The Beauty of Business

August 10, 2015

The reputation and – to a lesser degree – the practice of business, perhaps more than that of any other institution, suffers from the kind of reductionism that is the stepchild of dualistic and secular thinking. Some business-bashing is deserved, because some businesses operate in very opportunistic ways, but much of it can be traced back to a misunderstanding of what business is and does.

Unfortunately, once we have been fooled into thinking that life can be compartmentalized, that we can wall off religious beliefs from the rest of life, and that our economic lives belong on the secular side of that wall, we are left with few options for defining or carrying out business activity in a holistic way. We are backed into having to find some “secular purpose” for business, which too often in a materialistic world gets reduced down to “making money.”

In fact, there is nothing at all wrong with making money, even a lot of it, if it is done in the process of building healthy organizations, creating jobs, and providing needed goods and services at prices that improve people’s lives. Profits are critically important for encouraging innovation and risk taking, and for luring resources to where they are most needed in an economy. Unfortunately, it is very hard for people to keep these broader purposes in the forefront of their minds when they have been hoodwinked into bowing to the secular god of mammon and thinking that businesses are accomplishing their primary purpose by simply making lots of money.

Thankfully, businesses can be and often are much more than this! Properly structured and run, they are not only vehicles for stewardship and sustainability, but they are also the best hope for pulling and keeping people out of poverty. One reason for this is that to survive, businesses must create value. In other words, they must produce products and services that a society values more than it values the time, money, knowledge, or resources that were needed to produce that product or service. Granted, societies can have misguided values, and some businesses will capitalize on this, but for the most part we should not blame businesses because families, churches, or schools are unconcerned or unsuccessful in inculcating positive and godly values in people.

In fact, ”doing business” may be the most interdisciplinary of all pursuits. Entrepreneurs and managers need to be both scientists and artists, capable of bringing together natural, physical, financial, intellectual, emotional, aesthetic, social, and even governmental resources in a harmonious way, and for a single purpose – not unlike what a maestro does when he pulls together a diverse group of musicians and instruments for the purpose of making beautiful music. In addition, to ensure a steady supply of and appropriate balance among these resources, the business person must be vigilant about the unique characteristics, needs, motivations, and values of the diverse participants in this process, as well as the vicissitudes of the myriad variables that affect the supply and demand for these resources.

In fairness to those who hyper-focus on profits, money is central to this activity because many of the resources that businesses employ are “purchased” with money. The rights to natural and public resources, the ownership of machinery and equipment, and the right to use people’s time, accumulated educational and experiential resources, and creativity are all compensated with money. But, creative managers reward their suppliers, employees, and communities with far more than money and give their customers far more than low prices. They respond to and shape their values, all the while looking for fair and adequate ways to reward them for their willingness to continue to provide needed resources to the business.

For example, businesses need to reward the owners and creditors with sufficient dividends and interest to compensate them for saving and risking their money. However, these owners and creditors also need to be rewarded with assurances that their money is being used in a manner that is consistent within the legal and moral boundaries of their contract. Suppliers must be rewarded not only with timely payments, but with fair expectations, workable time frames, and satisfying long-term relationships; employees must be rewarded not only with adequate pay but with creative benefits, a healthy work environment, reasonable expectations, personal development, and time for family. Additionally, government and the public must be rewarded not only with honestly computed tax payments, but also with regulatory compliance, community partnerships, educational partnerships, and environmental stewardship; similarly, customers should be rewarded not only with low prices, but also with accurate marketing messages, high quality, serviceability, and warranties.

In doing these things, businesses increase the income and wealth not only of owners, but also of employees, customers, suppliers, taxpayers, communities, and nations. Done well and sustainably, they can also increase the income and wealth of future generations as they reinvest profits and bequeath things like land improvements, buildings, technology, books, durable goods, estates, and foundations to heirs. This wealth increases productivity and incomes as it allows for investments in child-rearing and education, on-the-job training, productivity-enhancing software, machinery or tools, and time-saving products for the home. It also reduces the damage associated with life’s ups and downs and the likelihood of catastrophic losses by giving people, organizations, and economies financial cushions during tough times and resources to share with the needy. In addition, asset ownership offers both access to capital (since assets make good collateral) and opportunities to develop the kind of decision-making, management and stewardship skills associated with home or business ownership. Business activity also promotes sustainable community development as job creation and profits gradually edge out government dependency or charity.

All of this, of course, requires an environment where people are free to pursue business according to the dictations of their hearts – with emotion, effort, and attention to detail that borders on religious fervor. But it also means that hearts need to be oriented in the right direction. This means businesses must be interested not only in making money, but in promoting human flourishing through job and wealth creation, innovation, managerial integrity, stewardship, and service. When business is done this way, economies, governments, and civil society flourish, people prosper, and God is praised. Soli Deo Gloria.

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  1. Thanks John. This was perhaps the most beautifully articulated description of shalom in the business world that I’ve ever read. You sum up my chosen profession well.

    While I appreciate that this is a largely positive “the way it should be” piece, I know you would admit (and implied here) that business is rife with reductionism and abuse. Very very few business folks, even Christians, adhere to the principles you describe.

    Perhaps you can write a more critical follow-up to this investigating the he many sins of the business community and how we as a community can do things differently, especially as we educate our children.

    For example, you discuss the importance of ownership of assets. However, it seems most business folks take this good as a challenge to play a real life game of monopoly. I would argue that since ownership is a good thing, it should be spread as wide as possible. Most others think that since ownership is a good thing, it should be hoarded by the few.

    How can you help us respond to the very ugly realities the 21st century business world? How can you as an expert and educator help shape our collective communal imagination so that our economic life looks more like your vision of shalom?

    1. Thanks, Laremy. Yes, the business world is strongly influenced by the values of the culture in which it is immersed, including individualism, the need to “beat” the competition, the desire to accumulate, lack of concern for neighbor, etc. It may be that I will need to tackle some of these in a future in all things post, but if/when I do so, I will be inclined to balance this off with the personal stories of business people whose remarkable dedication to value creation, relationship building, serving and sharing are indelibly etched in my mind. I guess some of this goes back to having Ephesians 4:29 as a favorite verse! 🙂

  2. What distinguishes a Christian business from being different than ethical business? What makes businesses that operate on Christian principles different than businesses that have morals or scruples? I don’t necessarily see how they are distinctly different — much less how one is even Reformed.

    1. Thanks, Jonathan. Your question is a good one, and in response, I would like to note that whenever we use the word “ethical,” we have something specific in mind which is tied to our worldviews and how we answer the big questions of life such as who am I, why am I here, or what is true, right or praiseworthy? Those of us influenced by Christianity, including those who have been influenced in mostly indirect ways, often understand terms like “ethical” in similar ways. But there are, nevertheless, wide divergences in how people with differing worldviews interpret this term and the level of influence of differing worldviews over time. Graphic examples include the persistence of corruption, deception, fraud, usury and even widespread killing among some groups of people for decades and even centuries. We should not assume they are necessarily purposely doing unethical things. In some cases their worldviews permit them do these things because they do not accept Biblical teachings as authoritative. In addition, Christian teachings about work, unselfishness, love of neighbor, respect for government, etc. will lead to (at least nuanced) differences in how the compensation pie is split up, what marketing messages make the cut, whether to establish a headquarters in a tax haven, etc.

      1. Interesting. I guess that every major (and probably minor) religion has a code of ethics and worldview that permeates their respective cultures and the business that happens therein. It seems that Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. all influence business in an ethical manner. Therefore, I don’t see a substantial difference in how a Christian worldview affects business as opposed to how the other religious worldviews affect business. In fact, it seems that business has influenced Christianity in America even more than Christianity has influenced business in America.