Lesson 1 - Creation and Fall
Theology for Business?
To begin, Jeff poses what seems like an elementary question: “What is the purpose of business?”
The answer is not so straightforward. For example, as Jeff explains, economists and business owners may offer one set of answers: to maximize profits or to optimize shareholder value. On the other hand, churches sometimes have a tendency to objectify businesses: business exists to generate revenue for the “real” or “official” work of the Kingdom of God, which is done by churches and ministry organizations. Over the course of these lectures, Jeff challenges us to consider a different approach by integrating theology and business.
As we consider what it means to think theologically about our work, it may be helpful to reflect for a moment on the words of the Dutch theologian, Abraham Kuyper, who also worked a “secular job” as the Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905:
There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’
- Take a moment to reflect on the question for yourself. How would you summarize the purpose of your business?
- Think about your professional life. Is there a “square inch” of your business that you are withholding from Christ’s lordship? What is it?
Business as Provision
Masks of God
Here, Jeff draws out important implications for human labor from the creation account recorded in Genesis 1–2. Human beings are seen as God’s fellow workers—a term that Paul himself uses in 1 Corinthians 3:9—who take the raw materials of the created world and make them suitable for human flourishing.
By doing the work of business, human beings are reflecting, in their own imperfect way, God’s character as provider. Now, it’s important that we make a distinction here. Our work does not provide anything for God. “If I were hungry, I would not tell you,” God reminds us in Psalm 50:12, “for the world and its fullness are mine.”
But work does provide for our neighbor. In fact, Martin Luther suggested that we ought to think of our work as fulfilling Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves:
All our work in the field, in the garden, in the city, in the home, in struggle, in government—to what does it all amount before God except child’s play, by means of which God is pleased to give his gifts in the field, at home, and everywhere? These are the masks of our Lord God, behind which he wants to be hidden and to do all things...God bestows all that is good on us, but you must stretch out your hands and lay hold of the horns of the bull, i.e. you must work and lend yourself as a means and a mask of God.
When you enter the marketplace, God is wearing your business as a mask. In other words, when a client, a vendor, a shareholder, or an employee looks at you, they are really looking at the God who is working through you. To “wear a mask of God” is a daunting thought, which requires that we ask some tough questions of ourselves:
- What, if anything, could someone tell about God's character by looking at your business?
- In what concrete ways does your business provide for the needs of your neighbor? In what ways does it fail to do so?
The Fall of Work
In Genesis 1-2, the human story opens to a world full of possibility and flourishing. If only the story had stopped there. Unfortunately, Genesis 3 happened. Almost immediately Sin—who is personified as an agent of confusion and chaos throughout the Bible—begins to spread its corruptive influence throughout God’s good world. By the time we get to the age of Israel’s great prophets (between about 900 and 400 BC), Sin has begun to warp the business practices of God’s own people.
Jeff cites the prophet Micah, who judged Israel for using false weights and measurements in their business transactions, but there are countless other examples. The prophet Amos, for instance, condemned God’s people for oppressing the poor with predatory lending practices, rigging the scales of commerce, and taking bribes.
Sadly, dishonest business practices seem to be par for the course in our world, too. And not only that, God’s people are still tempted to “fudge” in this area to keep pace with competitors.
- Think about your own industry. What are some common immoral business practices? Have you been tempted to engage in them? Why or why not?
- Why does God hate these practices so much?
Another temptation is overwork. It didn’t take long for God’s people to start ignoring the Sabbath, which God instituted for their benefit, and the land’s. It’s quite telling indeed that God had to command his people to take one day off per week (Exodus 20:8–11; Deuteronomy 5:12–15).
After all, there’s always something to do. But, as Jeff explains, contempt for the Sabbath is not some kind of minor infraction; it’s actually rooted in idolatry, the worship of a false God. Jesus said as much in the Sermon on the Mount, where he challenged his followers to choose between the true God and Mammon (Matthew 6:24).
Our English Bibles often translate Mammon rather blandly as “money.” But Mammon is more than money—it’s the spirit of acquisitiveness and insatiable covetousness and ambition that won’t let us stop, that pushes us to the point of exhaustion (and beyond).
- Think about the rhythms of your typical work week. Where do you sense Mammon’s pull? How do you feel the temptation to overwork?
- Do you ever feel like you can’t stop working? Where does this impulse come from? How does it manifest in your life?
God gave us the Sabbath as a safeguard against destroying ourselves through overwork and the anxiety that comes with it. The Sabbath is God’s way of reminding us that He is the one who provides for us, He is the source of our life and welfare, and He ensures that the world will still be there on Monday.
The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann summarizes it like this:
[The Sabbath tells us] that YHWH is not a workaholic, that YHWH is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.
- What, if anything, do you do to practice Sabbath?
- What changes do you need to make to your professional habits so that your life conforms more closely to God’s intended rhythms of work and rest?