Last year I read the first hundred or so pages of Tim Keller’s book, Every Good Endeavor. I recommend those hundred or so pages! Anyway, it’s a very worthwhile look at work–what it is, why we do it, and how being a Christian informs and transforms the way we work. A few chapters into it he has a great discussion about how the fall and the curse (that is, the sin of Adam and Eve and its consequences) affect everything we do as humans, and especially our work.
Below are a couple selections that helped me think about the things we all do everyday, and why they’re so often accompanied by frustration and a feeling of futility. As I read this, it seemed at once so fresh, and yet so obvious–how could I have missed this? This selection is from a chapter called “Work Becomes Fruitless.”
What do we mean when we say work is fruitless? We mean that, in all our work, we will be able to envision far more than we can accomplish, both because of a lack of ability and because of resistance in the environment around us. The experience of work will include pain, conflict, envy, and fatigue, and not all our goals will be met. For example, you may have an aspiration to do a certain kind of work and perform at a certain level of skill and quality, but you may never even get the opportunity to do the work you want, or if you do, you may not be able to do it as well as it needs to be done. Your conflicts with others in the work environment will sap your confidence and undermine your productivity.
But even during times when you are satisfied with the quality of your work, you may be bitterly disappointed with the results. You may find that circumstances conspire to neutralize any real impact from your project. You may have mastered the skills of farming, but famine or flood or war come in and destroy your harvest. You may have become an accomplished singer, but you are not able to generate an income from your talent because you are skillful in music but not in self-promotion, or because ruthless rivals find ways of blackballing you. And so you have to give up your musical career.
You may hope to make a real contribution to your organization or to work with distinction as an expert in your field. You may aspire to “change the world” – make a major improvement in human society, or have a lasting impact on the culture. Most people achieve very few of these goals in their lifetimes and even those who seem from a distance to lend charmed work lives will sense that their true aspirations are thwarted as often as they are reached. And for all of us, more often than we would like to admit, we are the ones doing the thwarting.
Just because you cannot realize your highest aspiration in work does not mean you have chosen wrongly, or are not called to your profession, or that you should spend your life looking for the perfect career that is devoid of frustration.
Because of the nature of God’s creation, we need work for our happiness. And because of God’s intentions for our work – to contribute to the flourishing of the world – we have glimpses of what we could accomplish. But because of the fall of human race, our work is also profoundly frustrating, never as fruitful as we want, and often a complete failure. This is why so many people inhabit the extremes of idealism and cynicism – or even ricochet back and forth between those poles. Idealism say, “Though my work I am going to change things, make a difference, accomplish something new, bring justice to the world.” Cynicism says, “Nothing really changes. Don’t get your hopes up. Do what it takes to make a living. Don’t let yourself care too much. Get out of it whenever you can.”
Basically this is just a description of the practical application of God’s decree to Adam in the third chapter of Genesis–“cursed is the ground for your sake. In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it will bring forth for you.” And doesn’t this a make sense of so much of our experience with work?
Later on in the same chapter Keller takes these very true observations and injects the note of hope we find in scripture, as well:
Genesis 3, verse 18 tells us not only that “thorns and thistles” will come out of the ground but also that “you will eat the plants of the field.”
Thorns and food.
Work will still bear some fruit, though it will always fall short of its promise. Work will be both frustrating and fulfilling, and sometimes – just often enough – human work gives us a glimpse of the beauty and genius that might have been the routine characteristic of all our work, and what, by the grace of God, it will be again in the new heavens and new earth…
There will be work in the paradise of the future just like there was in the paradise of the past, because God himself takes joy in his work. In that paradise, you will be useful in the lives of others to infinite degrees of joy and satisfaction; you will perform with all the skill you can imagine.