This article is drawn from The Monday Christian podcast series, in which Paul Kim and Sibs Sibanda explore the ways we can practically, thoughtfully, faithfully, and fruitfully connect the dots between Sundays and the rest of the week. Sibs Sibanda is the Managing Director of Nexus Open Systems (Harare), and works with Resource Global (South Africa) in training young Christian professionals for gospel renewal in their cities. Over the last 20 years, he planted and led a number of churches in Johannesburg and Harare, while also working as a strategy consultant and business developer for various organisations.
In contemporary English vocabulary, the word ‘hope’ indicates a lack of certainty. When I say, ‘I hope you are well’, the implication is that I do not know how you are, but my desire is for you to be well. Or when I say ‘Do not give up hope’, it is an encouragement to persevere towards a desired end, even though we accept that it may never materialise. The biblical use of hope, however, is quite the opposite – it refers to a confident expectation in the fulfilment of God’s promises as revealed in Scripture, and it is central to the Christian faith.
The metanarrative of Scripture, upon which the Christian worldview is based, presents human history as a linear progression with a consummating event (Christ’s return) which gives direction and meaning to our present existence, and a confident expectation for the age to come. It is this hope to which the New Testament writers consistently draw our attention, as they exhort us towards faithfulness, courage, perseverance, good deeds, fellowship – indeed, any genuinely biblical expression of our faith.
Having established in the previous article Working at Love and Loving at Work that doing business for God’s glory is one such expression of faith, the focus of this article is the manner and extent to which Christian hope both informs and motivates our approach to business.
The object of our hope
So, what exactly are we to confidently expect as believers? This is an important question, especially for Christians in business, because when the object of our hope is anything other than the clearly revealed (in Scripture) promises of God, we are setting ourselves up for disillusionment. As Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” All business people experience the demoralising effects of delays and outright failure, but for the believer with misguided expectations of divine intervention, these blows can be especially crushing.
This is why we need to understand that Christian hope is rooted in only one thing – God’s faithfulness revealed through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Because of his sacrifice, believers can have not only the certainty of peace with God here and now (Romans 5), but also a confident expectation of the resurrection, the redemption of creation, eternal life and the inheritance of the saints (Ephesians 1), and the glorious return of Christ. This certainty is guaranteed by Christ’s own resurrection, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and indeed, Christ in us.[i]
Is it any wonder that the New Testament writers constantly remind us of these eternal truths? Whether exhorting us to live lives pleasing to God, or teaching us how to grieve,[ii] their goal is to remind us of the certainty of God’s promises, secured for us by Christ’s death and resurrection and sealed with his Holy Spirit. In Romans 8 for example, Paul deals with the existential threat of suffering, by juxtaposing it with the infinitely greater glory that will be revealed in the lives of true believers at Christ’s return.
The sad truth, however, is that for too many of us, there is little grasp of this certain future that anchors genuine Christian hope and joy.
As N.T. Wright observes, “What we have at the moment isn’t as the old liturgies used to say, ‘the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead’, but a vague and fuzzy optimism that somehow things may work out in the end.”[iii] Either due to our complacency with Scripture, or our natural propensity towards instant gratification (or both), we invariably set our hope on temporal things. And when that happens, our perspective on life becomes virtually indistinguishable from non-Christians. Our motivation for excelling in business is the same as theirs – we indiscriminately embrace the same philosophies, pursue the same outcomes, and define success in the same way.
In an article by Desmond Henry on the religious focus of the African traditional worldview, Cyril Okorocha is quoted as saying, “Africans see salvation as that which makes the present life worthwhile. They want the blessings to be visible in this life. As a result of this desire, the traditional African is strongly drawn to the ‘prosperity gospel’, which stresses blessing in this life.”[iv] And while it may be easy to distance ourselves from the fallacy of the prosperity gospel, it is much harder to deny the fact that much of what we hope for in business is anchored in this present life, coupled at best, with Lewis’ “vague and fuzzy optimism” about Christ’s return and our lives thereafter.
The back story
In order to sharpen the focus of our future hope with respect to work and business, we must ground ourselves in God’s revealed plan from the beginning.
From Genesis, we know that God created human beings to work, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, to subdue it, and to exercise dominion over the animal kingdom. Through our work, we should steward the earth, and apply our creativity towards the flourishing of all life (plant, animal and human). However, with Adam and Eve’s rebellion, sin and death entered the world, affecting relationships, work, and the natural world. By God’s grace, and the inherent goodness of his creation, we are still able to enjoy a measure of the joy and fruitfulness of work, albeit through pain and hardship.
Through Christ’s death and resurrection, God revealed and executed his plan for the redemption of his creation. This means that all who believe can be free from the idolatry that characterised work after Genesis 3, be motivated and empowered to glorify God, serve one another, and care for the natural world, in and through their work. However, sin’s continued presence in this present age means that the entire creation is still ‘groaning’ under the curse, and is waiting in “eager expectation” (Romans 8:19) for God to complete his redemption of all things through the return of Christ, through whom all things will be made new (Revelation 21:5).
The question then is, How does this glorious ending inspire hope in our day-to-day work?
Cutting through the haze
To answer this question, we must first address Lewis’ lament concerning our “vague and fuzzy optimism” by laying down a few Scriptural truths concerning the age to come.
1. Renewed creation
Scripture does not begin with the problem of sin – it begins with the goodness of creation, which is why we see God’s unwavering commitment to the work of his hands throughout, culminating in its complete rescue, described as the ‘new heavens and a new earth’. Some erroneously interpret Peter’s vivid description of the destruction of the earth (2 Peter 3) to mean that God will completely obliterate the earth. This, however, is in direct conflict with Genesis 1, in which God declares his creation to be “good” (so worthy of saving, not discarding).
Peter is merely describing a purifying fire which will remove all imperfections from the natural world – a similar idea to the ‘destruction’ of the earth by The Flood, which he mentions in the same discourse. This is in line with the apostle Paul’s teaching on the destiny of the earth in Romans 8:19–20, “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration… in hope that it will be liberated from its bondage to decay.” Creation’s confident expectation is of liberation, not obliteration.
2. Bodily resurrection
For many Christians, ‘heaven’ is a nonphysical reality where we will float around as disembodied spirit beings, singing songs to God all day long – or something similarly vague and fuzzy. Not only is this picture completely disconnected from the reality in Genesis of human beings flourishing in a perfect physical habitation, it is nowhere alluded to in the rest of Scripture.
In 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul deals extensively with the subject of bodily resurrection. Where some get confused is in verse 44, where he says (in reference to believers) that the body is “sown a natural body, and raised a spiritual body”, which on the face of it, appears as though he is saying our resurrected bodies will not be physical. However, the Greek word pneumatikos (translated ‘spiritual’ here) means a body directed or animated by the spirit, as opposed to one directed by the desires of the flesh – it is not a contrast between a physical and nonphysical body. So, we understand from Scripture that in the age to come we will have physical bodies free from sin’s effects and our present limitations, while maintaining recognisable human attributes (e.g. Jesus eating fish with his disciples after his resurrection). N.T. Wright puts it this way, “Salvation, then, is not ‘going to heaven’ but being raised to life in God’s new heaven and new earth.”
3. Redeemed work
Let us review the facts. We will have physical bodies, free from sin and its effects, living in unhindered fellowship with God and each other, in a perfect, physical world. Does that sound familiar? Of course it does, that’s how the story began in Genesis 1. That was God’s plan from the beginning. And what was God’s idea of a perfect world? We don’t have to guess – it’s called ‘work’. In the very beginning, God was working, and the very first thing he did after creating human beings, was to put us to work – all before sin entered the world.
So, what will the redeemed be doing in the new heavens and new earth, when all traces of sin have been removed? Sitting on clouds, playing harps and eating grapes? Or perhaps floating in the sky listening to worship music? If you’ve followed the story from Genesis, this should sound ridiculous by now. When God completes his ‘cosmic clean-up’ we will be doing the very thing he created us to do – only then, we will be doing it without the pain, frustration and limitations of our present experience of work. We will be working without the idolatry, exhaustion, exploitation, unfairness, or quarrelling. Scripture does not give specifics as to the kind of work we will be doing, but Revelation 5:10 leaves us in no doubt that there will be work to do, “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”
Piecing it together
We can finally attend to the question we set out to answer, How does Christian hope inform and motivate our approach to business? Truthfully, in more ways that we have space for, but let us consider a few.
1. Self-sacrificing love
In the previous article, we established that believers ought to see work from the perspective of love. Consider John Piper’s assertion that “hope is the birthplace of Christian self-sacrificing love”.[v] When we truly believe that God has secured our future, we are no longer preoccupied with self-preservation and are set free to truly love others in and through our business.
2. Work matters
The fact that God cares about his creation and will one day restore it gives meaning to our labour. If the earth is just a temporary stage that he’s planning to discard one day, then nothing we do in developing it ultimately matters, and our labour is in vain.
3. Quality matters
Doing things to the best of our ability and producing excellent quality goods and services, not only glorifies the One who created us to work, but is in keeping with the confident expectation that creation will one day be renewed. We cannot know exactly how it will all translate into the new heavens and new earth, but God’s plan for renewal (not obliteration) gives us reason to believe that there will be some form of continuity of the work he created us to do.
4. Defining success
If this present life is all there is, then it makes sense to define success in business as the world does, such as ‘he with the most toys, wins’. In the biblical vision of reality however, true success is defined as faithfulness, and will ultimately be rewarded by Christ himself. This should give us the freedom to attempt big things for God, without fear of how people will judge our efforts. It also frees us from feelings of failure when the results of our hard work do not match those of others.
5. Dealing with injustice
In the business world injustice takes many forms, especially in the African context. The truth is that we would be able to achieve so much more if we were not lied to, deceived, cheated, defrauded, extorted, and all other expressions of sin. But the fact that there is a righteous Judge, to whom all will give account, means that we can leave all that in his hands, and focus on what he has called us to do.
“People who believe in the resurrection, in God making a whole new world in which everything will be set right at last, are unstoppably motivated to work for that new world in the present.” N.T. Wright
[i] Romans 5:1, Acts 23:6, Romans 8:23–25, Titus 3:5–7, Titus 2:11–14, Acts 2:26, Romans 8:23–25, Colossians 1:27
[ii] 2 Peter 3:11–12, 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18
[iii] N.T. Wright Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church
[iv] Desmond Henry. “Considering the this-worldly religious focus of the African traditional worldview as found in South Africa”, http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2074-77052017000100032
[v] John Piper. “What is so Important about Christian Hope?” https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/what-is-so-important-about-christian-hope