What’s Wrong with Work?
In the first section of their book Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf do a superb job of exploring what work was intended to be: a calling to other-focused service intended to cultivate a culture that glorifies God and His ideals.
Of course, the challenge is that we do not live in the ideal world anymore. We are bent towards self-absorption, and too easily make work all about ourselves. Hence, work as we know it, is anything but the ideal described in the first section. In this second section of three in the book, Alsdorf and Keller survey what work has become in this fallen world. They give four main pathologies related to work.
First, our work is often fruitless. We are able to envision far more success than we are able to attain. This frustration comes both from our “lack of ability” but also “resistance in the environment around us” (p.90). Adam and Eve were still able to create children and reap produce from the earth, but both were made much harder and fruitless.
Does frustration in a job mean we are ill-suited for the job? Maybe, but not necessarily. Such can simply be the result of the curse on all of us and all of life. No one will find the perfect career devoid of frustration. Such does not exist.
The authors remind us, though, that Christians have a “deep consolation.” Frustration does not continue forever. There will come a time in the New Creation when the curse will end and frustration will be gone. Like the short story “Leaf, by Niggle,” written by a frustrated J.R.R. Tolkien when his writing would not flow, the painter Niggle struggled a lifetime just to paint one leaf of the majestic tree he could envision and desired to paint. But as death came and Niggle passed on to Heaven, there stood the tree of his visions in all of its glory. The ideals of our work will exist, but not this side of the New Creation.
Second, far too often our work is pointless. Like the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, we find that all we pour our life into turns out to be “meaningless” when viewed entirely with an “under the sun” (here and now) perspective. Death is no respecter of persons and our memories tend to be short. Great inventions are replaced and made obsolete by the “latest and greatest.” Even when success does come, satisfaction is short-lived and not as fulfilling as hoped.
The way work is done in many quarters these days only punctuates the pointlessness of work. Too often workers in large companies never see the results of their work and, therefore, are deprived of a sense of satisfaction. Work for many has become a way to become immortal. In so doing, we are only alienated from God and the pointlessness of our work is compounded. Finally, there is a tendency among the youngest generation to choose jobs based on status not calling. This is a strategy for fulfillment that is doomed to be pointless.
Third, work has now become a selfish pursuit, not a way to serve others. We use our jobs as means to flex our own individuality. We seek status. We make work serve us. We send a statement to the world that we are superior to others by our work. We even strive to find meaning from our jobs. Like the builders of Babel, we use our work to “make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4). But as we use work for our own selfish desires, we increase the amount of alienation in the world and human unity is torn asunder.
A much better approach would be that of Esther from the Bible. She is brought “into the palace” — a place of status, affluence, and influence — because of her superior beauty. It would have been easy for her to make her life about herself and her stunning appearance. But she realizes she is where she is by the grace of God. Even her beauty is a gift from God and not of her own doing. By the end of the story she has used her gifts to serve her people.
Finally, work reveals our idols. Anytime we take a good gift like work and make it the ultimate reality of our entire life, we have created an idol. When we look past God to our work for meaning, significance, and fulfillment an idol has been made. Even within a job there are many possible idols. Comfort, pleasure, money, financial security, power, approval, and control are a few. Each makes work about something very different from service, and usually something that takes care of ourselves.
I can’t help but feel that this four-chapter section did not need to be any longer than one chapter. That one chapter would have been a succinct statement of the problems we experience with work, a nice foil to what the authors want to do in the last section of the book. Instead, the majority of each chapter is extra information and application that does not advance the authors’ main point considerably or is somewhat off topic (i.e., what “idolatry” looks like in traditional, modern, and postmodern contexts).
Next, the authors take us to what Keller has made a respected name doing: gospel-centered theology and application. However laborious the middle of Every Good Endeavor was, I look forward to a great ending.