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Volume 16, Issue 4: Thema

A Mind for Business

Douglas Wilson

The kingdom of heaven is like this. A certain merchant established his business, and he thought that God had an obligation to bless it. He took great care to do everything that he was supposed to do. He made sure the business was closed on Sunday, and he made doubly sure to tithe his profits carefully. He was a member of a local church, and he attended regularly. He learned all the rules and he obeyed them carefully. He then sat back and waited for his profits to start rolling in.

When those less fortunate than he needed help, he sometimes gave it. That is one of the rules, he thought. I need to be generous, and so I will be generous—but not to a fault. Everything can be taken to an extreme, he thought, and of course, he was quite right on paper.
Because he worked hard, and because he was very interested in money, it is not surprising that after a time, he found he had accumulated some of it. This he took as vindication of his whole outlook—the covenant is like a vending machine. If you do your part, God will do His part. God helps those who help themselves. The laws of business are a means to bring God under our control.
Of course, he knew better than to say this. What he said was that he was extremely grateful that God had prospered him. To God be all the glory.
But God, who sees the heart, summoned from across the nation a national retailer, with the best margins in the business, and the local baal was replaced by the greater Baal. And instead of glorifying God, everyone said that a great injustice had been done, and blamed the whole thing on globalization.

* * *

Christians often struggle with business, and frequently because they face all the same problems that non-Christians do in business, yet feel handicapped by the ethical constraints that their faith places on them. The game of business is hard for everyone, but the pagans get to cheat, or so the thinking goes. The faith is seen as nothing more than a moralistic set of rules which slows them down. But when business is understood as Christians should understand it, the whole enterprise becomes one vast liberation.

Many things get in the way of this liberation, and like every other aspect of the Christian life, they always boil down to sin in some fashion. But the central sin is always a pride that roots itself in the assumption that the Scriptures, submissively accepted, are insufficient. Something else is always needed in order to supplement the authority of the Word of God.
But we have to think like adults when it comes to this. When we say that Scriptures are sufficient, this does not mean that we should think that the Bible will do our bookkeeping, or pay our bills, or deliver our manufactured goods. Those are all areas where the authority of the Scriptures will be applied, or the word of a competing authority will be applied. God says that we are to pay what we owe, and that we are to do so promptly. The wisdom of the world says that we should delay payment wherever possible. We will obey one or the other.
This means, for example, that a Christian businessman who purchases software for doing his books is not denying the sufficiency of Scripture. But a Christian who buys the latest business-guru book in an airport bookstall (How I Turned Seven Minutes a Day into Five Billion a Year) and gulps the book down eagerly is probably taking in a lot more idolatrous advice than his immune system can handle. This is because software lies in the realm of application—it is a tool, like a hammer. The ethical value of the hammer is determined by what we actually do with it. If we build a house for our wife and children, this is lawful scriptural application. If, like Maxwell, we bring the hammer down upon some innocent person's head, then we are being disobedient. The guru book is seeking to occupy the same position in the life of the reader that only an authoritative word from God should occupy.
So which is which? Obviously we cannot make a comparison unless we know both sides of the comparison, and for Christians, this means being steeped in Scripture. We cannot apply what we do not know. But is there any more to this than simply being faithful Bible readers? This is an area that calls for concentration—specialization. A New Testament scholar should be a faithful Christian, just like everyone else, but he is also called to apply himself vocationally to the New Testament. Christian businessmen need to be marinated in the book of Proverbs. All Christians need all of the Word of God for all of their lives, but only a fool would try to develop a full eschatological theology based solely on the book of Jonah. A Christian businessman who does not know the book of Proverbs like the back of his wife's neck is headed for trouble.

* * *

Once there was a man who would not write anything down. This was only a mild nuisance when it came to things like grocery lists, but it was a significant problem in his extensive business dealings. He would make agreements, as he put it, "the way his grandpappy did," with a smile and a handshake. "We are all Christians," he would say to those who had requested a written agreement, lease, work contract, whatever. And with that, his questioners went away feeling slightly disapproved of. Some of them sometimes wondered how something like regeneration could make your memory perfect, but none of them ever said anything. Of course, it was not long before his dealings were all in a perfect snarl. One day, while crossing the street at an intersection, he objected to a written message that, when summarized, read something like, "Don't Walk," and he was struck and killed by a UPS truck. His widow spent a number of years and many thousands of dollars sorting everything out, and at least three attorneys lived happily ever after.

* * *

All specialized knowledge, by itself, puffs up. Love builds up, and love is nothing less than living out scriptural directives, and living them out from the heart. There are two errors here—one is that of knowing the Scriptures, but complying with them in some kind of grudging way. The other is the fault of not knowing what the Bible requires. I have met Christians who were somehow unaware that when they made an agreement with someone, they were obligated to keep it, even if they felt "led" somewhere else. I have dealt with Christians who did not appear to know that Paul prohibits taking fellow believers in front of unbelieving civil adjudication. And when this knowledge gap is filled up, it sometimes appears that the knowledge is not received with great gladness. The words of God are more precious than silver, and the businessman who looks at such silver with a contemptuous huh, only to resume his hunt for Federal Reserve Notes, is a man who is positively asking God to chastise him.

In our businesses, we are to submit ourselves to the Word of God, and we are to do so with love and gladness. We do this because we are seeking the blessing of God upon our endeavors. We do not tithe because the tithe is God's "tax," and we always faithfully pay our taxes, grumbling as we do so. Rather, we tithe because we vastly prefer to live on a blessed ninety percent than upon an unblessed hundred percent. We close our businesses on the Lord's Day, not because we are cranky sabbatarians. Too often the attitude is "if we can be cranky for the world for six days, why can't we be cranky for Jesus for one day?" But this is Sabbath breaking. We keep the Lord's Day in our businesses because we vastly prefer six days of business blessed than seven days unblessed.

* * *

A merchant once had a complaint against a fellow merchant, who had wronged him significantly. I forget what the complaint was over, because it wasn't that important, and it was more the principle of the thing. I remember now. They had gone out to a seafood lunch, and the number of oysters on a shared platter was odd, so there was one remaining oyster left. They got into a dispute about that, and since they both had attorneys on retainer for their firms, the case wound up before a judge. The judge ate the oyster, and gave each merchant half a shell.

* * *

This question of seeking God's blessing reveals another way in which we have misrepresented our relationship with our covenant-keeping God. Christians usually err by running their car into one of two ditches. The first ditch is the Epicurean approach. God is approached for what He has to offer. The second ditch is the Stoic ditch, where we pretend that everything we do is in order to give God something. All we do is give, give, give, out of our vast largesse. But of course, God is a triune person and we are created in His image. We are created into relationship, and this means both giving and receiving. No person in the Godhead does nothing but give. Each of them receives. No person in the Godhead only receives. Each gives. We are created in the image of this triune God, and this means that we are summoned to be like Him.

Everything we do, all day long, is to be sheer gift. But each one of us also receives, all day long. This is a great mystery (just like everything else), but it is how Christians are called to live. And this means that a Christian businessman is not to be like the greedy miser, who does nothing but take. That man is a fool, and soon he is swollen with himself, and resolves to build bigger barns. "You fool," God says to him. "Tonight your life is required of you." But neither is the businessman called to drain all his resources by foolishly giving it all away, and at the end of the process go begging. A businessman who understands this balance is one who spends all of his time both giving and receiving.
We can see this in a simple transaction in a shop. When a merchant gladly waits upon a customer, what is happening? Both the customer and the merchant are giving—one is giving the product, whether it is a pair of shoes or a cup of coffee, and the customer is giving his money. Both the merchant and the customer are receiving—the customer is receiving just what he wants, and the merchant is receiving just what he wants. It is the same transaction, and both parties are giving and both parties are receiving.
That is, this is what is happening if they are doing what they do in wisdom and in faith. If they are grasping, the giving vanishes, and the blessing along with it. If they are "doing their grudging duty" the other may receive something, but not nearly as much as he would have otherwise. The blessing vanishes here as well.

* * *

Once there was a young man who started a high-techy business, because that is how you get money for nothing. He was good with the glitz, and it was not long before the cash flow surged, and when he sat down one evening and extrapolated the whole thing out, it was clear that he was going to be a millionaire by year's end. He quickly shared the good tidings with his wife, his accountant, the Lexis dealer, a realtor who specialized in McMansions, and the chefs of three 4-star restaurants. He was particularly fond of prime beef and $300 bottles of wine, and by year's end, he was as broke as the Ten Commandments. And that is because he had a hole under his nose, and his money ran into it.

* * *

There are some diners who get poor service in every restaurant they go to, and one soon begins to suspect the problem is not in the restaurants. There are some merchants who are constantly embroiled in some problem or other. Any pastor with experience can tell you yet another application of the eighty/twenty rule. Out of all the conflicts in which a pastor is called to mediate, twenty percent of the people are involved in eighty percent of the conflicts. And this is not because they unluckily stumble into them at random. They are "carriers" and wherever they go, there they are. If they are businessmen, they take it into their business dealings. If they are customers, they go work their way down the mall.

When Jesus said that a man cannot serve both God and mammon, it is interesting to note what idol He singled out as a competitor to God. And a man can justify his service to mammon with many biblical words—dominion, blessing, provision for family, realism, and more. And the wise understand all such words. But there is a peculiar constriction of the heart that manifests itself in too many businessmen. The cares of this world squeeze out devotion to Christ (Mark 4:18_19), and the end result is a man of business who has a heart like a little piece of beef jerky.
I cannot begin to count the times I have seen Christians involved in business or money transactions whose first instinct is to say no when some situation arises that might touch their turf. But God blesses our open hands, not our clutching fists. "Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again" (Luke 6:38). Our Lord's warning is not, "watch out, or you'll be had." The list of our failures in this regard is a long one, and includes resenting competition (whether real, potential, or imagined), refusing to cooperate with a brother who asked for help, and otherwise disobeying the clear imperatives of Scripture because of territorial concerns.
And all this culminates in a right understanding of vocation. The word vocation comes from the Latin word voco, which means "I call." A man's vocation is not his "job," if that job is understood as an activity necessary for obtaining food, and nothing else. A man is called to dentistry, or to his work with a backhoe, or to law, or to school teaching, in just the same way that men are called to the ministry or the mission field. The modern Christian world is slipping back into an old error, one that the Reformation delivered us from. In the medieval world, if you were serious about God, then you went into the monastery, or into some other spiritual calling. Our name for this in modern times is "full time Christian work." But this is a rejection of Christ's lordship and sovereignty over all of life. If we understand our Bibles, changing diapers is full-time Christian work, as is building a highway, or harvesting a wheat field. The issue is calling—vocation.
But if God has called me into an occupation, and I am serving Him there, and He gladly receives my service, as I offer it gladly in faith, what does this mean? It means that I must seek His favor and blessing in whatever I do. I seek His favor and blessing by offering up all that I am and have, knowing that He will return it to me—so that I might give it back again. In short, provided a man is called to it, a counter with a cash register on it is a wonderful place to practice trinitarian Christian living. Look down at that counter, which is really an altar (Rom. 12:1-2). All day long, hands reach across, meeting other hands, and all the hands are exchanging glory—both giving and receiving.

* * *

A man who has nine and spends ten will soon enough have no need of a wallet. Once there was a merchant who was convinced that the only thing he needed to make his business go was just a little more "leverage." And so he borrowed money and was quickly distracted at how wealthy it made him feel. There was so much (for such a short time) that there was no sense keeping a close account of it all. After his business wound up on its back, all four hooves toward the sky, the retired businessman used to tell his friends that he was done in by Alan Greenspan.

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