What Business does Religion have with Business?
Many people think that religion and business have nothing to do with each other, and that money is somehow anti-spiritual.
But did you know that money is one of the most common subjects of Jesus’ parables? The Bible talks about money all the time because money means value. And though we may think of our work and the money we get for it only in terms of material value, the Bible looks deeper and sees their spiritual value.
In the Bible, we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to do good for our neighbor. Does this only mean volunteering and giving money to charity? If so, then the majority of our lives is spent doing something God doesn’t care about. That makes no sense. In fact, when we are doing our job honestly and faithfully out of a desire to serve our fellow human beings, we are serving God far better than if we merely attend church services.
Serving God is not just about words and rituals. It’s about loving and serving our neighbor. And that means getting actively involved in the world and its business dealings.
Isn’t religion something you do on weekends?
There’s an idea afoot in our culture that religion and business have nothing to do with each other. Religion is that spiritual thing some people do on weekends. Business is the practical thing we do during the week. Maybe it is a good idea to go to church on Sunday to stay in God’s good graces . . . just in case there actually is a hell. But during the week we’re busy earning a living. When it comes to our job, our profession, our career, the bottom line is: we’ve got to make money. And what does religion have to do with money?
Money Talks . . . Spiritually
As a matter of fact, money is one of the most common subjects in the Bible—especially in the New Testament. Jesus talks about money all the time. The hidden treasure. The pearl of great price. Treasures in heaven. The temple tax. The rich young man. The workers in the vineyard. Paying taxes to Caesar. The list goes on and on.
Money! Money! Money! If money has nothing to do with religion, why does the Bible talk about it so much?
Let’s think about it. In itself, money means very little. You can’t eat it, drink it, wear it, or use it to keep yourself warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It is bits of metal, pieces of paper, plastic cards, numbers in an account. Not very useful.
Yet ever since we first hit upon the idea of using tokens such as pieces of valuable metal to make it easier to trade with one another, money has been a focal point of human culture.
Because money is our measure of material value. When we have money, we can buy the things we need. And when we have extra money, we can buy the things we want. In fact what we spend our money on reveals what we value.
When the Bible talks about money it is also talking about value. But in the metaphorical language of the Bible, underneath all the money talk is a message about spiritual value. And if there is spiritual value behind the money that is the lifeblood of our economy, there is also value behind the work we do to earn that money.
Everything we have and everything we do here on earth is a reflection of some spiritual reality and some spiritual value. If we are doing good, useful, and constructive things with our time and money, it reflects a positive spiritual value. If we are doing bad, useless, and destructive things with our time and money, it reflects a negative spiritual value.
If we look at our life in this material world through a spiritual lens, then religion relates to everything in our life—including the work we do to make money.
Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between religion and the business world.
Is Work Spiritual?
We’re used to thinking of work as something we have to do in order to make the money we need to live in this world. But even popular self-help books advise us to find work that we love and enjoy. What does love have to do with business and money?
If we love our work, our days will go faster than if we hate it. We’ll probably do a better job, too. Isn’t it much better to look forward to our workday (or work night) than to drag ourselves into work and heave a sigh of relief when it’s finally over? Considering the large percentage of the waking hours in our lifetime that we’ll spend working, it just makes sense to find some kind of work that we enjoy doing.
Of course, we may have to work a job we don’t love in order to provide for the people we do love, including ourselves.
And if we look at it more deeply, there is another way in which our work is about loving other people—both people we know and people we will never meet.
Whatever our work is, assuming it’s honest and above-board, we are doing something that benefits other people. No matter what we’re doing, it helps someone. Otherwise, why would people pay us for it?
If we work in manufacturing, we are making products people want. Cars provide transportation. Cosmetics provide a sense of beauty. Appliances make household tasks easier. Sports equipment provides recreation that improves people’s health and wellbeing.
If we work in a service industry, we touch other people’s lives and add to the happiness and satisfaction of their day. If we make our money through manual labor, we are using our strength and dexterity to accomplish tasks that many others cannot do. If we have an executive position, we are contributing intelligence, know-how, and direction to entire companies that provide employment, services, and products to thousands or even millions of people.
If we think of our work not only as a way to make money, but as a way to do something useful for others, then we can see that work is spiritual. Work is a practical way of showing love and kindness to our fellow human beings. Isn’t that what the Bible tells us to do?
Working for Love and Money
Is it wrong to want money for our work? No. We do need to provide the necessities of life for ourselves, our families, and any others we are responsible for.
Plus, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the pleasures and luxuries of life. God put us in a beautiful world, and gave us the ability to enjoy ourselves on all levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. God even commanded us to take a regular Sabbath of rest from our work. Relaxation and recreation refresh our mind and body so that we will be in better shape mentally and physically to return to work and be of service to others.
But doesn’t the Bible say we’re supposed to sell all we have and give it to the poor?
No, it doesn’t.
The idea that it does comes from the story of Jesus and the rich man found in Matthew 19:16–26. In this story, Jesus tells one particular person to sell all he has and give it to the poor. And in the version found in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus specifies that it is hard for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:24).
If you own a business and you tell one of your employees to sweep the floor, do you expect every employee to sweep the floor?
Jesus told one particular man to give away all his money because that man valued his money more than the kingdom of God. His money was blocking his path toward heaven. The mistake people have made is thinking that because Jesus told that particular man to sell all he had and give it to the poor, this means that everyone must sell all they have and give it to the poor.
Jesus did have followers who were rich. One of Jesus’ disciples, a rich man named Joseph from a town called Arimathea, supplied the tomb in which Jesus was buried (Matthew 27:57–60). If Jesus had commanded all of his rich followers to sell everything they had and give it to the poor, how could he have a rich disciple?
No, the Bible does not tell everyone who has money to give it all to the poor. It tells those whose money gets in the way of their devotion to God to get rid of that obstacle to their journey toward heaven. Money is not evil in itself. It only becomes evil when we think money is more important than loving God and our neighbor. The commonly misquoted saying actually goes, “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). If we put our money in service of God and the neighbor, just as Joseph of Arimathea put his wealth in service of Jesus, it is not evil, but good.
In short, if we make money doing something that provides a service to others, and use our money in ways that benefit others, both our work and our money are blessed.
They are also a vital part of our spiritual growth.
Work as Worship
The Bible does command everyone to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to do good for our neighbor.
These commandments have commonly been interpreted as meaning we should volunteer our time and donate our money for charitable purposes: helping the poor and needy, and so on. Now don’t get me wrong. Volunteering time and donating money to charity are wonderful things to do. But for most of us, it’s simply not possible to devote more than a small percentage of our time and money to charity. We have bills to pay, households to take care of, and obligations at work.
Are we lesser Christians if we are responsible citizens who pull our weight in society?
Not at all.
Where in the Bible does it say that the good we do for our neighbor as part of our paid work doesn’t count? Of course, if all we care about is the paycheck, and we put out the least possible effort, then working at our job isn’t going to do us much good spiritually. But if we devote ourselves to doing a good job for the people we’re serving by approaching our work with integrity and performing our tasks well, then not only our paid job but all of our daily tasks will be stepping stones on our path toward heaven.
In fact, if we do our work with God and the neighbor in mind, our work is worship.
What is worship, anyway? It is serving God. That’s why it’s called a worship service. And what God most wants from us is not words and rituals on Sunday morning, as nice as those may be, but action all week long (see Micah 6:6–8). Jesus tells us that whatever we do for our fellow human beings, we have done for God (Matthew 25:31–46). Whatever our job may be, it provides us with the opportunity to serve God by serving our neighbor. That neighbor includes our boss, our coworkers, the people we encounter in our workplace, and everyone who buys and benefits from the products and services we provide.
It all adds up to this: When we are engaged in serving other people, we are engaged in serving God. For most of us, our primary opportunity to serve others is in our paid job and in our daily work. That is our primary way of worshiping God. Going to church on Sunday is a secondary form of worship that is pleasing to God only if we are doing our primary worship all week long.
Working the Path to Heaven
Our profession and our job has everything to do with religion. In fact, although attending some sort of worship service is helpful to our spiritual growth, it is nowhere near as important in God’s sight as doing our daily tasks, whether paid or not, with love and care for the people we are serving. Someone who never attends church but serves others with love will get into heaven long before someone who goes to church faithfully every Sunday but never lifts a finger for anyone else.
Emanuel Swedenborg tells us that heaven is a realm of useful services (Heaven and Hell #387). So if we are planning to live in heaven after we die, we’d better get used to serving others! And the best way to do that is to look for work that is satisfying to us and of service to others—and yes, that also pays the bills—and then do the best job we can at it.
Whether we’re a ditch digger or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, if we do our work faithfully and with care for the people we are serving, we are building the kind of character God wants in the people who will be a part of the kingdom of heaven.
This article is © 2012 by Lee Woofenden