In the introduction to Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work, Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf share the story of Leaf by Niggle, a short story written by J.R.R. Tolkien during an impasse in his work on The Lord of the Rings. The story is about a painter named Niggle who devotes his entire life to painting a grand image that starts with a tree. The trouble is, Niggle is a perfectionist, and upon the event of his death, the only completed portion of his dream painting is one beautiful leaf. In despair at the incomplete realization of his life’s work, Niggle boards the train bound for the afterlife. Imagine his joy when he arrives at the outskirts of heavenly country and sees a tree—the very tree he had seen so many times in his imagination—“its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and yet had so often failed to catch…”
This story is so poignant, Keller and Alsdorf say, because we are all 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.
But if the God of the Bible is true, the authors say, this changes everything.
…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…
This is the thesis of Every Good Endeavor—that our work matters. It matters to God, it matters to the coming of the Kingdom, and it matters to the world now. What follows is a most thorough discussion on how work and faith are intertwined
God’s Plan for Work
Keller and Alsdorf begin with the original design of work, proclaiming it good and an intricate part of God’s good plan for human beings. The Hebrew word mlkh—the word for ordinary human work—is used repeatedly to describe the work God does in creating the world. Work was also a part of life in paradise, given to mankind as a part of the blessedness of the garden. The authors make the case that work is a foundational part of our makeup—so much so that without meaningful work, human beings develop a profound sense of loss.
The authors go on to say that because work reflects the image of God in us—because work is something God does and we continue as God’s representatives—work of all kinds has dignity. This view prohibits seeing “secular” work as less dignified than the “sacred” work of ministry. All work should be seen as from God and for God and thus part of the sacred ministry of each individual’s life. This leads us into a discussion on work as cultivation—the redeeming of culture—and work as service.
Yes, work was originally a significant part of God’s good plan for our lives. But why don’t we always experience work this way?
Our Problems with Work
Because of the entry of sin into the world, God’s perfect plan for work has been distorted. In fact, the authors tell us, we should expect to be regularly frustrated in our work.
Genesis 3, verse 18 tells us not only that “thorns and thistles” will come out of the ground but also that “you will eat the plants of the field.” Thorns and food. Work will still bear some fruit, though it will always fall short of its promise. Work will be both frustrating and fulfilling, and sometimes—just often enough—human work gives us a glimpse of the beauty and genius that might have been the routine characteristic of all our work, and what, by the grace of God, it will be again in the new heavens and new earth…
Because of sin, we often experience our work as pointless, see it as our main source of identity and meaning, or make it into an idol. How can such a place of loss be redeemed?
The Gospel and Work
The Gospel gives us a new story for our work. Looking at our work with a Christian worldview enables us to put our individual stories into a larger story and live out the elements of this story in our work.
The gospel is the true story that God made a good world that was marred by sin and evil, but through Jesus Christ he redeemed it at infinite cost to himself, so that someday he will return to renew all creation; end all suffering and death; and restore absolute peace, justice, and joy in the world forever. The vast implications of this gospel worldview—about the character of God, the goodness of the material creation, the value of the human person, the fallenness of all people and all things, the primacy of love and grace, the importance of justice and truth, the hope of redemption—affect everything, and especially our work.
The authors discuss the issue of common grace, ethical implications of the gospel worldview, and how the gospel gives us a new power through passion and rest.
It’s difficult to capture here in this short review the excellent insights offered in Every Good Endeavor. The issue of faith and work is explored in such a knowledgeable, deeply-provoking, and Biblically grounded way—and is written in that engaging way we have come to expect from our friends at Redeemer Presbyterian Church. The depth of the text is one reason I am pleased to announce that we will be taking a closer look at this book in February 2013, in a month-long book discussion. It’s an important book to discuss. Because, as Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf say:
There really is a tree. Whatever you are seeking in your work—the city of justice and peace, the world of brilliance and beauty, the story, the order, the healing—it is there. There is a God, there is a future healed world that he will bring about, and your work is showing it (in part) to others…inevitably, the whole tree that you seek…will come to fruition. If you know all this, you won’t be despondent because you can get only a leaf or two out in this life. You will work with satisfaction and joy…
So, for now, Niggle, keep painting leaves.
During the month of January we will be discussing Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior.We hope you’ll join us on Monday mornings in January as we welcome the New Year by lingering over Professor Prior’s words together. You may link up with a post of your own or jump in the conversation in the comments. We will cover the first three chapters on Monday, January 7.