Every Good Endeavour by Timothy Keller is about the Christian at work. This is definitely the most challenging book of my 2015. Reason one: the content and the ideas. I chose to read it because I had questions about work and I learnt a lot from it. It touches on many subjects that I’ve never thought about before. Reason two: the language. It’s a test of my English. I have no difficulty understanding the argument if I can sort out the subject, object and verb of the sentence. By the time I’m writing this review, I’ve read it at least three times over the course of more than a year! I wrote a mixture of “what questions does this chapter answer” and my thoughts under the headline of each chapter. Hopefully I haven’t given out too much of the content, because the purpose of my post is to make you want to read this brilliant book yourself!
In the Introduction, it says that the purpose of the book is to 1) discuss many opinions on the subject of work and 2) apply these ideas to Christians’ daily work. The book presents people’s attitudes towards work throughout history and across the globe, for example, ancient Greek and Roman cultures, traditional Asian cultures, societies after the Second World War, modern and post modern thinkers, dominant philosophers, Christian scholars and of course work through the perspective of the gospel. It’s like a comparison chart. A lot of the applications focus on the financial industry, which I presume reflects the situation in Keller’s church in New York. It’s fascinating to read about their challenges but also their opportunities. The principles discussed in this book apply to all vocations. I just need to work hard to apply it to my own work!
Part one: God’s Plan for Work.
ONE: The Design of Work
I remember the first time when I heard as a young Christian that we will be working in heaven. It was a revelation, which had the same effect as when I first heard heaven really exists. Thinking about all the things I’m good at and I’d love to do all day but can’t, I was delighted to know that I can in heaven. It still never fails to shock young Christians when I mention to them that there will be work in the new heaven and new earth. I don’t blame them: firstly, people hate working. It’s hard! Secondly, they’re never told let alone taught properly. This chapter provides the perfect explanation as to why we will work even in the new heaven and new earth and why it’s good!
It also teaches that even on earth now, work is good, although frustrating (for many reasons). It’s not the most important thing in life, but it is part of our design.
TWO: The Dignity of Work.
Do you know when society whispers to you that “lowly” jobs are humiliating, that idea comes all the way from ancient Greek philosophers? It still influences our world and it has big consequences. But if we try to persuade ourselves or other people that all work has equal dignity, what is the evidence? And why is it important to understand that all work is equal?
THREE: Work as Cultivation.
What does it mean when God said to Adam and Eve, “fill the earth and subdue it”? Is “filling the earth” only about having many children? I looked in the dictionary, “subdue” means “to bring someone or something under control, especially by using force.” What has that command to Adam and Eve to do with our work today in 2015? Have you ever thought that, according to the book, the working pattern of all types of work is that of a gardener?
FOUR: Work as Service.
It talks about the purpose of our work by thinking about Paul’s teaching in the New Testament. Christians are given many gifts and skills for the Body of Christ, but also for different kinds of secular jobs. When we face different job opportunities, how do we choose? Do we consider which job serves our neighbours better rather than which job provides ourselves with more money and status? The teaching on this subject that I received was, as long as it’s not a job that bible says you shouldn’t do (e.g. following idols, killing, stealing etc), it’s a wisdom issue, i.e. you’re free to choose whatever you like – which is a “negative” statement. But how about if we turn the teaching to a “positive” direction: you should choose a job with the goal of honouring God and serving people. There are many influential secular jobs in which we can honour God and serve people, as important as full time ministry works.
We can confidently say that secular jobs are equally important as church workers because salvation is through grace. We’re safe and free to choose.
The book has many real-life examples. There is a memorable one in this chapter about a Christian pilot in an air accident. It’s my favourite story in this book. I was told constantly that I should tell people about the gospel at work. No problem with that. I was also told to work as I serve the Lord. No problem with that either. But how?
This chapter teaches me that doing my job as best as I can is in itself glorifying God. I remember there is a guy in Fruitfulness on the Frontline who stacks shelves and feels that his job is pointless. The solution in the book is to get to know his colleagues and to tell them the gospel. There’s nothing wrong with telling colleagues about the gospel. But it doesn’t fill the “emptiness” about his job. I guess Tim Keller might say to this guy, stack neat and beautiful shelves! He argues, churches should teach their congregation to do their jobs well.
Part Two: Our Problems with Work
FIVE: Work Becomes Fruitless.
Why should Adam and Eve not eat from the Tree? What is the consequence, in terms of work? The book gives an elaborated explanation. I have experienced this kind of “fruitless” frustration. I love planning, brainstorming, and imagining things – making magazines, running a coffee shop, having my own business, but I can’t carry them out, even a New Year resolution! The book says, I just have to learn to accept it. Again, I look forward to realising all dreams in heaven.
SIX: Work Becomes Pointless.
Work is meaningless along with everything else under the sun, concluded the Philosopher in Ecclesiastes. What does he mean? Besides all the depressing narrative in Ecclesiastes, it does tell us how to find satisfaction.
SEVEN: Work Becomes Selfish.
It starts with the account of the Tower of Babel and spends a big chunk of the chapter on the story of Queen Esther, which is fascinating to read and is wonderful to understand it deeper in the perspective of work. It’s definitely one of my favourite chapters of the book. It applies to many people who are “in the Palace” just like Esther, but haven’t realised what influence they can make.
EIGHT: Work Reveals Our Idols.
When we talk about “idols”, we usually think about “idols” in our life as individuals. This chapter spends a lot of pages talking about “cultural and corporate idols”. It reminds me one line from a novel I’ve been reading recently, “Something that looks ordinary and commonplace doesn’t mean it’s good”. It depends on which glasses you’re looking through. Are you aware of the many glasses that the magazines you read, the tweets you follow and even the family conversations you join in put on for you?
Part Three: The Gospel and Work
NINE: A New Story for Work.
Knowing Christ changed my worldview completely. It’s a privilege to learn the mystery of Christ so plainly. It also gives me advantages in understanding the problems and crises of the world. I hear and read about people’s observations about the issues of this world, society, and people around, but a lot of the time they cannot find the ultimate solution. Of course this worldview of the bible includes work as well – it touches all areas of life. This chapter looks at business, journalism, higher education, the arts, and medicine through the lens of the gospel.
TEN: A New Conception of Work.
I just said the bible gives me advantages in understanding the world. However, it doesn’t give me any advantage when I type, when I spell, when I prune my roses, when I bake a sticky toffee pudding. The Christian girl in one of the previous years Great British Bake Off didn’t win! Non-Christians can be equally good workers or even better workers. Although the gospel shapes our worldview differently and makes us stand out, God’s love and provision is for ALL people. This chapter helps us to relate to our non-Christian colleagues. It’s important to get the balance right.
ELEVEN: A New Compass for Work.
Being honest and having integrity are seen generally as virtues. But in many situations, being honest and having integrity make us look silly or make us look like we’re losing out. For example, if the cafe shop charges us less than it should, being honest means we have to pay “more”. When filling in a job application, being honest about our qualification and experience means we might look less attractive to the employers. But as Christians, we have a reassuring anchor and firm foundation to be honest. It’s the same with many other virtues.
TWELVE: New Power for Work.
There is a new explanation of “acedia”, or sloth, which is one of the seven deadly sins. It’s completely new to me and it’s slightly complicated to understand. I also love the explanation of the meaning of Sabbath from a couple of Old Testament passages. The idea of Sabbath is definitely not new. But the elaboration and the application are persuasive and powerful.
The book presents two opposite extremes which drive people’s motivation towards work: building a sense of self worth, or for the pay only. I have to say, my general attitude fits into one of them – not telling you which!
Even after writing this book review, there are still a lot I haven’t yet made my own – if you ask me to explain a subject from the book I probably won’t be able to. I was taught, if I can’t explain something with my own words, I haven’t yet mastered the knowledge fully. So I haven’t, even after reading it 3+ times. But it’s an essential subject, just like evangelism, prayer, money and marriage. We should definitely learn more about it and not miss the opportunity to glorify God and serve people at work.