Audio Transcript

We’re joined this week by pastor Tim Keller from New York City to talk vocation and about his really helpful book Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work. I have a handful of questions to toss his way — admittedly a bit scattershot. We’ll talk to college grads, to parents, and Christians who feel stuck in their jobs. I began by asking him: Why does a biblical view of vocation seem so undeveloped in the lives of so many Christian workers today?

Well, I think it is probably because of the fact that the church doesn’t have a consensus on how the church is supposed to relate to culture more generally. Actually, I wrote another book about this, Center Church. I try to tackle it there. I don’t tackle it in the Every Good Endeavor book.

“A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it, and you do it for them rather than for yourself.”

Basically, you have very different views of how the church should relate to the culture, based on very different views about common grace, and based on somewhat different views about the role of the institutional church.

When it comes to the doctrine of vocation, everybody says, “Oh, yeah, that is really important. It is really important that all work is a calling from God and work is important and that you need to bring your faith in God to bear on your work. Yeah, it is important.” But then the problem is the doctrine of vocation gets caught up in this controversy. There is no consensus on how to relate to the culture. There is no consensus on what vocation means.

Crushing Individualism

Right. I’m thankful for the ways you clear up some confusion and help us work toward clarity. In fact, early in the book Every Good Endeavor, you write two sentences that capture a major theme in the book: “A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it, and you do it for them rather than for yourself. . . . Thinking of work mainly as a means of self-fulfillment and self-realization slowly crushes the person and undermines society itself” (19). Powerful. So where does this crushing individualism in the workplace come from?

Well, the basic secular idea is that there is no meaning in life. We are here by accident. There is no overarching meaning. There are no moral absolutes. We weren’t put here for a purpose.

But then, and I have seen this in many forms, what most of the folks say is “Well, of course there is no meaning in life — you have to create your own meaning.” I have seen a lot of secular people and atheists say, “Yes, of course there is no meaning to life, but that doesn’t mean you can’t live a fruitful life and a happy life. You create your own meaning.”

Well actually, somebody should drill down on that at some point. Maybe I will, and I will say, “It is impossible to create your own meaning. If you create your own meaning you don’t have it.” Basically, what they mean is “You decide. You decide what is right or wrong for you. You decide what you think is important, and then you live according to that.”

In that case, there is no calling. There is no sense that there is something higher than me that is more important than me. If you don’t have that, then there is no such thing as sacrifice and servanthood. Everything you do is selfish.

There is also no real hope. There is no real hope for the future. You just basically are trying to create a little bit of happiness for yourself in as brief a span a time that you have. But in the end, there is nothing but darkness.

When you put those together, the idea of vocation and the idea of hope and the idea of servanthood and the idea of sacrifice and unselfishness, it all actually depends on there being something more important than you, something that is already there, like God.

So the whole idea of vocation is gone, and work is nothing but a way of getting ahead, and it is crushing us, I think.

Gospel-Changed Hearts

Yes, self-sacrifice is central to the biblical idea of vocation. I think that idea confronts a lot of Christians who don’t like their work. This is really practical, but if a Christian shows up for work on Monday morning, and they are irritable towards others — what’s wrong?

“If you produce a product that makes people’s lives better, even if it is a rather boring process to do it, you are doing God’s work.”

In the book, I talk about the fact that the gospel is brought to bear on our work in couple of different ways. One of them is the heart. Grumpiness, anger, or only doing what I have to do to get by means you have a lack of a gospel character.

The gospel helps make you grateful, make you humble, give you inner peace, make you generous in your spirit. If you just don’t show all those things at work, it means that you are not really letting the gospel change the heart the way it ought to.

In the long run, a gospel-changed heart usually makes you a pretty good worker. It makes people want to work with you. It makes people want to be on your team. It makes employers happy with your work. In the long run, having a gospel-changed heart is pretty practical in the field of work.

God of Options

For sure. This success requires some level of diligence and focus, too. I think the first time I heard the phrase “god of options” was from Mark Dever out in DC. He was talking about young pastors who take a pastorate in a local church but are always only half-in, always eyeing a different church, always looking for a newer church and a better position within it. Similarly, it seems there is this temptation for Christians in the workforce who are half-in in to a job, and so drawn to this “god of options” idea that they’re never all-in on one particular job, but always looking for the next one, the next position, to come along. Do you see this?

Yes. I’m being a little ironic when I just say yes. But your question was well-stated, and I agree with it. I can just add this.

People are looking for the more fulfilling thing. Very often they say, “You know, I would like a job that just is a little more exciting to me. This job is a little boring to me.” Or they are looking for a better-paying job.

I think the Christian understanding of vocation is if you produce a product that makes people’s lives better, even if it is a rather boring process to do it, you are doing God’s work. You are caring for God’s creation. You are serving people’s needs.

Why does it have to be so incredibly fulfilling when you know that you are doing something that helps people? I do think that is part of what I mean when I say that we have lost the idea of calling, and we are looking now at work as a way of fulfillment, and that actually in the end crushes you. You are always half-out, as you said.

(1950–2023) was an author, theologian, and apologist. He was the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, New York, and a co-founder of The Gospel Coalition.