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Katherine Leary Alsdorf: We're made to work

People are called to work, not just to provide for themselves, but to help the world flourish, says the collaborator on Timothy Keller's recent book "Every Good Endeavor."

January 29, 2013

People work for a variety of reasons: money, security, power, success. But work -- at least, from the perspective of the gospel -- is not about accruing benefits for ourselves, says Katherine Leary Alsdorf, the founder and director emeritus of the Center for Faith & Work at New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

“The gospel story of work says that we’re made to work,” Alsdorf said. “And the reason we’re made to work is to do the work that God would have us do to help the world flourish. Apart from doing that kind of work, we’re not fully human; we’re not living the lives that God meant us to live.”

LearyEstablished in 2002, the center is Redeemer’s “cultural renewal arm,” helping members integrate faith into every aspect of their lives, personal and professional. Drawing on that work, Alsdorf assisted Redeemer’s senior pastor, the Rev. Timothy Keller, in writing “Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work,” published in November by Dutton.

Alsdorf said more congregations need to pay attention to work and the role it plays in people’s lives.

“Work should be as important in the missional focus of a church as family is,” she said.

Alsdorf spoke with Faith & Leadership recently about “Every Good Endeavor” and the challenges of integrating work and faith. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What is the state of the workplace today? How do people feel about their work?

We have some crises in the workplace. There is a lack of work, especially for young people, and a nervousness about where people fit in work that has been growing for 20 years.

Creating work opportunities is our responsibility as a culture and as individuals, but it’s not something that we’ve owned for a while. That’s now hitting pretty dramatic proportions, which recent graduates are feeling most.

The book talks about a new story for work, especially regarding our expectations of work. Some of that results from the problem and the promise of the American dream.

On one hand, we have a culture that lets more people do what they’re gifted to do than ever before. On the other, we expect that we should always do better than our parents. So work moves from being about serving the world to "What I can get from it?"

There is also a longing for meaning in work. People are disconnected from the end purpose and therefore the importance of their work.

It’s easier for the head of a company to find meaning in work, because you meet with the end customer; you see the changes your product makes in that customer’s business or life. But if you’re further removed, it’s often hard to find meaning in your little piece of what you’re contributing to.

Q: What does “Every Good Endeavor” bring to the discussion about work?

The gospel story of work says that we’re made to work. And the reason we’re made to work is to do the work that God would have us do to help the world flourish. Apart from doing that kind of work, we’re not fully human; we’re not living the lives that God meant us to live.

So the disconnect that happens when people don’t have a sense of meaning in their work is really a disconnect from God’s purpose for us to help the world flourish.

When we created the Center for Faith & Work at Redeemer, we started with the premise that the gospel changes everything. The good news of what Christ did for us on the cross affects not just our eternal salvation but how we live here and now.

But how the gospel gets worked deep into people’s hearts and lives is a function of who they are and their context. We have a lot of highly educated people in our congregation. Maybe a third are immigrants or children of immigrants, Asian immigrants, whose parents sacrificed to come to this country and raise and educate their children here.

Some of the stories that they operate from are shaped by their parents, or by the expectations of what is supposed to happen when you go to college. But then they arrive in New York post-education, and the realities of work hit them in the face.

Maybe they’re doing work that they’re not gifted at. They were smart enough to go to college and get good grades, but once they’re in the work itself, they feel like, “I can’t spend the rest of my life doing this.” So they have to go back and ask, “What did God make me to do?”

Other times it’s an expectation of comfort, security, power, success or financial stability that really isn’t of God. That takes the focus away from working for the work’s sake to working for the sake of how you can benefit from it.

Of course, work is supposed to give us the means to provide for ourselves. But if we’re doing the work primarily to accrue benefits to ourselves, then we’re really working in opposition to the way God made us.

We’re going to run up against what happens when you’re not paying attention to the owner’s manual of who you are as a human being -- a lack of significance and meaning in what you do. You start to feel chained to the career or to the job.

Q: What do you tell people who say, “That’s why they call it work”? You and Rev. Keller don’t accept the post-Eden account of work as something we’re condemned to do to earn bread by the sweat of our brow.

Yeah. We take post-Eden more seriously than the world at large. We also would define work as pre-Fall. God gave us work to do before there was sin, before man sinned. He gave us work to do to contribute to human flourishing. He gave us work to do to create beauty. He made us as creators in his image. He gave us jobs to name animals and classify things.

Work in itself is good, but there is no question that sin has changed the nature of work. If our expectation is that everything should just be hunky-dory, that’s an inadequate view of the Fall. That’s an inadequate view of what happened when we became sinful, when the world became broken.

That can be difficult for a young person to discern. Sometimes their problem is they’re doing work that isn’t a good fit or doesn’t contribute in a meaningful way. Other times it’s that they’re truly not prepared for the realities of sin, the realities of brokenness in the world.

Q: What do you mean?

To use the biblical metaphor, we’re not in Jerusalem anymore; we’re in Babylon.

God has called us to work in a world that doesn’t honor him. The expectation that that world is going to be more like Eden than it’s going to be broken, messy and ugly is inaccurate.

God has called us to an extremely broken world. Therefore, our work, even the best and most meaningful work, is going to frustrate us at every turn. And the church needs to equip us to face the brokenness of a fallen world and recognize that the reason God wants us there is to bring a foretaste of him into that world.

Q: The book speaks about trying to find a middle ground between naiveté and cynicism.

It is naive to cling to Eden, to think that this world should be more like heaven than earth. It doesn’t prepare you for the fact that God called you to be a light in a very broken world. The challenge for us as Christians is to enter into that brokenness and glorify him, or point people to him, to bring the hope or the love of him for that broken world.

Therefore, almost by definition, we’re in a hard spot that requires, as with Daniel, extraordinary strength and an extraordinary relationship with God to be able to still honor him in circumstances that don’t make that easy.

Obviously, God gave us this longing for a better place. But we can’t confuse that with an expectation for a better place.

Q: The book says, “Thinking of work mainly as a means of self-fulfillment and self-realization slowly crushes a person.” But isn’t that exactly how our culture shapes people to think of work and career?

It is. And there’s a piece of that that’s really true. If God gave you the ability to paint and you never try your hand at it, you’re not fulfilling what God made you to be.

Hopefully, most of us have had the experience of learning something that then enables them to fix something that’s broken or to lead people toward a good end or to make something run more smoothly. You feel an elation deep in the soul that comes from, “God made me to do this.”

But when that’s an expectation, we’ve made it into an idol. When we’re doing work because it’s about God, and I can go, “Wow, thank you, God -- this really is work you would have me do,” and I’m pointing to God with it, that is a very different place for your heart to be than if you’re going, “Wow, look at me -- I’m finally king of the hill!”

We’re all vulnerable to that. If we achieve any level of success in our work, we’re all vulnerable to pointing to ourselves.

Certainly, it’s not like we should just be grim and falsely humble. That’s not what we’re talking about. In our hearts, we know when we’re puffing ourselves up and when we’re saying, “All right, God. Thanks for the privilege of being able to do this.”

It’s something that we have to constantly push against -- our tendency to serve ourselves rather than God.

Q: In contrast, the book talks about recovering the notion of work as a calling. How do people discern their calling?

The most practical way is to be in a community, such as your family or your church, that can give you good feedback on your gifts. Having someone else calling out giftedness or your strengths is a way to start.

There’s also no getting around time with God. In the process of determining what work you’re going to do, God requires a lot of looking out in the world and seeing what needs to be done. It requires a lot of other people giving you validation and holding up a mirror and helping you better assess yourself. And it requires a lot of self-knowledge, and the only way self-knowledge comes is through prayer.

Some of the biggest obstacles to self-knowledge are our idols. It helps to run through the basic idols that all of us are vulnerable to and ask, “Where are they present? Where are they operating in my life?”

It helps if you say, “All right. At least I’m going to put on the table that I’m status-conscious and let God talk to me about it and try to open myself to God changing me in that area so that I’m not quite so blind to the false gods that I worship.”

Q: What are the biggest obstacles people need to confront if they are to integrate work and faith?

Certainly money. You need money to put a roof over your head and be a responsible provider. But we probably all hunger for things that money can buy that are not critical to a healthy, balanced life and that only make us more captive to money.

Also power. Personally, I was probably much more drawn by the power to influence things than I was by money.

The need to be liked and the need to be needed can really get in the way. Not that you should be an unlikable leader, but when you’re just wanting to be liked, you can find yourself avoiding paths of truth.

There’s also security. Many people make career decisions for security when, in fact, calling is a risky business. Living as God’s people is a risky business. If you’re always just making choices that are secure, and not taking risk, you’re not really open to the ways God could be calling you.

Q: What can congregations do to help people with issues of work and faith?

Work should be as important in the missional focus of a church as family is.

Certainly, when you focus on family and marriage and parenting, you get many opportunities to talk about how the gospel should impact your life. But it’s at least as important that we talk about work.

God uses work as a crucible to shape and refine us. It’s a place where God wants to use us to glorify him, to point to him and to do work that serves the world. To miss it misses about 80 percent of most people’s self-concept.

The topic of calling, alone, would be valuable for a congregation to discuss. Not what specific job to take but that broader idea of how is God calling me where I am right now. What is God’s call in the work that I’m doing? Exploring that is huge.

Another way would be to pull together a group of people to study faith and work for a year and just build a cadre of people who are really thinking about this and applying it to their lives.

Q: Anything else?

Just, again, that the book takes the Fall and the brokenness of the world more seriously than a lot of “faith and work” books do.

Books that point us to just be better people are not necessarily helpful. When you look at the full magnitude of the brokenness of the world, the gospel’s a lot bigger.

The gospel is not just being a better person and us getting out there and being the hero. The gospel is about God saving the world and us being able to have hope and operate out of the gratefulness that he’s doing that.

That’s a very different perspective.