Last month, I found myself in a bar in Hong Kong talking to a bunch of young financial traders who were, quite openly, out to get as rich as possible. It was hardly surprising, I suppose, given that we were in one of the wealthiest cities in the world where a staggering 9.4 per cent of the population are millionaire households. If you want to make a fortune,Hong Kong is not a bad place to start.
But the extent to which money drove their attitude to work completely astounded me. One guy proudly told me that his son was learning English, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese so he could have the best possible start in the world of international business. Ah, I thought, a budding teenage entrepreneur wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps. No. His son is only four years old.
So when conversation turned to what my husband and I each do for a living, it was as if we were speaking a completely different language. They couldn’t understand why a bright young man gifted in management would want to work for a not-for-profit housing association. And I can’t begin to guess what they thought of my work at LICC (the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity)!
It got me wondering: how as Christians do we view our paychecks? How much is salary a motivating factor in our work? Can we really be free from the pressure to earn more, more, more? Or are we just kidding ourselves when we say that money doesn’t control our career choices?
At a basic level, of course we work to earn money. We work to earn a living, to support ourselves and our families. Earning a wage is one of God’s mechanisms for providing for His children. To earn money is deeply biblical – we are not to be idle or overly-reliant on others, but if capable we should ‘earn the bread we eat’ (2 Thessalonians 3). This can be a hard pill to swallow for the young adult struggling to get into their dream industry, but there can be dignity in even the most boring of temp jobs.
But we also work for more than just the paycheck. We work because work is part of our God-breathed design – it’s an outworking of being made in the image of a worker God (Genesis 1-2) and an amazing opportunity to use our skills and abilities to benefit society. Through our work we have the chance to contribute to the common good – to improve the lives of others through the products and services we produce. If work was purely for what each individual might financially gain and not also about what they could offer, then whole sectors would surely collapse!
So if we work for more than money alone, then the basis of this myth is already debunked. But does this mean that all Christians should work for housing associations or Christian charities like me and my husband? Absolutely not! Good business can be a sustainable way of relieving poverty through giving people the dignity of having work, and the wealth generated through business can be a brilliant platform for generosity. But, as debated thoroughly in the comments in response to last week’s challenging piece Can you be a Christian and be rich?, it is difficult to live in a radically generous way.
It’s easy to throw criticism at the mega-rich, but the reality is that if you earn £26,200 you are already in the elite top one per cent of earners worldwide. Not many of us will conform to this myth to the extreme of theHong Kongfinanciers, but that doesn’t mean that money is an idol we never face. The lure of wanting more is never far away. I might be quite content not to own a helipad, but I could always do with another pair of shoes. I can still buy into the lie that my paycheck tells me how much I am ‘worth’ or that the social standing of my job determines my significance in the world. And equally I can be snared by the falsehood that the good I am doing through my work earns me special favour in God’s eyes. I can still forget that my identity is ultimately in Jesus. The greed and envy and striving for more might not appear so brash as in Hong Kong, but my heart is still human and still learning contentment.
Two things I ask of you, Lord;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonour the name of my God.