Written by Karl Johnson

Karl Johnson


Karl Johnson received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Cornell University. Karl previously served as the Dan Tillemans Director of the Cornell Team and Leadership Center, a division of Cornell Outdoor Education. Karl was recognized as a 1999 Academy of Leisure Sciences Future Scholar and has received several writing awards, including the 2014 Literary Award of the Christian Society of Kinesiology and Leisure Studies. His interests include human relations with the natural landscape, from wilderness to urban environs. Karl currently serves as Chief Strategist for The Octet Collaborative, the center for Christian study at MIT.  Beginning in January 2021, he will serve as the Director of the Consortium for Christian Study Centers.

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November 15, 2013

In “Leaf: By Niggle,” JRR Tolkien tells the story of a man frustrated by his work. Niggle aspired to paint a beautiful tree set in a forest against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, but he was never very productive and only completed a single leaf. Niggle’s problems with productivity included not only his perfectionism but also his kindness to neighbors in their time of need. When it came time for Niggle to go on a “necessary long trip”–i.e., when he died and went to heaven–he was astonished to find “the Tree, his Tree, finished.” Although unfinished in the old country, in this new country the tree was real, complete, and permanent.
Tolkien was Niggle. Although we may think of The Lord of the Rings as a great success–indeed, it was selected as the U.K.’s “best-loved novel” (ahead of works by Austen, Lewis, Milne, and Rowling)–Tolkien did not experience it that way. He experienced deep discouragement and even despair over ever finishing the project. Before it was a best seller, The Lord of the Rings was a multivolume thorn in Tolkien’s tender flesh.
This story, used by Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf to frame their recent book Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (Dutton, 2012), touches people of all ages for the simple reason that work frustrates. We aspire to accomplish, succeed, and make a difference, but yet often fall short. What sustains us in times of discouragement? What sustained Tolkien was a vision of the world to come. “If the God of the Bible exists,” Keller and Alsdorf write, “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.”
The relationship of faith and work–how Sunday connects to Monday–is a fascinating topic. When asked, the most common connections people make include ethics (faith as the grounds of fairness and right action), evangelism (work as an opportunity to share faith), and charity (work as an opportunity to earn and donate money). Although potentially helpful so far as they go, these ways of connecting faith and work are insufficient because they are too instrumental; by valuing work primarily as a means toward some other end, they end up actually devaluing work itself.
This is ultimately a theological error. Consider creation: God brought order out of chaos, began filling and subduing the earth, and then called us to continue the process. “When we take fabric and make a piece of clothing, when we push a broom and clean up a room, when we use technology to harness the forces of electricity, when we take an unformed, naive human mind and teach it a subject, when we teach a couple how to resolve their relational disputes, when we take simple materials and turn them into a poignant work of art–we are continuing God’s work of forming, filling, and subduing.” Bringing order out of chaos connects our work to God’s work integrally and not just instrumentally.  
Consider also how sin and grace help us think about work. To those tempted to think that faith ought always to make a difference at work (a logic that often begets Christian enclaves), Keller and Alsdorf respond, “The doctrine of sin means that believers are never as good as our true worldview should make us. Similarly, the doctrine of grace means that unbelievers are never as messed up as their false worldview should make them.” There is no Christian way of doing math or masonry because that is not how God works in the world. God gives gifts generously to all his image-bearers, and work by all persons may thus serve as “a vehicle for God’s loving provision of the world.”  
For students, this vision for the integration of faith and work is not only of future value. Quoting Mark Noll, Keller and Alsdorf point out that God himself “made possible the development of sciences . . . provided the raw material for politics, economics, sociology, and history, [and] lies behind all artistic and literary possibilities.” This is the vision of faith and learning that undergirds Chesterton House, and the reason we selected Every Good Endeavor for our summer reading project. We discussed the book at length at our recent retreat, and it was a fitting way to kick off the new semester.
That is not to say it will make the semester easy. “Leaf: By Niggle” is a powerful story precisely because we are all Niggle; we are all frustrated at times by our work or studies. But in the midst of such frustrations, how helpful it is to know that there is a True Reality toward which we are laboring! It is liberating to realize that, like Niggle–and like Tolkien–none of us yet can see the full value of our present work.

Chesterton House Painting