Staying Godly in a Godless Workplace

Very few, if any, awake one morning and decide all of a sudden, “Today is the day I’m going rogue. Enough with all that honesty stuff. From now on, I’m all about corruption.”

It typically begins as an indiscernible leak of integrity, at least in terms of self-awareness. You fail to arrive at a meeting on time without there being any perceptible consequence. You ballpark the mileage on your expense report, maybe even fudge it a bit. No one will notice. You miss an ordinary work-a-day deadline. The world didn’t come to an end. So, what’s the big deal?

It’s sin — that’s the big deal. They are little sins, to be sure, but regrettably yet monstrous in the presence of a sublimely holy God. What first appear as hair-like fibers on a subterranean root, in time become a complex root structure capable of supporting a veritable Redwood of sin towering above. What begins as a fudged expense account graduates into the taking of un-earned discounts, overstating sales numbers, and scheming up Ponzis.

Harmless Naughtiness?

At a gathering of global business leaders in Doha sometime in the last decade, I heard Barbara Thomas, Lady Judge, former Chairman of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, say that different nations have different idioms that characterize the way they do business. In the U.K., for instance, she suggested the idiom for doing business is “What must I do to be admitted to the Club?” In the U.S., she said, the idiom is “How far beyond this fence line might I get, before either the authorities show up or someone starts shooting?”

It’s sad, but true. There is almost a certain level of what is regarded as harmless naughtiness factored into the American way of doing business, a willingness to gladly use bovine manure as a lubricant on the rails of commerce, all in the name of strategic elegance or entrepreneurial moxie.

Case in point, a panel of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists were recently assembled by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University to seek answers to what the group identified as common business challenges:

Do we lie to the funders?

Do we lie to the customers?

Do we lie to investors?

Do we lie to hit the numbers?

One might reasonably ask, “What’s to discuss?” — but lest we exalt ourselves and boast, “God, I thank you I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11), let us confess that nearly everyone on the job today traffics in such decisions, in part or whole, in both so-called “secular” vocations and, sadly, even in church ministry. It is as if the very rhythm of our hearts and breath keep time to a unspoken tick-tock of, “Obedience or disobedience? Right or wrong? God’s way or my way?” from the time our minds apprehend the day until we fall asleep at night. Even then, the drumbeat of ethical dilemmas can chase us about in our dreams.

Most people do not head for jobs in the morning with the confidence that their managers are operating their businesses or organizations by the book — “The Good Book,” that is. The world’s playbook too easily esteems the corner cut, the unfair advantage taken, and the skid greased. In fact, such angles are often the stuff of incentive pay and bonuses. The temptation to little sins is already native, and contemporary management practices, untethered from biblical truths, seem to encourage it the more. So, how is it possible for anyone to escape from one’s work unimpeachable and unscathed?

It isn’t possible, apart from Christ, and even then indwelling sin is an impulse over which the believer must preach the gospel, every day.

So, what to do?

1. Know Christ.

A colleague told me recently of how a compass once became useless to him, even deceptively dangerous to him, while hunting in the Minnesota Iron Range. Minerals in the soil confused the compass and literally had him walking in circles. There is no earthly compass that can reconcile the horns of ethical dilemma. There is no earthly standard that even approximates righteousness.

Apart from Christ, all of life is hedging, corner-cutting, and sneaking by. The Christian’s ability to walk rightly is not a prowess gained. It is a gift supplied by a loving, merciful God who is molding us into the image of his Son. Jesus knocks at the door of every expense report exaggerator, loophole taker, corner cutter, Ponzi schemer, and insider trader whose deceit nags him to check to see who’s knocking. Open the door. Let him in.

2. Know God’s Word.

The Bible is more a love letter than it is a rule book, more a reliable compass than it is a measuring rod, more a liberating gift than a heavy restraint. God’s inerrant Word, in the hands of a surrendered believer, is the clearest and most testable authority one can reference in moments of ethical dilemma, the brightest lamp one can use to illuminate the darkness or haze enveloping a decision.

It is not only a guide in the sense that other guidebooks are a guide. It is the only book that actually guides — that is, it ministers a living Holy Spirit that controls impulses, changes inclinations, arranges circumstances, and even performs miracles. There is no other book like it.

3. Question the questionable, at least to begin with.

When you are asked, or ordered, to do something that causes turbulence in your Christian conscience, ask questions. There is no need to get too churchy about it, quoting Scripture and all, at least not yet. Just ask good solid questions.

“Would it be right for us to [fill in the blank]?”

“Could this put our company’s reputation in any danger?”

“Would we treat a friend this way?”

Posing such reasonable questions will either cause the person to go off and ponder the ethical question on his own, hopefully permitting him to arrive at a right conclusion, or it may open a window for conversation and with it the opportunity to share how your Christian faith informs such decisions. It is times like these when memorized Scripture is so helpful and powerful. The Word of God never returns void.

4. Draw a line when one needs to be drawn.

When you are delivered up before men and angels — even in the context of an on-the-job decision — your ethical choice is your witness, so do not waver. If what you are being asked to do requires you to be disobedient to God, after having exhausted all questions and arguments to the contrary, stand firm. Make it clear that you can’t do it, and you won’t do it, as it would be a crime against your own God-informed conscience.

If you have the authority to make the right decision, use the authority and make the decision. When it’s not your decision to make, speak into it, and if and when it goes down the other way, go to the Scriptures, go to prayer, and ask God whether you can remain in this job.

Don’t let it be just another little sin on your way to a perp walk, temporally or eternally.

Related Resources

  • Work Is a Glorious Thing: Work is seeing the world, thinking of how it could be better, and doing something about it. Become what you were made to be. (article)

  • Am I Overworking?: How should we reconcile the creation pattern of working six days with the American practice of working five days? Pastor John answers. (8-minute audio)

  • Grace Empowers the Best Work: John Piper connects key texts to inspire consistent, passionate effort to live like Jesus. The grace that saves also empowers. (11-minute lab)