We’re back with Tim Keller, author of the book titled Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work. I talked with him yesterday on the important topics of business, vocation, and calling. Along the way we talked to college graduates and we talked to parents and we talked to Christians who feel stuck, in their jobs.
Let’s move forward and discuss a young man or a young woman who is deciding on a career. I mean, one of the things you say in the book is that in New York City a number of sharp young adults graduate from college and then select careers as a form of identity. The career becomes, for them, a status symbol. Explain that.
There have been a lot of great books recently on the idea that we live in a consumeristic age in which your identity is seen in the products you consume. I am the kind of person that wears this kind of clothing, owns these electronics. These are the accessories I use. So you actually get your identity from the brands that you use. And I am afraid that what has happened here is that jobs are like that too. And there is just no doubt.
I see plenty of people taking jobs that really don’t fit: a) it just doesn’t fit their talents very well, and b) very often the jobs don’t necessarily fulfill them because the jobs aren’t really helping people very much — but the jobs are high status. And because they are high status, people feel like I need to be in that job so I can feel good about myself. So it is an identity marker. People are very often not choosing jobs on the basis of vocation — not saying, “What gifts do I have and how can I be useful to other people through my work?” but, “How do I take a job that gives me the same kind of sense of self-worth I get when I am driving a particular kind of car?”
All right. Here’s a hypothetical question, but I think it gets at a modern business ethic question we get a lot in the inbox. Let’s pretend in ancient Babylon there’s a God-fearing man who grows straw. He is good at it. He works hard. He serves his buyer well. He always delivers his straw on time. He is joyful. He is humble and people like him. But his straw is then used to create reinforced, baked bricks that are stacked one on top of another into the tower of Babel. I mean, the question is this. At what point is the straw grower’s vocation virtuous or not virtuous? Or, to put this in other terms: How far is the Christian accountable to the ultimate ends of a company that he or she works for which may exist only to create a great name for itself?
I think you would have to be very directly collaborating with evil before you start to try to get that. See, the trouble with the purist impulse is this: If I make bread and I know that there are criminals in town eating that bread and staying alive because of my bread-making, should I really get out of that? Should I say, “Well, only a certain percentage is criminal, but I am helping them live”?
Luther would laugh at the idea that you in some pure way have to make sure that your work only furthers godly ends. He says: God feeds everything that has breath. Luther expounds the Psalms, especially Psalms 145 and 146 and 147 where it talks about how God feeds everything that has breath. He loves everything that he has made. And Luther then says: How does God feed everybody? Well, he feeds them through the farmer. He feeds them through the milkmaid who is milking the cow. He feeds him through the truck driver who is bringing the things to market. That is really God’s work then. If you are just farming, you are doing God’s work. It doesn’t have to be a Christian farmer. You just do it and you add to God’s work.
But then at a certain point, I do believe — because I am Reformed and I believe in the importance of worldview — that work also has to be done from a Christian perspective. But I also think that Luther has got something to say: All work is good work just done well. And if you actually try to say, “This work is actually helping someone who is furthering evil ends,” at a certain point you would be completely paralyzed. You couldn’t do anything.
One final question, Tim. What would you say to a Christian who does not have a lot of options, they have a job that was available, not because they chose it from 12 options? Speak to a Christian who is, or who feels like, they are vocationally stuck: How does the doctrine of vocation work in their situation?
Luther’s understanding of calling is that the farm girl who is milking the cows — even if it is the only job available to her and she would like to go somewhere else — she needs to see what she is doing as God’s calling. She needs to see that this isn’t just milking cows. This is my way of participating in God’s care for his creation, because he has decided this is how I am going to do it.
There is a place — I forget what psalm — where Luther says: God strengthens the bars of the city gates. In other words, he gives you security. And then Luther says: But how does God strengthen the bar of your city gates? He does it with good governors and good policemen and good soldiers. And what he is trying to get across is that all good work, done well, is God’s calling.
The Calvinist understanding of calling, which is doing God’s work from a Christian worldview; and the Lutheran understanding of calling, which is simply caring for creation, being useful to other people through the work you do, are complementary. I really do think they are complementary. You have got to use them both.
So, seeing your work as a calling is not a problem if you are stuck in a job you don’t like. You need to say, that right now it is still God’s calling and that gives you a lot of peace to say, “I can still answer God’s calling in this job even when I am looking for a job that I think fits my gifts better.”