September 10, 2014| 0

Two Types of Profit: Just and Unjust (Jeremiah 6:13)

For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.

Profit is the lifeblood of a business. It’s the sign of life in the corporate body and the breath that sustains the enterprise. That’s good. But according to the prophet Jeremiah, there is also a bad kind of profit: “unjust gain,” driven by greed.

When does profit cross the line? What separates good and just profit from the bad and unjust kind?

In a word, it’s violence. Unjust gains are gained by the unjust use of force. “Plunder” is a more literal translation of the word Jeremiah used here. In the Hebrew text, the phrase (botseah-botsah, בּוֹצֵ֣עַ בָּ֑צַע) could be translated as “to plunder plunder” or “to grab by force.” When a word is repeated like this in Hebrew, it amplifies the meaning. The key issue is profiting at the expense of another. This is a win-lose understanding of economics implying that the profit/gain is taken against another’s will. Of course that's the exact opposite of biblical justice. In God’s economy, grace abounds, righteous relationships benefit both parties, and exchange is inherently win-win. Covenant blessings are poured out, wealth and spiritual capital are built up, scarcities disappear, and accounts are reconciled. That’s a kingdom vision of economics and the context for justly-earned profits. In other words, justly-earned profits are received in grace and never taken by force.

It’s also interesting to note that there is no Hebrew word for “greed” in the text's original language. That is the translator’s attempt to convey the meaning of the sentence into English. The literal language in the Hebrew is not, “everyone is greedy,” but rather, “everyone plunders plunder.” It's a strong condemnation of gains taken by force, against the will and at the expense of the other.

Problems begin when business practices (“rent-taking”) ignore the best interests of the customer in order to increase profits through manipulation or extortion. We do well to honor God’s economics by not crossing that line.

This teaching may be applied to any business by examining the forces at work in a transaction. To the extent that force is used to coerce, manipulate, or perpetrate violence, the gains are unjust and ill-gotten. To the extent that market forces work to the benefit of both parties in a freely-given and wholesome exchange, the gains are just. Economic justice is realized in profitable trades which bestow grace on all parties. Just profits uphold human dignity and add to "shalom" in society.

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© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

August 27, 2014| 0

Gusto: The leader’s spiritual gift (Romans 12:4-8)

4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

What sets leaders apart? Is it natural-born personality, or a set of skills? Can it be taught, or is it a charisma that cannot be coached? For all the time and money spent on these questions, leadership remains a mystery and refuses to be reduced to a list of personality traits.

The Bible’s teaching on leadership comes at the question from another direction altogether. The focus is not on an individual’s personality or skill, but rather on what God is doing in a person’s life. God calls people into leadership, even when they are reluctant and seemingly ill-equipped for the job (like Moses and David). The Holy Spirit gives leaders the gifts they need to answer God’s call. In this sense, leadership is a type of vocation or “calling.”

In Romans 12:4-8, Paul spells out seven types of work within the body of Christ and names the spiritual gift associated with each. He exhorts every member of the body to use the gifts they have been given in whatever capacity they can. The special exhortation for leaders is to use the gift of spoudē (σπουδή) – the New Testament Greek word translated here as “zeal.” The King James Version translates it as “diligence,” or doing something thoroughly, with energy and devotion. The word also means to make haste [Luke 1:39], to make every effort [2 Peter 1:5], and to strive with eager devotion to accomplish a task [Galatians 2:10]. It’s a tough word to translate, but we know it when we see it. It’s the gift leaders share.

We see it in leaders who have boundless energy, like Teddy Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman. We see it in visionaries who never give up on their dream, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. We see it in business leaders who never tire of their work (like every entrepreneur I have ever met).

Spoudē is difficult to translate into English, but I like the word “gusto,” because it captures the sense of passionate delight and eager earnestness that leaders display when bringing their gift to light. Gusto suggests hunger. Who acts eagerly but the one who is hungry to taste the fruit of success? Gusto suggests passion, for who acts with devotion to God’s call but the one who loves God? Gusto suggests energy, for who goes all out in every race but the one who loves to run? A gifted artist paints with gusto, a gifted athlete plays with gusto, and a gifted leader leads with gusto. I can't think of a better way to say it!

A gifted business leader, therefore, will be one who loves the calling to serve, loves the challenge of the task, and loves pouring him/herself into it. Leadership is not a type of person: it is a gift.

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© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

August 20, 2014| 0

Best Biblical Career Advice: Walk by Faith (Genesis 39:1-6)

1 Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2 The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3 His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. 4 So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. 5 From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. 6 So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate.

“Life is what happens while we’re busy making plans,” so the old saying goes.

Joseph learned this the hard way. His big dreams did not work out anything like he wanted. None of the details or timing were predictable (or even imaginable, for that matter). The turning points all lay in God’s hands. One moment Joseph was thrown in a pit to die, the next he’s lifted out and sold to a wealthy Egyptian who gives him run of the household. He was thrown into prison, then called to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Pharaoh was impressed enough to give Joseph the keys to the kingdom.

None of this was predictable, and none of it went according to any plan (except God’s, perhaps). And none of these wrenching turns of events diminished Joseph's faith, or stopped him from dreaming big or working hard and serving his bosses. He continued to trust in the Lord, our one and only source of hope [Romans 5:5]. The repeated observation that “the Lord was with Joseph” [Gen. 39:2, 21, 23] is the Bible's only significant clue as to how he managed to succeed.

So if Joseph’s life story teaches us anything about career planning, it’s that we can’t control what we can’t control. All the key turning points, both the ups and the downs, were out of Joseph’s control. But God was with him. God was present. The living God is also present with you and me, in the midst of our own trials and successes.

So go ahead and dream big, like Joseph did. Let the dream guide your steps, but submit your steps to the Lord in trust. When we step out in faith, he will guide us, but we have to take action. As the saying goes, “God can’t steer a parked car.”

This lesson from Joseph’s journey demonstrates the wisdom of the Proverbs:

The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps. [Proverbs 16:9]

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand. [Proverbs 19:21]

We make plans, but events are beyond our control. The Lord will direct our steps. One of the fundamental paradoxes of Christian life is the intermingling of personal will and God’s will; we make plans, but we walk by faith and trust God to guide us through the uncertain twists and turns.

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© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

August 13, 2014| 0

Best Biblical Career Advice: Serve colleagues and mentors (Genesis 41:9-15)

9 Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “I remember my offenses today. 10 When Pharaoh was angry with his servants and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, 11 we dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own interpretation. 12 A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each man according to his dream. 13 And as he interpreted to us, so it came about. I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.” 14 Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they quickly brought him out of the pit. And when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. 15 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.”

Joseph’s “career path,” if we may call it that, was full of unexpected ups and downs: he was thrown in a pit, lifted out again, sold into slavery, and made chief of staff in his master’s estate, only to be imprisoned on a false accusation. While in prison, the captain of the guard recognized Joseph’s talent and put him in charge of the prisoners' affairs.

Then Joseph got his big break: Pharaoh’s cup-bearer and baker were sent to prison and placed under his supervision. Joseph predicted the cup-bearer’s release and return to Pharaoh’s house, and also foresaw the baker’s unfortunate demise. Joseph begged the cup-bearer to lobby Pharaoh for his release from prison [Gen. 40:14]. It was his chance to get out of jail, and he gave it his best shot. He appealed to the cup-bearer’s empathy and sense of justice: “For I was indeed stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the pit” [Gen. 40:15].

In short, Joseph seized the moment to ask a favor. Unfortunately, the cup-bearer forgot all about Joseph for two full years. Only when Pharaoh was troubled by a dream did the cup-bearer remember the “talented young Hebrew” still in prison. When Joseph finally got his chance to see Pharaoh, he made no appeal for release, no speech about injustice. He merely did as Pharaoh asked and interpreted the dream. Afterwards, he recommended a wise plan to manage Egypt's agricultural policy.

Joseph’s example is instructive. Wherever he was, he served the people around him. He earned the respect of the captain of the guard, who became his mentor and later put Joseph in charge of prison affairs. Joseph served the cup-bearer, who became a colleague and [eventually] mentioned him to Pharaoh. Finally, Joseph had the opportunity to serve Pharaoh, the supreme ruler, who became Joseph’s greatest mentor and promoted him to Egypt's highest rank, second only to Pharaoh himself [Gen. 41:40-45].

Joseph’s story demonstrates the old adage that “nobody gets anywhere without a mentor.” The corollary is that nobody gets a mentor without earning the respect of the people around them. Joseph did this by serving those around him well, developing colleagues and mentors in the process.

There is no way to predict the “big breaks” that may present the next opportunity to take on more responsibility. God directs those events and sets those times. But the best preparation for those pivotal moments is to serve faithfully and well. Find colleagues and mentors. Make friends. Develop relationships. Trust God to bring the right opportunity at the right time, and seize the moment when it comes.

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© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

August 6, 2014| 0

Best Biblical Career Advice: Think above your pay grade (Genesis 41:15-36)

15 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” … 25 Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. … 33 Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plentiful years. 35 And let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming and store up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. 36 That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.”

“Career” is not really a biblical concept, as I discussed in the last Business Parable. The Bible has much to say about faithfulness, but very little to say about how to seek personal gain, status, or earning potential—the sorts of things we tend to think of with respect to career.

If, however, we think of career in terms of walking in faith—discovering and following the path of our calling in business or any other pursuit—then the Bible has much wisdom to offer, as in the story of Joseph.

Joseph, the most-loved son of Jacob [Gen. 37:3], followed a tortuous path filled with unexpected dangers and opportunities (could that be a definition of “career”?). Though he was sold into slavery and falsely imprisoned, he rose to become second only to Pharaoh as ruler of Egypt. Joseph's faithfulness and perspicacity saved Egypt and many surrounding nations from a devastating seven-year famine.

Hearing that Joseph had the gift of interpreting dreams, Pharoah asked him about a particularly troubling one. Joseph risked delivering a very unwelcome prediction of famine—news which Pharaoh might not have wanted to hear. But Joseph went beyond being the bearer of bad news and devised a plan to save Egypt. He spoke out of turn; he thought—and acted—“above his pay grade.” Along with the bad news, Joseph offered a plan and told Pharaoh, who held the power of life and death over him, what to do. Pharaoh responded by putting Joseph (undoubtedly the smartest hire Pharaoh ever made) in charge of implementing the plan, thereby saving his own kingdom, surrounding kingdoms, and even Joseph’s family back home in Judah.

Joseph’s example illustrates the value of being able to think “above your pay grade,” and of having the savvy to know if and when it is time to speak. We can also note that wise bosses are likely to promote such people. Why? The person who speaks up, offers a constructive plan, and provides a good solution demonstrates good thinking and a concern for the greater good, the higher aims, and the overarching vision for the enterprise. In Joseph’s case, this meant concern for the nation of Egypt and for Pharaoh’s rule.

Regardless of our role, it pays to think in terms of the larger enterprise. It’s more than a good career move: it’s an act of faithfulness to offer the best thoughts and efforts we can and let the chips fall where they may. When we offer our best and speak the truth in love, we can trust God with the outcome.

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© Bruce D. Baker, 2014