In the opening verses of Romans 12 Paul offers three priceless pieces of advice which are of crucial relevance for Christians in the workplace.
Romans 12:1-2 is one of the few New Testament passages which mention the word worship. But it has nothing to do with services that take place in church. What Paul has in mind is something far more comprehensive and life-embracing. In these verses the apostle tells Christians living and working in a great variety of situations to do three things:
Present your bodies as a living sacrifice
Be transformed by the renewal of your mind
Discern what is the will of God
First Paul appeals to his readers, ‘by the mercies of God’, to present their bodies as a living sacrifice. The word ‘sacrifice’ is one we hear a lot, sometimes bandied about a little too glibly. I’m particularly suspicious when it’s used by people in positions of power and privilege exhorting those in a subordinate position to “be sacrificial’ and put up with their unsatisfactory situation a bit longer.
When we consider the sacrifices that business people might make, at first sight the language seems inappropriate. Aren’t their financial rewards much greater than the majority of the population? Maybe, but their lives are not short of sacrifice understood in terms of pain and strain and cost.
There can be the pain of flying a lonely Christian flag in an atmosphere which is hard and ruthless. There can be the strain incurred in taking highly responsible decisions on which the fate of millions of pounds or thousands of people’s jobs ultimately rests. There can be the cost to marriage and family brought by working long hours which bite hard into evenings and weekends. I know one sales manager with an engineering firm who spent most of his children’s teenage years living 150 miles away from them because of the demands of his job.
Yet the sacrifice Paul speaks of is something more fundamental. He’s talking about a sacrifice we make to God, not one to our firm nor one we make of our families. He is saying that you should dedicate your whole selves to God. From the basic orientation of our lives to detailed application, all should be offered to him.
Working with Conviction
The implications of this for the workplace are profound. Christians need to think seriously about the aims of their organisations and consider whether they’re involved in something worthwhile, valuable and having a part to play in God’s purposes. A step that might seem obvious, but is all too easily overlooked. I remember speaking on the phone to a friend who was just about to take up a marketing job for a newly privatised water authority. I asked him whether he agreed with the privatisation of water. “Not really’, he said, ‘but…’
While there may be situations where we feel little choice about the work open to us, the attitude we normally have to our jobs should be more enthusiastic than “not really but…”. We want to work with greater conviction than that.
Paul goes on to say “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind”. There are many working practices that are very much conformed to this world: delayed invoice payment, avoiding a difficult encounter with a colleague or customer, aspiring after the perks and status of high office. We can see how in areas like these a Christian at work might make a concerted effort not to be worldly – by paying on time, addressing conflict and avoiding ostentation.
Yet again Paul invites us to consider something more fundamental. He doesn’t just say “don’t be conformed”; he says very positively “be transformed”. So in a commercial setting, instead of being one-sidedly obsessed with profit, as many companies are, the Christian should be motivated by the concept of service – serving the customer, serving the community, and most important of all, serving God. Clearly, a firm needs to make profits to be of service. But we live in a society which is obsessed with financial figures and how big they are. The renewed mind of the Christian dwells his thoughts on the quality of the product or service that he or she is in the business of delivering.
Thirdly, the fruit or result of this renewed mind is “that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect”. Where Christians are offering themselves as a living sacrifice, where their minds are being transformed, they are better equipped to know what is the will of God.
Many business schools now offer courses on business ethics, but there typically have the flavour of a run through various philosophical theories (follow the rules, calculate the consequences, etc). The implication is that you adopt the theory that suits you. What is lacking is a sense that ethics involves a search for moral truth. For Christians moral truth coincides with the will of God. Discerning the will of God may not always be straightforward, but by developing our relationship with God, attending to his Word, regular prayer and meeting to discuss with fellow-believers we can become more confident about knowing what it is.
Yet the will of God is not just about the making of difficult moral decisions. It’s also about discerning God’s plan and purpose. So it includes guidance about ‘what next?’ in one’s career; or whether one’s organisation should be doing something new, expanding or contracting, launching out into fresh areas or undergoing some major structural reform. In all these matters, corporate and individual, we are looking to discern the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.
From a sermon preached by Richard Higginson on arrival at Ridley Hall in 1989.