Every Good Endeavor 12

imgresWhy is work sometimes fruitless and pointless?

Because of our “powerful inclination to make work…and its attendant benefits” into “the main basis” of our “meaning and identity,” says Tim Keller in Every Good Endeavor.

“What are most of today’s ambitious workers doing their work for?” “To maximize their power, glory, and autonomy” just as the people who attempted to build the tower of Babel did.

I find this to be a very accurate diagnosis as applied to me. I find myself trying to find my identity in work more often than I care to acknowledge. (This is why Steve Jobs — at least as portrayed in Walter Isaacson’s biography — was so inspiring to me. He too was concerned with having power, seeking personal glory and most definitely autonomy, but the biography seems to say, in the end, he was driven above all to make something “beautiful,” something that “just works.”)

What to do?

See how Esther identified with her people and mediated for them, “as a pointer to Jesus.” Then see how Jesus did so “not as an example but as a Savior.” Then, we will see “how valuable [we] are to him” and this truth will “change [our] identity” from a person who thinks his worth comes from achievements to a person who knows his own unsurpassing worth because he knows he is Christ’s. (I think I hear an echo of Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning!)

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Every Good Endeavor 11

imgresIn addition to being fruitless, under the curse, work can be pointless, according to Tim Keller in Every Good Endeavor.

One manifestation of this is how the current economy “locked countless [people] into low-paying service sector jobs that experience the…alienating disconnection from the fruits or products of their work.”  Likewise, “the size and the complexity of global corporations now makes it difficult for even high-ranking executives to understand what their labor is producing.”

What is the solution?

Keller says Qoheleth provides a hint in Ecclesiastes 4:5-6:

Fools fold their hands and ruin themselves.
Better one handful with tranquility
Than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.

There are two alternatives, Keller observes.

One is “two handfuls” of wealth that comes from “toil and chasing after the wind.”  The other is the “empty handful” of wealth that comes from the idleness of the fools who does not toil at all.  While “satisfaction in work in a fallen world is always a miraculous gift of God,” “we have a responsibility to pursue this gift through a particular balance.”

How do we attain such balance?

Start by “recognizing and renouncing our tendency to make idols of money and power.”  Then put “relationships in their proper place.”  Finally, pursue “something that is beyond the scope of Ecclesiastes to identify” — Jesus Christ — for “without the gospel of Jesus, we will have to toil not for the joy of serving others, nor the satisfaction of a job well done, but to make a name for ourselves.”

Every Good Endeavor 10

imgresTim Keller in Every Good Endeavor says, as a result of the Fall, work is now frequently fruitless. Therefore, “you should expect to be regularly frustrated in your work even though you may be in exactly the right vocation.”

It also means, “just because you cannot realize your highest aspirations in work does not mean you have chosen wrongly.”

At the same time, like Niggle, “our deepest aspirations in work will come to complete fruition in God’s future.”  And this allows us to “never be ultimately discouraged by the frustrating present reality of this world, in which thorns grow up when [Christians] are trying to coax up other things.”

Delightfully surprisingly, Tim Keller then finds this consolation in a Christmas carol we’ve all sung so many times.

No more let sin or sorrow grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as the curse is found.

Every Good Endeavor 9

imgresIn Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller observes that God provides “purpose for our work by calling us to serve the world” through our work.  Very Lutheran.

“Our daily work,” once so reconceived as “God’s assignment to serve others” then becomes a calling.  This implies “we are not to choose jobs and conduct our work to fulfill ourselves and accrue power….”  Why?  I love this answer: “for being called by God to do something is empowering enough.”

So how should one choose one’s work?  By asking, “How, with my existing abilities and opportunities, can I be of greatest service to other people, knowing what I do of God’s will and of human need?”  In this statement I hear an echo of Frederick Buechner’s oft-quoted definition of vocation in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

(By the way, I find myself returning time and again to Buechner’s three autobiographies, especially when I want to re-examine my own life’s path and God’s calling for me.  They are The Sacred Journey, Now and Then, and Telling Secrets.  The subtitle of Now and Then?  “A Memoir of Vocation.”)

Every Good Endeavor 8

imgresIn Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller points out “so many ministers [incorrectly] assume that investors and entrepreneurs are solely out to make money without regard for advancing the common good.”  If this failure to see business “as a way of making culture and of cultivating creation” continues, then ministers will fail to properly support the members of their congregation.

Then he shares an excerpt from Andy Crouch’s Culture-Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling in which Andy Crouch’s wife, a professor of physics, plays classical music in her “somewhat sterile and technological environment of a laboratory” to create “an atmosphere of creativity and beauty.”  She also models to her students “both hard work and good rest rather than frantic work and fitful procrastination.”  This is how she shapes the culture of her workplace.

I admire the example set by Andy Crouch’s wife.

But the use of this example as culture-making is disappointing to me.

In it, that she is a physics professor seems incidental.  What she is praised for — i.e., playing beautiful music at work and modeling proper work and leisure balance among others —  can be done regardless of whether she is a physics professor, a big firm lawyer, a high school teacher or what have you.  Her profession as a physics professor appears to function solely as an instrument for influencing others with no inherent ability to contribute to culture making.

Instead, I wish the example said something about her contribution to the culture of scientific scholarship in general and to the culture of scientific scholarship of physics in particular that cannot be said with respect to another field — e.g., discovering the way the physical world works and thus laying the foundation for future subduing of the material world, for instance.

As it stands, the excerpt can be read to buttress, rather than refute, the commonly held, almost gnostic view that the world is just a “temporary theater for our individual salvation stories, after which we go to live disembodied lives in a different dimension,” paving the way to a type of unwarranted secular-sacred distinction, and leading many to say, “at the end of the day, only souls matter because they last.”

And that’s a view that Tim Keller himself pushes back against in his very book.

Every Good Endeavor 7.1

imgresIn Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller describes Richard Muow providing a biblical framework to investment bankers within which investment banking can be pursued as leveraging our resources to meet a human need.

One challenge I face in trying to live out this story is that, sometimes, it doesn’t feel as though having a new “story” of my work is enough.

When I was being recruited to join a law firm out of law school, a devout Roman Catholic partner shared with me the story of three bricklayers working to build a cathedral.  The first one treated his job as nothing more or less than laying bricks.  The second one saw it as a means to make money.  The third one saw it as a way to contribute to creating a space for people to worship God.

The recruiting partner urged me to see what I would be doing as an entry-level law firm associate — e.g., fairly mechanical tasks of creating and keeping track of closing checklists for deals involving energy infrastructure in the developing countries — as not just practicing law, or making money by practicing law but as contributing to bringing electricity to people who wouldn’t otherwise have it.

I appreciated the story, then, and I do still.

Yet,knowing that I am living this “story” feels insufficient when faced with certain struggles — e.g., no new businesses being generated despite my efforts.

Katherine Alsdorf, co-writing with Tim Keller, said she wanted “a gospel that had good news even for” her business venture’s failure.  So do I.  In fact, I’d like to know how the gospel is good news even for the frustrating fruitlessness one can experience in one’s business endeavors.

We will see whether the rest of the book suggests a way forward.