What really makes the work of Christians any different from the work of anybody else? Or put another way – how could we distinguish between the daily work of a Christian versus that of, say, a Muslim, secular humanist, Buddhist, or religious pluralist? Would we (or should we?) see a difference?
Some would say the actual work would be no different; work would just be done with a different motivation (a view I’ve disagreed with on this blog). Others would boil it down to the “three e’s”: excellence, ethics, and evangelism. However, I think there’s a problem with making these the distinguishing marks of the Christian’s work.
First, as best as I can tell, secularists, Muslims and other non-believers care about excellence just as much as Christians. They may do so out of the wrong motives – but nonetheless, I’ve often been amazed at the art, business structures, or literary achievements of my peers from other faith.
How about ethics? Again, I think there’s much truth in saying that Christians should outshine their peers in their ethical choices. They have a foundation for right and wrong that is founded on God’s revelation in Christ and a relationship with Him, not just a set of moral norms. However, I know many people of other faiths who are far more ethical than I am. One of my favorite bloggers, Seth Godin, often surprises me with his moral vision and rapt encouragement for fellow “artists” and entrepreneurs. I regularly read The Economist – not exactly a haven of orthodoxy – and am also impressed by the moral vision of many of its non-Christian writers.
I think far too many Christians try to undermine the ethical goodness of their non-believing peers in a veiled attempt to root out hidden sin and show them their need for the gospel. I don’t think this is a very good strategy. Lesslie Newbigin, in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, says:
“The Christian must tell [the gospel], not because she lacks respect for the many excellencies of her companions—many of whom may be better, more godly, more worthy of respect than she is. She tells it simply as one who had been chosen and called by God to be a part of the company which is entrusted with the story. She will indeed—out of love for them—long that they may come to share the joy that she knows and pray that they may indeed do so. But it is only the Holy Spirit of God who can so touch the hearts and consciences of others…”
There’s no need to try to unveil secret iniquities of others (don’t we already have plenty of our own?) and try to do the work of the Holy Spirit. Telling the story of the gospel is the task of the Christian, even as Christians work alongside of friends from other faiths, acknowledging the good work they do – work that is often better than our own.
Then it’s surely evangelism, right? Certainly, the words of the gospel are completely unique to the global Christian church – and they must be spoken. Yet far too often this becomes a project in changing the subject from expense reports, project deadlines, or lesson plans. What is it about the Christian faith that can drastically shape the actual work itself?
I believe one answer to this question is the way of grace. Christian film-maker Terrence Malick, in his beautiful film Tree of Life, opens by contrasting the way of nature with the way of grace. The way of nature is tit for tat, it is just punishment, it is competition and survival of the fittest. But more than that, it is the way of the self – getting your own way, your own reward. The way of grace, by contrast, isn’t worried about being overlooked, slighted, or insulted. It is content to simply give.
Expanding on Malick’s concept, I would say it is being so shaped by God’s undeserved favor that gifts flow from you to both friend and foe, business partner and business competitor, beloved co-worker and despised boss.
The biblical figure Joseph is a good example of the way of grace within the context of work. Sold by his brothers into slavery at a young age, he had every right to be angry and bitter. Yet we see a different response on at least four occasions:
- In Potiphar’s House. When made a slave in Egypt, Joseph was put to work in the house of a military official. It would have been easy to be despondent, depressed, or outright vengeful, but he instead worked with such diligence that the captain of the guard put him in charge of his entire estate (Gen. 39:4). Yet it wasn’t just a desire for excellence that propelled him. The narrator wants the reader to know Joseph’s success came as a gift of grace. The LORD was with him and “gave him success in whatever he did.” His work flowed out of his relationship with a gracious God who did not abandon him, even in his suffering.
- In Prison. Joseph was falsely accused of sexual harassment in the workplace, and, as such, got thrown in prison. Again, this was a devastating personal and career setback. He was working his way up the corporate latter, expecting perhaps to make the best of a bad situation, and instead he got severely punished for not even touching his boss’s attractive wife who was trying to sleep with him. So what did he do? File a lawsuit? No. Instead he entrusted himself to the God who was with him, and worked with such diligence “the warden put Joseph in charge of all those help in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there” (Gen. 39:22). Everybody in the prison benefited because his work became a gift of grace to all those suffering around him.
- Administering Grain During the Famine. Joseph finally got his chance to get even. He finally got his day before Pharaoh. The way of nature would have been to call attention to his unjust imprisonment and get Potiphar’s wife thrown behind bars. But for Joseph, there was none of that. When faced with the CEO, he spoke truth loudly, interpreted the times for him, and gave him such swift insight it earned him a #2 ranking in the entire corporation. And perhaps what’s more impressive is his follow through. Seven years of plenty came – and they stored grain. Then came the seven of famine. And Joseph – for 14 years – faithfully brought his plan of saving resources during a season of huge economic yield to fruition, because he knew it was the plan of God. When the developed world came to Egypt’s door for food, Joseph’s role as a government official and his faithful stewardship of that role could only be considered a gift of grace.
- When Being Reunited With His Family. Joseph had the opportunity to get even with his brothers – the ones who sold him into slavery. Indeed, the temptation for Joseph to use his positional power to punish those who did him so much wrong was immense (Gen. 44). But ultimately, in one of the most moving scenes in the Bible, Joseph forgives his brothers, and sends a lavish gift home to his father Jacob. The grace kept coming. And when reflecting on his painful career path, Joseph figured God had used even the evil of his brothers to bring about the good of saving lives during the famine (Gen. 50:20). Joseph acknowledge that his pain was a conduit of God’s grace.
What would it mean for Christians to universally adopt the way of grace in work contexts? The company loses millions on a big investment your employee made – and when your boss comes knocking, you decide to take the heat. Another coffee shop moves in right next door to your own, and you offer help and encouragement to your competitor. Your boss consistently overlooks your achievements – and you decide to give extra time to the new capital campaign anyway. The union requires you to say until 4:00pm, but you look at your student, a 5th grade boy with a rocky home life and a “D” in math, and decide to stay late to help with his homework.
C.S. Lewis was once asked what makes Christianity different from all the world religions. “That’s easy,” he said. “Grace.” Every other world religion or philosophy at some point aligns with the way of nature – earning favor with God or others through personal merit. They are all a great climbing heavenward, beseeching the god’s (or other human’s) favor and getting what we deserve. The Christian God, however, comes down to earth, becomes a man, and gives his very life away to those who would scorn his sacrifice. His foundational work on the cross is a gift of grace.
When Christians choose to do these acts of grace, they’re not done to be seen by others. They’re done out of gratitude; they’re done because the universe they live in is sustained by the unmerited gifts of a loving God. So, should they ever receive praise for what looks like “ethical behavior at work,” all they can do is point to the One who first gave to them.
Discussion question: Over 70% of Americans don’t like their work. But would you like your job more if today you gave a boss, a co-worker, a client or even a competitor a gift of grace? What would it look like to build giving into the very structure of your company or your daily routines?