There Really Is a Tree

This is my final post for the year (not counting a year in review summary planned for a week from now) and it is a book review I've been saving for Christmas. The book is Every Good Endeavor: Connecting your work to God's work by Tim Keller.

Tim Keller is a pastor in New York and has written a number of books. I've read at least a couple of his other works (Generous Justice and Counterfeit Gods) and appreciated them, so that motivated me to read this one. Every Good Endeavor is aimed at men and women working in secular jobs. It discusses how a lot of pastors don't always know how to speak relevantly to people in such roles, so Keller is trying to fill a gap with this book. Personally, I found it to be a very worthwhile read.

Every Good Endeavor is divided into three sections, each with several chapters. The first section is about the way work should be, in a healthy world. The second section is about ways in which work goes wrong. The third section is about getting back to wholeness. Each chapter draws on a passage or two of scripture, along with literary references, and examples from the lives and careers of people Keller knows.

The most moving literary reference was to Tolkien's short story "Leaf by Niggle" about a painter that is inspired to paint a great tree, but keeps getting interrupted to help his neighbours and only ever finishes painting a single leaf (I haven't read the original yet, so I'm relying on Keller's re-telling here). In heaven, he's assured that his leaf was not a waste, because "there really is a tree" (hence the title of this post) and his inspiration had flown from "a vision of the True". Here is what Keller writes to draw out the meaning of this story:

But really—everyone is Niggle. Everyone imagines accomplishing things, and everyone finds him- or herself largely incapable of producing them. Everyone wants to be successful rather than forgotten, and everyone wants to make a difference in life. But that is beyond the control of any of us. If this life is all there is, then everything will eventually burn up in the death of the sun and no one will even be around to remember anything that has ever happened. Everyone will be forgotten, nothing we do will make any difference, and all good endeavors, even the best, will come to naught. Unless there is God. ...
There is a God, there is a future healed world that he will bring about, and your work is showing it (in part) to others. Your work will be only partially successful, on your best days, in bringing that world about. But inevitably the whole tree that you seek—the beauty, harmony, justice, comfort, joy, and community—will come to fruition. If you know all this, you won’t be despondent because you can get only a leaf or two out in this life.

One of the major themes of Every Good Endeavor is the dignity and importance of work. Biblically, work is not a curse/punishment:

Work did not come in after a golden age of leisure. It was part of God’s perfect design for human life, because we were made in God’s image, and part of his glory and happiness is that he works, as does the Son of God, who said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17).

And physical work shouldn't be looked down on as being less than mental or spiritual work:

Indeed, the biblical doctrine of creation harmonizes with the doctrine of the incarnation (in which God takes upon himself a human body) and of the resurrection (in which God redeems not just the soul but the body) to show how deeply “pro-physical” Christianity is.

Our work, which should be done with diligence and competence, can be a means of provision for others:

Luther says 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?

Keller cites a wide variety of Biblical examples in Every Good Endeavor. I liked this comparison of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther showing how three individuals with different skills and backgrounds worked in unique ways toward a common purpose:

God shows the diversity of the people he uses by giving us three different books in the Bible describing how he restores the nation of Israel back to its homeland. First, the book of Ezra is about a minister, a teacher of the word. The Jews needed to be reacquainted with the Bible so their lives could be shaped by what God said. Second, the book of Nehemiah is about an urban planner and developer who used his management skills to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and reinstate stability so that economic and civic life could begin to flourish again. Last, the book of Esther is about a woman with power in the civil government working against racial injustice. Here you have male and female, lay and clergy.

Tim Keller writes a lot about avoiding the trap of making a good thing (e.g. profit, as in the following excerpt) into the most important thing. This is another key theme of of Every Good Endeavor:

But remember that an idol is a good thing that we make into an ultimate thing. Corporate profits and influence, stewarded wisely, are a healthy means to a good end: They are vital to creating new products to serve customers, giving an adequate return to investors for the use of their money, and paying employees well for their work. Similarly, individual compensation is an appropriate reward for one’s contributions and is necessary to provide for oneself and one’s family. But it is not our identity, our salvation, or even our source of security and comfort.

Profit, achievement, etc. are fine motivations as long as they are kept in their place, but love should take precedence:

Love, then, occupies a supreme place in the Christian imagination. As Jesus says, to be fully human boils down to loving God and loving our neighbor. Everything else—our accomplishments, our causes, our identity, and our feelings—is a distant second. Of course this understanding of the nature of reality will have an extensive impact on how we do our work. For instance, are relationships a means to the end of accruing power, wealth, and comfort? Or is wealth creation a means to serve the end goal of loving others? One way goes against the grain of the universe made by a triune God, and therefore it cannot honor him or lead to human flourishing. The other is the paradigm of Christian work.

As an aside, this book had a good run-down of St. Thomas Aquinas' list of cardinal and theological virtues (prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude; faith, hope, and charitable love). All of these virtues, not just love in isolation, should inform the way we live and work.

In the final chapter, Keller talks a lot about "the work under the work"—motivations for doing our jobs that can become a heavy burden:

Many people are trying to get a sense of self through productivity and success—but that burns them out. For others the motivation is to bring home a paycheck so they can enjoy “real life”—but that makes work into a pointless grind. These motivations are what we could call the “work beneath the work.” And they are what make work so physically and emotionally exhausting in the end.


All of us are haunted by the work under the work—that need to prove and save ourselves, to gain a sense of worth and identity. But if we can experience gospel-rest in our hearts, if we can be free from the need to earn our salvation through our work, we will have a deep reservoir of refreshment that continually rejuvenates us, restores our perspective, and renews our passion.

In contrast to "the work under the work", he also writes about "the rest under the rest" with a deep perspective on the Sabbath:

God portrays the Sabbath day as a reenactment of emancipation from slavery. It reminds us how he delivered his people from a condition in which they were not human beings, but simply units of capacity in Pharaoh’s brick production system. Anyone who cannot obey God’s command to observe the Sabbath is a slave, even a self-imposed one.

The conclusion of the last chapter is very fitting for Christmas time:

You can work with passion and rest, knowing that ultimately the deepest desires of your heart—including your specific aspirations for your earthly work—will be fulfilled when you reach your true country, the new heavens and new earth. So in any time and place you can work with joy, satisfaction, and no regrets. You, too, can say, “Nunc dimittis.”

If you're looking for encouragement in your work, I'd really recommend reading this book.

To wrap up this post, I wanted to share a song I found that I think goes really well with the themes of Every Good Endeavor:

Merry Christmas to all my readers!