The refrains of my business colleagues so often leave me longing for more.
At a recent national event for Christian entrepreneurs, one prominent business executive was asked, "How does the gospel affect your business?" His answer, in sum, was this: "It makes me a more honest, loving person." I have heard the same refrain over the years, stated in terms of personal piety and character, and it has left me yearning for more.
It is not that the testimonies are inauthentic. The gospel of Christ does make us more loving and honest—but it does far, far more than that. Jesus didn't come to make us better employees, or even better employers; he came to announce the inbreaking of his kingdom in every sphere of human life and relationship.
I longed and prayed for a mentor who "got it," someone who had been converted not just in personal piety and character, but in the public proclamation and embodiment of the kingdom of God in vocations that those who observe false divisions refer to as "secular." I wanted someone who understood and practiced evangelism both as calling of individuals to be reconciled to God in Christ and as summoning every human community—from labour unions, to families, to governments—to submit to and serve the One for whom, through whom and by whom all things were created.
It was not until recently that I realized that my prayer had been answered. In the introduction to John Owen's Overcoming Sin and Temptation, the editor, Kelly Kapic, communicates his own deep longing for someone to mentor him while he did his Ph.D. on John Owen. He relates this revelatory conversation with his wife: "As we sat talking that morning, in what had become normal language around our home, I began another sentence with, 'Do you know what Owen said yesterday . . ."' Stopping me, Tabitha interjected, 'You are being mentored. Listen to how you refer to John Owen, as if he were still alive. He is your mentor.'"
While I too have been deeply influenced by John Owen, my wife far more frequently hears, "Do know what Newbigin said yesterday . . . ?" Geoffrey Wainwright describes him thus: "Lesslie Newbigin was a giant in the history of the ecumenical church of the twentieth century. By virtue of the range of his practical activities, the intellectual caliber of his writings, and the extent of his great influence he most nearly invites comparison with the great fathers of early Christianity."
In a recent "conversation" with Newbigin, as I re-read yet again his Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History, I found a brilliant statement of why the testimonies of my business colleagues so often leave me longing for more. The selection comes from a lecture he gave in 1941 in Bangalore, India at the age of 32. If his analysis was true then, it is only magnified now:
In the pre-mechanical age the vast majority of the practical dealings of life were direct and personal. The relations of employer and employee, buyer and seller, teacher and student, writer and reader, were, in the main, relations between people who knew each other as persons. The problems of life presented themselves almost entirely as problems of personal relations within a relatively stable social structure. For the right ordering of these relations the one essential was a right view of man's personal nature and destiny. So long, therefore, as these conditions prevailed, the type of eschatology which concentrates almost exclusively upon the destiny of the individual could provide the guidance needed for most of the practical issues of life. . . .
But we in the twentieth century [!] are living in a profoundly changed world. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the books and newspapers we read and the opinions they propound are the product of vast industrial and financial groupings which control resources often greater than those of a medium-sized state. Consequently in the vast majority of our actions, buying, selling, earning our living, reading and listening, we are not dealing with individuals whom we know personally, but with vast anonymous organizations, controlled ultimately by people whom we have probably never heard of, and who may be living thousands of miles away. And insofar as this is so, a system of conduct based simply on individual character and individual destiny is powerless to control life as we actually know it. Life as we know it can only be controlled—if it can be controlled at all —. . . by political power exercised on the basis of a definite view of the purpose of society as a whole. A worldview which simply concerns the destiny of the individual and has nothing to say about the destiny of society as a whole has, strictly speaking, no guidance whatsoever to offer on a problem like unemployment. . . . Without some such theory of society as a whole, the problem [of unemployment] is as far removed from human control as the operations of a volcano. [emphasis mine]
Purposeful action in the world is sustained by a view of how things really are. In a world gripped in economic, environmental, and educational crises—to name a few—we need more than a solid understanding of the nature and destiny of individual persons; we need a view of the cosmic gospel, the purpose and destiny of human society. Then, and only then, will we be able to act courageously, humbly, and patiently in addressing the problems of our time in ways that function as a sign, foretaste, and instrument of the Kingdom of God.
The cosmic gospel tells the story of God's plan from before the beginning of time to magnify his Son in human history through the redemption of a people for himself, and with them the entire creation which was subjected to futility through our sin. He has called this people in every generation to be the bearers of his good news to the world. Far from diminishing the importance of individual conversion, the cosmic gospel gives (if possible) greater meaning to those who are called to live in this world "to the praise of his glorious grace." It means that all of our daily activities are to be the lived expression of our prayer, "Hallowed be your name; Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
The cosmic gospel requires that we ask this question: How does my work, whether in the home or garden, in the office or boardroom, in the stockroom or showroom, magnify the glory of the grace of God in Christ? For job seekers and job creators in particular, this is a central question of Christian life. The answer, in which I will borrow Newbigin's language again, corresponds to the first three requests of the prayer we received from our Lord.
When we live in a way that honours the name of God, we create and deliver goods and services that function as signs of the Kingdom. A sign is only good insofar as it offers direction. Likewise, we function as a sign only inasmuch as we point away from ourselves to the One by whom and for whom all things exist. Many will ask if this is possible, or desirable, in a mainstream marketplace. Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A, answers "yes," in word and deed. Chick-fil-A's purpose statement reads, "That we might glorify God by being a faithful steward in all that is entrusted to our care, and that we might have a positive influence on all the people that we might come in contact with." If a fast food chain with over $1.5 billion in annual sales can be an explicit sign, who can't?
We who pray "Your kingdom come" were created to be instruments of that Kingdom in this world as we submit to Christ as King, and seek first his kingdom and justice in human affairs. One need look no further than the International Justice Mission for a worthy example of deeply Christian public instrument of God for the establishment of justice and mercy.
As we pray "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven," so our life is to be a foretaste to the world of the just and gracious rule of Jesus in human affairs. In our spheres of influence—the home, neighbourhood, non-profit, or multinational corporation—we are made to be an aperitif of the Kingdom. Tegu is an exciting new hardwood toy company that is creating compelling toys as they are the savour of Christ's rule in Honduras. When asked, "How does the gospel affect your business?" the founders Chris and Will Haughey won't answer that it just makes them more loving and honest. They can humbly and confidently say that the venture they have created is a sign, an instrument and a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.