Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

Can Christlike virtue survive in a cutthroat technology sector like Silicon Valley? It’s a great question from a regular listener named Bill. “Dear Pastor John, recently the Wall Street Journal published an article titled ‘At Netflix, Radical Transparency and Blunt Firings Unsettle the Ranks.’ The article details the culture at Netflix, in which high transparency and bluntness in firing are virtues to be upheld in high regard. It’s a type of social Darwinism in that only the fittest survive. Fear of firings becomes a strong motivator to ensure short-term successes. But Netflix is not the only company to rid themselves of underperformers.

“Amazon, Facebook, and Apple come to mind too. In light of the biblical priority on grace, humility, servant leadership, kindness, gentleness, and many other qualities, how can a Christian exhibit such character qualities in a culture that perceived these virtues as professional weaknesses? And do they harm our witness? I live and work in Silicon Valley and would greatly appreciate your help.”

Musical Excellence

Let me begin to address this huge issue with an anecdote from my own ministry. In my early days of pastoring, the issue arose concerning musicians who were making mistakes in public worship. This was back in the early ’80s.

“We have received freely; we should give freely. We have been forgiven by Christ; we should forgive others.”

One leader put a heavy stress on the need for excellence: “The Lord deserves excellence.” He suggested that if somebody messes up, he or she should not be used to play worship music during the services anymore. Now, I responded to this by affirming the pursuit of excellence but adding two qualifications.

I said, first, that excellence is a category that is moral as well as musical. We should strive to be excellent in forgiveness and patience as well as excellent in technical musicality. The other thing I said was that there is a kind of excellence that can be just as disruptive to God-centered worship as musical flaws.

I pointed, for example, to a kind of piano solo during the offering where the keyboard flourishes are so off-the-charts amazing — you can picture a person flying up and down the keyboard. Well, this solo is so amazing that it draws all attention the skill of the pianist, not the God-centered reverence of the moment.

There was no technical flaw in the performance — which is exactly the right word and the wrong attitude. But the ministry mindset of the moment was profoundly flawed. It was flawed; it wasn’t excellent. It was a distracting excellence.

We tried to put all this together with a leadership philosophy of God-centered, undistracting, merciful excellence. Three key adjectives: God-centered, undistracting, merciful excellence.

Show Mercy

Now, the reason I share this anecdote is to acknowledge that there is a real, inevitable tension between the demands of excellence, or competence in needed skills, on the one hand — whether it’s church or industry — and the demands of mercy, kindness, gentleness, humility, servanthood, and love, on the other hand. Let me support this from the Bible, then we’ll see how the tension is handled.

On the one hand, we read, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). We read, “‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times’” (Matthew 18:21–22). We read, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). We read, “Admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).

In other words, we are told to treat others not merely according to what they deserve, not according to their competencies and performances, but better than they deserve. We have received freely; we should give freely. We have been forgiven by Christ; we should forgive others. That’s huge, and that’s the question being posed: “What do I do with that in the workplace?”

Give Justice

Now, what we don’t often realize is that, on the other hand, the New Testament teaches that there are at least five spheres of life where justice shapes the form of love along with the shaping power of mercy. Let me give these five examples.

1. Family

In the sphere of the family, Paul does not tell parents to turn the other cheek when children disobey, but to discipline them in the Lord. It may be right at times for a parent to turn the other cheek to teach something — to illustrate something about mercy — but not usually. Love calls for not turning the other cheek so that children can be brought up in the discipline of the Lord.

There’s one sphere where turning the other cheek is not the only way that love shows itself.

2. Church

In the sphere of the church, it is right that there be forgiveness, but this does not exclude the proper use of church discipline, which may involve excommunication of somebody from the church.

“You don’t give an A to a person who gets all of his answers wrong just because it will make him feel better.”

It also does not exclude the demand that elders have certain qualifications for teaching and governing. If they fall short of those qualifications, they are not allowed to be elders. You don’t turn the other cheek to an elder who can’t teach and say, “Oh, we’ll let you teach anyway, because it’ll make you feel better.” That’s not the way love functions at the eldership level, or even at the membership level.

3. Government

Third is the sphere of government. Policemen do not protect society mainly by turning the other cheek when criminals assault people. First Peter 2:14 says, “Governors [are] sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”

4. Business

Sphere number four is business. No economic order can function where there is pervasive cheating, deception, contract-breaking, fraud, corruption, and stealing. Those sorts of things will bring ruin to an economy and result in anarchy, and probably result in a dictatorship. Proverbs 11:1 says, “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight.”

When Jesus told the parable of the talents, which is a sum of money to be invested, the slothful employee who squandered his business possibilities with his talent is removed and called wicked and slothful: “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?” (Matthew 25:26). In other words, he is saying, “You wicked, slothful servant. You ought to have invested my money. You were incompetent. You ought to have invested my money with bankers, and at my coming, I should’ve received at least interest. You should’ve had that much competence.”

5. Education

Sphere number five is education. Jesus refuses to give any answer to a person who tries to answer his questions the way they do in Matthew 21:23–27. He does not give to him who asks in this case. But in one place he says, “Give to him who asks.” Well, in this case, Jesus does not give to him who asks. He will not educate those who simply try to manipulate language to avoid trouble.

“Our aim is to show that in this world, both justice and mercy are forms of love.”

Two plus two is not five, and any manipulative effort to get a good grade for saying it is five is rejected by Jesus, not rewarded. You don’t give an A to a person who gets all of his answers wrong just because it will make him feel better and because it’s a more kind and gentle and patient and forgiving thing to do.

How to Survive

Here’s my conclusion and my answer to Bill’s question.

Christians are people who bear witness to both of these realities — both the justice and the mercy of God. It requires appropriate competence in certain spheres, but also mingling mercy and patience. Our aim is to show that in this world, both justice and mercy are forms of love. It’s right to insist on competence, while also being patient with everyone.

Now, if that sounds imprecise and complicated, it is. I mean, parenting with mercy and discipline, doing church discipline with mercy and holiness, governing with a billy club and kindness, educating with the necessary standards and patience, doing business with competency and compassion — none of this is precise.

This is why our minds — I’m thinking of Romans 12 here — must be transformed in the renewing of them so that we can be saturated with the word of God and led by the Spirit.