Any new book by Timothy Keller, Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City is a cause for rejoicing, and this one is no exception. I’ll take an in-depth look at the material in this book.
The introduction to Keller’s latest book is written by his collaborator on this book, Katherine Leary Alsdorf, who leads Redeemer’s Center for Faith & Work, their ministry for people in the marketplace. She indicates that the book:
Captures some foundational ways of thinking about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit; who we are in relation in the Trinity; and how all this effects the work we were created to do. How we work – in the context of our particular culture, time in history, vocation, and organization – is something we all need to be thinking through in our own communities. But the answers will all hang on this essential theology: the knowledge of who God is, his relation to man, his plan for the world, and how the good news (or gospel) of Christ turns our lives and the way we work upside down.
Keller writes that: …in this book we will do what we can to illuminate the transformative and revolutionary connect between Christian faith and the workplace. We’ll be referring to this connection – and all the ideas and practices surrounding it – as the ‘integration of faith and work’.
Keller writes that the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers, particularly Martin Luther and John Calvin, argued that all work, even so-called secular work was as much a calling as the ministry of the monk or priest. He goes on to state that those in the Calvinist or Reformed tradition, such as Abraham Kuyper, spoke of another aspect to the idea of work as God’s calling.
Work not only cares for creation, but also directs and structures it. In this Reformed view, the purpose of work is to create a culture that honors God and enables people to thrive. Yes, we must love our neighbor, but Christianity gives us very specific teachings about human nature and what makes human beings flourish. We must ensure that our work is done in line with these understandings. Faithful work, then, is to operate out of a Christian “worldview”.
Keller writes that we need to know the answers to three questions:
• Why do you want to work? (That is, why do we need to work in order to lead a fulfilled life?)
• Why is it so hard to work? (That is, why is it so often fruitless, pointless, and difficult?)
• How can we overcome the difficulties and find satisfaction in our work through the gospel?
The book seeks to answer these questions in its three major sections:
God’s Plan for Work – includes chapters: The Design of Work, The Dignity of Work, Work as Cultivation, Work as Service
Our Problems with Work – includes chapters: Work Becomes Fruitless, Work Becomes Pointless, Work Becomes Selfish, Work Reveals our Idols.
The Gospel and Work – includes chapters: A New Story for Work, A New Conception of Work, A New Compass for Work, A New Power for Work.
Keller begins by stating that in the beginning God worked. Work was not a necessary evil that came into the picture later. God worked for the sheer joy of it.
About work, Keller writes:
Work is as much a basic human need as food, beauty, rest, friendship, prayer, and sexuality; it is not simply medicine but food for our soul. Without meaningful work we sense significant inner loss and emptiness. People who are cut off from work because of physical or other reasons quickly discover how much they need work to thrive emotionally, physically, and spiritually. You will not have a meaningful life without work, but you cannot say that your work is the meaning of your life. If you make any work the purpose of your life – even if that work is church ministry – you create an idol that rivals God.
Keller states that the biblical view of work states that work of all kinds, whether with the hands or the mind, evidences our dignity as human beings – because it reflects the image of God the Creator in us. Work has dignity because it is something that God does and because we do it in God’s place, as his representatives. Work has dignity in itself, but all kinds of work have dignity.
Keller writes that we are to see work as a way of service to God and our neighbor, and so we should both work with that purpose. Keller indicates that our daily work is ultimately an act of worship to the God who called and equipped us to
do it – no matter what kind of work it is. He includes a quote from the liner notes of Jazz great John Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme, from which the book title comes:
This album is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say “THANK YOU GOD” through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues. May He help and strengthen all men in every good endeavor.
Keller states that many young people in New York City see the process of career selection more as the choice of an identity marker than a consideration of gifting and passions to contribute to the world. He states that today, young people are seeking to define themselves by the status of their work.
In discussing what wisdom the Bible would give us in choosing our work, he offers:
• We would want to choose work that we can do well. It should fit our gifts and our capacities.
• We would want to choose work that benefits others.
• We would want to benefit our field of work itself.
In discussing the Tower of Babel and today’s workers, Keller refers to people “making a name for themselves”.
He writes that we either get our name – our defining essence, security, worth, and uniqueness – from what God has done for us and in us, or we make a name through what we can do for ourselves.
He looks at the book of Esther, where he states we can find an extended case study on the themes of self-interest, power, and vocation. He writes:
If you see Esther not as an example but as a pointer to Jesus, and if you see Jesus not as an example but as a Savior doing these things for you personally, then you will see how valuable you are to him. Meditate on these things, and the truth will change your identity. It will convince you of your real, inestimable value. And ironically, when you see how much you are loved, your work will become far less selfish. Suddenly all the other things in your work life – your influence, your resume, and the benefits they bring you – become just things. You can risk them, and even lose them. You are free.
Keller returns to the theme of idols which he covered in detail in his book Counterfeit Gods. Here he provides an overview of the prevailing idols of three dominant cultures of Western history: traditional, modern and postmodern.
He writes that the idols of modern culture have had a profound influence on the shape of our work today. He states that the modern idol of individualism has tended to raise work from being a good thing to nearly a form of salvation.
Keller writes that the gospel furnishes us with the resources for more inspired, realistic, satisfying, and faithful work today, giving us four reasons:
1. The gospel provides an alternate story line for our work.
2. The Christian faith gives us a new and rich conception of work as partnering with God in his love and care for the world.
3. The gospel gives us a particularly sensitive new moral compass, through a host of sound ethical guidelines to help us make decisions, as well as wise counsel about human hearts.
4. The gospel radically changes our motives for work and fills us with a new and durable inner power that will be with us through thick and thin.
Keller offers a helpful summary of what it means to be a Christian in business:
To be a Christian in business, then, means much more than just being honest or not sleeping with your coworkers. It even means more than personal evangelism or holding a Bible study at the office. Rather, it means thinking out the implications of the gospel worldview and God’s purposes for your whole work life – and for the whole of the organization under your influence.
Keller also offers several good questions to consider as you are thinking about your work through the lenses of a Christian worldview. We won’t repeat them here due to space limitations.
He states that the biblical teaching:
..prevents us from valuing only Christian work or only professional work. Instead Christians should place a high value on all human work (especially excellent work), done by people, as a channel of God’s love for his world.
When we learn to value all people’s work, Keller states that we are moving into a realm of Christian theology called “common grace”. Through his common grace God blesses all people, so that Christians can benefit from, and cooperate with, non-Christians. He states that there are limitations to common grace, which require us to respond to these blessings with balance.
Keller touches on the concept of dualism, a term used to describe a separating wall between the sacred and the secular. Dualism leads some to think that if their work is to please Christ, it must be done overtly in his name. An opposite dualistic approach has Christians thinking of themselves as Christians only within church
activity. Keller writes that the integration of faith and work is the opposite of dualism.
Keller asks how we can become wise so that we make good decisions and gives us three answers from scripture:
1. We must not merely believe in God, but know him personally.
2. We must know ourselves.
3. We learn wisdom through experience.
Keller looks at Ephesians 6, where Paul says that all work should be done “as if you were serving the Lord”, a passage I have long used to apply to my work.
What will be different about the way Christians act at work? Keller gives a few examples:
• Christians should be known to not be ruthless. For example, they should have a reputation for being fair, caring and committed to others.
• Christians should be known as generous, and in the workplace this expresses itself in many ways.
• Christians should be known to be calm and poised in the face of difficulty or failure. Keller writes that this may be the most telling way to judge if a person is drawing on the resources of the gospel in the development of personal character.
• Christians should not be seen as sectarian. We should respect and treat those who believe differently as valued equals in the workplace – and at the same time we will be unashamed to be identified with Jesus. If a Christian avoids both of these errors, he or she will be striking an unusual and healthy balance.
In the Epilogue, the authors encourage every church to develop a ministry like Redeemer has that fits its own context in regards to integrating faith and work.
This is a very important book on the subject of work. Highly recommended.
Here’s a link to marvelous excerpts from this book: https://coramdeotheblog.com/book-reviews/theology-and-misc-book-reviews/tim-keller-book-reviews/.