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.
If God is all-knowing, all-wise, and all-powerful, and if in his infinite wisdom he is directing the events of human history towards a predetermined end – do the decisions we make really matter? Do we really even have free will in making those decisions? How much of my business’ success or failure depends on my hard work and diligence, and how much is due to God’s favour or lack thereof? And what about prayer? If God’s will is predetermined, why should I bother praying for my business? And if prayer is important, how is it that many Christians who do not pray for their businesses still succeed? (The even more puzzling question of how people who do not acknowledge God or believe in Jesus are some of the most ‘successful’ business people will be dealt with in the next article.)
If there is one topic in Christian theology that seems to generate more questions than answers, it is that of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility (or free will). And yet it is a topic that we as redemptive business leaders cannot ignore, because it directly impacts our understanding of what being redemptive actually looks like. In this article, we will briefly explore what Scripture teaches about these important doctrines, and consider their practical implications on the way we approach business.
Defining the tension
In an essay by the same title, John Frame describes ‘the sovereignty of God’[i] as having three major components – his control, authority, and covenantal presence. He explains how God’s control means that everything happens according to his plan and intention. Authority means that all his commands ought to be obeyed. Presence means that we encounter God’s control and authority in all our experience, so that we cannot escape from his justice or from his love.
Mostly however, when people think of God’s sovereignty, they have in mind his control over all things – the natural world, human history, and individual human life,[ii] so that will be our focus in this article.
The troubling implication of God’s complete and universal control is that we as human beings are not free to make decisions and to choose our own path. But this is where things get interesting, because this is not what Scripture teaches. Without getting bogged down in theology, consider the first time we see human beings exercising free will, back in Genesis 3. If Adam and Eve did not have free will, then it was unjust for God to punish them (and us), for disobeying his command. For the purpose of this article, I will assume that we all agree that God is just, which means that Adam and Eve did have the option and the ability to reject Satan’s lie. In other words, as human beings, we have had free will from the very beginning.
It is this tension between the idea of a loving God who is in control of all things, and the reality of sinful human beings who are free to make their own decisions, that we see played out from day to day in our own lives. And before we go any further, it is important to acknowledge the mystery of it all, and accept that this is one of those things that we will never fully understand this side of eternity.
In episode 18 of the podcast series, Paul Kim uses a simple illustration to make this point. He asks us to imagine that we live as a stick figure in a 2D world where everything exists on a plane, i.e. with height and length, but no depth. He then asks how a 3D object such as a rugby ball would manifest itself in that world. From one end (seen from above), it would look like a perfect circle, from another (seen from the side), like an oval. From the perspective of our 2D existence, it would be inconceivable that these different shapes could be a single object – and yet they are. God tells us that his ways are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8–9), for the simple reason that human intellect and reason can only take us so far in grasping his nature, his will, and his ways.
Are you in control of your destiny?
In his landmark book, Think And Grow Rich (first published in 1937 and still a best seller) Napoleon Hill articulates what so many believe. He states that, “You are the master of your destiny. You can influence, direct and control your own environment. You can make your life what you want it to be.” This is the basic premise of the so-called ‘American dream’ which is the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society in which upward mobility is possible for everyone.
If there is a ring of truth to these views, it is because they are not completely foreign to Scripture. God created human beings with a mandate to work – to develop the latent potential of the earth for this glory and the common good. And throughout Scripture, hard work is not only commended, but is directly linked to success. Proverbs 14:23 for example reads, “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” And this is good because it nurtures a mental and emotional posture that creates the possibility for human flourishing. It gives hope to those born into, or who somehow find themselves in socially and or economically adverse circumstances. And importantly in the African context, it pushes against fatalism, where human beings are seen as helpless victims of spiritual forces and the actions of others.
And so, from a purely ‘2D view’, Hill’s hypothesis appears to be true to life, and dare I say, true to Scripture. With respect to business, the message is quite simply this, ‘Work hard, work smart, and your business will succeed – you really can make your life what you want it to be.’
However, it is not quite that simple. Think of Elon Musk, who is currently the richest man in the world. It is well known that Musk is not only intelligent, but that from a very early age he worked very hard to achieve the success we see today. But consider this – would an equally intelligent black child growing up in Apartheid South Africa (as Musk did), have been exposed to computers by the age of 10? Would she have had the opportunity to study in Canada and the US? And, having built up a successful company, would she have been welcomed into corporate America to negotiate its sale, making her an instant millionaire? The answer of course is, No. Taking nothing away from the hard work he’s put in, Elon Musk would not be where he is today apart from the circumstances of his birth and the systemic privileges those circumstances have afforded him for most of his life, and which cannot be attributed to his effort.
But let us for argument’s sake, assume that any of us are completely in control of our lives – does that actually inspire confidence? Tim Keller uses the example of prayer to tease this out. He asks us to consider what would have happened if God had said yes to every prayer we ever prayed. Would your life really be all that you want it to be? Or think about the ideas that seemed so wise to you 20 years ago, but now with the benefit of maturity and life experience, were clearly unwise and short-sighted. Does it not make you glad that you are not purely the product of your own wisdom and decisions? Keller sums it up well by asking, “What fool, knowing how little we know, would want to live in a universe where your future is completely and totally fixed by your choices?”
Are you in control of your business?
Let us consider an example from business, and specifically fundraising. When raising funds for a venture, one has to create a financial model for the business, which invariably includes assumptions about the future state of the world, such as government fiscal policy, geo-political relationships, financial markets, labour relations, and so on. And because such things are not within the scope of our control, even the best models can collapse should even one of our assumptions prove false. How many business models pre-2020 would have factored in a global pandemic that would bring the entire world to a standstill? And yet, this one event has catapulted some businesses into unexpected growth, while bringing many others to their knees. This simple example demonstrates how little we actually control, and raises serious questions about Hill’s philosophy on life and success.
If, on the other hand, we swing to the other extreme, where God’s control all but nullifies our responsibility, we are left with an equally untenable scenario. In such a universe, why would we bother to do anything at all? If God wants my business to be successful, surely he does not require too much assistance from me? And conversely, if he has already decided that a business venture is not going to succeed, who am I to fight against his will by working hard and being creative? Clearly then, it is not a question of God’s sovereignty OR my responsibility, but somehow, his sovereignty AND my responsibility. But what does that look like in business?
How then shall we live?
In a sermon entitled ‘Your plans: God’s plans’, Tim Keller helps us to live out this theological tension when he says:
The Bible does not say your choices have no connection to your destiny or that your choices determine your destiny. Rather God in his sovereignty relates your choices partially to your destiny, but he is the One who fixes everything. Therefore, you are held responsible, you are completely free, and yet you can relax. If everything was just all fixed, there would be no incentive, but since your plans are yours, they belong to you, and your consequences will come from bad choices. You have every incentive to work with every fibre of your being to do well and to do right and to be wise, but on the other hand, since everything is under the control of God, who is working things together for good, you can relax and not freak out.
It may be helpful to prayerfully consider your approach to business in light of this application. If you struggle to ‘relax,’ it may be that you are underestimating, and indeed, under-valuing the reality that God is in control of your life and business, and that he is able to guide you and even mitigate and redeem your poor choices along the way.
If on the other hand, you are less than wholehearted in your pursuit of the knowledge, skill, and creativity that could improve and grow your business to the glory of God, it may be that you need a reminder that you are a steward of his resources, and that he expects a return in keeping with the ability he has graciously entrusted to you.
This is perhaps a good place to advocate for Christian community. We all need godly men and women around us who, in the trenches of our business battles, can help us to process this and other tensions – so that we can work wholeheartedly as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:23), while finding complete rest in his control, authority, and presence.
[ii] Psalm 65:9–11, Acts 17:26, 1 Samuel 2:6–7