by John Seel
We have to breathe—in and out.
The human body cannot function by only inhaling or exhaling. In the same way, a healthy business must breathe. Sadly, many Christians don’t know what breathing is for a business. As a result, they either only inhale or exhale as healthy businesses die. This is not how Jesus described the business of business.
Inhaling is a picture of what the Bible calls hoarding. Few Christians admit to it but research indicates believers are not immune from the tendency to run a business as a way to feel secure. The problem is, “secure” is a slippery term. Since 1970, Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy has studied how the American wealthy shift from accumulating fortunes to giving them away philanthropically. One respondent, the heir to an enormous fortune, said that what matters most to him is his Christianity yet “also reports that he wouldn’t feel financially secure until he had $1 billion in the bank,” writes Graeme Wood in a recent Atlantic article.1
Jesus warned against this kind of thinking. He told the story of the foolish rich farmer who hoarded his riches by building bigger and bigger barns. “Watch out!” he warns, “Be on guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Lk.12:15). The story does not end well. Upon the completion of his latest expansion project, rich farmer died. Jesus concluded, “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (Luke12:21).
Hoarding is a hoax. We deceive ourselves we’re saving up for a rainy day but it quickly becomes trying to secure an entire life. It’s inhaling without end. Research indicates that most Christians bank what they deem is “necessary” to sustain a lifestyle and then give whatever is left over, “tipping” God. It’s hoarding. Since 2008, hoarders are learning Jesus’ point—how recessions are like rainy seasons, sweeping away all barns.
This has caused some Christians to come to their senses and see hoarding for what it is. In turning away, however, the church often turns these businesspeople on to an unfortunate picture—these folks are in halftime. Told they are in midlife crisis, many businesspeople are urged to turn from success to significance, to disavow profits and business and go into the not-for-profit world and “ministry.” This is a disastrous dichotomy since the Hebrew language uses the same word—avodah—to describe work as the same word for ministry and worship. Disdaining profits is trying to live by only exhaling. A charity model of philanthropy cannot be sustained and often creates disastrous dependencies in the process.
The solution is seeing how Jesus described the way business is supposed to work. In the entire Bible, there is only one story, told in only two passages, where Jesus explicitly talked about how business ought to work. It’s in the famous parable of the talents found in Luke 19 and Matthew 25. In Luke 19:13, Jesus begins the story with a wealthy landowner heading out of town on a business trip. He called together ten of his slaves and gave them ten minas, saying to them, “Do business with this until I come back.” The Greek word for business is pragmateuomai, where we get our word “pragmatic.” It means doing business in a sensible fashion by trading. This is the only instance of the word in the New Testament.
The second time Jesus discusses the way business is supposed to work is in the conclusion of this story, found in Luke 19:15. “When he returned, after receiving the kingdom, he ordered that these slaves, to whom he had given the money, be called to him so that he might know what business they had done.” Here, the Greek word is diapragmateuomai, a more intensive form of pragmateuomai. It still signifies pragmatism but emphasizes the profit gained by trading.
The two servants who were able to return the capital with a 100 percent profit gained the owner’s approval. They had doubled their portion of the owner’s portfolio. Because of their good stewardship of his resources their portfolio responsibilities were expanded: the one with ten talents was given ten more and the one with five was given an additional five.
But the lesson is seen most clearly in the contrast with the third portfolio manager, who out of fear of the owner and with an inappropriate caution buried the talent and refused to use it for wealth creation. Nothing was lost; nothing was gained. His failure to adopt an investment mindset was harshly judged by Jesus. Even a low volatility and low return investment in T-Bills or CDs would have been better than burying the money in the ground. He described this third person as a “wicked servant.” His talents were forfeited to the one who was given ten and made ten. Jesus explains, “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away” (Luke19:26).
Of all people, businessmen should understand this story. Sadly, many within the church have understood the imperative for wealth creation only as a means of hoarding for personal security. When convicted of this sin, they often turn to not-for-profit giving as a panacea for their personal greed. They approach for-profit endeavors with a latent suspicion. This is not Jesus’ picture of how business ought to work. This debased idea of work and profits creates dichotomies that compound the error.
The solution is breathing life into business. Businesses ought to inhale—take in profits—and exhale—be generous. Max De Pree, the former head of the Herman Miller Furniture Corporation, used to regularly ask his colleagues What is the purpose of business? Some of his young managers would tell him the purpose is to make a profit. That was not entirely his view, Max said. “Profit, like breathing, is indispensable,” wrote De Pree. “While it is not the sole goal of our lives, in the context of our opportunities, profit must be a result of our contribution.”2
Africa is a laboratory in which to apply the wisdom of Jesus. Over the past 100 years, Africa has been the recipient of huge amounts of global charity, the results of which have in most places further increased its dependency and despondency. The good intentions of Christians, NGOs, and foundations have further enslaved Africa to Western charity. In some instances, it is equivalent to neo-colonialism. We, the church, have not followed the counsel of Christ. It is time that the Western church abandons this charity model out of love for our brothers and sisters in Africa. We need to move beyond charity to sustainable development. There is no reason why the best of business practices cannot be used to advance kingdom purposes and the common good.
The Carpenter’s Fund provides profitable loan capital into the viable Christian institutional projects within emerging markets to produce wealth creation and sustainable flourishing within the entire society. Based on sound business practices, The Carpenter’s Fund promotes sustainable development rather than philanthropic dependencies. It promotes systemic institutional advancement, rather than the micro financing of individuals. These are sustainable investments, not one-time grants.
Jesus commends wealth creation as the business of business, as well as a mark of human flourishing and faithful discipleship. It is taking the talents God has given us and being diligent to grow the owner’s portfolio. Profits are part of breathing life into businesses. They are essential for a healthy sustainable business.
John Seel is president of Transcend Entertainment, a film production and special effects studio based in Los Angeles and Vancouver, BC. John is a Senior Advisor to The Carpenter’s Fund. He and his wife, Kathryn, are Anglicans living in Cohasset, Massachusetts.
1 Graeme Wood, “The Fortunate Ones,” the Atlantic, April 2011, pp. 72-80.
2 Max De Pree, Leadership is An Art (New York: Currency Doubleday, 2004), p. 87.