February 2, 2010

Slaying Your Golden Calf

Excerpted from Faith at Work: Overcoming the Obstacles to Being Like Christ in the Workplace, Moody Press, 2000. All rights reserved. Used by permission. 

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)

capIt’s a story of faith and hypocrisy.

Four-year-old Tom walked solemnly to his father’s casket. It wasn’t fair. It didn’t make sense. Why would God take his daddy? And of all times, why on Christmas Eve?

The boy reached into the casket to shake his father. He was about to shout: “Daddy! Please wake up!” But in that instant his family pulled him away.1 Even the mortician was moved by the scene.

His father’s passing changed Tom’s life forever, as did his mother’s subsequent decision to give up Tom for adoption. Over the next few years, Tom and his younger brother James were shuttled in and out of Catholic orphanages because their mother was too poor to raise them. There, Tom learned a little more about God, but still remained confused by Him.

As the years progressed, it became apparent that Tom wasn’t going to be an academic superstar. He did, however, earn quite a reputation in the orphanage for his efficiency. Quickness became his trademark. He could iron a pile of laundry faster than anyone, and with the next heap, he’d try to beat his own record. This distinction made Tom feel smart. It gave him a niche, a claim to fame, a place of relevance in a world where everyone else seemed to have so much more.

1519 page33Tom was eventually adopted and although it felt great to be out of the orphanage, he was self-conscious about being poor. God was still part of his life, but as Tom matured, his dreams tended to center more on wealth and popularity. At the time, he couldn’t do much about the wealth, but he could work on the popularity. In high school, he worked on it to the point of obsession as he sought to excel in sports and to date only the best looking girls.

After high school, Tom wanted to attend college to study architecture, but – same story as always – no money. So he tried to build a college fund by starting a small business selling pizzas. At first, like any eager entrepreneur, Tom worked incessantly, regularly putting in 100-hour weeks. It was his penchant for quickness, though, that evolved into the marketing strategy that paid off big time: pizza delivered in 30 minutes or less.

Decades later, Domino’s Pizza had made Tom Monaghan a billionaire. And as the money poured in through the 1970s and 80s, Tom lived out his dreams: expensive cars, $12,000 wristwatches, $7,000 vases, helicopters, planes, and yachts – there was nothing the once-impoverished orphan denied himself. He built a lavish, 2,500 acre golf course retreat, worked in a $2 million office, and broke ground on a 20,000 square foot home. He even bought the beloved ball team of his youth, the Detroit Tigers, for a svelte $53 million. Now this was the American dream, a real rags-to-riches story.

Problem is, though, one who’s living this sort of American dream does not easily fit through the eye of a needle. And Tom Monaghan knew it. He had risen to be the world’s pizza delivery king, while only paying lip service to the King who had delivered him. Sure, he’d given plenty to charities and to the church. He was even a nationally-renown champion of pro-life causes. Tom had seemingly done many good things externally, but on the inside, he had never surrendered his life to God. His heart was hard and his extravagant living reflected that – until, that is, C.S. Lewis performed some CPR.

Upon reading about “pride” in Lewis’ classic, Mere Christianity, Monaghan’s eyes were opened, literally as well as figuratively. The fifty-something CEO laid in bed all night taking inventory of his life, wrestling with the icy awareness that his prodigal lifestyle had been “to get attention, to have people notice me.”2 Regardless of his charitable works, Tom’s god wasn’t really the God of Jesus Christ. No, Tom’s god was Tom, his reputation, and his empire.

The insight was as shocking as his moment at the casket. “I realized that I had more pride than any person I know,” says Tom of his revelation. “I’m the biggest hypocrite there is.”3 

capIt’s a story about a low-level employee in Tom Monaghan’s company who also got caught up in pleasing the crowd.

Craig was a 19-year-old delivery boy. This wasn’t his first job and it certainly wasn’t his career of choice. He really wanted to attend seminary someday, or at least do something that made a difference in this world. But right now, he just needed money.

The work environment wasn’t bad. The guys there were pretty cool. And since Craig had to be with these people each day, he wanted to fit in.

It was sort of a strange culture, though. His co-workers would do things like put Ex-Lax™ in the manager’s coffee pot just for a laugh. They would plug the office computer into The Clapper™ and then howl when later that day the machine mysteriously shut off – taking all of the boss’ work with it. During slower times of the day, they’d hang out, gossiping and complaining. On deliveries, they’d visit friends on the way back to the restaurant. Deep down, it didn’t seem right to Craig. In fact, when he thought about it in the pews each Sunday, it seemed a bit offensive. But what was he going to do? It wasn’t his responsibility to set his friends straight, he concluded, so he stopped worrying about it.

Years later, Craig was still driving for Domino’s. Except a few things had changed. Now Craig was the one spiking the coffee. Now Craig was taking his sweet time on the road at company expense. Now Craig was showing rookies how to do less work without getting caught. The change just sort of happened overnight. He still sat attentively in church, but his Sunday thoughts no longer included his Monday behavior. 

capIt’s a story of God’s High Priest run amok.

There he stood, liberated from the chains of Egypt, his footprints still fresh on the floor of the Red Sea. There he stood, called to lead the people to a life of piety and worship. Moses’ brother Aaron was Israel’s inaugural pastor and Moses charged him to maintain control while he ascended Mount Sinai.

But there he stood, gold dust on his hands, mouth agape at the sight of a brother who most assumed had perished on the mountainside. If Aaron’s face weren’t so red from being near the furnace, it would have surely been red from embarrassment.

1519 page33His words to Moses are striking and worth memorizing: “I told them (the Israelites) ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” (Exodus 32:24).

Voila! Just like that! An extraordinary process if ever there was one. I threw in a few ingredients and miraculously, out came this!

It wasn’t a total lie, but Aaron’s response certainly was intended to mask the truth and to shift the blame. We know what really happened from several verses earlier: “He (Aaron) took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool” (Exodus 32:4). Aaron built the thing, there’s no way around it. Rather than do God’s work, he succumbed to the will of those around him. He was more concerned about what his peers thought than what God thought. And to top it off, once his sin was exposed, he all but denied responsibility for it. Out of the fire came this calf! Don’t ask me how it happened. I’m just as amazed as you are.4

The Golden Calf in Our Workplace
What little difference 3,000 years can make! Consider the modern workplace. To whom or what do we bow down when we are among the crowd? What guides the many decisions that we make each work day? What determines how hard we work? Who makes the rules for how we interact with co-workers and customers? Overall, what is it that dictates our attitude and behavior on the job?

For some people, money, power and stature are primary motivators. Climbing the ladder and earning a good living is paramount. For others, fitting in and being well-liked are most important. Popularity, social acceptance and respect are the answers to the above questions. Some see work as a necessary evil and are preoccupied with doing the minimum that’s required. They’re just going through the motions till quitting time, motivated by nothing more than keeping their jobs and drawing a paycheck.

Indeed, there are many other workplace motivators and if some of yours haven’t been mentioned, mentally tack them on. But then step back and analyze what’s really going on here. When we think about our life at work, where is God? Is He still in church? Does He get checked at the company door when we walk in? Is He in a box that we take out only in time of need or crisis?

More to the point, for the Christian in the workplace, why isn’t “God” the answer to each of the job-related questions listed above? I’d suggest there are two basic reasons for this – one for the nominal believer and one for the more mature believer.

First off, many casual Christians are simply unfamiliar with the fact that God wants to be at the center of everything we do in the workplace. They haven’t been taught by anyone that there’s more to Christianity than “The Golden Rule.” They haven’t heard that God has a plan for our daily work and that He has written down principles to guide us in our jobs and careers. For many Christians, this is brand new information.

But what about those of us who are familiar with this teaching? Why do we more learned believers persist in relegating God to the back-burner on our jobs? Many adult Christian students I have had the pleasure to teach say that the answer is an ancient one. To paraphrase, they say things like: “I don’t really know what’s happened. I tried real hard to live my faith at work, especially in my young and idealistic days, but I guess the workplace changes you. It conforms you. It makes you adopt the rules by which everyone else plays.”

Read the comment again. Don’t miss the implicit message. Without knowing it, they are basically responding as Aaron did. “I threw myself into the fire of the workplace and out came these new priorities!” It just happened.

Some of my other Christian students have placed the blame not on corporate culture, but on their boss. Their perspective can be summarized as follows: “You have to look out for number one today. I didn’t always think that, but after getting burned a few times, I now know better. Higher-ups are always asking for more, always looking for ways to squeeze more work out of you for the same pay. Well, I just give them what they’re paying for.”

I threw myself into the fire of the workplace and out came this preoccupation with my rights!

Similarly, a sizable percentage of Christian managers that I’ve counseled point toward their professional training and their career aspirations as the culprits for their workplace attitudes. “The approach they teach us in business school is persuasive,” they say. “We’re running a business here, not a charity. I’d like to give my people more, but in a world of limited budgets and global competition, we have to treat people as just another ‘factor of production.’ This is in the best interest of the shareholder, the owner of this company. Besides, if word gets out that your values get in the way of your decision-making process, it’s instant career cul-de-sac.”

I threw myself into the fire of business school and out came this career-focused, bottom-line-oriented manager!

1519 page33For Tom Monaghan, possessions and popularity were the motivators, even though deep down he knew better. For Craig, a delivery boy with seminary aspirations, it was the desire to be part of the gang that ultimately reshaped his perspective. The common denominator through all of this, though, is that we Christians – at times deliberately, at times unwittingly – sometimes abdicate responsibility for our workplace behavior. Aaron’s words to Moses reverberate throughout the ages. “It’s not really my fault,” many of us would say if pressed for an explanation. “This golden calf of mine – this fixation on money, success, personal reputation, individual rights – seemingly came out of nowhere. Before I knew what was going on, there it was!”

That may be true, but it’s also ironic. These golden calves of ours exist because we think that they will make us happy. We think more money, more respect, a bigger office, a new title, or a shorter workday will bring us closer to lasting satisfaction on the job. It might even give our work some greater meaning. However, the irony for the Christian is that pursuing these things can ultimately become the number one obstacle to finding genuine, long-term fulfillment and purpose in our jobs. That is, they can actually prevent us from doing that which really matters to God – modeling Christ at work – because they act as a substitute for a God-centered life.

By contrast, a New Testament approach to consistent Christ-likeness at work begins by first identifying and slaying your personal golden calf – by pinpointing and dispensing with those things that typically guide our behavior – and then replacing them with God.

The Starting Point for Christ-likeness at Work
It’s a story of a man on a mountain far from Sinai. His appearance was quite ordinary. His oratory was anything but.

“Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on the mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 5:1-3a).

Why did Jesus begin his sermon this way? Quite simply, because being “poor in spirit” is the beginning – the beginning of a right relationship with God, the beginning of a right relationship with neighbor, and the beginning of an authentic Christian life. It is the beginning of our ability to live the profound teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and as we unpack the words, we’ll see that it is the beginning of more effective witness in the workplace.

Some are confused by the term poor in spirit, but in reality, it’s a teaching with which most of us are familiar. To be poor in spirit simply means to be humble before God, to accept God’s rules, God’s standards, and God’s plan for our lives. It is to put our will – our spirit – second, and to put God’s will first.

The instruction is relatively easy to understand. It’s a teaching that tells us to slay the golden calf of doing things our own way and to turn toward the One who knows the better path for our lives. But ever since an infamous couple ate from the tree in the center of the Garden of Eden, people have rebelled against the teaching. We see, for example, the resistance in the lust of King David, a man who had been given everything, but still desired a married Bathsheba. We see it in the self-righteousness of Jonah as he bolted rather than help save pagans. We see it in the materialism of a rich young man who rejected a Messiah’s message to sell all he had. We see it in the greed of Judas as he sold out the Savior for silver.

Our challenge is to do things differently. This is the calling of the very first Beatitude and, as we’ll see, it’s echoed in the others. As Christians, we are to turn from the dubious tradition of self-sufficiency and do what may be very unnatural: to let God lead us – in all that we think and do – twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Applying the Principle in the Workplace
When these are words on a page, the teaching is straightforward. Think for a moment, though, about just how radical the instruction is when applied to your work life. As a guiding workplace principle, poor in spirit means that God’s the real Boss. He’s the one for whom you primarily work. He’s the one you should aim to please in every task you undertake and in every interaction with people. The implications are enormous and a bit overwhelming. This first Beatitude implies that we should work to our potential even though we might be underpaid, passed over for a promotion, or exploited by whoever makes the schedule. It means that no matter how busy we are, we put our families before our careers. It means not worrying about what our co-workers think of us. And it means forgiving that infuriating co-worker who seems like the poster child for original sin.

For the grocery clerk, it means standing behind the check-out counter on the eve of Thanksgiving with a smile, and treating every customer with respect – even the ones who berate you because the line stretches into Aisle 7. For high-tech folks, it means to resist the daily temptation to visit the Internet’s red-light district. For the manager, it means to put people before profits, to advertise with integrity, to be sensitive to the needs of employees and customers, and to act as a steward, not an owner, of the financial capital with which God has entrusted you. For the overworked secretary, it means to answer that one-thousandth call of the day with the same enthusiasm with which you answered the first. For the person gifted in building relationships, it may mean using that gift to verbally and diplomatically spread the Gospel, cubicle by cubicle.

Why? Because when we are poor in spirit, we no longer work for some company; we no longer work for a paycheck, for the benefits, for the promotion, or for the acclaim; and we no longer work for a foreman, a supervisor, the CEO, the shareholders or any other person. To be poor in spirit on the job means that first and foremost, we work for the One who created our ability to work and we seek to honor Him in everything we do.

It is possible. And it can happen for you today if you’re willing to make a deliberate decision to slay whatever golden calf may have taken up residence in your work life and to then replace that idol with God. This is the path of workplace wisdom. And when we finally muster the courage to set foot on it – when we in faith decide to trust and depend on God’s guidance for our workplace attitudes and behavior – we will reap the benefits Jesus promised for the poor in spirit: “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

An Added Bonus: More Purpose and Fulfillment in Your Job
Indeed, this is a promise of the afterlife, but it is a promise for this life as well. “The kingdom of heaven” is an experience that has been “at hand” since the arrival of Jesus (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; 12:28): an earthly experience, as Paul says, of “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). It is a promise for today, to improve the quality of our relationships and our lives generally.

And in a workplace context, it gives every job more meaning, since all work that is performed to honor God is meaningful work. This applies all the way down to the most mundane or seemingly irrelevant tasks you have. Performing them to please God elevates the tasks to a significance they never would have had otherwise.

What we’re talking about, then, is a new mind-set – one with the power to give you a sense of purpose on the job, perhaps for the first time in your life. It is a mind-set that gives you a cause at work: to glorify God by your effort and your attitude. And no cause could be more noble!

Let me be even more specific. That pointless meeting you have to attend? Contribute to your potential to please your real Boss. That indecisive customer who’s holding up the line? Treat her with patience and dignity because that’s what Jesus would do. That employee of yours who is in serious need of a raise to support his growing family? Find a way to meet his needs.

It’s a remarkable feeling when we hear God’s “Well done!” on the job. It’s a feeling of real purpose and accomplishment. And when we hear it on a consistent basis, we encounter a level of job satisfaction beyond anything we’ve ever experienced.

Working as if working for God allows us to access “the kingdom of heaven” here on earth. It yields an inner peace and joy far exceeding that which comes from honoring any golden calf.

Slaying the Calf at Domino’s
Tom Monaghan learned that lesson. “None of these things I’ve bought, and I mean none of them, have ever really made me happy,” he said in reflection. “So anything I’ve got that gives me pleasure only for selfish reasons I’m selling.”5 Thus began in the early 1990s what the Wall Street Journal would later call “an extraordinary renunciation of material assets.”6 Monaghan disposed of the helicopter, the yacht, the plane, radio stations, the resort, and even the Detroit Tigers, earmarking most of the proceeds for the church. And in 1998, he sold his company, further accelerating the transformation from executive to philanthropist – from rich in pride to poor in spirit. From living for others’ “Well done!” to living for God’s “Well done!”

That transformation can be yours as well. In your workplace, you may feel the pressure of Aaron, but you are always called by the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Adopting this mind-set is a choice that we need to make on a regular basis. It’s not a one-time commitment made tearfully as we walk the aisle at a Billy Graham crusade. It’s not something we do only when we read a book on the subject. Rather, to faithfully live the Christian life – especially in the secular workplace – is to struggle on an almost daily basis to trust God and to slay the golden calves that are everywhere. Each time one rears its ugly head, we have to cut it off.

If that doesn’t sound like a particularly inviting promise, look at it this way: It’s not everyday that you get to fire your boss! But that’s precisely what you can do by accepting the calling to become poor in spirit. Your life at work can reopen today under God’s new management.

1 Dottie Enrico, “Roots of ambition: Childhood experiences of orphaned, adopted ignite drive to thrive,” USA Today, 5 September 1997, 1B.
2 “The private penance of Tom Monaghan,” The Detroit News, 17 November 1991, 1A.
3 Ibid. See also Enrico, “Roots of ambition,” 1B.
4 This line of thought builds on a sermon from nineteenth-century preacher, Phillips Brooks. That sermon, entitled “The Fire and the Calf,” can be found in various places, including Andrew Watterson Blackwood, editor, The Protestant Pulpit: An Anthology of Master Sermons from the Reformation to our Own Day, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1947), 129-37.
5 “The private penance of Tom Monaghan,” 1A. See also Enrico, “Roots of ambition,” 1B.
6 Richard Gibson, “Domino’s Pizza to be sold for $1 billion: Founder to turn attention to philanthropy,” The Wall Street Journal Europe, 28 September 1998, 11.

 Michael Zigarelli was the dean of the Regent University School of Business in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and the editor of Regent Business Review
when he wrote this article.