Timothy Keller – Faith and Work

What I’d like to share with you are 5 principles for how the gospel transforms your work.

#1. Christian faith gives you an identity without which work will sink you.

This principle is especially important for white-collar work. What do I mean by saying that you need a new identity? David Lloyd Jones was a physician, but he went into the ministry, he actually left the medical profession and went into the ministry. He said he had a lot of people he knew who were doctors, who were physicians, who, when they die, what you ought to put on their gravestones  is this: ‘Born a baby, died a Doctor.’ Now what he meant is ‘The Professions’ tend to give you your identity. Now here’s the problem, when you make your work your identity, if you’re successful, it goes to your head. If you are unsuccessful, it destroys your heart.

First of all, success goes to your head and it’s very destructive. If my identity is “I’m a successful businessman or woman,” then you start to feel like “Oh, I’m an expert at everything.” And it happens across the board. It also makes you overconfident about your relationships. Very often you don’t marry the right person, you don’t hire the right persons, you actually don’t befriend the right persons. That is to say, you go on your hunches because your success makes you arrogant.

But, here’s the other problem, is, if you make your work your identity and things aren’t going very well, then it’s far more destructive, far more emotionally draining, far more anxiety-producing, far more devastating than it ought to be. It’s just work. Work is a good thing, and if you’re very good at it, money’s a good thing, and if you don’t have a lot of it then that’s not so good. But if it becomes your identity, your very self-worth, your very self is at stake. A couple of years ago, in the New York Times, there was a guy named Benjamin Nugent and he had been an author, a writer, a novelist. And he wrote about why he had to stop writing. I’ll read to you what he says, but then there’s one sentence he says that summarizes it all. He says, “When good writing was my only goal in life, it was my main goal in life, I made the quality of my work the measure of worth,” there it is, ” I made the quality of my work the measure of my worth. For this reason, I wasn’t able to read my own writing well. I couldn’t tell if something I had just written was good or bad because I needed for it to be good in order to feel sane. I lost the ability to cheerfully interrogate how much I liked what I had written to see what was actually on the page rather than what I wanted to see or what I had feared to see.” You hear that? When he made the quality of his work the measure of his worth it destroyed his work because when he would write something it needed to be good and he actually couldn’t admit where it wasn’t good. If somebody else critiqued it it just devastated him.

Success will destroy you through inflated pride, failure will destroy you through inferiority. Success will destroy you through the superiority complex, and unsuccess will destroy you through the inferiority complex.

timothy keller

The Christian identity is basically that when the Holy Spirit comes into your life because you believe in Jesus Christ, essentially what happens to you, and Romans 8:15-16 says it, is what happened to Jesus at his baptism. God says to you “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased. I love you not because you’re perfect, but because Jesus, because I’m perfect. I don’t love you because of your performance I love you because of Jesus’s performance. I don’t love you for your work I love your for Christ’s work.” An identity rooted in romance, an identity rooted in work, an identity rooted even in pleasing your parents or an identity rooted in your race or your tribe or your ethnicity, all of those identities are essentially achieved identities, not a received identity. Only Christianity gives you an identity not due to your performance. And only if you’ve got that, only if you really have that, not just in theory, but if that’s really how your heart works, only then will you be able to handle success or failure.

That’s what you gotta be ‘Born a woman, died a Christian,’ ‘Born a man, died a Christian man.’ Not a doctor, a lawyer, whatever. So faith gives you a new identity without  which work will sink you.

#2. Faith gives you a new concept of the dignity of all work without which work will bore you.

And this is more of a blue-collar concept. Martin Luther did a lot of teaching about the importance of work, especially in his expositions of the Psalms, he says some fascinating things about work. So, for example, some of the Psalms say that God feeds every living thing. So if you’re eating food today, Martin Luther says that God says “I gave you that food. I feed every living thing.” But he says actually, the fact is that the food does not appear on the plates, does it? How did you get that food? Well, you see, somebody grew it, then somebody prepared it, then somebody drove it to the market and so on. But Martin Luther said “Now think about this, though.” What that means, then, is that the simplest milk maid, who’s milking the cow to create the milk is doing God’s work. Because God says “No, no I’m the one giving you food. I feed you.” And so Luther says that means that the person who’s milking the cow and the truck driver who brings it to the market – they are the fingers of God.

There’s another place where the psalmist says not God feeds every living thing, but it says “God strengthens the bars of your gates.” And that’s saying to the people back in those days that God makes your city secure. Luther says, “Well, the policemen, the lawyers, the people who make laws, the people who enforce laws, all the people around making a community a safe community to walk around on the streets, that’s God’s work.” God strengthens the bars of the city gates. And so Luther presses and says, Don’t you ever look at any kind of labor that actually cares, through which God is caring for creation and not see that this is God himself working.

First of all, we live in a culture that valorises high-paying jobs. On the other hand, Martin Luther is trying to say, Yeah but somebody’s gotta milk the cows, and somebody’s gotta clean the house, and that is every bit as important, because without that people can’t live.

All work is God’s work, even so-called menial work is God caring for his creation through human labor.

Faith gives you a new concept of the dignity of all work without which work will bore you. I’m working for God. I’m serving the world and I’m doing something that God wants me to do. And it gives you some sense of the dignity of what you’re doing, and it makes you do it well.

Martin Luther’s approach is really helpful because what he’s actually saying is even in the simplest tasks, if you get them done well, you are achieving exactly what God wants you do to. What is the Christian way to fly the plane? The Christian way is to fly that plane: land the plane so that it can take off again. In some ways, Luther’s approach, which is perfectly biblical, it’s based off what the Bible says about the dignity of work and the dignity of our work simplifies our life. Do you job well, do your job with pride. Clean the house really, really well. Land the plane. Just do it well and you are not only pleasing God but you’re doing His work.

#3. Faith gives you a moral compass without which WORK could corrupt you.

That whole network of what is called a ‘moral habitus,’ a moral habitus is actually a set of habits of mind and heart that just do things in a fair and honest and considerate and equitable way that are not required by the law but just create an environment in which people feel like they’re not being used as tools, they’re being treated as people.

It will be such a witness for you to simply have a moral compass even though there will be a lot of pressure on you not to follow it. Let me give you just one example, this is my most vivid example, and the easiest one to see. Some years ago, there was a woman coming to my church who was not a believer and I saw her a couple of times and I spoke to her a couple of times. About the third or fourth time she came I said “How did you come to find out about Redeemer?” And she said “well there’s a story,” and here’s the story she told me. She worked for one of the major television networks and she had gotten a pretty good job she had gotten promoted and not too long after she got that job she made a really, really stupid mistake. And it was really bad, and she thought that she was going to lose her job. But her boss went into his boss and said “I should bear the blame for that because I really didn’t train her well.” And that was probably true, nevertheless, he really took a hit. He, though, was so well thought of by the people above him, that it didn’t jeopardize his job, but he did take a hit. That is to say, he lost credibility, he lost social-professional capital. And then he went back and he said, “You haven’t lost your job, don’t worry about it, we’ll do better next time. We’ll figure out how to keep this from ever happening again.” And then she looked at him and said “I can’t believe you did that for me.” He said “Ah, don’t think about it.” She said “Why did you do that for me?” He says “Don’t worry about it, you’re a good kid, I think you have a lot of potential, I didn’t want to lose you.” She said “No, I need to talk to you more about this. I have been in this business and here’s what I know. My superiors are constantly taking credit for what I do, they never take the blame for what I do. Never. In this business you take credit for what the people beneath you do, you try to push those people away and you take credit so you go up the ladder and you kind of trample them on the way up. It’s not illegal, but it’s cruel, it’s ruthless. So, I’ve had superiors who always take credit for what I’ve done but I’ve never seen one take the blame for what I’ve done. Why in the world did you do that?” And he said “I really think you have great potential, I didn’t want to lose you.” She said “I don’t think that’s right, that doesn’t account for it. Why did you do it?” And finally he said “Okay, you’re pushing me, I’m going to tell you once.

I’m a Christian, and I base my life on what Jesus Christ has done for me and he took the blame for me, that’s why I’m saved. I did something wrong and Jesus, instead of writing me off, bore the blame. And because of that, I try to apply that to my life, which means that I try to bear more pain than I inflict in all of my work dealings.”

And then she looked at him and she said “Where do you go to church?” See, now what’s that? That’s a moral compass.

#4. The Christian faith gives you a new worldview, without which work will be your master, not your servant.

Whenever you get out into the work world, you will find, , that there’s a certain worldview behind your field. In other words, most people in your field are working on the basis of some world and life view. Robert Bellah who wrote Habits of the Heart talked about two kinds of individualism. What he called “utilitarian individualism,” which was totally cost benefit. I’ll do it if I make a profit. If it costs me less than the benefits, do it. He calls that ‘utilitarian individualism.’ I only do things if it benefits me. Then there’s something else called ‘expressive individualism,’ which is, regardless of the cost, I need to be who I am, I need to step out and let people know who I am. And he talks in some places that the arts are based on expressive individualism, the business world is based on utilitarian individualism. If you learn to look, you will see that underneath almost every field of work there are a set of tacit or implicit, never spoken of, assumed set of values, a way of deciding what is right and wrong, what you do and what you don’t do. And they’re based on views of human nature, they’re based on views of what life is about. And if you’re a Christian with a world and life view, you come into those fields and you can actually think outside the box. Otherwise the work will be your master, not your servant. So some years ago — You know, by the way, there are some Christian college professors that were called up by a guy named Max De Pree who was the CEO of Herman Miller, they made furniture, he was a very wealthy man, he was a very powerful executive, and they called in some Christian philosophy professors and they brought them together and they said “We really need some help on doing our work according to a Christian world and life view.” And they said, “Really? I thought the purpose of business was to make money.” And this is what Max De Pree said. He says, “Money is like breathing, you have to breathe in order to live but who in the world would want to live just to breathe?” You can’t have a business without a profit, so absolutely the profit in the business is like breathing. But how could you ever say our business is just to make a profit? It would be like saying the purpose of life is just to breathe. The profit is there but for what? He says, what I want to know is why are we making a profit? What is it for? And then he asked another question, “Is there any Christian moral imperative in designing furniture? Are there any ways in which the furniture we make should be in line with what the Bible says about the purpose of human life?” And you know what he was doing? He was just thinking outside the box. Because other furniture makers are just going to do what everybody else is doing. But if you’re a Christian, you can come in and ask some very deep questions about ‘Why are we doing what we’re doing?’ And also why are we making money? Not just ‘Oh, that’s the purpose,’ that’s not the purpose. The purpose is just like breathing, you have to breathe but certainly that shouldn’t just be the purpose of life.

#5. Christianity gives you a sophisticated kind of hope without which I do think that ultimately work will frustrate you.

I tell the story that comes from J.R.R. Tolkein. J.R.R. Tokein of course wrote The Lord of the Rings, but while he was in the process of writing it over many years he came up to a spot in the 1940s where he got writers’ block. He had been working on the book for a long time, and he just couldn’t figure out a way forward, and he was just stuck. And one night he had a dream and on the basis of that dream he woke up and he wrote a short story called “Leaf by Niggle.” And he wrote it and it kind of helped him get through his writers’ block and he went back to Lord of the Rings and eventually finished it. But the short story is fascinating, it’s about an artist named Niggle. He’s called Niggle because he works very slowly. But he had this vision in his head of a tree and he wanted to paint this huge tree on the side of a library or some public building in his village. So they put up a canvas and it was this big mural and he had this tree in his mind, and he wanted he wanted to paint this tree. But the years went by and he worked so slowly, and at one point he only got to the place where he had actually just painted one leaf, and then he died. And as he died, he even thought about it. It’s a short story, a bit of a fantasy story, so death comes to take him and he says “No, no I can’t possibly – I can’t die now! I’ve only gotten one leaf out! I’ve got the whole tree to go, and I’ve only done one leaf!” And death says, “Sorry.” So he gets on a train and he’s going to the mountains, that’s how the story goes, but as he’s going to the mountains he’s dying, and he’s going to where dead people go in this particular little short story world. He suddenly sees something off to the right. He jumps off the train, he runs up to the top of the hill and there’s his tree. There really is a tree. He looks up at it and he says “It’s a gift!” And what in the world was Tolkien trying to say? Here’s what he was trying to say. You get out of college and you have this vision for what? I’m going to go into criminal justice because I want to see justice done. I’m going to go into city planning because I really want to build great cities. I want to go into law because I want to see justice done. I want to go into art because I’ve got a vision for something. In your entire life you’re never gonna get out more than a leaf. You’re not talented enough to do more than a leaf, the world won’t let you. But if you’re a Christian here is what you know, there is a tree. The vision God has given you for great cities, for beautiful art, for justice being done – you know someday God is going to bring that to pass. So, you’re on the winning side. Your tree exists. So if you only even get a leaf out, don’t worry, there is a tree. That’s a sophisticated hope. It’s enough hope to keep on going but it’s also enough hope to not be frustrated when you see that I really haven’t gotten that much done in life. And yet at the same time you can work with your head up.

Q n A

Q: How to find your leaf?

Three ideas: affinity, ability, and opportunity. Ability means you have the talent to do it. Affinity is I have the desire to do it. And then you have to have opportunity. It means you knock on doors and they open or they don’t. Unless all three come together, you do not have a call. But you put the three together and you have a call.

Q: Do you believe that the body of Christ, that our church is making progress with idolatry.

Thank you, by the way, that’s a great question, and I would say we’re not doing very well, and the reason is the church in America – let’s just talk about the church in America – the church in America is going through an experience it has never had before, which is going from a place of cultural dominance to where it’s becoming more marginal. It’s values are becoming more marginal, many of its teachings are vilified, and I do think that one of the reasons we’re struggling, instead of saying ‘This is where we’re going, this might be a judgement on — I mean, in the past when Israel or Judah — go read 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles – whenever there was a setback usually it was because God was trying to say, “There’s a lot of idolatry in your life and I’m humbling you and I’m trying to purify you.” And I would say generally what’s going on now in the church is probably something like that. We need to be careful. God does hold Babylon and Assyria responsible for their behavior, too. So when Babylon and Assyria come and they invade Israel and they in a sense punish Israel, God is trying to say “I’m letting that happen because of your idolatry, and I’m going to purify you and humble you,” and I actually think that’s happening. God still doesn’t say Assyria and Babylon are fine. So I would say that a lot of the forces against Christianity in this country right now, they’re not fine, they’re doing a lot of bad things. Nevertheless, I think the fact that Christianity is being pushed politically and socially more to the margins… we need to, in a sense, receive that as God’s chastening and recognize that we do make idols out of money and power or we do make idols out of we want people to love us and like us. We’re not used to people thinking we’re all bigots and we’re horrible. And so I think there’s gotta be a balance here between accepting our chastening, and at the same time still standing for the faith and not just rolling over as if the criticism and the attacks on Christianity are just fine. That’s a really hard balance and I don’t think we’ve gotten it. But basically we’re not doing well with our idols, and I actually don’t think — we’re talking corporately — as a church I don’t see us actually cooperating with the Holy Spirit very well right now.

Q: As a young pastor, how do I avoid ministry from becoming my self-worth?

[Keller] It’s 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Paul talks about the fact that the bad things that are happening in his life he sees as God’s way of humbling him, and I actually do think that it’s the natural bent of the human heart that if you get [inaudible] you will turn that into your identity. So how your church does becomes the measure of your worth. Remember that Benjamin Nugent guy says “When I made the quality of my work the measure of my worth I was emotionally up and down, I couldn’t bear criticism…” The same thing happens if you’re in the ministry, and it is really seductive because when you’re in the ministry… First of all, when you go into the ministry you’re not making as much money as the other people who didn’t go into the ministry, so you feel a little noble about that. You know, I could’ve gone off to law school or business school or med school, but I went off to seminary, after which you make nothing, whereas the other graduate schools… So you feel noble about that. There’s all kinds of ways in which you work on your heart to feel a little better than other people, you know, ‘I’m helping people,’ and people come to you with tears in your eyes saying “You’ve changed my life,” and yet it becomes every bit as absorbing as that guy who said ‘I make the number of compliments I get for my sermons the measure of my worth. I make the number of people who come into my church the measure of my worth. I make how much people are giving the measure of my worth. Every year and every week, I live or die by the attendance figures and the offering figures.” Those of you who are in ministry, come on and admit it. You’re really no more noble and no less addicted to your work as anybody else. And actually, it can take years to realize that you have done the exact same thing as the greedy business man who just lives for money. You live for people who comes up and say “Oh, you’ve changed my life!” That becomes your identity, “I change peoples’ lives.” You know, that’s like the breath of life for you. You need to be real honest with yourself, people in ministry, how dangerous it is. But Paul actually says the only reason why he didn’t just get conceited and get caught up with making the ministry his identity is that God was gracious enough to give him a lot of trouble. Failures, disappointments, ministry failures… that instead of just giving up, you hold onto God during those times and it pulls you and you find more and more that you’re doing ministry for God’s sake, not your sake. That’s the biggest problem, is that when you first get into ministry you’re really doing it for your own sake, no matter what you tell yourself.

Q: “‘Well sweet, all I have to do is cut grass or paint a leaf and God will be pleased with me.” How do we avoid complacency in the model you’ve presented.”

[Keller] Let’s put it this way: there’s clean fuel and there’s dirty fuel, we all know that. There’s a kind of fuel that charges the engine and makes it go, but gums it up. There’s another fuel that makes the car go but actually keeps the engine clean. The kind of fuel that makes you strive for excellence because you’ve made the quality of your work the measure of your worth, in other words the bad identity, that is dirty fuel, but it does make people go. They work hard, they work long hours, they really want to succeed. What you’re asking about is what’s clean fuel for excellence, so that you’re not just complacent. You know the place in Chariots of Fire where Eric Liddell, who is kind of a hero of mine. The more I’ve gotten to know him, the more I’ve realized… the more I’ve read about him the more I’ve come to see that he really was the genuine article. Chariots of Fire was a movie done in the 80’s, for those of you who are older you’ve probably all seen it, the younger ones might not have. It was about a man who was a Scotsman who was born and raised in the missionary Christian background, but he was also a terrific runner. And he ran in the 1921 Olympics, I think, and he was pretty famous for the fact that because the 100 yard dash was — yard, not meters then — being run on Sunday, he wouldn’t run because that was breaking the Sabbath. And even though that was his event that he trained for, weirdly enough, he ended up running in the 400 yard dash later which he should’ve have won but he won the gold medal. So it’s a very great movie. At one point his sister, Jennie, comes to him and says, “Why are you doing all of this, why are you working so hard at this when you should be on the mission field? We’re supposed to go to China.” Which he did, eventually. And he looks at her and he says, “I will go to China, God’s called me to China,” and then he says “but God also made me fast. So when I run, I feel his pleasure.” It’s fascinating, he says “I’ve been gifted, I’m good. And I sense that when I run really well, as hard as I can, I am pleasing the God who gave me the gift of running hard.” I don’t know if you know, he actually literally did, he had a weird way of running that when he got near the finish line he would put his head up and he would open his mouth and look like he was just praising. He really would do that. And in the movie they actually have him doing that. Go on YouTube or something and find some old clips of him. When he got near the end when he had really given it his all he looked like he was praising God, and he probably was because he said “I just want to please God, I don’t want to be successful so that people can say ‘Ooh look, a gold medal.’ I love God enough that I’ve put my happiness into his happiness.” By the way, if you love somebody enough so that you’re only happy when they’re happy, I hope everybody in this room has experienced that, because that’s the meaning of life, when you love somebody so much that you actually insert your happiness into their happiness so that you’re only happy when they’re happy, you gotta do that with God. You gotta love God enough to say if he’s happy and he gave me this gift, and when I run I feel his pleasure and that’s clean energy.

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