This year I will read all of the Timothy Keller books I own– five of them, and will complete a goal on my 2013 Manifesto.
The second book up on my list is Timothy Keller’s ‘Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work“.
It’s a wonderful look at God’s plan for work and helps the reader relate their work with God’s plan. It is split up into three parts- God’s plan for work, Our problems with work, and the Gospel and work. Keller speaks of how we are made for work and not to be idle. However work can become selfish, an idol a status symbol and take over our life- whether we see it happening or not.
Keller gives us an idea of what he is to explain ahead in the book with his story of J.R.R. Tolkien and his struggle with perfectionism. J.R.R. Tolkien had been working on the languages, histories and stories behind The Lord of the Rings for decades when World War II broke out. Britain was in a tough spot- invasion was imminent, and “who could predict that he would survive even as a civilian?” Keller writes of Tolkien’s despair of not finishing his life’s work. The thought of not finishing it was “a dreadful and numbing thought.” There was a tree near Tolkien’s home that he found one day to be cut and mutilated by a neighbor. Out of this incident, which he corelated with his struggle of not finishing his trilogy- he wrote a short story, “Leaf by Niggle.” It is about a painter going through the journey of life with one thought in mind- that of painting a grand picture of a country side, the main subject a beautiful tree. He wanted to finish this painting before he died, but as he spent most of his time helping others, he was unable to. After Niggle died, one lone perfect leaf remained intact on the crumbling canvas.
Once Niggle gets to his heavenly afterlife he hears two voices. One- Justice- says that Niggle accomplished so little and wasted so much time. The other – Mercy- says that Niggle had chosen to sacrifice for others, knowing what he was doing. When Niggle gets to the heavenly country he spots his tree and runs to it- “Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished; its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and yet had so often failed to catch.” The world before death had forgotten Niggle almost completely, but in his new country- the permanently real world, he finds that his tree is in full detail and finished. It was part of the True Reality that would live and be enjoyed forever.
Tolkien had a very Christian understanding of art- and of all work. Niggle was assured that the tree he had felt and guessed was a true part of creation, and that even the small bit of it he had unveiled to people on earth had been a vision of the True. It was this understanding, along with loving prodding from his friend C.S. Lewis, that helped J.R.R. Tolkien get back to writing The Lord of the Rings. Everyone can relate to Niggle, because to a certain extent we all are Niggle. Everyone imagines accomplishing things, and everyone finds themselves largely incapable of producing them. What if this life is all there is? Nothing we do would make any difference, all good endeavors would come to nothing. “But if the God of the Bible exists, and there is a True Reality ‘beneath and behind’ this one, and this life is not the only life, then every good endeavor even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever.”
“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 of this life. You will work with satisfaction and joy. You will not be puffed up by success or devastated by setbacks.” -Keller, Every Good Endeavor
Once we reset our ‘compass’ for work we will stop working for selfish reasons, and start working for selfless reasons. It is liberating to accept that God is aware of where you are at in a particular situation, and that knowing that by serving the work you are given you are serving God. When your heart comes to hope in Christ and the future world he has guaranteed you finally have the power to work with a free heart. So have faith, fellow ‘Niggles’- our leaves will soon be revealed to be part of a beautiful Tree.