Don’t Diss the Profit Motive

Have you ever felt guilty making money? As people operating daily in an environment that often appears to be after one thing—the bottom line profit—it would be easy to reduce our whole purpose for living to gaining a profit in our enterprises. There is much justification for criticism of the money focus in our society, because the ruling stronghold in the workplace is mammon that leads to greed and pride.

Those are the chips used to play the game. However, did Jesus ever judge anyone for making an honest profit in their work? The answer is no. And we should not let the abuses in society lead us to living in guilt and shame for making an honest profit in our work. Otherwise, we will go the other way and live a defeated life that is driven by self-inflicted guilt and shame and lead to a poverty-spirit mentality. So where’s the balance?

Many of the forefathers of our faith were successful in business. Abraham was one of the most successful businessmen in the Bible (Gen. 12-25). Job was the wealthiest man in his town of Uz (Job 1:3). The Apostle Paul was a successful tentmaker. All of the disciples were marketplace believers who fulfilled their calling in and through their workplace. Every one of these people had to make a profit in their work in order to stay in business.

David exhibited several motives when he decided to battle Goliath. There was a spiritual motive and a profit motive. David was a shepherd boy when he learned of the challenge issued from the Philistines to Israel’s army. He was delivering food to his older brothers when he learned of the challenge. It is evident David already had a deep faith in God and had depended upon God to shepherd his flocks. On many occasions his flocks had been attacked by wild animals and David fought them off with the divine help of God. Here was a young man who was already learning that there was not a separation between faith in God and his work.

David asked a very probing question about the Goliath challenge: “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine?” (1 Samuel 17:26). David is viewing the situation in terms of the spiritual and the material. He sees that this is a spiritual attack to the army of God and he sees that there is an opportunity to advance himself if he is successful in his enterprise. Is this wrong? Ed Silvoso, in his book  Anointed for Business, gives us a better understanding of David’s motive and purpose of taking the challenge. “David did not see a conflict, or an incompatibility, between a spiritual assignment and a financial reward. Unfortunately, today when we retell the story we emphasize his zeal for the Lord but inadvertently suppress any mention of his interest in the recompense, as if the latter were an evil deed. This represents a great injustice, because dichotomizing the spiritual and the material did not enter the mind of David—someone who was described by Samuel as “a man after God’s heart: (1 Samuel 13: 14). For David, the parallel he drew between God’s protection in his business and the impending encounter with Goliath was absolutely natural. He expected God to be with him in this undertaking just as He was with him when he fought off the lions. He did not believe that fighting Goliath was a spiritual enterprise and running his business a secular one. God was central in both of them.”

Dispelling the Old Myth About Workplace Leaders

“David’s oldest brother, Eliab, tried to disqualify him from any role on the battlefield on account of his occupation. ‘With whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness?’ (1 Sam. 17:28). He accused David of having impure motives and told him to go back to his business. Eliab did not believe that David belonged with the pros. In other words, what he meant was, “You have no right to comment on our lack of results because your training is in business. Go back and take care of it so that you can keep on funding us, but don’t tell us what to do!” Does this sound familiar? If you work in the marketplace, you have probably heard something like this somewhere along the way in your Christian life. “Let the professionals do the ministry and you take care of business.”

A Familiar Ring

David turned away from Eliab and kept asking others the same question. Obviously his inquiry had to do with the reward because “the people answered the same thing as before: (1 Sam. 17:30, emphasis added). David must have displayed confidence that Goliath could and should be defeated and made known his interest in the reward because “when the words which David spoke were heard, they told them to Saul, and he sent for him” (1 Sam. 17:31). David new that the deal was morally right, a sure thing and profitable. Consequently, he was convinced that it should be pursued.”

Profit Motive Not Necessarily Evil

David’s interest in the reward must not be overlooked because it touches a very sensitive issue: the profit motive. The profit motive is to a businessperson what the drive to win is to an athlete. No athlete worth his or her salt enters a competition to lose. To the contrary, they always expect to win.

It is also worth noting that when Jesus told the parable of the nobleman in Luke, he rewarded the 10 servants who made a return on their investments one mina by giving them cities to run. The one who returned 10 minas from his one mina—a 1000% return—got to manage 10 cities. The one turned one minas into five more—a 500% increase—got five cities to manage. And the one who returned only one mina was taken from him and given to the one with 10. Jesus was judging them based on their ability to make a return on their investment.

The profit motive provides the determination that allows a person to overcome extraordinary obstacles. In the same manner, the profit motive provides the stimulus needed for a businessperson to tackle similar challenges in the marketplace. It is a gift from God that, when used within proper boundaries, can benefit millions of people. However, when an athlete tries to win at any cost, he or she becomes destructive. The same is true of a businessperson whose motivation is to profit no matter how he or she does it. The drive to win and the desire to make a profit are given by God to provide the incentive required for conquering exceptional challenges. But both must be exercised according to God’s overarching principles.

Ethics and Motives

To win or to profit in an unethical manner or outside the will of God is never right. In fact, its consequences are devastating. The pitfalls of unbridled capitalism are many, including slavery, child labor and underpaid workers. It is not just how profit is made that is important but also the purpose for making a profit. While we need to be mindful of these cautions, they should not cause us to perceive profit as intrinsically evil. In fact, it is this misconception that prevents many Christians from making it big in business. Deep down many believers are not sure that they can be successful and godly at the same time. This ambivalence causes them to get lost in a maze of self-doubts. They struggle with who they are in the marketplace—businesspeople—and have trouble recognizing the validity of the tool provided God for them to succeed—the profit motive. As a result, many marketplace Christians remain in business but give up on experiencing the joy of the Lord in their work or of significant success, as if the former was impossible and the latter undesirable or, worse yet, evil.”

During the last eleven years I have transitioned from operating a successful ad agency in which we charged specific fees for services to operating in a non-profit vocational ministry model. The latter model must often earn money in ways that have an indirect connection to the services we provide. There is often a struggle between giving services that have a cost related to them (time) and not charging the recipient for that time because it would be inappropriate to associate money with the “ministry” activity being provided. This creates a system that can be abused.

At the same time, God demonstrates His faithfulness through this “faith walk” on the part of those in vocational ministry. I, for one, have seen His faithfulness in this area. I have a friend in whom God has called out of a secular work environment and is seeking to provide some valuable services to the local church. Again and again he struggles to find justification to charge for his services to the local church because of the “ministry” nature of his product. He struggles with giving his product value that is worthy of compensation. However, if we changed the word “church” to “local dealer” do you think he would have a conflict? The stigma of something having religious relevance impairs our view of the need for profit in our work. We then fall into the same trap our early Greek scholars fell into which taught that secular work is less spiritual and Christian work is more holy and should not be tainted by associating money with the service provided.

Occasionally I will get negative feedback for placing a promotional message above my TGIF devotional, accused of being too commercial with our devotional. I often want to ask that person if they would voice the same complaint to CNN for featuring advertising during their news broadcast, or complain to USA Today newspaper for having ads in their paper. For each product or service, there must be a corresponding method of covering costs for providing a service. If TGIF is provided for free, then there must be other ways to cover the cost of providing the service if donations are not enough to sustain the work (which they are not). Making resources available to our subscribers that will meet a need and earn a profit from those resources is one of God’s methods of funding our work.

Sometimes we over-spiritualize our work and think we should not use sound business principles to operate our work/ministry. Remember, all work is ministry in the eyes of God because we do it unto Him. The fact one is secular and one is not has no bearing. All of life is sacred in the eyes of God. We all must be accountable to God if we cross the line of promotion and begin operating with impure motives. This is true in both the secular and Christian arena.

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  • Joe DeVet

    There seems to be an unexplored assumption by many: nonprofit good, profit bad.

    However, to think or act on this is a violation of the virtue of Justice–giving to one what is his due. Profit is the just and appropriate recompense due to the economic factor called “enterprise”–which is, in general, the ability to take risks in order to create value for others.

    Problem is many of us don’t have this gift, and can’t imagine why someone who does needs to be compensated. It’s easy to see why equipment suppliers need compensation; and why labor needs it; and with slightly more difficulty why lenders need it in the form of interest.

    But “enterprise” is such a subtle thing, it’s hard to grasp the need (or justification) for rewarding it.

    There’s also a subtlety about “nonprofits” which produce an economic good or service. Such “nonprofits” (eg certain hospitals) do make a profit, else they would not exist, since “enterprise” is an essential element of any economic activity. Thus, for them, “nonprofit” is a misnomer. It would be more accurate to label these businesses “nontaxed.”

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