Ever since I left working for the government as a public defender and a prosecutor (for 7 years) and entered into the workforce in Corporate America, I have struggled with the balance between succeeding and increasing in wealth, and maintaining a Christian heart and perspective on all my endeavors. I’ve spent nearly 4 years in the corporate world, and today I was struck by the message I heard this Sunday, often referred to as “Treasure Sunday” in the Coptic Church, and thought about how to apply it to the delicate balance for succeeding in work life and in Christianity, not to the exclusion of either.
In the Coptic Orthodox Church the Great Fast began one week “earlier” than for most (Eastern Orthodox—February 27, Catholic Church—March 1, Coptic Church—February 20), and on the first Sunday of every Great Fast, Copts listen to the gospel reading (Matthew 6:19-33) where Christ speaks at length regarding the need that you “do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth [which will be lost some way or another] … but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven [which you will have forever].” This Sunday therefore is referred to as “Treasure Sunday.”
When I worked for the government as a public defender and a prosecutor, working with a Christian mindset was not too difficult of a task. I didn’t make much money, so I didn’t have much riches to really depend on so I always had to look to God for sustenance. And there was no such thing as a “corporate ladder” for the most part—generally, the pay you were making was the pay you would always receive, without much growth potential, so there was no need to figure out how to climb up any ladder to gain more wealth. Also, my managers really only expected me to show up to work, manage my workload adequately, and the rest was really up to me. As long as I did the basics, for the most part, I would always have a job. I never felt much pressure, if any at all, to keep trying to look good in front of my managers, or trying to make them happier with me more than with my peers. I didn’t have to worry about telling them all of the achievements I had accomplished, or all the little things I did that mostly only God knew about that were rewarding moments in my career, in order for them to remember those achievements the next time they were wondering who to lay off, because lay-offs were rare but for some catastrophic event. Actually, with low pay, high intensity, high stakes work, and a lot of hours expected of you, they were more worried about keeping employees from leaving. I could do 100 secret good deeds a day if I wanted to, and never feel any pressure to tell a soul.
When I moved to Corporate America, the world flipped upside down for me. Lay-offs became a tangible, looming possibility, at any time. But so was the ever-present corporate ladder, where within a relatively short time riches abound, so long as you can figure out how to climb it without falling off. To succeed in corporate life, which I will define as continuing to make more money and keeping your job as you progress up the corporate ladder, you have to all of a sudden focus on making sure as many people that have sway over your position or future positions know your value, and value you more than as many others as possible. Instead of secret deeds not mattering, now they have to be wide open and shared constantly. Instead of providing value in little ways and keeping that to yourself, you have to make grand, sweeping gestures of value to make your worth, above others, known. And then, if you succeed, when it comes time for lay offs, you will likely be unharmed, and when it comes time to “moving up” the ladder and looking for better pay and higher positions, you will have made a name for yourself sufficient to be chosen. This is all good for corporations because it motivates efficient, good work. But for a Christian, is all of this consistent with Christianity?
Today, as I heard my priest address the congregation during his sermon regarding the “Treasure Sunday” gospel reading, he reminded us of a passage written by St. Paul the Apostle to another bishop, his disciple Timothy, instructing him on what to teach his congregation regarding being rich:
17 Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. 18 Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, 19 storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life. (1 Timothy 6:17-21)
What struck me about this passage was that the Bible here is not teaching us that being rich is bad or increasing in wealth is in contradiction with Christianity. On the contrary, it is acceptable, so long as we remember that it is God who gives us such wealth, and that what we are receiving are “uncertain riches” (meaning, riches can leave us at any time, so do not put your heart into depending on riches for happiness as your main goal in life, consistent with Christ’s teaching, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”)
At the same time, what we should really focus on as our primary pursuit, above all things including financial increase, is being “rich in good works,” so that instead of storing up a ton of money in the bank, which we will not take with us when we die, we need to more so be focusing on “storing up for [ourselves] a good foundation for the time to come, that [we] may lay hold on eternal life.”
In thinking about the balance between “succeeding” in corporate life and “succeeding” with the mindset of an eternal perspective, I want to believe that both can happen so long as I do not trample on what is more important—good works—for what is less important—being rich.
So, to me that means, yes, I can add value, but I should not exaggerate the value I have added at work. Or if someone takes some of the credit for my value, let them have it and God will provide otherwise. I also think that the looming threat of being laid off should not be so troublesome as to cause us to lose our peace, because if we truly believe it is GOD who gives, and not the company, we will also feel confident that God will always provide, as Christ taught us on Treasure Sunday not to worry about sustenance, for “which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?” As you pursue climbing the corporate ladder and gaining financial stability, your primary pursuit should remain at all times laying up an even greater wealth of good deeds to serve as the foundation for eternal life, and it is only upon that foundation that we will truly be judged, so that the real ladder we really want to climb is the one that Jacob saw leading up to heaven, which we will fall from if we are weighed down by earthly pursuits rather than heavenly ones.
Today I feel more comforted with the notion that working in the corporate world is not necessarily inconsistent with Christian morals, and that in fact I can continue working hard to succeed, but always with my mind on the Lord:
“And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men” (Colossians 3:23).