How do the values of the cross apply at work, where I’m judged by success, profit, and efficiency?

M asked a great question the other night at prayer meeting. In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul is explaining that the values of the cross up-end the values of the world. Paul is seeking to stop the values of the world creeping back in to the church. So, M asked: “what does that mean for my work? At work I’m judged by values of success, efficiency, and profit, not by values of failure, pain, and poverty. With what values should we measure our work?”. 

Here’s an attempt at a slightly more coherent answer than the one I gave (!): 

It means I need to remember that “success” at work and a happy boss do not correspond to “success” in God’s sight. A promotion at work and an increase in salary and status does not equate to “honour” in God’s eyes. The cross says you can reach the top of your career and still have lost. You may be popular in the office, but if it’s because you’ve joined in with smutty jokes and character assassinations to get there, the cross says: “you’ve failed”.   

It means I need to remember that “failure” at work and an unhappy boss does not necessarily translate into “failure” in God’s sight. The cross tells you that being handed your P45 could be a mark of success; ending up in an employment tribunal could be a sign of your heavenly Father’s smile. I can think of situations where writing your resignation letter (and trusting that God will provide your daily bread) would be the most “successful” act of your life. 

It means the Christian businessman, running his business with the values of the cross, is called to be different to the non-Christian businessman. He will close his business on the first day of the week (unless it involves works of necessity or mercy). That’s pretty inconvenient! He will make sure his employees are fairly paid. He will keep his commitments, even when they cost him. Profit is not his ultimate goal. Business success is not his ultimate goal. What really makes him tick is his heavenly Father’s praise. So, he will not lose his marriage for the sake of the business. He won’t be an absent father for the sake of the business. He won’t cut corners for the sake of the business. He won’t fail in love of neighbour for the sake of his business. 

Of course, we want to be “good” employees; we’ll want to please our boss. Of course, as workers, we need to perform our tasks, hit our targets, meet our deadlines. But the cross relativizes the world’s definitions of “good”. It stops us absolutizing the metrics and reviews that our employer uses. It adds another, far weightier audience than the boss, and far more valuable bottom line than money. The cross turns us into people whose “praise is not from man but from God” (Rom 2:29). 

In a cracking book, Gene Veith writes: “A Christian and a non-Christian may labour side by side in the same job, and on the surface they are doing exactly the same thing. But work that is done in faith has a different significance than work that is done in unbelief” (p.61, God at Work). I think that’s helpful. So, a Christian and a non-Christian can sit in the same employment review, and, as far as their boss is concerned, both are performing very similarly, but under the surface, in the sight of God, two very different jobs are being done. 

While Paul’s focus in 1 Cor 1 is how the world’s values can play out in the church, I’m sure Paul would want us to walk out of church and into our work place, taking the values of the cross with us. To live under the cross at work, like living under the cross at home and at church, can be very painful, uncomfortable, and sad; but it’s precisely under that cross that we come to experience the joy of God’s wisdom and God’s power.