Entrepreneur Max Anderson reflects on his New York pastor and friend’s teaching on work
Despite my wonderful years with Tim, I am not today a pastor. That isn’t because when I worked at the church I saw the sausage being made and found it unsavoury. It is because I realised, partly through Tim’s coaching, that if you aren’t a pastor, it doesn’t make you a second-class Christian. Quite the opposite.
Tim taught that we are made in the Imago Dei, the image of God, and the image of God we see in scripture is a working God, one who creates. We too are called to work, to create, not just as a thing one does to live, but as the thing one lives to do. It is the medium in which the Christian offers himself to God.
What does that look like? Tim put it this way: “When we say that Christians work from a gospel worldview, it does not mean that they are constantly speaking about Christian teaching in their work. Some people think of the gospel as something we are principally to ‘look at’ in our work.
“This would mean that Christian musicians should play Christian music, Christian writers should write stories about conversion, and Christian businessmen and women should work for companies that make Christian-themed products and services for Christian customers. Yes, some Christians in those fields would sometimes do well to do those things, but it is a mistake to think that the Christian worldview is operating only when we are doing such overtly Christian activities.
“Instead, think of the gospel as a set of glasses through which you ‘look’ at everything else in the world. Christian artists, when they do this faithfully, will not be completely beholden either to profit or to naked self-expression; and they will tell the widest variety of stories. Christians in business will see profit as only one of several bottom lines; and they will work passionately for any kind of enterprise that serves the common good. The Christian writer can constantly be showing the destructiveness of making something besides God into the central thing, even without mentioning God directly.”
This vision resonated with me but I still struggled with it. How does running a business or making investments, as I do now, matter in the mind of God? Tim’s evaluation was sober, but hopeful:
“Everyone will be forgotten, nothing we do will make any difference, and all good endeavours, even the best, will come to naught. Unless there is God. 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 endeavour, even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever.”
To illustrate this idea, Tim often re-told a short story by JRR Tolkien called Leaf by Niggle. It is about a painter who had a grand picture in mind that he was trying to paint. He was going to start by painting a leaf that would be connected to the branches of a great tree and beyond the tree a grand country with snow-capped mountains. His vision was big enough that he planned to do a whole mural, needing a ladder to work on it.
But the thing is he never got much beyond the leaf, partly because he was a great painter of leaves and spent time on the exquisite detail of it, and partly because he was kind and always being distracted by helping his neighbours. Niggle eventually died and all anyone saw of his canvas was a single leaf.
In the afterlife Niggle is on a train “going to heaven” and he looks out the window, and there it is: the tree. The one that was in his mind the whole time, stretching out its branches in the breeze. And he realised that his work, unfinished and helpful only to a very few, pointed to his tree, in full detail and finished, as part of a true reality that would live and be enjoyed forever.
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Tim, along with his co-author Katherine Alsdorf, writes that this is a picture of our true reality as well, whether you are a city planner, a lawyer, an investor or any other type of worker.
Whatever work we do, we likely all experience some of Niggle’s disappointment in his lack of progress and achievement. We wish to be accomplishing important things, but find ourselves disillusioned because so much of what we do is minutiae. As Tim and Katherine put it, only “once or twice in your life you may feel like you have ’gotten a leaf out’”.
“Whatever your work,” they write: “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.”
Max Anderson is an entrepreneur and author. He is founder of Stagecoach Ventures and author of The Weekend Reader, a deep thinker’s guide to modern culture. He is author of Modern Meditations: Reflections from the Mid-Point of the Second Decade of the Twenty-first Century. Max is founder and CEO of The Lift Seminar - a personal accelerator for entrepreneurs, and a platform for teaching MBAs at the world’s top business schools the secrets of massive personal productivity.