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 MD 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.
“You are always righteous, Lord, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?”i In this carefully worded complaint, Jeremiah respectfully raises an issue that we all have to grapple with in some shape or form – especially in the business context. He is struggling to reconcile the reality of a God who always does what is right with the prosperity of those who do not fear him. His own life of hardship as a despised and rejected prophet would have provided the perfect contrast to the economic might of the godless Babylonians who God used in judgement against Israel.
We see this same struggle playing out in Psalm 73, “But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” Throughout the ages, God’s people have been perplexed by this mystery, and things are no different in modern times. Many of the biggest and richest companies in Africa and the world are owned by people who do not profess faith in God. Closer to home, it is commonplace to see godless businesspeople winning the most lucrative contracts and living ostentatious lifestyles, while many hard-working, God-fearing believers struggle to keep the lights on.
As Christians in business, it is important to make peace with this reality theologically. A failure to do so can lead to the downward spiral we see as we read on in Psalm 73, “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments.” In today’s language, we might express it this way, “What’s the point of living righteously then? Why do I bother trying to do business in a way that pleases God? It’s clearly just a waste of time. I try so hard to do things his way but I never seem to get anywhere, when all the while those who do not fear him are doing well. Why should I bother?”
And here’s the thing, not many of us would ever verbalise such thoughts, but from time to time, our actions reveal that they do indeed lurk deep within. Envying the wealth and success of ungodly people, employing worldly tactics to try and get ahead, compromising ethically to secure business, getting increasingly ‘tight’ with our giving, and so on. These are but a few signs of the downward spiral that comes from a failure to understand God’s ways with respect to the prosperity of the wicked.
It is my hope in this article to address the theological gap that can lead us down this path of disillusionment, and to tease out some key implications for the way we approach business as Christians.
God’s goodness towards everyone
The answer to the question of why those who do not believe in, love, or serve God are able to prosper is summarised in the Christian doctrine of common grace,ii which means “every favour, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God; this includes the delay of wrath, the mitigation of our sin-natures, natural events that lead to prosperity, and all gifts that humans use and enjoy naturally.”iii
Unpacking this definition, common grace means that:
This aspect of God’s goodness is clearly captured in the gospel of Matthew where we are told that God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.vi Interestingly, the context of this passage is Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies. He calls us to imitate our heavenly Father’s goodness to everyone, regardless of their disposition towards him – or indeed, towards us. This has important practical implications which we will explore later.
Everyone is created in God’s image
There is a second pillar upon which the doctrine of common grace rests. The primary one is God’s goodness, but the second answers the question of why God is so good towards human beings in particular. And the answer of course, is that we are created in his image. Every human being has inherent value, dignity and worth, simply because we are created in the image of God. This fact not only helps us to understand to some degree God’s goodness towards both the ‘evil and the good,’ but taken seriously, it should also help us to love our “enemies.”
Misunderstanding God’s goodness
There are several errors that we can fall into from a misunderstanding of God’s goodness through common grace.
Life would be a lot simpler if we could simply say that the ‘good guys’ (Christians) do good things, and the ‘bad guys’ (non-Christians) do bad things, and subsequently the ‘good guys’ always succeed and the ‘bad guys’ never do.
But that’s not how life works, because according to the gospel, there are no good guys and bad guys, only those who are “in Christ” and those who are not. This dualistic view of life has devastating implications for the redemptive calling of Christians in the marketplace, as Tim Keller explains:
“‘Dualism’ is a term used to describe a separating wall between the sacred and the secular. It is a direct result of a thin view of sin, common grace, and God’s providential purposes.
Dualism leads some to think that if their work is to please Christ, it must be done overtly in his name. This kind of dualism comes both from a failure to see the panoramic scope of common grace and the subtle depths of human sin. People with this view cannot see that work done by non-Christians always contains some degree of God’s common grace as well as the distortions of sin. And they cannot see that work done by Christians, even if it overtly names the name of Jesus, is also significantly distorted by sin.
So in other words, without a proper understanding of common grace, Christians have an overly optimistic view of what they are capable of in the world, a pessimistic view of everyone else, and will inevitably create a form of exclusivism or at least an us vs them mentality.”vii
Implications for business
God can and does use the gifts, talents, and abilities which he entrusts to non-believers to bless society and contribute to the flourishing of human beings and the natural world. This should free us to harness and leverage these talents in our own business contexts for the glory of God – even when the bearers of such gifts and talents do not acknowledge him. Take for example the question of whether as Christians, we should hire people on the basis of faith or ability i.e. hire a less capable applicant just because they are Christian, or a more capable non-believer.
A ‘thin view’ of sin and common grace may suggest that we should only hire Christians, but not only is this a failure to recognise that even the talent and abilities of non-Christians are God-given and can be used for his purposes, it can in some instances constitute poor stewardship of the businesses that God has entrusted to us.
Furthermore, we can lose sight of the fact that our places of work are often the best platform we have to love people and share the gospel. Now obviously, the choice of investors and partners requires a lot more discernment, because a worldview conflict at this level can limit the redemptive potential of any Christian-owned business.
Here are a few practical implications of common grace in business:
Common grace helps us to acknowledge that there are times to embrace culture warmly, and times to be in stark opposition to it. And the only durable, biblical way to do both is to see culture through the lens of common grace.