When Work Goes Wrong (RJS)

I posted a few weeks ago on the first part of Tim Keller’s new book Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work. I am not an uncritical fan of everything Keller has written. Perhaps I shouldn’t have added the last – but I am not recommending the book simply because it was written by Keller, a popular leader in many circles. This book, like The Reason for God, is a book that should speak to a broad range of Christians. It is (no matter who wrote it) an excellent book.

There is a glorification of “success” in our culture, even in the evangelical church (what us?!). And this is something of a shame. It is not that success, even by the world’s definition, is necessarily bad, but rather that the Christian definition of success is not the world’s definition of success. You’d be hard pressed to realize this in many white suburban (or urban) American churches these days. One of the consequences of this capitulation to culture is that many churches do not and cannot do a good job of discipling Christians into a healthy understanding of the role of work in Christian life.

One of the undercurrents in Every Good Endeavor is a theme, not stressed but often repeated, that Christians who desire to connect will make decisions that run counter to the expectations of worldly success. Connecting your work with God’s work may often involve decisions that even members of the church question and perhaps ridicule. Money, power, fame, respect of peers, and all the other trappings of success are not Christian definitions of success. Work can, and often does, go wrong.

How can we tell when work goes wrong? What are the symptoms?

Where does it go wrong in your vocation?

The second section of Every Good Endeavor chapters 5-8 looks at our problems with work. Work becomes fruitless, work becomes pointless, work becomes selfish, and work reveals our idols. Keller ties these themes in with Genesis 3, Genesis 11, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Exodus (the Ten Commandments).

Every vocation is prone to pitfalls – problems with work abound. This is certainly true in academia (something I know from personal experience), in business, and even in the church. Work becomes selfish and work reveals our idols. This is especially true when people find (or try to find) identity and purpose in their work.

I’ll highlight a few of the issues Keller brings up.

Work becomes pointless. In the beginning of Ecclesiastes the writer introduces the fictional character Qoheleth – and Keller uses the title “The Philosopher” as the preferred translation although most English translations use “The Teacher” or “The Preacher.” Keller cites Tremper Longman’s commentary on Ecclesiastes for much of this discussion. The writer of Ecclesiastes uses the character of the Philosopher to show that even the most successful person on earth does not find meaning in things “under the sun.” The term “under the sun” refers to work limited to the confines of this material world, “it refers to life in this world considered in and of itself, apart from any greater or eternal reality.” (p. 99) The search for meaning based solely on achievement, pleasure, and learning ends in fruitlessness and pointlessness.

I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. (Eccles 2:18-20)

And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Fools fold their hands and ruin themselves. Better one handful with tranquillity than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.(Eccles. 4:4-6)

Even pouring all one’s effort into building something good is ultimately pointless. It will pass to another who may simply undo everything that’s been accomplished. We have no control over those who come after us any more than those who came before control ours.

Work becomes Selfish. The last quote from Ecclesiastes leads rather well into the next major point. Work that involves making a name for one’s self is work become selfish as well as work become pointless. In Genesis 11:4 those building the tower of Babel said to each other “come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.” The desire to make a name for themselves was a major part of the problem.

Keller quotes Lewis:

See how C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity:

Now what I want you to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive – is competitive by its very nature. … Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only of having more of it than the next man. We say people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others.

Lewis chows us that we can either build a better mousetrap … out of interest in excellence and service to human beings, or we can do so in a race to move our organization and ourselves into a position to look down on others. (p. 117)

While none of us are capable of truly selfless behavior this side of eternity, this certainly ought to be the aim and ideal. But even here work becomes selfish will always intrude and corrupt. Keller reminds us:

Even the most loving, morally beautiful people fall prey to motives of self-interest, fear, and glory seeking. Our acceptance of our own brokenness – and the world’s – keeps us going back to God to remember what we cannot do on our own. (p. 117)

Work reveals our idols. Money, power, status, respect, awards, accolades, acceptance, reputation, followers, prestige, place, bigger, better, higher, faster, richer.

[Martin Luther] defined idolatry as looking to some created thing to give you what only God can give you. Therefore, he argued, even nonreligious people serve “gods” – ideologies or abilities that they believe can justify their lives. French philosopher Luc Ferry, himself a nonbeliever in God, likewise argues that everyone seeks “some way to face life with confidence, and death without fear and regret.” All of us look to something to assure ourselves we have spent our lives well. … Whatever we seek, Ferry says, it is a form of salvation. This fits with the implication of the first of the Ten Commandments. God says, “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.” (p. 132)

In the video Life, the Universe, and MIT I linked on Tuesday the Professors explore, among other things the way their worldviews change their approach to life and work. They were asked where they find meaning and purpose. In his opening remarks Troy Van Voorhis reflected on the search for meaning in life and in work – with a comment that fits with this post.

14:00-15:50 OK maybe some of you in the audience are more mature and realistic … I’ll choose science or I’ll choose to invest in my family and my friends, or I’ll seek to get justice for the oppressed. I’ll set this up as the ultimate aim of my life. You know, I think all of those things are pretty risky too. My reason is, look those are all good things, but investing them with ultimate value is dangerous because that’s not what they’re intended for. They’re intended to be partial values.

I’ll give you an example. In my research group we work on solar energy. One of our goals is to try to create a form of solar energy that’s cheap enough that it can be used across the world to provide energy for everyone without producing greenhouse gases. So I think that most people would agree that’s a good goal to work on. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I think there would be something wrong if I said that’s the aim of my life. To bring solar energy to the masses. To make the world a solar energy world. And the reason for that is because it might not pan out. It might be that I work on this for forty years and after forty years we still can’t do it. Or it might be that I work on this for twenty years and we get really really close and then some other technology comes along and does it better and faster and cheaper than we can. You know cold fusion comes along. And if that happens and my life purpose was to provide solar energy for the world I’m going to be disappointed. Because lets be honest, if I set my purpose as some career goal or some family goal or some specific goal like that my ultimate purpose isn’t just to see that thing happen but to be the one who makes it happen. And so if that opportunity is taken from me I’m going to be bitter. I’m going to be like my life was wasted.

Even the best of goals, from curing cancer, to providing clean energy, to obtaining justice for the oppressed, to providing jobs and product people need, to (dare I say it) building a church or planting a mission, can go wrong when the goal becomes the meaning and purpose of life. Vanity of vanities says the Philosopher.

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

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  • I liked that Keller addresses these themes within work clearly. And I agree that the book is excellent. I wish that he had fleshed out his theology of work more clearly for two other kinds of work-related issues: unemployment and slavery. One, the absence of work, the other, the forced domination of work. A discussion of these contemporary realities would have been a valuable addition to the mainsteam discussion of most people’s everyday work.

  • I haven’t read the book but I like what I’m reading here. Thirty-five years ago British sociologist J. A. Walter, a Christian, wrote “Sacred Cows: Exploring Contemporary Idolatry.” The book was about this very theme … how we can convert almost anything wholesome aspect of life into idolatry. Sociologists write about “anomie,” an absence of norms and social bonds that bind us together as a society. We, like Cain, are wanderers on the face of the earth, cut off from God (and eternal meaning or significance.) Every sustainable society must generate an ordered world in which most of the people, most of the time, find meaning. Work is potent force that can be transformed into idolatry.

    Unfortunately, the church does a horrible job at integrating work in Christian life. Three responses are typical. Ignore work – Rarely talk about work or its significance while offering a Christian world that is provides refuge and separation from work. Condemn work – lift up the “helping professions” (doctor, teacher, firefighter) while continually casting all else as consumerism or greed. Idolize work – give unqualified (or not sufficiently qualified) blessing to cultural framings of work and participation in our economic order.

  • RJS


    I think you’d like the book. Did you see the first post Every Good Endeavor? I had a quote from the book there I thought you especially would appreciate.

  • @ Michael #2 – I agree with RJS, I think you’d like the book.

    I just finished reading this book. Practically for me as a pastor it is easy for me to connect my vocation with my devotion to Christ. What concerns me is the difficulty others have with this. I see lots of people who have been burned by the implicit (sometimes explicit) promise that they’ll find their meaningful service with in the Church. I’m a big fan of lay involvement in ministry but folk are geared to finding their ‘calling’ within instead of outside of the congregation. I’ve just seen too many disappointed and disconnected Christians.

  • DMH

    Carson #1 “…unemployment and slavery. One, the absence of work, the other, the forced domination of work. A discussion of these contemporary realities would have been a valuable addition to the mainsteam discussion of most people’s everyday work.”

    Agreed. Know anyone who does this?

  • RJS #3

    I did see that post. And you’re right, I do resonate with it.

  • Carson DMH,

    Two of my favorite books on a theology of work are Miroslav Volf’ “Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work,” and Darrell Cosden’s “A Theology of Work: Work and the New Creation.” The big challenge, and it is huge, is precisely defining work. I haven’t found a thoroughly satisfying definition yet.

    Our impulse is to define work as remunerated labor. Say I run a landscaping business. If I come home in the evening and landscape my yard, am I working? Does it matter if I’m landscaping my yard because I find it enjoyable or because I need to correct some drainage problems that may affect my foundation? What about the stay-at-home parent? Is he/she working? Presently I am as busy as I have ever been between blogging, writing, and participating in a couple of substantial volunteer roles. According to the government I’m unemployed. Am I working?

    Can slaves do meaningful work? Paul writes Col 3:22-25

    “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.” NRSV

    Just sayin’ that if you dwell on this very much it makes your head hurt. 😉

  • DMH, Michael,

    Thanks for the question (DMH) and one answer (Michael). I agree that this makes the head hurt. That’s why I’d love for Keller (or someone similar) to take the lead in explaining a biblical approach towards these two extremes.

    I wonder if we don’t need a precise definition of “work.” Rather, we should speak about different kinds of work, and what is unique to to them. What does faithfulness look like in the work of a stay-at-home parent? Of a blogger? Of a volunteer? The differences may outweigh what they share in common for some of these situations.

  • Phil M

    I’ve been enjoying this book.

    The only criticism (if you could call it even that) is that his use of “the fall” as the main reason why work “goes wrong”, didn’t hold the explanatory power for me that he was aiming at.

    He seemed to use either a literal or metaphorical application of Genesis (hard to make a call either way), and given the many posts and discussion on Jesus Creed about Genesis, it doesn’t feel like either approach fits well.

    So does “the fall”, if seen as a telling of Israel’s history, or as a picture of the earth as temple, have anything to say about why work “goes wrong”?

    If not, then why? Or can we even ask that question (I noticed you didn’t bring it up in this post)?

  • RJS

    Phil M,

    Yeah, I skipped the Work Becomes Fruitless chapter for this post (except to include it and Gen 3 in the initial introduction to part 2). There are interesting things in the chapter, but I didn’t want to get in to the interpretation of the Fall in this post (and the post was long enough without it).

    I may come back to it as part of a post bringing together a number of uses of Genesis 3.