Let’s read Keller (8): Abraham Kuyper did not say “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of my personal devotions and churchgoing over which Christ does not cry: mine!”

Let's read Keller

In Every Good Endeavor, Keller reminds his reader of the well-known line from Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!” (Quote from Kuyper’s inaugural address at the dedication of the Free University. Found in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Eerdmans, 1998), 488). I fear that, in its journey from my eyes to my heart, the quotation can be subtly re-written so as to read “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of my time of personal devotions and churchgoing over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!… and frankly I like to keep a controlling interest in my churchgoing.”

Much more important than Kuyper’s choice of words, however, is the biblical truth towards which his inaugural address is pointing: You have never seen anything in your life that God did not create (Rev 4:11), and Christ is intimately involved in upholding in existence the very things that are in your field of vision at the moment (Heb 1:3). These same things, along with you who are looking at them, were made by and through Christ, and were made for one supreme reason: to belong to or to ‘be unto’ Christ (Col 1:16).[1]

Christ is the origin and the destiny of every object you have ever seen, every person you have ever heard or encountered, every idea you have ever contemplated.[2] Without his express immediate and personal sustaining this very instant, the objects you see in front of you right now would cease to exist before you could finish reading this sentence, and you would not outlast them. He is the past, the present and the future of every thing and every one you will ever touch, see, hear, smell or taste, and of many more that you will never know existed (Matthew 10:29). Furthermore, God’s plan for the whole universe, including you, is to bring it all under Christ’s rule (Ephesians 1:22).

If such is the omnipresent, intimate and personal interest of the risen Christ in both the fundamental maintenance and the ultimate destiny of every atom, every thought and every person in the institution in which you work, it is inconceivable that he would not have an interest in using his servants to bring about those same purposes in those same institutions. Not that Christ has to use us, any more than he had to use Joseph to accomplish his purposes of salvation. And not that we always know in fine detail what his plan to bring everything under Christ will look like in a given situation. We are not the heroes of the story riding in on white chargers to lend God a much-needed helping hand. Rather, we get to play a role in the unfolding of the biggest, best and most satisfying true story ever told: the story God’s plan for the creation, maintenance and destiny of our universe.

When I feel my heart wanting to restrict God’s authority over my work life, it is this truth more than anything else that I find helpful. Who would want to miss out being involved in the greatest story ever lived?

 

[1] Greek eis auton: ‘for’, ‘to’, ‘into’ or ‘unto’ him.

[2] Lest this be taken the wrong way, see my post on Keller’s reading of Paul’s apologetic method in 1 Corinthians 1: A Pauline model for engaging with our disciplines.

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Let’s read Keller (7): Dick Lucas on being a person God uses

Let's read Keller

In Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller helpfully reminds his readers that having a secular job doesn’t get us off the hook of being “used by God”:

Dick Lucas, an English Anglican preacher, once preached a sermon on the story of Joseph. […] He said that if you were to go to a book table at a church and see a biography with the title The Man God Uses or The Woman God Uses, you would immediately think it was the story of a missionary, teacher, church leader, or specialist in some sort of spiritual work. He points out that what you have in the story of Joseph is a highly successful secular official. Lucas says, “In the long term I think being a preacher, missionary, or leading a Bible study group in many ways is easier. There is a certain spiritual glamour in doing it, and what we should be doing each day is easier to discern more black and white, not so gray. It is often hard to get Christians to see that God is willing not just to use men and women in ministry, but in law, in medicine, in business, in the arts. This is the great shortfall today.

This reminder from the account of Joseph is both chastening and encouraging. It is encouraging for Christians who work in “secular” professions and want to make the most of their lives for God. It is chastening for Christians who think they can crank out their “secular” work no differently to anyone else and just worry about being a Christian on the weekends.

Let’s read Keller (6): Digging deeper into Tolkien’s ‘Leaf by Niggle’

Let's read Keller

In Every Good Endeavor Tim Keller draws on the wonderful Tolkien short story ‘Leaf by Niggle’ to make the point that our work, to be worthwhile, does not have to accomplish all we might hope for it in this life.

There is a tree

Niggle is an artist who works meticulously on a grand painting of a tree, only one leaf of which he completes in his lifetime. Towards the end of the story, Niggle is taken on a train to a heavenly unnamed place where, to his surprise, the tree he never had time to finish during his lifetime stands complete:

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. “It’s a gift!” he said. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally. He went on looking at the Tree. All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time.

The painting Niggle began on earth was not only unfinished but also imperfect, and yet here he sees the complete vision that he had only dimly apprehended before. Keller titles this section of his introduction ‘There really is a tree’, and glosses the Niggle story thus:

Once or twice in your life you may feel like you have finally “gotten a leaf out.” Whatever your work, you need to know this: There really is a tree. Whatever you are seeking in your work—the city of justice and peace, the world of brilliance and beauty, the story, the order, the healing—it is there. 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. You will work with satisfaction and joy. You will not be puffed up by success or devastated by setbacks.

The Parish principle: “distracting” acts of service are part of your masterpiece, not its enemy

What Keller doesn’t dwell on is that the story continues after Niggle’s encounter with his completed tree. Approaching a forest, the artist reflects that some of his most beautiful leaves “were seen to have been produced in collaboration with Mr. Parish: there was no other way of putting it.” I find this sentence almost more beautiful and inspiring than the encounter with the finished tree. Mr Parish is a neighbour of Niggle’s who seems to have been distracting and thwarting attempts to work on the painting through the good deeds that Niggle perpetually seems to be performing for him. Indeed, it is through Parish that Niggle catches a cold and dies leaving his painting barely begun. And yet here the finished tree bears the collaborative marks of Parish in “the most perfect examples of the Niggle style”.

The lesson of the Parish-Niggle collaboration for Christian academics is a powerful one. Our work requires long hours of (usually) solitary or socially restricted effort to produce its miserable little “leaf”. We might see family and church commitments, helping friends and loving enemies, as so many inconveniences thwarting our real mission: to bring forth the leaf. And, indeed, in this life it might seem at times very much as if these things are inconveniences and hindrances, thwarting our “true potential” and causing us to lose our productivity, our health or even our life. But as Tolkien brilliantly grasps, that is not the full picture. The fully realised vision of our dimly imagined work bears will have borne the marks of these relationships, these acts of kindness to others, right at the heart of our signature style. So who, or what, is your Parish? Thank God for them. It is a myopic perspective on work that sees them as a hindrance to the realisation of your leaf.

Tolkien has Parish join Niggle in the unnamed heavenly place. During their neighbourly life on earth Parish had dismissed the value of Niggle’s painting, but now in a beautiful reversal of roles it is Parish, not Niggle, who cannot tear his eyes away from the Tree:

As they worked together, it became plain that Niggle was now the better of the two at ordering his time and getting things done. Oddly enough, it was Niggle who became most absorbed in building and gardening, while Parish often wandered about looking at trees, and especially at the Tree.

Helping people to see your tree when all you have to show is virgin canvas and pots of paint

A little later on, Parish is confronted by one who “looked like a shepherd” and who explains that the land they are enjoying so much is Niggle’s Country. Niggle’s companion is dumbfounded:

“Niggle’s Picture!” said Parish in astonishment. “Did you think of all this, Niggle? I never knew you were so clever. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He tried to tell you long ago,” said the man; “but you would not look. He had only got canvas and paint in those days, and you wanted to mend your roof with them. This is what you and your wife used to call Niggle’s Nonsense, or That Daubing.”

It would be easy (all too easy) to paint Parish as the Philistine who meets his comeuppance as Niggle is straightforwardly vindicated by the Shepherd’s intervention. But Tolkien is cannier than that, and Niggle acknowledges his part in Parish’s ignorance: ‘“I did not give you much chance,” said Niggle. “I never tried to explain. I used to call you Old Earth-grubber. But what does it matter?”‘. It matters a great deal. Niggle’s dismissive attitude toward Parish seems partly to blame for Parish’s philistinism.

So the question is posed to us: what are we doing, as Christian academics, to help the Parishes around us to glimpse our tree when all we have is the beginnings of a leaf, presuming, of course, that we ourselves have at least glimpsed the big picture of which our work is part? Tolkien writes ‘Leaf by Niggle’, I think, not only to inspire Niggles, but to help Parishes glimpse the wonder of what they may hitherto only have scorned. What stories are we telling about our work to show its place in a big picture as yet unpainted? What is your elevator pitch when someone outside academia asks you what you are working on? That thorniest of questions can be answered at any number of levels; why not choose the level that Tolkien privileges in ‘Leaf by Niggle’, the big picture level of the Tree, not the detailed intricacy of the single leaf? With all due humility and without lapsing into self-promotional claptrap, we academics have a role in helping those around us to see the big picture of what we are doing, so that they might not think our canvas and paint would be put to better use mending a leaking roof.

Councillor Tomkins

There is a little epilogue to ‘Leaf by Niggle’. The scene cuts to a conversation between Councillor Tomkins and Atkins. The Councillor, somewhat in the mould of the earthly Parish but with a larger dose of supercilious arrogance, is a sceptic about Niggle’s art and about the man himself:

“No practical or economic use,” said Tompkins. “I dare say he could have been made into a serviceable cog of some sort, if you schoolmasters knew your business. But you don’t, and so we get useless people of his sort. If I ran this country I should put him and his like to some job that they’re fit for, washing dishes in the communal kitchen or something, and I should see that they did it properly…”

A couple of paragraphs later on we learn that Atkins the schoolmaster takes Niggle’s one completed leaf and has it hung in the Town Museum, which burns down expunging all trace of Niggle’s work from this earth. Meanwhile, Parish and Niggle laugh until the mountains ring at the news that a corner of their new land is to be called “Niggle’s Parish”.

We cannot help contrasting the incinerated earthly leaf with the heavenly vision in which “the blossom on the Great Tree was shining like a flame”. Councillor Tomkins only has eyes for one flame: the fire that destroys, that brings to nothing Niggle’s painting. However, if he could bear to look into it intently enough he would see that it also burns away his own cherished notion of “practical or economic use”. The destroying flame brings all to naught, not just paintings. What Tomkins cannot see is the heavenly fire, the flame that shines, that dazzles and adorns. Tolkien shows us both, and as creatures of eternity in a fallen and largely unjust world we would do well to take account of both flames as we labour on yet another almost invisible detail of our laboriously constructed leaf.

Let’s read Keller (5): Are you known as a Christian at work through guilt, or through grace?

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If doing the right thing can be hard, doing it for the right reason is often even harder. In this passage from Every Good Endeavor, Keller challenges not just our willingness to be known as a Christian in the workplace, but also the different possible motivations behind that willingness:

If you are merely inspired by an example—you want to be like Esther, or you want to be more like the people the Hispanic pastor said we needed—then your basic motivation is probably guilt. It could be guilt over selfishness, guilt over elitism, even guilt over ungratefulness. And those may be the right place to start! But if guilt is the extent of your motivation, you can be sure it will wear off before long because living in a new way will be hard.

Or, you might get inspired, but overreact. So often I have seen people who have previously kept secret about their faith and who overcompensate and become obnoxious. They decide to be an outspoken, principled person; they will not be like “those closeted Christians.” Yet they haven’t really left the palace because they are still getting their identity from their performance of a “better” kind of Christianity. They have not really changed; they are very self-righteously being more overt.

[…]

Esther was able to do what she did merely on the basis of a vague revelation that God is a god of grace. But now we know so much more! She didn’t know God was actually going to come to earth himself and do what she was doing on an infinitely greater scale, at an infinitely greater cost, with infinitely greater benefits to humanity. We now know so much more about his grace, our value to him, and our future. If you see what Jesus Christ has done for you, losing the ultimate palace for you, then you will be able to start to serve God and your neighbor from your place in the palace.

Let’s read Keller (4): no single principle or verse reflects a rounded biblical understanding of work

Let's read Keller In Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller helpfully points out the shortcomings of viewing our work in terms of any single verse or principle. Our understanding of how our work fits into biblical categories and emphases must be multifaceted. In the passage quoted below, Keller highlights some sound principles for thinking about our work form a Christian point of view, and then discusses how to make use of them wisely:

 So if you are a Christian who is trying to be faithful in your work, you might find yourself trying to weigh sentiments as varied as these: • The way to serve God at work is to further social justice in the world. • The way to serve God at work is to be personally honest and evangelize your colleagues. • The way to serve God at work is just to do skilful, excellent work. • The way to serve God at work is to create beauty. • The way to serve God at work is to work from a Christian motivation to glorify God, seeking to engage and influence culture to that end. • The way to serve God at work is to work with a grateful, joyful, gospel- changed heart through all the ups and downs. • The way to serve God at work is to do whatever gives you the greatest joy and passion. • The way to serve God at work is to make as much money as you can, so that you can be as generous as you can.

 

To what extent are these sentiments complementary or actually opposed to one another? That is a difficult question, for there is at least a measure of biblical warrant for every one of them. And the difficulty lies not merely in the plethora of theological commitments and cultural factors involved, but also in how they operate in different ways depending on the field or type of work. Christian ethics, motives, identity, witness, and worldview shape our work in very different ways depending on the form of the work. […] if you keep the propositions the way they are, claiming that each is a way to serve God through work, then the different statements are ultimately complementary .

In other words, no single verse or principle offers a mirror that can reflect a global and well-rounded biblical understanding of work, but together they provide a map of different locations and coordinates, and the map as a whole allows us to navigate our way wisely through the world of work.