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In 605 B.C., the best and brightest of Israel were deported to Babylon after their homeland was decimated. No Israelite wanted to be in Babylon. And it would have been a natural inclination to resent their godless environment and look for ways out of it, or at least cloister and disengage. But God had other plans for them and the place they landed. In an astounding letter to the deported population, the prophet Jeremiah writes, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7). The prophet tells them to settle down, build houses, and work. And in the first three chapters of the book of Daniel, we find that captured Israelites included Daniel and his three friends and that these four men don’t just survive their assignments in Babylon, but they become the advisors the king — the best advisors the king has.
There are a hundred reasons why you might find yourself employed at a place you don’t find particularly friendly to your faith. You may yearn to get out and do something new, maybe join a full-time ministry or start a new business. Some may do exactly that, but not everyone can — or should. I once wrestled with this decision myself.
Fifteen years ago, I was one of the owners of a growing, successful consulting firm. The company was well led, ethical, and supported the flourishing careers of its employees. Every day was a joy at work. The pace was exhilarating. But the majority shareholders couldn’t resist a lucrative offer from a large, multinational firm that would guarantee their comfortable retirements. We were acquired with the promise that we would continue to operate as successfully as we did in the past. Anyway, mergers and acquisitions are a way of American business life.
Then 2008 came. As the economy spiraled, contracts were canceled or renegotiated, and layoffs were constant. Leadership was decimated, eliminating anyone who wasn’t seen as directly contributing to the bottom line. To make matters worse, our new leaders quickly decided the workplace culture of their newest acquisition (my firm) was a problem. Since business was shrinking globally, competition for new work jumped astronomically. There was no way to meet sales or profit goals, but few board members were willing to consider lowering the expectations. Reorganization and management changes were constant. Uncertainty ruled.
Needless to say, the stress on the company’s management and employees was nearly unbearable. And it wasn’t just us — I observed this in other companies and even government entities with which that we did business. It seemed the average person showed up daily with an angst of how to be productive and responsive enough to survive.
By 2010 the tide began to turn, but the pattern of behavior throughout organizations like ours was set. Big companies had figured out how to squeeze their employees for efficiency when it was a matter of survival and were now using it to ramp up profits with the expectation that shareholder value would always keep escalating. Everyone was always catching up. And everyone was exhausted.
This was a good time for me to remember that God did some of his best work in Babylon.
The modern faith and work conversation has brought to light inspiring stories of new faith-based companies, financial services leaders, and artists making a kingdom impact with their endeavors. Only the hard-hearted would not have their souls moved.
But practically, what do we do with such inspiration? Especially if we find ourselves in a large, for-profit company or, maybe worse, a government agency? These are, after all, some of the largest employers in the nation. U.S. Department of Labor statistics tell us that 40 percent of the workforce is employed by large companies (of 500 or more), and 15 percent work for federal, state, or local governments. A precious few of these organizations could be considered faith-oriented.
That means that more than half of Christians in America could assume that they need to quit their current job to make a difference. But that isn’t the leap all of us are called to.
To be sure, an employee of a faith-based company has freedoms they might not enjoy otherwise, like open conversations about their beliefs and how to do business righteously. Most large companies are highly driven by quarterly financial goals and target shareholder value, their executive leadership is centralized and far removed from the influence of managers and employees in the workforce, and a departmental leader in a government agency has even more constraints due to changing political currents, public scrutiny, and red tape. Each can face maddening reorganizations and management changes at any moment. It’s possible to feel exiled in Big-Company Babylon when the Faith-Based Promised Land is where we’d rather be.
But the grass is certainly not always greener.
What if we were to view our work in Babylon not as exile but as opportunity, and the place we do it as a gospel laboratory? How much more could this perspective contribute to the flourishing of our colleagues and company? There are a few ways we can begin.
First, recognize that you are in the middle of a community at work right now.
We work in teams, and yours might be your department, project team, or task group. These are your people and you should befriend them, pray for them, and serve them as you’re able. This is as simple as offering compassion when someone is hurting, advocacy when they are treated unjustly, and help when they are struggling. It also means honesty and integrity in dealing with your superiors, fellow employees, and customers. Biblical wisdom and love for your neighbor are your daily guides.
Second, remember that God is sovereign.
The authorities above you are in place at God’s pleasure. If the King of Babylon was “God’s servant” (Jer. 25:9), then your CEO is no less subject to God’s sovereignty. Pray for and work for the flourishing of your company, even when its complications make you crazy. Don’t compromise your credibility by being one of the regular complainers at the drinking fountain.
Third, look for opportunities to make a difference.
Most major companies have promoted initiatives for justice and equity. This is a good thing, one that followers of Christ should be leading and supporting. Sign up; get in the conversation. See if your company has an Employee Resource Group for people of faith. If not, maybe you can help start one. Several tech firms have vibrant ERGs that follow the model of christian campus ministries like Intervarsity and Navigators. Even if your company is not open to a christian ERG, it likely has some opportunity for networking with other believers. While any christian network has value in mutual encouragement, you should use that to support each other in order to promote a flourishing company and flourishing teams.
A wise pastor once told me that, “Everyone is in full time ministry.” He was right.
If enough of us internalize that concept and take it to the office with us, the gospel will reach the people there. Skeptics and agnostics may see Christ in his followers and want to know more. We can show that faith in Jesus is real and is consistent with who we are at work. The next time you get a memo announcing an inscrutable management change, reorganization, or outrageous financial goal, take a deep breath. Pray to God like Nehemiah did, standing before the Persian king (Neh 2:4). Resist the urge to explode or eject. You are there for a reason.
You have a cubicle in Babylon. It is not a jail cell. It's a place of honor and influence.