Tim Keller is the Founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and the author of many helpful books including one on work and vocation. It’s titled Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work.
I talked with Dr. Keller on the important topics of business, vocation, and calling. Along the way we talked to college graduates entering the work force and to Christians who feel stuck in their jobs.
I began by asking him why it seems that applying a biblical worldview to the workplace seems so slippery and so elusive.
It is probably because of the fact that the church doesn’t have a uniform view. It is not a consensus on how the church is supposed to relate to culture more generally. There is actually another book, this book Center Church, in which I try to tackle that. I don’t tackle it in the Every Good Endeavor book. But basically you have got very different views on how the church should relate to the culture. It is based on very different views about common grace. It is based on somewhat different views about the role of the institutional church.
And because of that, I think that doctrinal vocation, which everyone says, “Oh yeah, that is really important, really important that all work is a calling from God and that work is important and that God has to come to. You need to bring your faith and God to bear on your work,” yes, that is important, but then the problem is that doctrinal vocation gets caught up in this controversy. So people come out confused, really since there is no consensus on how to relate to the culture, there is no consensus on what vocation means.
Interesting entailments. You know, early in the book you write two sentences that I think are really important to getting at sort of what this book is about. You write, “A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to it and you do it for them rather than for yourself. Thinking of working mainly as a means of self-fulfillment and self-realization slowly crushes the person and undermines society itself.” Wow. Talk a little bit more about the corrosive influence of individualism in the workplace.
The basic secular idea is that there is no meaning in life. We are here by accident. There is no overarching moral absolutes. We weren’t put here for a purpose. But then what most of the folks say — I have seen this in many forms — they say, “Of course there is no meaning in life. You have to create your own meaning.” So 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 that we can’t live a fruitful life and a happy life. You create your own meaning.”
Somebody should actually drill down on that at some point. Maybe I will and say, “It is impossible to create your own meaning. If you create your own meaning, you don’t have it.” But 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. But in that case there is no calling. There is no sense that there is something higher than me that is more important than me. So, you see, if you don’t have that, then there is no such thing as sacrifice and servanthood. Everything you do is selfish. Everything you do is selfish. And 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 this brief span of time that you have. But in the end, there is nothing but darkness.
So when you put those two things 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 their 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.
“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 their being something more important than you, something that is already there, like God.”
Yes. So realities above and outside of us are crucial for love, or everything we do is selfish, like you said, that’s a powerful point. So we do have a God over our work, and that means love for others is really central to the biblical idea of selflessness in our vocation. I mean, this is a really practical question, but if a Christian shows up for work on Monday morning and they’re irritable towards others and they are grumpy, what is wrong?
In the book I talk about the fact that the gospel is brought to bear on our work in a couple of different ways. One of them is the heart. One of them is that the grumpiness and the anger and only doing what I have to do to get by means it is a lack of a gospel character. The gospel is supposed to make you grateful. It is supposed to make you humble. It is supposed to give you inner peace. It is supposed to make you generous in your spirit. And if you just don’t show all those things at work, it means you are not really letting the gospel change the heart the way it ought to.
And by the way, in the long run a gospel-changed heart usually makes you a pretty good worker, makes people want to work with you, makes people want to be on your team, makes employers happy with your work. So in the long run, having a gospel-changed heart actually is pretty practical in the field of work.
I think the first time I heard the phrase “god of options” was from Mark Dever. He was talking about young pastors who take a pastorate in a local church, but are always half in. They are always eyeing a different church, always looking for a new church, a bigger church, a better church, a better position. And so they are not committed to their church. They are half in. Yet the Bible calls us: “Whatever you do, work heartily” (Colossians 3:23). And there seems to be a common thread with Christians in the workplace who are in their position. They are sort of half in. They are sort of drawn to this “god of options” idea that they are never all in in one particular job. Do you see this problem?
Actually, I am 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, “I like a job that is just a little more exciting to me. This job is a little boring to me and better paying.” The Christian understanding of vocation is, if you produce a product, if you produce something 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 the process have to be incredibly fulfilling when you know that you are doing something that helps people? And I do think that that part of what I mean when I say that we have lost the idea of calling and we are looking now at work as ways of fulfillment and that actually in the end crushes you, so you are always half out.
Yep. I love what you wrote in your book on page 36. It is one of my favorite lines: “Work did not come into creation after a golden age of leisure.” Work is deeply embedded in creation — I mean this is pre-fall. It is glorious. It is according to God’s design. So this is a parenting question for you. But I think it is one that is relevant to all of us. How do I as a dad teach and train my young boys — 11 and 7 — that they were created to work, that it is part of their very humanness, that it is deeply embedded into them by the Creator?
You have to get the basic doctrines of creation and fall and redemption. And you have to give it to children at every age, but you have to give it in a form that they can handle at that age. But I think you have to say that work was put into the garden of Eden. When God had everything absolutely perfect, there was work. And that must mean that even in this life work is often difficult. Our bodies break down, so work can actually wear us down. Our minds and our hearts aren’t what they should be because of sin. And very often we have trouble paying attention to things.
But basically in the end we are made to work and we are only happy if we do work. And you can even say people who don’t have work or don’t do work in the long run get depressed. And the reason why they do that is because we were made for it. We were made to find fulfillment in working and being useful to others in that work. And I think there is a way of getting that across to 11-year-olds and 7-year-olds. You say things — this is the way I raise children too — you say things and you are not sure they get it. You find out in question and answer to what degree they understood and to what degree they don’t, and then you try to make it simpler until you feel like you have hit home.