Do You Have a Theology of Work? Should You?

If you have been keeping up with our reading list this year, you know that the theme is calling. You have read two views, from Christopher J. H. Wright and Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, of the general calling of God’s people. You have also read what Sinclair Ferguson says about who God’s people are, a key element in relating this general calling to your own life. Then we read about what calling means from Os Guinness. The fifth book in our list, by Timothy Keller, begins the process of pulling this all together for each of us.

In including this book in our list, we begin with the presumption that, for most of us, calling leads to work in some context. This extends upon the idea, from Guinness, that God places us, calls us, to be where we are for the purpose of his redemptive plan. Keller uses the same concept, pointing to Jeremiah’s letter to God’s people living as exiles in Babylon in Jeremiah 29 for the idea’s foundation. (242-243) He argues that, since we are placed, called to, our various jobs and professions by God, we need to understand what doing those jobs from the perspective of the gospel means. In short, Every Good Endeavor gives us a theology of work.

This book captures some foundational ways of thinking about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit; who we are in relation to that Trinity; and how all this affects the work we do. How we work-in the 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 a 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.

This statement by Katherine Leary Altsdorf in her foreword to the book sets the stage for its content and the way it is presented. The book elaborates on these three points, first laying a foundation by challenging the reader to clarify his understanding of God, then arguing for viewing our work as part of God’s plan for his world, and finally how the gospel changes everything, including the way we view and do our work.

God’s own example for work provides the model for us. Genesis shows us that work is not a consequence of sin, as so many view it. Work preceded the Fall or Rebellion, the term I prefer, of man in the story. The word “work” is used of what God did in creation, and man is given work to do, tending the creation, before sin entered the picture. Understanding this is the first step in rethinking work and developing a theology for it. God is at the center of it. Work has a design, it has dignity, it is part of the cultivation of creation we were assigned in the beginning, and it should be seen as service to God and to creation, including other human beings.

Of course the reality of our situation is that we are on this side of the Rebellion, and that has some consequences. We both can’t and don’t do our work the way we should. The Rebellion affected our work and the environment in which we do it (Genesis 3:16-19). Fruitlessness, pointlessness, and selfishness all affect our thinking about work and must be combatted from the perspective of our understanding of God, our theology. One of Keller’s most helpful chapters in this section challenges us to understand how work shines a light on our idols. Someone has said that we serve what we worship. Work reveals what we are really serving and why. Are we serving the modern idols of success, or individualism, or work itself, or are we serving God first through our work?

If we are to serve God the way he intended through our work, Keller argues that we need to see the gospel as integral to it. The gospel provides us a story from which we are to understand our work, and the story we should be telling through it. Through the gospel we have a new idea about what work really is, and that common grace is an important part of how we should understand it. In other words, while Christians have a different perspective on work, non-Christians do good work and contribute to the cultivation of God’s creation because they are made in his image. This doesn’t change the state of their salvation, it only affirms what Paul talks about in Romans, that creation, though fallen, still reveals the glory of God.

The gospel also provides us a direction finder, a compass, to guide us as we work. It is the standard by which we can measure our decisions about what we do so that we perform the work of cultivation of creation based on God’s plan for the world. And all of this gives us a new power to do the work to which we are called. The gospel enables us to be the disciples in exile that Keller argues for as he concludes.

This is a very readable, thought-provoking book, with a helpful, though brief, description of how a church might train its members in the theology the book presents. No matter what your vocation, your calling, your work needs a theology behind it. In Every Good Endeavor, Keller does an excellent job of providing us with a guide to developing the theology we need for what we spend the majority of our lives doing—work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*
To prove you're a person (not a spam script), type the security word shown in the picture. Click on the picture to hear an audio file of the word.
Anti-spam image