On the Church and Society
January 31, 2007
Doing God's Business: Meaning and Motivation for the Marketplace
R. Paul Stevens
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006
Why is it that priests, pastors and preachers tend not to address the work of their flocks?
It's not just Christians in the pews who too often think and act as if they're living two separate lives - God on Sunday and work from Monday to Friday. Churches tend to perpetuate such artificial and seriously misguided divisions.
In Doing God's Business: Meaning and Motivation for the Marketplace, R. Paul Stevens points out that the average North American Christian spends an estimated "88,000 hours in her lifetime in the workplace and more if one is farmer or a professional ... At the same time, these same believers spend fewer than 4,000 hours in the church building engaged in church-related activities." Those 88,000-plus hours stand out as a rather glaring Christian void that most churches do not seem interested in filling.
Stevens' Doing God's Business is an excellent volume that should spur the average Christian to think of their work as a calling important to God. It also should serve as an excellent impetus to members of the clergy to think about the work their parishioners do on a level far deeper than merely as a source of revenue for the church. That work is not just an extrinsic good, but has intrinsic value.
Fortunately, Stevens has a solid grasp of the areas intersecting here, that is, the Bible and Christian faith, the business world, and economics.
At one point, he sums up how our work relates to God this way: "But normally God calls us to himself and leads us into particular expressions of service appropriate for our gifts and talents through our passions, abilities, and opportunities. And that work we do, whether international business or graphic art, becomes part of the all-embracing summons of God to belong to him, to live in a suitable manner, and to 'do the Lord's work.' So we can say that working in business is a calling in this general sense: It is one way in which we can do good work in the world and serve our neighbor - these being part of God's call."
Regarding the challenges of the business world, Stevens presents a variety of workplace stories and scenarios that lend themselves to deeper discussion for church groups. He also pushes readers to think about our personal circumstances, and how we view and treat work, employees and colleagues.
On the economics, while he falls for a few baseless criticisms of the Left regarding the workings of the free market, such as the gap between rich and poor, and presumed negatives of globalization, these are a distinct minority compared to an otherwise sound understanding of the benefits of markets and exchange, and the importance of wealth creation.
Many Christians particularly stumble on the issue of profits. Their default position seems to be that profits are somehow evil, especially if someone in the media deems them too big. Stevens notes: "Don Flow, a businessperson, uses the analogy of blood in the human body. We need blood to live but we do not live for our blood. We need profit for a business to survive but businesses do not exist for their own survival; they exist to produce goods and services that sustain and enhance human experience." As an economist, I take notice of many cases where my Christian brethren have a difficult time seeing profits and capitalism fitting in with God's plan. Stevens' book helps to clarify matters some.
Towards the end of the book, the author touches on lessons to be learned from three parables in Matthew 25 that speak to "what is involved in working with faith, hope and love."
Regarding the parable of the talents, Stevens observes: "With faith in God we can take risks and even make mistakes because we have a great and beautiful God who not only forgives but also redeems mistakes."
On the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, the author notes: "The wise had hope. They had oil for a long wait, whereas the foolish could only envision being met by the Lord soon ... Living with hope we know that God will bring the whole human story to a worthwhile end, and even our work in this passing world can last." That last point is powerful, and one that I had not reflected on before reading this book. Earlier, Stevens highlights how the Bible suggests that business activity, our work, "may last and find its place, purged of sin, in the new heaven and the new earth."
Finally, regarding the parable of the sheep and the goats, Stevens writes: "In passing, we might note the stupendous truth that Jesus himself is the recipient of our work and behavior. On that day he will say, you fixed my drains, you changed my diapers, you sold me a car, you designed my office, you negotiated my deal, you managed my company. And we will say - Really?"
That powerfully drives home the point of how our everyday work relates to and pleases God. It should change the way we think about the businesses and work in which we partake, and perhaps transform how we go about that work.
Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, is the editor and publisher of the "On the Church & Society Report." This column is from the latest issue of the "On the Church & Society Report," which also features "Mushy Politics and Faith," "Speaking of Priests in Congress," "The Brownback Assessment," "Speaking of Brownback," and "Miracle Mindedness." To receive a free four-issue trial of "On the Church & Society Report," send an e-mail request to ChurchandSociety@aol.com.