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Culture Q&A

Good business

Christians have a mission to build, says Princeton's David Miller and we can do that in the working world

Good business

(Billy Calzada for Genesis Photos for WORLD)

The Princeton Faith and Work Initiative, headed by David Miller, teaches participants how not to check their faith at the office door. Miller's own career-upwardly mobile for 16 years in business before entering seminary-shows the importance of learning what our callings are and not just following the more-traveled roads.

You departed early from normal career paths by learning German and then working in a German factory. Instead of a fancy internship, I had a great learning experience: seeing life from the underside. Later, in business in London, we decided to put in a 24-hour call center at our bank, which required shift work. One of the union bosses challenged me: "What do you know of shift work?" I knew what it was like.

Will there be work in heaven-and if so, what will it be like? I'll turn back to my Hebrew lessons to answer the question of what is work. One of the words in Hebrew used for work is avodah, which is translated three ways, as "work," as "worship," and as "service." I imagine that work in heaven will be service and joyful. I would hope that our work would be aligned with our gifts, as opposed to jobs merely to put food on the table.

How and why do some Christians think that work, particularly business work, is bad? It's amazing, really; the first verb in Scripture is "created." If we are created in the image of God, we have a mission to build. Go back and look at those boring parts, where Solomon is building the temple: The craftsmen are described in almost priestly terms.

Where did Christians go wrong in thinking about business? First, the influence of Greek and Roman thought. Our philosopher friends tended to dualize things in which the material was bad and the spiritual was good. Second, theological: We tend to assume that wearing a collar or speaking from a pulpit is somehow more holy. Only one in 10 people can remember hearing a sermon on work or business, and it usually was disparaging.

What do you say when people ask, "How do you glorify God in business?" The Bible is a veritable playbook for life in the marketplace. In Genesis 3, work is not cursed; the ground is cursed, so that work will be harder. And look at Leviticus: Most people skip over Leviticus for being boring, but the Holiness Code is the best, once you culturally transpose, way of upholding integrity. The first goal for a person in business should be excellence and integrity.

Students often worry about the pursuit of being on top, about success for success' sake. Knowing your own intentions and motivations is incredibly important in the Christian life. I don't believe that there is anything wrong with being the best that you can be. A friend of mine told me that he had been thinking of chucking his enormously successful career to be a foreign missionary. I advised him to stay in his current job because his current job had a tremendous amount of influence. His company was his flock to lead.

Students also ask about balancing Christian principles when they've come in conflict with company policies. It can be very hard, so start practicing early. Develop a winsome way of responding. Be able to use the language of your colleagues. Choose your battles. Know what hills you are willing to die on. I have my Business Ethics students write these things on a note card, and then keep that card. Plenty of religious people do stupid things at work. Share that list with your spouse so that you are on the same page.

Did you ever confuse money and success? Yes, I was tempted to have money as an idol. I'd like to have more money than less, but money is a trap. The word "mammon" in Aramaic doesn't just mean "money," it means "that in which you place your trust."