There are advantages and disadvantages to being a person of short stature. One advantage is that its really easy to hide from others. One disadvantage is that I can be so light on my feet that others don’t always hear me coming. If you’re wondering why that’s a bad thing, consider that there have been many times in my workplaces where I have walked up to someone and they don’t realize I’m there. I don’t mean to sneak up on them. I expect they will either hear me coming or notice me out of their peripheral vision. But sometimes they don’t. They can be sitting at their desk, busily typing away or intently reading something, and blissfully ignorant of my approach.
At this point, I reach the awkward stage. Do I say something, albeit ever so softly, so as not to startle them? Or should I quietly back up and retry my approach, this time saying their name from a distance. Most likely, if I choose the first option of gently letting them know I’m there this will make them jump anyway. If I choose the second option, they might observe my backward retreat, like doing Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, and, well, isn’t that just embarassing? And if I stand there and debate the situation too long their peripheral vision has a habit of suddenly and cruelly notifying them of my presence and they let out a little yelp. It is my personal, workplace Kobayashi Maru – a no-win scenario.
It strikes me that the idea of being light on one’s feet is a good analogy for how the Christ-follower is to engage their work. To the extent that the Christian virtue of humility is like being lightfooted, I believe we are to walk lightly and humbly in the workplace. But what do I mean by that? And isn’t humility the opposite of what our workplaces encourage? Society tells us to promote self and look out for number one, but it’s because humility in the workplace is so rare that I believe it is so important in the modern workforce. Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and author of Every Good Endeavor, gives a clue to what such humility in the workplace looks like in his commentary on Ephesians 6: 5-9:
Slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ. Don’t work only while being watched, in order to please men, but as slaves of Christ, do God’s will from your heart. Render service with a good attitude, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good each one does, slave or free, he will receive this back from the Lord. And masters, treat them the same way, without threatening them, because you know that both their and your Master is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him.
Keller compares first century slaves to modern employees and ancient masters to today’s employers. Just as masters, or employers, are to treat their employees with respect as they recognize Christ as the ultimate employer, so too employees are to work for their employers with “respect and trembling” or, in the Scripture version Keller uses, with “respect and fear.” It is “a phrase that means on one hand being courteous and respectful (rather than disdainful) and on the other hand humbly confident (rather than cringing or servile).” 1 Our fear (i.e. reverence and awe) of God, combined with the realization that our work is to be done solely “as to the Lord”, is the basis for a humble confidence.
However, it can be difficult in today’s politically correct and diversified workplace to integrate one’s faith with one’s work and still maintain an attitude of humble confidence. Usually, one or the other (or both) end up being sacrificed on the altar(s) of productivity, efficiency, employee relations, materialism, and ambition. Feeling threatened, we either lash out and act belligerently about our faith or we cower and hide in our cubicles, hoping for a promotion. Classic fight of flight response, it would seem.
I believe Scipture provides a key passage in maintaining such humble confidence when Jesus advised his disciples to be “as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves” (Matthew 10:16). As I meditate on that phrase in light of the larger passage of verses 16-20, it is obvious that Jesus is reassuring us that He will provide the confidence and humility needed, through wisdom and gentility, in the face of challenging and trying circumstances. Furthermore, we can live such humbly confident lives, filled with wisdom and gentleness, in our places of employment by keeping in mind two things.
First, all people have been graced with their knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) from God, regardless of whether they acknowledge Him or not. Scripture affirms this when it states that God “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). This is what theologians call common grace – the idea that God blesses all people in some basic, nonsalvific ways. Keep in mind that the sun and rain is important because, back then, communities were much more dependent on the proper functioning of the seasons for survival and human flourishing. Timothy Keller elucidates this point by writing,
Without an understanding of common grace, Christians will have trouble understanding why non-Christians so often exceed Christians morally and in wisdom. Properly understood, the doctrine of sin means that believers are never as good as our true worldview should make us. Similarly, the doctrine of grace means that unbelievers are never as messed up as their false worldview should make them. For in the Christian story, the antagonist is not non-Christians but the reality of sin, which…lies within us as well as within them.
And so we are likely to be on firm footing if we make common ground with non-Christians to do work that serves the world. Christians’ work with others should be marked by both humble cooperation and respectful provocation. 2
Second, we can walk humbly in the workplace by remembering that even as Christ-followers we are dependent upon God’s transforming grace. François Fénelon (1651-1715), archbishop of Cambrai, spiritual director and writer, and tutor to the French king’s children in the 1600s, 3 states the matter eloquently. “Perfection finds it easy to bear with the imperfections of others, and to be all things to all people…All such souls must labor at self-amendment at their own rate, and you must labor to endure their imperfections. Your own experience will teach you that correction is a bitter thing; and since you know this, give heed to soften it to others.” 4 Christ-followers who engage in the discipline of remembering how they once used to be apart from Christ can find it easier to be patient with any faults they may find in their co-laborers. It is only by the grace of God that Christ-followers are no longer what they were as the work of transformation is the Holy Spirit’s alone. May any “correction” we give others in the workplace be seasoned with patience and trust in God.
From what I have written above, it may seem as though I am merely baptizing any form of work engaged in or with nonbelievers. That is not the case as there are many areas of work and types of projects that Christ-followers ought to separate themselves from. My purpose in this post has been to give followers of Christ encouragement for engaging in good work and a general guideline on how to engage disagreements with coworkers that might arise from a difference in presuppositions. So knowing that we armed with wisdom and gentleness from above, and recollecting the truths of common grace and the Spirit’s role in transformation, may God enable us to exude a humble confidence as we labor as to the Lord.
1 Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (New York: Dutton, 2012), 215, emphasis mine.
2 Ibid., 191-192.
3 Robert J. Edmondson, CJ, and Hal M. Helms, introduction to The Complete Fénelon (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2008), 12-18, ePUB.
4 François Fénelon, The Royal Way of the Cross in The Complete Fénelon, ed. Robert J. Edmondson, CJ, and Hal M. Helms (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2008), 36-37, ePub.