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.


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?

Let's read Keller


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.

Let’s read Keller (2): the meanings behind ‘job’, ‘vocation’, ‘career’, ‘profession’

Let's read Keller

Tim Keller frames Every Good Endeavor in terms of the goal of recapturing the idea of vocation, entitling the introduction ‘The importance of recovering vocation’. He understands the notion in contradistinction to the “expressive individualism” that Robert Bellah identifies at the heart of American life in his classic Habits of the Heart (see here for a lecture by Bellah condensing some of the book’s main themes). Here is Keller’s summary of the term:

The Latin word vocare—to call—is at the root of our common word “vocation.” Today the word often means simply a job, but that was not the original sense. A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it and you do it for them rather than for yourself. And so our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests.

This summary made me curious to search out the etymology of other words we use to describe the work we do: ‘job’, ‘occupation’, ‘career’, ‘employment’, ‘profession’, ‘position’, ‘trade’, ‘livelihood’ and ‘work’ itself. What do these words say about the way we conceptualise work and the meaning with which we invest it? Armed with the trusty OED (surely one of my desert island books!), here are my findings. For each word below I begin with my summary of where I think the focus of the term lies, and then I paste selected fruits of my OED research (I found the etymology of ‘career’ particularly interesting).


JOB, n. Focus: the discrete task or ‘thing to be done’

1. a. A piece of work; esp. a small and discrete piece of work done as part of one’s regular occupation or profession.

2. a. An isolated or casual piece of work, undertaken for a one-off payment or on a hire basis. Hence also (depreciative): a task or transaction performed perfunctorily or opportunistically for profit.

4.  a. A task, a thing to be done; an operation, a procedure; a function to be fulfilled.

Etymology:  Origin uncertain. The fact that the word is earliest attested in the phrase job of work at Phrases 1 (see quot.1557-8 at sense 1a) suggests that ‘work’ may not originally have been part of the core meaning of the word. If the sense was originally ‘piece’, then the word may be a spec. use of JOB n.3 (A cartload; the amount that a horse and cart can bring at one time)


OCCUPATION, n. Focus: that which takes up our time.

II. 4.  b. A particular action or course of action in which a person is engaged, esp. habitually; a particular job or profession; a particular pursuit or activity.

c1390   CHAUCER Melibeus 2781   He that..casteth hym to no bisynesse ne occupacion.

?1577   G. BUCHANAN Let. in Vernac. Writings (1892) 58   As to my occupation at thys present tyme, I am besy with our story of Scotland.

a1616   SHAKESPEARE Othello (1622) III. iii. 362   Farewell, Othello’s Occupation’s gone.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman occupacion, occupacioun, occupaciun, ocupacioun and Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French occupation activity, employment (c1175)


EMPLOYMENT, n. Focus: takes the worker as the object, framing him/her as the passive recipient of work granted by an employer. The person who is ‘employed’ is ‘applied’ or ‘put to work’. It could almost stand as a secular equivalent of ‘vocation’.

2. An activity in which a person engages; a pursuit. Also as a mass noun: activity, occupation. Now rare (somewhat arch.).

4.  a. The action or fact of using or employing a person to perform a task, carry out a service, etc. In later use chiefly: the hiring of a person to undertake paid work, esp. in return for wages or a salary under an employment contract. Also: an instance of this.

b. The state or condition of being so employed; the state of working for an employer, esp. in return for wages. Chiefly in in (also into, out of) employment.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman imploier, Anglo-Norman and Middle French emploier, Middle Frenchemployer (French employer ) to use or apply (for a purpose), to put to work (c1100 in Old French), to engage (someone) in an occupation (12th cent.), to occupy (time) with an activity (c1220), to allocate, assign (14th cent.), to bestow (a gift, etc.)


CAREER, n. Focus: The focus here is on intensity, competitiveness and advancement. A term originally applied to animals.

Etymology:  < French carrière racecourse; also career, in various senses; = Italian carriera, Provençal carriera, Spanish carrera road, carrer < late Latin carrāria (via) carriage-road, road, <carrus wagon.

1. a. The ground on which a race is run, a racecourse; (also) the space within the barrier at a tournament.

2. a. Of a horse: A short gallop at full speed (often in phr. to pass a career ). Also a charge, encounter (at a tournament or in battle).Obs.

3. a. By extension: A running, course (usually implying swift motion); formerly [like French carrière] applied spec. to the course of the sun or a star through the heavens. Also abstr. Full speed, impetus: chiefly in phrases like in full career, †to take, give (oneself or some thing) career , etc., which were originally terms of horsemanship (see 2).

5.  b. In modern language (after French carrière) freq. used for: A course of professional life or employment, which affords opportunity for progress or advancement in the world. Freq. attrib. (orig. U.S.), esp.  (a) designating one who works permanently in the diplomatic service or other profession, opp. one who enters it at a high level from elsewhere;  (b) career girl, career woman, etc., one who works permanently in a profession, opp. one who ceases full-time work on marrying. Also,   careers master n. a schoolteacher who advises and helps pupils in choosing careers.,  career mistress n. = careers master n.

1927   Lit. Digest 25 June 14/2   The foundation of any sound Foreign Service must consist of ‘career men’ who have become expert.

1931   F. J. STIMSON My United States xviii. 190   The career professors look somewhat askance at one who comes in from the outside world—just as career secretaries in diplomacy do upon a chief who has not gone through all the grades.


PROFESSION, n. Focus: work in which some body of knowledge or field is mastered and then declared or expressed.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman professioun, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French profession (French profession ) declaration of faith (1155 as professiun ), vows taken when entering a religious order (c1174), condition, occupation (1362 as prophecie ; 1404 as prophecion ; a1417 asprofession ; 1495 as profection ), action of teaching publicly, professorship (1596) and its etymon classical Latin professiōn-, professiō open declaration, avowal, public declaration of one’s person and property, public register of people and property, vocation or occupation that one publicly avows

1.  b. Any solemn declaration, promise, or vow.

4. a. The declaration of belief in and obedience to religion, or of acceptance of and conformity to the faith and principles of any religious community; (hence) the faith or religion which a person professes.

II. Senses relating to professional occupation. 7.  a. An occupation in which a professed knowledge of some subject, field, or science is applied; a vocation or career, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification. Also occas. as mass noun: occupations of this kind. In early use applied spec. to the professions of law, the Church, and medicine, and sometimes extended also to the military profession.

1605   BACON Of Aduancem. Learning II. sig. Aa3,   Amongst so many great Foundations of Colledges in Europe, I finde strange that they are all dedicated to Professions, and none left free to Artes and Sciences at large.

1711   J. ADDISON Spectator No. 21. ¶1   The three great Professions of Divinity, Law, and Physick.

4. b. More widely: any occupation by which a person regularly earns a living.N.E.D. (1908) notes: ‘Now usually applied to an occupation considered to be socially superior to a trade or handicraft; but formerly, and still in vulgar (or humorous) use, including these.’


POSITION, n. Focus: place within a predetermined constellation; connotation of comparison to others.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman posicion, posicioun and Middle French posicion, position, Frenchposition situation, site (late 13th cent. in Old French), thesis, assertion, statement (late 13th cent., earliest in a legal context; now spec. ‘tenet, point of doctrine’ (late 14th cent. or earlier in this sense; rare before 1690)), act of laying down (early 14th cent. or earlier in Anglo-Norman in a legal context)

3. d. The particular location allocated to an employee, esp. the place occupied by each cashier along a service counter.

1937   Times 25 Oct. 21/1   Our operators on the great 24-position switchboard deal with an average of 45,000 calls per day.

8.  a. fig. A relation in which a person stands with respect to another or others; a person’s circumstances, condition, or situation, esp. as affecting his or her influence, role, or power to act; spec. (freq. insocial position) status, rank, standing.

8. b. In a contest or competitive event: the place or standing of a contestant or competitor in relation to the others. In a specified category, field, etc.: the status or rank of any of those included in relation to the others.

c. A post as an employee; a paid office, a job.

1846   DICKENS Dombey & Son (1848) i. 4   Mr. Pilkins here, who from his position of medical adviser in this family—no one better qualified to fill that position, I am sure.


TRADE, n. Focus: habitual work. The track, course or way of work taken by an individual.

Etymology:  < Middle Low German trade (trâ ) feminine, track (Schiller & Lubben), Low German trade (traan < traden ) track (Bremisch. Wbch.); also West Flemish tra ( < trade ) walk, march, course (De Bo), < Old Saxon trada strong feminine, footstep, track = Old High German trata , Middle High German trate , trat strong feminine, footstep, trace, track, way, passage, < West Germanic ablaut-series tred- , trad- to TREAD v. Apparently introduced into English in 14th cent. from Hanseatic Middle Low German, perhaps originally in nautical language for the ‘course or track’ of a ship; afterwards used in other senses of Middle English trede TREAD n.

1. a. A course, way, path; (with possessive or of) the course trodden by a person, followed by a ship, etc.; = TREAD n. 3 common trade, a public thoroughfare. Obs.

5.  a. The practice of some occupation, business, or profession habitually carried on, esp. when practised as a means of livelihood or gain; a calling; formerly used very widely, including professions; now usually applied to a mercantile occupation and to a skilled handicraft, as distinct from a profession (PROFESSION n. 7a), and spec. restricted to a skilled handicraft, as distinguished from a professional or mercantile occupation on the one hand, and from unskilled labour on the other.in trade, following a mercantile occupation, spec. that of a shop-keeper. In earliest use not clearly distinguishable from 3; the sense is developed by contextual additions, as trade (i.e. practice) of husbandry , trade of merchandise, trade of fishing, etc.

1601   Act 43 Eliz. c. 2 §1   For settinge to worke all such persons..[who] use no ordinarie or dailie trade of lief to get their livinge by.

a1616   SHAKESPEARE Julius Caesar (1623) I. i. 12   Mur. But what Trade art thou? Answer me directly… Fla. Thou art a Cobler, art thou?


LIVELIHOOD, n. Focus: Means to the end of living.

Etymology:  < LIFE n. + Old English lād course, journey, way, maintenance, support (see LOAD n., LODEn.). Compare Old High German lībleita food, provisions, means of living. The β. forms show remodelling of the ending by association with nouns in -HOOD suffix, and probably also subsequent remodelling by association with LIVELY adj

1. The course of a person’s life, lifetime; kind or manner of life; conduct. Obs.

2. a. A (person’s) means of living. Also as a mass noun: means of living; maintenance, sustenance. Esp. in to earn (also gain, get, make,or seek) a livelihood .

c1300   St. Mary of Egypt (Laud) l. 18 in C. Horstmann Early S.-Eng. Legendary (1887) 261 (MED),   With spinningue and with seuwingue, hire liflode heo wan.

1711   J. ADDISON Spectator No. 94. ¶8   He set himself to think on proper Methods for getting a Livelihood in this strange Country.

b. (A person’s) physical sustenance; an instance of this. Also: food, provisions.

a1382   Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Bodl. 959) (1961) Deut. ii. 28   Liflodys by prise sul to vs þat we etyn.


WORK, n. Focus: The most general of all the terms considered here. Implies effort, and can be used of human or nonhuman actors.

Etymology:  Old English weorc = Old Frisian, Old Saxon, (Middle) Low German, (Middle) Dutch werk, Old High German werah , werc (Middle High German werch , werc , German werk ), Old Norse verk(Swedish, Danish verk ) < Old Germanic *werkom (see WORK v.); cognate are Greek ἔργον , Armeniangorc , Avestan varəza- activity.

I. 1.  a. Something that is or was done; what a person does or did; an act, deed, proceeding, business; in pl. actions, doings (often collectively =3). arch. or literary in gen. sense.

1.  c. Qualified by phr. with of expressing the moral quality of the action, as a work or works of charity, of darkness, of mercy , etc.

2.  a. Something to be done, or something to do; what a person (or thing) has or had to do; occupation, employment, business, task, function.

1598   SHAKESPEARE Henry IV, Pt. 1 II. iv. 105   Fie vpon this quiet life, I want worke.

1604   SHAKESPEARE Hamlet V. ii. 274   The point inuenom’d to, then venome to thy worke.

4. a. Action involving effort or exertion directed to a definite end, esp. as a means of gaining one’s livelihood; labour, toil; (one’s) regular occupation or employment.

8. Physics and Mech. The operation of a force in producing movement or other physical change, esp. as a definitely measurable quantity: see quots.

1832   W. WHEWELL First Princ. Mech. iv. 52   The work done does not depend on the pressure alone.

1832   W. WHEWELL First Princ. Mech. iv. 53   The work done by a machine may be represented as certain pressures exerted through certain spaces.


My aim in offering these etymological reflections is not to draw any trite conclusions about which of these terms Christians should and should not use. I see the aim of this post more as a consciousness-raising exercise, both for myself and for readers of this blog: there are many different ways of considering our work (in terms of our position in a hierarchy, the effort involved, the body of knowledge we deploy, the fact of being given work by someone else, work as a means to the end of living…) and no doubt each term is appropriate in particular contexts. Nevertheless, I am struck by how all the terms apart from ‘vocation’ situate work on a predominantly horizontal level, focusing on our relation to other people and to the product of our labour, but not to God. For this reason, I am minded to echo Keller’s call to recover the concept of ‘vocation’ today. It reminds us of the origin, the goal, the standard and the authority of our work.

Let’s read Keller (1): Success at work, your relational net worth and speculating on the kindness market

Let's read Keller

Over the coming weeks I will be blogging my way through Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor, with a particular eye out for insights that can be of help to Christian academics.

To get the ball rolling, here is a reflection on the book’s Foreword, by Katherine Leary Alsdorf,  the Founder & Executive Director of Redeemer’s Center for Faith & Work, who describes the book in this clip:

In the foreword Alsdorf relates her experience of founding an internet company that was swallowed up in the great dot come bust of the late 1990s. She describes the reaction of her co-workers to hearing that the company would have to fold in this way:

The staff, entirely on their own, made a plan to come in the following day—for no pay—to celebrate one another and the work they had done. Though the celebration was bittersweet, they brought in musical instruments to play for one another or demonstrated the tai chi they taught in the evenings, and they laughed about fun times together. I was amazed. They were honoring a culture, an organization, in which they’d found some joy in their work and in their relationships with one another—despite the end result. Eventually I came to see that day as a glimpse of God at work, doing what God does: healing and renewing and redeeming.

The experience causes Alsdorf to reflect on the definition of failure, and it reminded me that there are always at least two dimensions to any job: what is being achieved and the relational context within which it is achieved. The “what” of Aldsorf’s company ultimately failed, but it’s relational context was a success. Sometimes, the tables are turned: the “what” can be achieved at the cost of the relational context: I get done what is necessary to succeed, but I leave an ugly trail of relational exploitation, broken promises and resentment in my wake.

If Blaise Pascal were writing the preface to Every Good Endeavor, he might have framed the distinction in terms of  the chase and the catch, suggesting that what often matters most to us is the journey rather than the destination, the relational context rather than the ultimate ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of the enterprise. The weight of biblical material related to work would point us in the same direction: God is more concerned with how we work than with what we do, and with how we treat people than whether we are ‘successful’ in stock market terms.

For Christian academics, we must ask ourselves how we measure success in our own careers: by where we end up on the pecking order, or by how we treat people along the way?

The language we use is powerful in shaping the way we think, so let’s try some new concepts on for size, framing biblical values in the sort of language that is common in many workplaces:

  • When was the last time you thought in terms of your ‘relational wealth’, or ‘relational net worth’?
  • Have you ever been excited by the thought of innovating in obedience or making a strategic investment in holiness?
  • Have you ever speculated  on the kindness market or diversified into Christ-like service?

Let’s read Pascal (34): “All people seek happiness” as a principle in apologetics and cultural engagement

Let's Read Pascal

Pascal, Aristotle and Augustine agree on two points: 1) all people seek happiness; 2) the means of seeking happiness are radically diverse.

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves. (Pascal, Pensées 425)


Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, what it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I.4)

In the following passage from the Confessions, Augustine introduces a distinction between what we might call the subjective experience of seeking happiness and the objective truth of what is sought. Some people, in thinking they seek happiness, are in fact actively fleeing that which alone can give them the happiness they think they pursue:

It is not, then, certain that all men wish to be happy, since those who wish not to rejoice in You, which is the only happy life, do not verily desire the happy life. Or do all desire this, but because the flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, so that they cannot do the things that they would, they fall upon that which they are able to do, and with that are content; because that which they are not able to do, they do not so will as to make them able? For I ask of every man, whether he would rather rejoice in truth or in falsehood. They will no more hesitate to say, in truth, than to say, that they wish to be happy. For a happy life is joy in the truth. For this is joy in You, who art the truth,  O God, my light, the health of my countenance, and my God. All wish for this happy life; this life do all wish for, which is the only happy one; joy in the truth do all wish for. I have had experience of many who wished to deceive, but not one who wished to be deceived. Where, then, did they know this happy life, save where they knew also the truth? For they love it, too, since they would not be deceived. And when they love a happy life, which is naught else but joy in the truth, assuredly they love also the truth; which yet they would not love were there not some knowledge of it in the memory. Wherefore, then, do they not rejoice in it? Why are they not happy? Because they are more entirely occupied with other things which rather make them miserable, than that which would make them happy, which they remember so little of. For there is yet a little light in men; let them walk— let them walk, that the darkness seize them not. (Augustine, Confessions X.22.33)

Now of course Aristotle’s eudaimonia, Augustine’s beatus esse and Pascals “être heureux” do not describe identical notions, but that is precisely the point: there is no consensus about what true happiness is.

I offer five reflections on these quotations:

1) The tension that arises from humanity sharing a common goal yet employing radically diverse approaches to reaching it captures well the Christian condition of being “resident aliens” in our contemporary culture or “elect exiles” as the ESV of 1 Peter 1:1 has it. We are not utterly alienated form our culture (because we share the goal of seeking happiness) but we cannot feel completely at home in it (because we differ profoundly on the means of achieving that goal).

2) It is hard to overestimate the extent to which understandings of happiness can be radically divergent. Just because everyone seeks happiness, it doesn’t follow that we all recognise each other as being engaged in the same search that we are, as these reflections from Pascal illustrate:

And since man has lost the true good, everything can appear equally good to him, even his own destruction, though so opposed to God, to reason, and to the whole course of nature. (425)

True nature being lost, everything becomes its own nature; as the true good being lost, everything becomes its own true good. (426)

In seeking happiness the human race is united; in its understanding of the happiness it seeks, it is radically divided.

3) It is a good general principle, when engaging with ideologies, ideas or people with whom we disagree, to begin with the assumption that they are seeking happiness and, then to try to understand what happiness is being sought and how it is being pursued. Very rarely will a position make no sense to the person who holds it; if it doesn’t make sense to us it may well be that we haven’t understood what notion of happiness underlies it. This is a particularly valuable principle for Christian academics working in secular disciplines, when the assumptions under-girding those disciplines can be radically at odds with biblical truth: audi alteram partem. It is also a helpful principle in addressing personal conflict at the workplace, among friends or in family contexts. Those who disagree with us often have reasons that make perfect sense once we understand what happiness they are seeking and how they are seeking it, and until we comprehend and engage on that fundamental level, our attempts to scratch the surface of their position will most likely only cause irritation and entrenched opposition.

4) The common acknowledgment that all people seek happiness provides the sort of Anknüpfungspunkt (point of contact) that Paul discerns in 1 Corinthians 1, and offers a wonderful opening for apologetic conversations in our contemporary culture in which, as Aristotle somewhat awkwardly puts it, “both the general run of men and people of superior refinement” say that happiness is to be sought. If Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks seek wisdom, what does our society demand and yearn for? There could no doubt be many responses, but I think that “happiness” would be high on any list. To put this in terms of Tim Keller’s fourfold schema drawn from 1 Corinthians 1:

  • You seek happiness
  • But it is not to be found in the way you are seeking it now
  • Happiness is to be found only in Christ
  • Here is how you can find it in him

5) Something in Aristotle’s formulation caught my eye: “both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness” we seek. That is not the same as saying that all people seek happiness. It is one thing to acknowledge that all seek happiness; it is quite another actively to seek it (just as it is one thing to say one believes in Christ, and quite another to live a life in step with that profession). So perhaps part of the way we might engage with non-Christian positions within the academy, and part of our apologetic strategy more broadly, can be to challenge the disconnect between people’s profession of seeking happiness and their actions. And of course, the challenge is also thrown out to Christians: how great a chasm is there between the happiness in God we may claim to pursue, and the actions of our daily lives?

Let’s read Pascal (33): We have an incapacity for proof, insurmountable by all dogmatism. We have an idea of truth, invincible to all scepticism

Let's Read Pascal

Two quotations to lay side by side, one from Pascal and one from the kohelleth of Ecclesiastes:

Instinct, reason.—We have an incapacity of proof, insurmountable by all dogmatism. We have an idea of truth, invincible to all scepticism.

(Pensées 395)


He [God, Elohim] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

(Ecclesiastes 3:11)