provide a place for Christians to explore and learn what it means to connect God’s good work to their work, we will be a fraction of the church that we are called to be as the people of God.

What is your church doing to help Christians connect their work to God’s good work?

Is this something that we should be doing?

My opinion? Modern suburban, attractional, decision shaped evangelicalism does a rather poor job of helping Christians connect life and work to God’s work (which is not only bringing the next convert through the door).

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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  • DMH

    I would like to see some of these work/vocation/calling books written by someone who is in their 50’s, has been laid off, and is now having to work multiple part time jobs at low pay and long hours, and still not making enough for the basic budget I think the perspective offered and issues raised woulsd be a bit different. But perhaps I am just a bit jaded.

  • RJS


    How do you think the perspective would or should be different?

  • I really like Tim Keller, but one subtle thing that bothers me within a lot of evangelical thinking/teaching is a tendency to compartmentalize God’s attributes or decrees and then create normative paradigms for human behavior from that (e.g. God is Grace, but God is also Justice, so Christians need to show grace, but there are times for justice too). It’s not that I think they are wrong necessarily, but that the implied reasoning behind what is said (namely, “god said/did it so we should too”) tends to move the impetus for our action from genuine love for others WITH God, to “love” for others done out of duty FOR God.

    So it is with work here, I think. Work is not good just because it was in the garden and created by God, it is good because active participation in our work is one way of acting out the essential charcuterie of God as one who gives up himself in pure loving service for the good of others.

    To do my work joyfully “for God” is good, but to do it because by my service/sacrifice I might touch and soften another human soul is better because this is working WITH God, not for Him.

  • I just read the first half of this book last night. As a pastor, I’m deeply concerned with people taking their faith with them to work. I’ve been bringing these issues up and trying to help change the paradigm of ‘you’re gifted, we need those gifts in the Church.’ I’m very thankful for Keller’s approach which doesn’t limit Christian motivations for work to just one or two.

    The charismatic movement of the nineties (which is my Church’s heritage) really emphasized the ministry of every believer. A good thing but it often over-emphasized ‘religious’ activity within the Church, both for clergy and laity. End result, lots of people got burned by implicit or inferred promises of finding their calling within ‘ministry’ and neglected the vocations in the world. Ministry of all believers is such a good emphasis but it needs a course correction. Keller’s book is, for me pastorally, part of that strategic course correction. Thanks be to God!

  • Just to be clear, I don’t mean to criticize Keller or this book, which I haven’t read. Until i was introduced to these ideas in college I was heading down a road to “professional ministry” because I saw no other option as a Christian teen. Thanks to God indeed! I’m now blessed to be able to work within my artistic gifts as a photographer and see more clearly every day what a blessing I can be to others by doing so.

    My point above was just that it is tempting for me to still think that my duty is to do my job for god without understanding that to do us the very same thing as to do it for the greatest good of others. It is possible to fail in my career field, but to because I love others too much to fight them for my own survival.

  • James

    @Nate, I think you’ll like the book.

  • DMH

    I can see that my last comment was a little too snarky and didn’t really encourage discussion- sorry. Thanks for responding and forcing me to think a little bit more. It is a issue I have had to deal with for a number of years now, though I can’t say I have much light to offer. I wish I had more time to respond.

    I agree with your comment about the modern evangelical church doing a poor job in this regard but I have not found other types of churches doing any better. The focus seems either to be on those with options (financial/career) or the “poor” (homeless). Encouragement and perspective is given to those with options and financial type help is given to the desperately poor. Meanwhile, the “working poor” (simplified down to the bone and lterally living paycheck to paycheck- perhaps with some help from the State) are left to fend for themselves (IMO).

    I have not read Kellers book (bear that in mind, I have read other stuff) but would probably find agreement on some general things (work is good, kingdom perspective,..) but I suspect he has written to those with options (?). From the working poor perspective I would like to see him (and others) begin by asking “Would what I have to offer be helpful and make sense to the Israelite slave living in Egypt?” I know, I know, not an exact comparison with the working poor, but still some points of comparison. (and I do think I have it better than they did 🙂 )

    One issue that might enter the conversation is that of true meaninglessness. Some work/effort/tears just are lost- they cause no ripple in the pond. I don’t get the sense from Scripture that this is not the case.

    Another issue might be the nature of God. Who is this guy!?… who after 30 years of in the trench service to him suddenly makes everything meaningless. I guess that’s my question but you get the drift.

    Other issues as well, more “practical”, where the church could get involved. Here’s one which many would consider fluf and extravagant- the need for a two week family retreat (stay with me, an no I not asking for it). Our family (and I think I’m speaking for more than just my own here) used to eat meals together, look at Scripture together, do things and go places together. Now, we have to take every opportunity to make money, seven days a week, we are never around at the same time. When we do have a day ther is no money to go or do anything- those types of things which would build up a family, even eat togather. Frustration, depression, negative outside influence, ect.. starts to take its toll. The family is dying. Why a two week retreat and not a long weekend? I have heard that it takes around ten days for the negative stuff (like communication patterns) to be broken. Something like this could encourage a family and get it set on a good path again.

    Sorry this is so long, not good for a post.

    I personally find hope in reading the story of the Israelite slaves. God is there, he is watching, he has a solution, his plan is for good, and it will be realized- even if it’s a few generations from now.

  • Sam


    I appreciate your questions because I have them as well.

    In the introduction to the book, Katherine Alsdorf says she wanted a gospel that was not only for business successes but failures. That was one reason I picked up the book. I’m two thirds of the way through. The middle part does point out, work is fruitless and pointless at times because of the effects of sin. Yet, I haven’t come across something that clearly and concretely speaks to what to do (or how to cope) with the failures. Perhaps the seed of the solution is there — I read a passage just this morning where Tim Keller talks about but how having a new story for work may not make much of a difference to a blue color assembly line worker. Perhaps it will come together towards the end. We’ll see.

  • RJS

    DMH (#7)

    Thanks. You bring up a number of excellent points – and put them in persepctive. While not exactly the same as the point I was getting up with the original post I think they may have some roots in similar places. The “church” does not do a very good job of helping Christians integrate faith with life (or of providing an extended family support network). The faith-life connect seems to be limited to an exhortation to avoid some specific moral failings and to invite others into a sunday morning service. This doesn’t really help anyone, especially those facing serious trials.

    This book isn’t really directed at the working poor, nor is it directed toward the trials and tribulations of life (of which there are plenty). Keller does refer a good bit to Ecclesiastes however, and meaning vs meaninglessness. I’m going to have to go back and look at that part.

    I agree, there is hope in the story of the Israelite slaves.

  • Bev Mitchell

    “A Christian approach to work involves directing one’s efforts toward kingdom goals, making the world a better place.”

    Beautiful! Just like we learned in Sunday School. “This Little Light of Mine”. Do the kids still sing this? Being Christian in this world is mostly about the “be”-ing. The “do”-ing is important, of course, but is second. In my home province, we tried out a new motto on our license plates that says “Be in this place” or in French “être ici… on le peut” Makes much more sense in French, but the English translation fell very flat. In the context of the Christian walk, however, it makes a lot of sense.

  • DMH & Nate W.

    Based on your comments above, I really think you’d like the book. I’d really encourage to read it.

  • DMH

    Sam #8 Not sure “failures” is the right word (but I think I get what you’re saying). The Israelites weren’t slaves in egypt because of their failure (unlike being in exile). You could say that God set that whole situation up so that he could display something (again, what kind of guy does that?)

    RJS #9 Yes, sorry, I went a bit beyond your original post. It just all run together for me. Your circumstance of work affects your philosophy of work, and what you think the church should be doing/saying.

    I’m interested to know whether Kellers meaninglessness is a true utterly lost type of meaningless of if it’s a meaningless which will be ultimately redeemed in some way because god is there. To me it makes an existential difference.

  • DMH

    Bev #10 I hear that a lot- being vs. doing. Not sure if life can be separated in that way. It’s kind of like separating body and spirit- maybe they can be separated… by god, but even then something is terribly wrong, or at least in an abnormal state (of being 🙂 )

  • Bev Mitchell


    Good points and you misunderstand me a bit. Both being and doing are essential, of course, and closely related. But doing is so often held so highly, and so specified, that being is not emphasized enough. And I don’t mean being in isolation, I mean living with respect to the other without a specific program but with the expectation and hope of living under the guidance of the Spirit. What we do under those circumstances may indeed be big, but often it is small, but regular and frequent.

    BTW, I wrote part of what follows before having to go out with friends, so will complete it now as it is illustrative of our respective points.

    DMH, A few paragraphs is not long – except in a world of tweets I suppose. Thank you for your fine contribution. Here in Oaxaca we regularly see the working poor, working ten to twelve hours a day in most cases. Today, we chatted with Max, the blind accordion player. Max smiles a lot. His playing brightens the street. He has loads of friends and an attitude that ministers. Lupe the fruit vendor on the corner sits bundled up in the shade. It’s much warmer in the sun a metre away, but she is set up for the long haul. She appears in the early morning to be ready for her clients on their way to work. She has many of them. If you want to talk with Lupe you may have to take a number as it seems she knows practically everyone and they all want to chat. She disappears around noon when her shade is gone. No one knows how many hundreds would truly miss her should she take a day off, but she never does. Then there is Maria, who we haven’t seen yet this year. She’s from Chiapas and has worked since at least six years of age when we first met her. She has many friends. Not just because she is a cute kid (now twelve or thirteen) but because she is a wonderful person. And finally, to keep this reasonably shot, there is Lucy. Lucy sells sweets that she makes at home – very tasty sweets. She carries them on her head, all day long. Her smile never fades, her posture is incredibly erect, she moves like a dancer and is a very good sales person. She too brightens her world in a very big way. If one were to list the ways of these people using terms from the NT, the list would be long.

    This is what I mean by being. Yes, these people are doing but their being speaks very loudly indeed. We would do well to emulate them.


  • RJS


    I see what you mean.

    But we also need to avoid the impression that as Christians we have to put a cheery positive face on everything. Sometimes complaint, lament, and perseverance are called for, or at least acceptable, at least sometimes. The book of Job (not to mention the Psalms) are cases in point.

  • DMH

    Thanks for expanding your thought. I think I know what you mean, you painted a very nice word picture. I had to google Oaxaca 🙂 I married an MK from Brazil and have met, one lady in particular, who is very much like the people you mention. I guess my discontent doesn’t have to do with the amount of money I make or the type of job I work. It is linked to a strong desire to do something, even feel that I’m supposed to/ meant to be/do something but being blocked by daily survival and seeing the negative inpact that daily struggle is having on the family. I’m trying to learn to live with that reality. (never intended to get this far off post)

  • Bev Mitchell

    That too. It ain’t easy. And you are right, we need to talk about this much more in our churches. Doing/being the right thing at the right time is the biggest challenge of all.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Our posts crossed. (17) was in response to RJS (15).

    I don’t think you are off topic at all. Regardless of situation, we are called to be salt and light. I fully understand your strong desire to be freer from work to survive, and that there is much more to it than providing, regardless how incredibly important that is. I hope it is always encouraging to know that you can be, and I am sure are, salt and light, despite your current situation (and perhaps, in ways that you could not be outside that situation). Of course, I am praying that you find one of the many things that will be more fulfilling for you. And, if I know the bunch on this blog, they are praying too.

    As they say here,

    Que Dios te bendiga.

  • RJS

    I don’t think it was off topic either.