Your Work Matters

By Timothy Keller –

Robert Bellah’s landmark book, Habits of the Heart, helped many people name the thing that was (and still is) eating away at the cohesiveness of our culture — “expressive individualism.” Elsewhere, Bellah argued that Americans had created a culture that elevated individual choice and expression to such a level that there was no longer any shared life, no commanding truths or values that tied us together.

Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller

As Bellah wrote, “… we are moving to an ever greater validation of the sacredness of the individual person, [but] our capacity to imagine a social fabric that would hold individuals together is vanishing. … The sacredness of the individual is not balanced by any sense of the whole or concern for the common good.”

Near the end of Habits, the author proposes one measure that would go a long way toward reweaving the unraveling culture: “To make a real difference … [there would have to be] a reappropriation of the idea of vocation or calling, a return in a new way to the idea of work as a contribution to the good of all and not merely as a means to one’s own advancement.”

That is a remarkable statement. If Bellah is right, one of the hopes for our unraveling society is the recovery of the idea that all human work is not merely a job but a calling. The Latin word vocare — to call — is at the root of our common word “vocation.” Today the word often means simply a job, but that was not the original sense. A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it and you do it for them rather than for yourself. And so our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests. Thinking of work mainly as a means of self-fulfillment and self-realization slowly crushes a person and — as Bellah and many others have pointed out — undermines society itself.

At our church in New York City, we have many high-achieving young people who are recruited out of college or business school to work in the financial services industry.  Lured by the recruiting process, signing bonuses, and compensation packages that far exceed those of other professions or industries, many of these young people barely consider other vocational alternatives.

Certainly some do sense that their job in financial sales, trading, private equity, public finance, or a related area is a way for them to offer their unique capabilities in service to God and others. Some, however, after a few years on Wall Street, determine that their strengths and passions are more suited to another vocation. Jill Lamar, for example, worked several years at Merrill Lynch before deciding she needed to make a change. A lover of books and a good writer herself, she decided to switch to publishing, starting again at the very bottom in pay and position. She wrestled with the fact that the opportunity to make a lot of money didn’t necessarily mean that banking was the vocation she should continue to pursue. She tried to think about how she could best use her gifts and passion to serve instead. Her decision created quite a flurry, even in the church!

Christians should be aware of this revolutionary understanding of the purpose of their work in the world. We are not to choose jobs and conduct our work to fulfill ourselves and accrue power, for being called by God to do something is empowering enough. We are to see work as a way of service to God and our neighbor, and so we should both choose and conduct our work in accordance with that purpose. The question regarding our choice of work is no longer “What will make me the most money and give me the most status?” The question must now be “How, with my existing abilities and opportunities, can I be of greatest service to other people, knowing what I do of God’s will and of human need?”

Jill took this last question very seriously. In her subsequent years in publishing, she found that she was good at editing and at discovering new writers. She grew in her passion for giving the world good stories to read. Sometimes the stories reflected her biblical way of thinking about the world, but sometimes they did not. She was looking for excellence. Eventually she directed a wonderful program for Barnes & Noble called Discover Great New Writers. Through this initiative she was able to give worthy new authors a chance to find a broader audience of readers.

Notice something counterintuitive: If the point of work is to serve and exalt ourselves, then our work inevitably becomes less about the work and more about us. Our aggressiveness will eventually become abuse, our drive will become burnout, and our self-sufficiency will become self-loathing. But if the purpose of work is to serve and exalt something beyond ourselves, then we actually have a better reason to deploy our talent, ambition, and entrepreneurial vigor — and we are more likely to be successful in the long run, even by the world’s definition.

Vocation and the “Masks of God”

No one took hold of the teaching of the first book of Corinthians, chapter 7 more powerfully than Martin Luther. Luther translated the word “calling” in these verses as Beruf in German, the word for “occupation,” and mounted a polemic against the view of vocation prevalent in the medieval church. The church at that time understood itself as the entirety of God’s kingdom on earth, and therefore only work in and for the church could qualify as God’s work. This meant that the only way to be called by God into service was as a monk, priest, or nun. They were called “the spiritual estate,” everyone else’s work was worldly, and secular labor was seen as akin to the demeaning necessity that the Greeks saw in manual labor.

Luther attacked this idea forcefully in his treatise To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation: “It is pure invention [fiction] that Pope, bishops, priests, and monks are called the ‘spiritual estate’ while princes, lords, artisans, and farmers are called the ‘temporal estate.’ This is indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy. Yet no one need be intimidated by it, and that for this reason: all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them except that of office. …  We are all consecrated priests by baptism, as St. Peter says: ‘You are a royal priesthood and a priestly realm’ (1 Peter 2:9). The Apocalypse says: ‘Thou hast made us to be kings and priests by thy blood’ (Revelation 5:9–10).”

Luther argued here that God calls every Christian equally to their work. In his exposition of Psalm 147, Luther laid out his basic idea of vocation, explaining why this is so. He looked at verse 13, which assures a city that “God strengthens the bars of your gates.” Luther asked how God can strengthen the bars — provide for the security and safety — of a city. He answered, “By the word ‘bars’ we must understand not only the iron bar that a smith can make, but … everything else that helps to protect us, such as good government, good city ordinances, good order … and wise rulers … this is a gift of God.” How does God give a city security? Isn’t it through lawmakers, police officers, and those working in government and politics? So God cares for our civic needs through the work of others, whom he calls to that work.

In Luther’s Large Catechism, when he addressed the petition in the Lord’s Prayer asking God to give us our “daily bread,” Luther said that “when you pray for ‘daily bread’ you are praying for everything that contributes to your having and enjoying your daily bread. … You must open up and expand your thinking, so that it reaches not only as far as the flour bin and baking oven but also out over the broad fields, the farmlands, and the entire country that produces, processes, and conveys to us our daily bread and all kinds of nourishment.” So how does God “feed every living thing” (Psalm 145:16) today? Isn’t it through the farmer, the baker, the retailer, the website programmer, the truck driver, and all who contribute to bring us food? Luther wrote: “God could easily give you grain and fruit without your plowing and planting, but he does not want to do so.”

And so we see what Luther meant by God’s vocation. Not only are the most modest jobs — like plowing a field or digging a ditch — the “masks” through which God cares for us, but so are the most basic social roles and tasks, such as voting, participating in public institutions, and being a father or mother. These are all God’s callings, all ways of doing God’s work in the world, all ways through which God distributes his gifts to us. Even the humblest farm girl is fulfilling God’s calling. As Luther preached, “God milks the cows through the vocation of the milk maids.”

Vocation and the Gospel

While ancient monks may have sought salvation through religious works, many modern people seek a kind of salvation — self-esteem and self-worth — from career success. This leads us to seek only high-paying, high-status jobs, and to “worship” them in perverse ways. But the Gospel frees us from the relentless pressure of having to prove ourselves and secure our identity through work, for we are already proven and secure. It also frees us from a condescending attitude toward less sophisticated labor and from envy over more exalted work. All work now becomes a way to love the God who saved us freely; and by extension, a way to love our neighbor.

This means, ironically, that Christians who understand biblical doctrine ought to be the ones who appreciate the work of non-Christians the most. We know we are saved by grace alone, and therefore we are not better fathers or mothers, better artists and businesspersons, than those who do not believe as we do. Our gospel-trained eyes can see the world ablaze with the glory of God’s work through the people he has created and called — in everything from the simplest actions, such as milking a cow, to the most brilliant artistic or historic achievements.

Work as an Act of Love

This revolutionary way of looking at work gives all work a common and exalted purpose: to honor God by loving your neighbors and serving them through your work.

Author Dorothy Sayers recounted how many British men and women stumbled upon something like this understanding of work during the dark days of World War II: “I believe there is a Christian doctrine of work, very closely related to the doctrines of the creative energy of God and the divine image in man. … The essential [modern] heresy …  being that work is not the expression of man’s creative energy in the service of society, but only something one does in order to obtain money and leisure.”

She went on to explain what happens as a result: “Doctors practice medicine not primarily to relieve suffering, but to make a living — the cure of the patient is something that happens on the way. Lawyers accept briefs not because they have a passion for justice, but because the law is the profession which enables them to live.” But during the war many people were drawn into the army and found a new, surprising sense of fulfillment in their work. “The reason why men often find themselves happy and satisfied in the army is that for the first time in their lives they found themselves doing something, not for the pay, which is miserable, but for the sake of getting the thing done.”

Sayers was talking about wartime Britain, in which every person knew that their work was contributing to the very survival of their nation. But author Lester DeKoster does an excellent job of showing how indispensible work is for human life in all times and places. In his book Work: The Meaning of Your Life, he observed: “Imagine that everyone quits working, right now! What happens? Civilized life quickly melts away. Food vanishes from the shelves, gas dries up at the pumps, streets are no longer patrolled, and fires burn themselves out. Communication and transportation services end, utilities go dead. Those who survive at all are soon huddled around campfires, sleeping in caves, clothed in raw animal hides. The difference between [a wilderness] and culture is simply, work.”

Work as a Ministry of Competence

One of the main ways that you love others in your work is through the “ministry of competence.” If God’s purpose for your job is that you serve the human community, then the way to serve God best is to do the job as well as it can be done. Dorothy Sayers wrote “The church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him to not be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours and to come to church on Sundays. What the church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.”

In his book The Monday Connection, Lutheran leader and businessman William Diehl wrote, “Through our work we can touch God in a variety of ways … but if the call of the Christian is to participate in God’s ongoing creative process, the bedrock of our ministry has to be competency. We must use our talents in as competent a manner as possible. Competency is a basic value. It is not a means to some other end, such as wealth or position, although such results may occur.”

The applications of this dictum — that competent work is a form of love — are many. Those who grasp this understanding of work will still desire to succeed but will not be nearly as driven to overwork or made as despondent by poor results. If it is true, then if you have to choose between work that benefits more people and work that pays you more, you should seriously consider the job that pays less and helps more — particularly if you can be great at it. It means that all jobs — not merely so-called helping professions — are fundamentally ways of loving your neighbor. Christians do not have to do direct ministry or nonprofit charitable work in order to love others through their jobs.

In particular, this principle is one of the main ways for us to find satisfaction in our work, even if our jobs are not, by the world’s standards, exciting, high paying, and desirable. Even though, as Luther argued, all work is objectively valuable to others, it will not be subjectively fulfilling unless you consciously see and understand your work as a calling to love your neighbor. When you do that, you can be sure that the splendor of God radiates through any task, whether it is as commonplace as tilling a garden, or as rarefied as working on the global trading floor of a bank. As Eric Liddell’s missionary father exhorted him in “Chariots of Fire” — “You can praise the Lord by peeling a spud, if you peel it to perfection.”

Your daily work is ultimately an act of worship to the God who called and equipped you to do it — no matter what kind of work it is. In the liner notes to his jazz masterpiece “A Love Supreme,” John Coltrane said it beautifully:

“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.”

Timothy Keller is the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and the author of many books. This article is adapted from Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work, a book he wrote with Katherine Leary Alsdorf. Reprinted by arrangement with Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Timothy Keller, 2012.

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