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Shrinking the Camel (Anniversary Edition!)

August 11, 2009

This is where it all started, folks! It has been almost exactly one year since I posted this namesake essay (much to the shock and dismay of the “Work-Faith” community), where I speak frankly about the Christian joys of ambition, career drive, and making money.  I also do a little Evangelical Preacher-bashing, for good measure. All for a good cause – namely to answer the question: Am I the Only One Thinking About These Things?  Since then it has more or less set the tone for the voice of my Blog. So, I thought, why not do like People magazine, and run an anniversary issue? Go ahead and read the whole thing, so you get to the blessing at the end!

 

I like making money. The more I can make, the better.

Why should that be shocking or distasteful? That statement does not imply that I am obsessed with money, or that I am using money for evil purposes, or dedicating my life to serving the dreaded Mammon instead of God. But as a practical matter, having money sure does come in handy.

I am convinced, however, that such blessings do not happen purely by luck or chance or by passively awaiting God’s hand to start waving one’s career into life. It takes years of determination, persistence, politicking and hard work. It takes ambition, my friend.

So then, is ambition a sin or a virtue?

I guess it depends on how we characterize ambition. For the record, I’m not talking about the “I’m going to kill my father so I can become King” kind of ambition, but more of a good, healthy drive to prosper.

To religious folk, “prosper” is somehow a much more acceptable choice of words to use as opposed to “succeed”. Success is unfortunately taken by some to be the antithesis of spirituality, because it is associated with selfishness, materialism, worldliness and cutthroat-ism. If it is success that you seek, then some holier-than-thou will point a finger at you and ask the age-old question, “what does success really mean?” You will then have to come up with all these non-financial definitions of success, and in the end you’ll feel guilty for just wanting to get ahead in life. But prosperity is more straightforward. It’s not so loaded. It’s even biblical! And friends, let’s talk plainly here: prospering is very much about making money.

According to Miriam Webster:

Prosperity: The condition of being successful or thriving; especially : economic well-being.
 
The thing I like about the word prosperity is that it wraps financial well-being in with the idea of “thriving.” So, in other words, it implies that you can reach your full potential as a human being using your gifts, talents and unique experiences, and then get very well- compensated for it. That sounds really nice. Thriving is good.

And doesn’t God want us to prosper? Who can forget this favorite verse thrown in to many an inspirational book?

Jeremiah 20:11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Look at some of our spiritual forefathers from the Old Testament. Abraham, for instance. Now there was a sharp guy. He kept growing his herds and his land and his staff until he got to the point where he had a whole entourage of folks that had to move with him whenever God told him to pack up and go. He was very rich. Now, dear reader, we both know that doesn’t happen by chance! It takes will and ambition. And I think God liked him pretty much.

Although God’s promises for prosperity are blatantly proclaimed all throughout the Old Testament, I can’t help but notice that the New Testament takes a more sober, cautious attitude towards money and wealth. Probably because Jesus was ministering mostly to the poor, those who he spent most of his time with. He always reaches out to the lonely, the poor and oppressed, the sick and lame. The economic and social environment of Roman-occupied Palestine in 30 AD was probably far less robust than our global economy of today, which most likely kept the poor in their place. The “rich” at the time were generally viewed as the oppressive bad guys, which is why they get a little Jesus-spanking from time to time.

Upon reviewing the New Testament teachings on money, it seems to me that Jesus is much more concerned with who we are as spiritual beings than what we do for work or how much money we make. I think his main concern was that people not hold their riches and wealth above God, or that they not put all their trust in themselves instead of God. Ok, so he did tell the one dude to sell everything and give it to the poor in Matthew 18. That was one time, one person. He also said to cut off your right hand and throw it away if it causes you to sin, but I don’t see pastors encouraging that particular practice in the church today either. Jesus was trying to make a point. He liked the shock-value of his comments, because it got people’s attention. And back then they didn’t have TV or the internet or sports or the other manifold vices available today that Jesus could have used as examples in his lessons. Can you imagine an American Jesus of 2010? Maybe he would have busted more on sports fanatics. Sports can be far more of an obsession to some men than money.

“A young man approached Jesus and asked: Lord, what must I do to be saved? Jesus replied, “Throw out your TV and give away your season ticket passes and your box seats, and never watch another football game again, and you will be saved. The young man walked away very sad, because he was a huge Giants fan.”

In the real scripture, Jesus follows this incident by telling the crowd of disciples that it’s harder for a rich man to get into heaven than it is for a camel to get through the eye of a needle. The disciples are now bewildered (as usual) and they say, “All right Jesus, enough drama. Really, how do you expect anyone to get into heaven then?” This is one time I appreciate the dumb questions that those disciples asked. Jesus tells them, “You’re right, boys. Lucky for you, with God all things are possible. I’m just telling you to be careful not to get too caught up with money.” (My interpretation, of course.) The truth is that God can shrink that camel like magic, and it’ll slip right through the needle, no problem. Everyone forgets that part of the story.

In reading the New Testament more closely for clues about Jesus’ view of ambition, I get the impression that it’s like, the party’s over from the OT days, and we need to get down to spiritual business. Sell everything. Abandon your family. Don’t get married. Cut off your eyes and hands and private parts if they make you sin. But, seriously, here I am thousands of years later living in a very different world in 21st century America. I wholeheartedly wanting to serve God, but I find that mammon is pretty much a requirement for living in a global economy. What am I supposed to do?

Yet there is a staggering silence from the pulpits regarding this subject.

In my experience, there is a huge gaping hole in the Christian world that leaves ambition, career and the pressures of the workplace out in the cold, out in the spiritual hinterlands or subject to the devil’s domain. How did we end up like this? It’s a major cause of my own personal existential crisis because I have never been exposed to a framework for exploring my desire for career growth and financial security in the context of Christian spirituality. As I grew up, the evangelical church taught me that the only ambition God was truly pleased with was the passion for making disciples, missions, service, or leading others to Christ. So if you had a sincere spiritual desire to seek out God’s plan for your life, then by default your primary vocation was going to be a disciple-maker. Just like Jesus. The missionary Jesus, not the working-for-the-family-business carpenter Jesus. But what if I am not “called” to that? What if my gifts, talents and personality are better suited for business pursuits?

I have always had a strong desire for spiritual growth and connectivity with God, to the point where I even considered seminary after graduating from college. I sincerely prayed about this decision and felt a definitive “no” coming from God. Maybe it was some bad soup I ate, or maybe I tapped in to some deeper instincts about myself, knowing that I was not cut out for the clergy. Instead, through a series of bumbling decisions and circumstances and jobs, I discovered a strong interest and aptitude in business. God has a way of eventually showing us what we are called for, even when we are clueless.

As I was freshly exploring the path of putting my unique gifts and talents to good use for economic gain instead of spiritual service, I struggled with the question of how to distinguish God’s calling for my life from my ego. Unfortunately, there weren’t any spiritually based resources to bounce this thought off of. It seemed that from the church’s point of view my career aspirations were now off-limits somehow. There wasn’t really a way to talk about my desire to prosper. These career issues were now my own private problems that my pastor or Christian books and radio weren’t going to help me with. This doesn’t make sense to me, because for most of us our careers are pretty much a consuming force of life throughout our early adulthood years. As we develop through our 20’s and 30’s, we want to make a difference. We want to have influence. We want to find out what we’re good at, and work at something we like. And we want to make money. Yet the church is pretty well silent on this subject. And sometimes, subtly disapproving.

Does the church have a problem with ambition? Why do I feel so spiritually abandoned by the church when it comes to my career?

Please let me take a moment to qualify, just to be crystal-clear. I’m not condoning greed and irresponsibility and stealing and making money at all costs. Rather, I’m talking about doing it the old-fashioned way… through hard work, persistence, shrewdness, and using your God-given gifts and talents, within the guidelines and constraints of solid moral and ethical behavior. I also don’t want to confuse my ideas of ambition with the “health and wealth” teachings that I come across from time to time which promote the idea of coming into God’s financial blessings with no effort or planning or delayed gratification on our part. These ridiculous and superstitious teachings promote poverty more than anything else, because as long as people are putting the responsibility for wealth on someone or something else other than themselves (God, the lottery), they will most likely remain in the same condition as before. I’m talking about the idea of God wanting us to grow, to stretch, to go beyond our comfort zone and use all of our resources and creativity to become all that He has in store for us. By the sweat of our brow and work of our hands and sharpness of our mind, to courageously generate the confidence, character, maturity and self esteem that comes from planning, persisting, overcoming obstacles, and reaching goals.

I won’t argue with the fact that greed can be a problem for some, but so can any myriad of other non-financial vices, such as envy, food, alcohol, sex, sports, and bird-watching, to name a few of the worst culprits. People get distracted and comforted by and obsessed with all sorts of things to replace God. Having a career and money should be thought of as just another aspect of our life and our resources that goes towards honoring God. I think it goes without saying that with money, like with adulthood, parenthood, and being a whole person, goes responsibility, good stewardship, and an obligation to operate with ethics and integrity. And that is true no matter who you are and how much money you make.

Anyway, despite all the warnings of riches, I also found many places in the New Testament where Jesus made reference to business management. And not in bad way, either. He actually taught quite a bit using these examples of business. Jesus repeatedly uses the boss-employee analogy to make a point about the kingdom of heaven. These management characters teach lessons about shrewdness, work ethic, generosity, responsibility, and patience. Granted, they are mostly agricultural-based scenarios because these were obviously more relevant to his audience at the time: there is the “master”, the vineyard-owner, the steward, the ruler, the landowner/nobleman, the wealthy patriarch, to name a few. But in today’s world they would be considered something more akin to: corporate management, the boss, the CEO, the entrepreneur, the rich dad, or just the guy who owns more stuff than you so that he can hire you. It’s like Jesus was teaching these guys in parables, but with stories about their work. Something they could relate to. What a concept. At some level, I feel that Jesus is acknowledging the normalcy of honest business and management as part of the very fabric of society. I mean, somebody’s got to do it.

A friend recently told me that he took his pastor to work with him one day, and the pastor was intrigued by the cubicles. He asked what they were used for. He had never seen cubicle workers before! Come on, now pastors, writers, Christian professionals. Get with the program and get on board with the money-making members of your flock. Stop avoiding our world and our career ambitions. We’re starving for some spiritual attention to help us make sense of the business life we live in 50-80 hours a week. But we also want a little respect for the honest work that we do. Besides, we’re the ones who are basically paying your way, right?

I believe that God gives each of us a unique calling to be discovered, an ambition that we must pursue to be whole, to be fully human and fully ourselves. We can not qualify the value of one vocation over another. We each are uniquely distinct and we must embrace and respect the diversity of interests and ambitions of each person, while ensuring they are acting in the bounds of morality, legal and ethical behavior. Ultimately, the output of our ambitions and vocations should be the revelation of God’s love through our work, through our results, to our fellow employees and customers we interact with, and through the resources we give back to the world.

And, if by God’s grace, I can reach a point in life’s pursuits where I am well compensated for doing something I like and something I am also actually good at, then I would suggest that surely God is pleased and that I am blessed. And by passing on these gifts to others thus continues a generous circle of His will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

In closing, here is a benediction that you will never hear from your church pulpit:

Go ahead, young Christian men and women, I urge you to go out into the world, get educated, work hard, and be shrewd. Don’t be afraid to take on greater responsibility and new challenges, because God is with you. Discover and use all of your gifts and talents to the fullest, and prosper! Make a killing! And then do good with it. Give it away — to your family and friends, to the church, to the homeless and unloved, to your alma mater, to those in your back yard and to those around the world. Amen.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2009 9:42 pm

    um.

    so…what does success really mean ?

  2. August 12, 2009 12:25 pm

    honstly, i have asked that question, but, only because i was really wanting to see it from all the different sides.

    but, this time i asked because i was just being a smart ass.

    seriously, bradley
    i think that you have found what you are good at and also the fact that there is no pleasing everyone. even the pope has this problem. no matter how right we try to be, some one can find a lot of things that are not so right about each of us.

    here is another view, a blog post from yesterday by ted, that is relevant to your post.

  3. shrinkingthecamel permalink*
    August 12, 2009 6:21 pm

    Nancy – I will check out that post..
    And in answer to your question (seriously!), my definition of success is:
    Achieving my greatest potential while surrendering fully to God.

    I don’t think there is an end point. It’s an ongoing tension, a push and pull. I will never arrive.

  4. August 13, 2009 8:19 am

    That was the best definition of success I’ve ever heard, Bradley.

  5. August 13, 2009 8:44 pm

    One of the most awesome Christian mentors I have is extremely wealthy and has helped people become wealthy as well. But she also takes these people all over the world to help the poor because her philosophy is, ‘I taught them how to make money and now I’m showing them how to give back.’

    Great post Bradley!

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