Book Review: Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor

Ever pondered what it means to work and be a Christian?  To be a Christian worker?

For some, being a Christian worker means evangelizing at your place of employment.  For Chik-Fil-A and a few local car dealerships in my area, it means closing on Sundays.  For others, it means making a lot of money and then donating that money to charitable causes.  Is Christian work all of the above?  None of the above?  Some of the above?  Something else entirely?

Tim Keller sets out in his book to answer that question and, in doing so, offers not only a comprehensive look at the history of ideas surrounding Christians and labor, but also gives depth and understanding to what it means to be a Christian working in the world.  What he uncovers should inspire you – whatever your vocation – into a fuller life of working for Christ, and give you a picture, too, of what work looks like without a Savior involved.

Keller is interested in making two key points about work: 1) that work is godly, part of God’s plan, and was a pre-Fall gift from God to humanity, and 2) that God and our sin influence our relationship to, and our use of, work.  Starting in Genesis with God’s holy work of creation, he traces a spiritual definition of “work” that is something quite different from our modern understanding: labor that exists not for self-aggrandizement but as a form of service to God, as a form of serving others, and as part of a “ministry of competency.”

This is wonderful news for those who have often struggled with how to be a proper believer at work or while working.  To be good at what one does – to view it properly as working for the Lord, and not for man, can be a godly act!  To go about your work prayerfully, to serve others through it – those things are embedded in the Christian ethos of labor.  Being a Christian who works is a holistic matter just as much as it is a piecemeal one that demands certain actions or behaviors.  Keller does a masterful job of illustrating the way that believers, viewing everything through the “eyes of grace,” can view their vocation and the tasks set before them.

But Keller doesn’t shy away from looking at the uglier side of labor, too: the tedium, the temptation to work for money and power and prestige, the curses of frustration, fruitlessness, and struggle.  As a part of creation, he argues, work too has been tainted by the fall and by our sin, and he offers striking images of what that might look like in day to day life.  In an interesting section, he even offers up a brief examination of the idols of corporate and community (as well as individual) culture: the “goods,” as he calls them, that we often turn into “ultimates” and whose power often sways how and why we work and behave.

Most importantly, Keller seeks to redefine our understanding of what a good job and a good vocation is.  To judge a vocation by the earthly standards of money, advancement, or self-fulfillment is to bow before idols; to judge a vocation by how it permits you to serve God makes all the difference in the world.  Keller is not interested in differentiating between various types of labor, either; a section toward the end of the book touches on all sorts of specific professions from medicine to the arts to the humanities and offers some guideposts about how a Christian ethos might transform those sorts of work.  His idea seems to be that there is a place for all kinds of labor in God’s kingdom, and all sorts of workers can achieve their best for God by viewing their labor as a means of service.

The book is replete with Biblical examples – some particularly well-written passages of note focus on Esther’s unique position to make change and Joseph’s godliness through his work as a secular official in Egypt – and also full of church history.  Helpfully, Keller even draws out a brief history of views of labor in the church, touching on how the Reformation in particular transformed the Christian view of labor in a major way for many believers.  There are a few theologically dense bits in here: he delves quite a bit into the concept of common grace, for example, and if that’s a turn-off for you or something you might not enjoy wading through in a Christian book about work, well, you might want to look elsewhere.

Otherwise, if you are a person who works in any capacity, and you’ve often wondered what it means to be a Christian at work beyond sticking a Bible verse in your cubicle or trying to convert your co-workers, Keller offers an in-depth analysis that at the least will help you to reconsider how you approach your vocation.  You will get something valuable from this book, I think, even if you don’t love every last bit of it.  Every Good Endeavor is perhaps a chewier read than some people might like – Keller is an intellectual and has a theologian’s heart, and it shows in his writing – but the insights in the text are valuable, uplifting, and practical, too.  If you want to dig more deeply into the ethos of Christian labor, or to ask what it means to be a working Christian beyond the obvious gestures, this book is most definitely for you.

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