A review of
EVERY GOOD ENDEAVOR: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work
By Timothy Keller with Katherine Leary Alsdorf
Redeemer Presbyterian Church pastored by Timothy Keller in New York City ‘has made vocational discipleship – helping people integrate their faith and work – a major focus of its overall ministry for almost ten years’ (p242). Redeemer is a large congregation with several thousand attending its Sunday services (p248). Most congregants are ‘seriously career minded… young (average age is thirty- three), 70 percent are single, and… early in their careers’ (p244). Keller notes, ‘many young adults come to us from other cities and were raised in evangelical churches that limited their application of the gospel to individual salvation’ (p245). To counter that limitation, ‘a large part of our ministry is focused on broadening their understanding of the gospel to apply it to our communities (in the form of gospel-changed relationships) and our organizations, city, and culture’ (p245).
Keller describes his church as being ‘shaped by a deep commitment to the promise that the gospel changes everything – in our hearts, our community, and our world,’ and accordingly he adds, ‘our faith and work ministry has sought to explore the power and promise of the Christian story to change, redeem, and renew every aspect of our work lives, our work relationships, and the world we see through the work we do’ (p243).
In 2002, Redeemer established its Faith and Work ministry and recruited co-author Katherine Leary Alsdorf from a successful business career as its leader. Redeemer’s Center for Faith and Work sees its mission as being ‘to renew the city’s institutions of culture through the people of the congregation who were employed in vocations throughout the city’ (p248). As such, the Center attempts to ‘lead people into a better integration of faith and work… toward a fuller application of the gospel in their work’ (p244). The methods employed are drawn from studies of adult learning which supposedly show that ‘people change only when they hear the new thinking (so we equip them), can discuss it among their peers (so we connect them), and can apply it in simulated or actual situations (so we try to mobilize them)’ (p249).
Keller’s Theology of Work
In the first two parts of Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (2012), Keller exposits Scripture concerning ‘God’s Plan for Work’ and ‘Our Problems with Work’. In the first part, he correctly reminds his readers ‘that all human work is not merely a job but a calling’ (p19), ‘that God’s good plan always included human beings working’ (p36), that ‘we are given specific work to do because we are made in God’s image’ (p48), that ‘secular work has no less dignity and nobility than the sacred work of ministry’ (p52) and that all work should be offered to God (p80). In the second part, Keller addresses the impact of the fall of man on work saying, ‘work, even when it bears fruit, is always painful, often miscarries, and sometimes kills us’ (p89). He continues saying that ‘because of the fall of the human race, our work is also profoundly frustrating, never as fruitful as we want, and often a complete failure’ (p95). Too often work becomes a ‘neurotic fabrication of our self-worth… to maximize [our] power, glory, and autonomy’ (p114).
In this exposition, Keller takes his reader to Scripture more frequently and in a more orthodox manner than in most of his other published works. However, woven into his argument are the same three strands of thought seen in most of his other books and which should concern any Christian. These are his notions that the church is called to redeem the creation, that this effort is to be brought about via works of social justice, and that the fullest understanding of the problem of man and its solution is provided by the psychoanalytic perspective.
The Redemption of the Creation
Keller states, ‘A large part of our ministry is focused on broadening their understanding of the gospel to apply it to our communities… and our organizations, city and culture’ (p245). He repeatedly refers to ‘all things… systems, structures, and cultures’ as ‘broken… fractured’ (pp13, 86, 117), the implication being that they can be repaired or restored by the efforts of man. The following are only a few of the examples: ‘My work is a critical way in which God is… renewing his world’ (p14). ‘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’ (p19). ‘…our work further develops, maintains, or repairs the fabric of the world’ (p61). He sees Luke 5:11 as saying that Jesus ‘was coming to redeem and heal the world and he invited his disciples to be part of this project’ (p227). Keller takes Jeremiah 29:7 out of context trying to make it say that Christians today are called to ‘live out the gospel in all spheres of culture in a way that seeks the peace and prosperity of the city in which God has placed us (p242) …because if it prospers you too will prosper’ (p243).
Keller tries to use Philippians 1:6 to say that ‘nothing will be put perfectly right until the day of Christ at the end of history… when heaven is reunited with earth when we find ourselves in our “true country”’ (p151). ‘Yet,’ he goes on to say, ‘all is not lost… the gospel provides an alternative story line for our work… partnering with God in his love and care for the world… through a host of sound ethical guidelines… [that] fills us with a new and durable power that will be with us through thick and thin’(p151). ‘We [can] contribute to his work on earth’ (p245), ‘…continuing God’s work of forming, filling and subduing’ (p59). In spite of his use of Philippians 1:6, the force of Keller’s argument is that the church is called and empowered to engage in the repair, restoration, redemption, and re-ordering of systems, institutions, cultures, societies, and the very creation itself. This characteristic of Keller’s theology is developed much more fully in Generous Justice. However, the tell-tale vocabulary and argumentation are evident in this book as well.
Having built his assertion that the church is called to redeem the creation, Keller tells the readers of Every Good Endeavor how to do it. He insists that it requires acts of social justice and that such must be a part of the ministry of every church. The work of a Christian is viewed as a principal means through which society is to achieve the exalted goal of social justice for all.
Keller praises the ‘ecumenical movement’ for having ‘contributed an emphasis on Christians using their work to further social justice in the world’ (p20). He laments that ‘the reason work feels so alienating is the injustice and depersonalization ever-present in all social systems… which so often infect the nature of the work we do’ (p104). He approvingly quotes Karl Marx as the ‘first person to speak of alienated labor… where thousands of workers [are] crowded into industrial centers… working fourteen hours a day at physically debilitating and mentally stultifying factory jobs’ (p105). Further evidencing his neo-Marxist view, Keller says, ‘Contemporary capitalism increasingly has the power to eliminate the intimacy and accountability of human relationships’ (p224). Giving further examples of social injustice, he notes that ‘college education is becoming increasingly inaccessible to those without means’ (p171) and that the ‘dark side of our meritocracy is now creating greater inequities than existed before’ (p172). He presents the biblical heroine Esther as ‘called to use her personal and cultural capital to bring about a more just social order (p119) …working against racial injustice’ (p120). In the Epilogue, Keller charts ‘specific ways of thinking’ that need to be changed so that Christians will be able to ‘more fully live out the gospel in their work’. These changes are as follows: from ‘Individual salvation’ to ‘The gospel changes everything (hearts, community, and world)’; from ‘Disdain of this world’ to ‘Engaged in this world’; from ‘Bowling alone’ to ‘Accepting community’; and from ‘People matter’ to ‘Institutions matter’ (pp244, 245).
For Redeemer Presbyterian Church and its Center for Faith and Work, the ‘mission is to equip, connect and mobilize our church community in their vocational spheres toward gospel-centered transformation for the common goal’ (p249). These mission elements involve teaching new ways of thinking, involving those being taught in support groups, and the use of hands-on training and ‘mentoring’ by teachers experienced in the subject matter. These are elements typical of those labeled today as ‘community organizers’ whose methods are discussed in more detail in Generous Justice. Repeating another theme from that book, Keller in Every Good Endeavor says, ‘We seek to draw others into a redeeming and renewing faith, but also to serve alongside those who don’t believe as we do, for the good of the city and the world’(p243). He unabashedly recommends that Christians join forces with individual non-Christians and non-Christian organizations for the purpose of correcting of social injustice.
Keller’s Psychoanalytic Perspective
In describing the vocational challenges and problems of Christians, Keller seems most comfortable employing psychoanalytic categories and terminology. ‘Thinking of work mainly as a means of self-fulfillment and self-realization slowly crushes a person and undermines society itself’ (p19). ‘The way to serve God at work is to do whatever gives you the greatest joy and passion’ (p22). ‘Everyone wants to be successful rather than forgotten’ (p29). ‘Why do we need work to lead a fulfilled life?’(p30) ‘Work is a major component of human dignity’ (p45). ‘Depersonalization [is] present in all social systems’ (p104) ‘How we attain such a balanced life is one of the main themes of Scripture’ (p112). ‘If you see Jesus… as a Savior doing these things for you personally then you will see how valuable you are to him… it will convince you of your real, inestimable value’ (p127) ‘We now get our sense of self not from our roles in family and society, but as consumers’ (p149). ‘The biblical worldview uniquely understands the nature, problem and salvation of humankind as fundamentally relational’(p160). ‘The triune nature of God, and our being made in his image, means that human life is fundamentally relational’ (p224).
Keller constantly employs the concept of ‘idols of the heart’. This has been popularized among Christian psychologists and so-called biblical counselors by David Powlison of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF) in Philadelphia. In this, Powlison recycles the psychoanalytic concept of the dynamic unconscious giving it a new quasi-biblical name and offering it to Christian counselors as the fullest explanation of the problem for which the hapless counselee seeks help. As with dynamic unconscious motivations, idols of the heart are supposedly discoverable via the development of ‘insight’. Insight is, however, attainable only with the help of an experienced, qualified, wise and sensitive counselor or therapist, by secular psychoanalysts or any insight-oriented psychotherapist. Upon insight into the nature of the unconscious motivation or ‘idol’, work on the part of the counselee must then follow in order to replace the motivation or idol with some pattern of thinking which the counselor considers more ‘healthy’. Undoubtedly, the apostle Paul would term it all rubbish (Philippians 3:7-9). No man can plumb the depths of his own unconscious or soul, nor can any other man help him do so (Jeremiah 17:9-10, I Kings 8:39). Only the Lord can know and does know what is in the heart of man. We are to judge, not the heart, but what comes out of the heart (Matthew 7:1,20). Keller follows Powlison in seeing the sin nature ‘as a compulsive drive of the heart to produce idols’ (p193) Idol seems a more palatable term than is sin, and it is surely ever so much more ‘therapeutic’.
Keller speaks of ‘creating an idol of one’s individual talents and accomplishments… of one’s group (p115)… idols are not only the basis for personal sins and problems; they are also the basis for collective ones’ (p135). ‘Christians seeking to work faithfully and well must discern the shape of the idols functioning in their professions and industries’ (p137). ‘Modern capitalism is no longer simply an instrument for the distribution of goods and services, but has become a near-absolute idol’ (p147). ‘We try to help people identify the idols of their profession and the idols they use to cope with the thorns and thistles of life… each time we strip away an idol we can turn to God and our trust in him grows’ (p246).
Keller’s books are filled with terms such as self-fulfillment, self-realization, fulfilled life, human dignity, depersonalization, balanced life, value, sense of self, relational, idols of the heart, etc. None of these terms would be defined in the same way by any two people but are still used seemingly to convey an atmosphere of deep wisdom and understanding. It is an example of what Francis Schaeffer aptly called ‘semantic mysticism’. The words are man-centered substitutes for biblical terms such as sin, salvation, wrath, condemnation, and righteousness. Keller substitutes therapeutic terminology for the Word of God which has already given us all we need to understand the problem of man and its ultimate solution (2 Peter 1:3).
Every Good Endeavor by Timothy Keller combines a quite orthodox exposition on Biblical teaching about work with three strands of unorthodox thought that have come to be characteristic of his theology and ministry. In so doing, he confronts the reader with a challenge. The more biblically informed reader will appreciate what is sound but at the same time decry and reject what is not. The less biblically informed reader will perhaps assume all is sound, if only by its juxtaposition. Keller’s books provide real exercise in discernment.
Toward this end, readers should study an essay by Timothy Kauffman, ‘Getting Sanctification Done: The Primacy of Narrative in Tim Keller’s Exegetical Method’, published in the May-June 2013 issue of The Trinity Review. (www.trinityfoundation.org) Kauffman demonstrates ‘a pattern of exegetical license in Keller’s works… to support his prevailing narrative, whatever it may be’. He goes on to describe how ‘Keller… uses Scripture as a platform to deliver the content of his own imagination’ rather than adhering to sound orthodox exegesis of the text.
In Every Good Endeavor, Keller and his co-author employ this exegetical license to claim that the church has a mandate to redeem the creation, to accomplish this via acts of social justice carried out in accordance with neo-Marxist theory, and to seek the deepest, fullest understanding of the problems of man in psychoanalytic theory recycled via the use of Biblical categories and terminology. None of these three positions can withstand examination from nor find clear support in Scripture. As such, they should be identified as false teaching inevitably damaging to the clear mandate of the church which is to ‘Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations’(Matthew 28:20).
To the extent that churches set about the task of redeeming God’s creation, correcting social injustice, and redefining sin as intra-psychic conflict, they lose sight of the true Gospel. Bewitched by worldly thinking, they offer what is truly a false gospel.
Kauffman quotes from John Calvin with ‘some stern warnings for those who were doing exactly what Keller is doing’. Calvin wrote: ‘The world always has had and always will prefer speculations which seem ingenious to solid doctrine… Let us not merely neglect as doubtful, but boldly set aside corruptions, those pretended expositions which lead us away from the literal sense.’ (Calvin’s Commentary on Galatians 4:22).
You can learn more about Dr Tim Keller, Pastor Mark Driscoll and Pastor John Piper in the book, The New Calvinists (2014), published by The Wakeman Trust and Belmont House Publishing. The book is available from The Metropolitan Tabernacle bookshop or from Amazon More on John Piper and his Christian Hedonism at The Real John Piper website