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« The Cost of Being a Misfit | Home | Week in Review: April 29-May 4, 2007 »

A Saintly Struggle

By Mark D. Roberts | Friday, May 4, 2007

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In my last post I explained how living “saintly” or “set apart” lives can lead to conflict, even suffering. I cited the example of Jim and Donna, whose unwillingness to let their son play soccer on Sunday morning alienated them from the coach and other parents. Today I’d like to consider yet another example, this one from the workplace.

Steve was on the fast track to success in his corporation. An executive with outstanding talent and integrity, he quickly climbed the ladder of success. Before long he was one of the corporate vice presidents, an up-and-comer touted for future greatness. Steve was also a Christian, a man who sought to live out his faith in every segment of his life, including his professional life. For a while Steve’s faith seemed to be an asset to his work since it undergirded his exceptional honesty and integrity.

But then Steve became friends with Ronald. Ronald also worked for the corporation, not as an executive, but as a custodian. Steve didn’t see Ronald as a lackey, however, but as a fellow human being and, as it turned out, a brother in Christ. Casual interactions became deeper as they began to share their lives together. Their friendship was that of equals. So Steve thought nothing of it when he began taking Ronald to lunch in the executive dining room every now and then. All the vice presidents entertained personal friends in the dining room, and no one ever said anything about not allowing certain employees to eat there. But as soon as Steve started hosting Ronald for lunch, he perceived a subtle change in his work environment. Nobody said anything directly, at least not right away. Yet Steve’s peers seemed less interested in his input, and his superiors were less willing to hear his ideas.

Finally Steve confronted the company’s president with a direct question: “Why do I feel like an outsider around here? Have I done something wrong? Is there a problem with my work?”

His boss was honest. “No, there is nothing wrong with your performance of the things on your job description. But there’s a problem with your attitude, with your sense of company values. Frankly, bringing that custodian into the dining room just isn’t acceptable. Your doing so shows very poor judgment.”

Steve responded with equal frankness. “But there is no rule that governs whom we have for lunch. And we talk in this company about the value of all employees. I don’t see what’s wrong with having my friend join me for lunch every once in a while, even if he’s a custodian for this firm.”

“That is the problem,” said the president. “You just don’t see it.”

When Steve tried to explain how his being a Christian led him to treat all people with dignity, he was told that his religious convictions belonged at home, not at work. End of conversation.

Before too long Steve was offered a new job in the company. He would maintain his official position and salary, but would no longer be in the main office. It was safer to move him out to the field, away from Ronald and the executive dining room. Steve declined to move primarily for family reasons. A few months later he was told to take a position at a distant location, with a loss of position and salary. The message was finally clear: Steve was no longer welcome at the company. No matter what his performance had been, he had committed the unforgivable sin of seeing a custodian through the lens of his faith, and not through the prejudice of the corporation. (Picture to the right: No, Steve did not work for Enron. But I wonder how the Enron story might have ended differently if Christians in the corporation had taken more risks to live out their faith at work.)

The details of this story may be unique, but the general themes are experienced again and again when Christians try to be saints of God and successful employees. A woman I know lost her job when she wouldn’t obey her boss’s order to tell “a little white lie” in a business deal. A lawyer who tried to live according to God’s priorities for his life started working less than the 80-hour a week norm for his firm. Soon he was shunned as someone who “just isn’t pulling his weight around here.” As in first century, authentic sainthood can lead to suffering.

In America, we are blessed with an exceptional quality of religious freedom. We will not be incarcerated for worshipping God or publicly proclaiming the Gospel. But if we dare to question openly the values of the cultural elites, we will soon find ourselves the target of sustained verbal persecution. When a prominent leader, for example, publicly suggests that homosexual behavior is sinful, that person is attacked as a “hate-monger” and a “homophobic extremist.” He is even accused of inciting hate crimes against gays and lesbians. When a Christian denomination makes a public commitment to evangelize Jews and Muslims, that denomination is denounced, not only by media pundits, but even by political leaders in the official meetings of state and national legislatures. As Yale law professor Stephen Carter demonstrated so persuasively in his book, The Culture of Disbelief, Christians in America who express their faith in public will be written off by the cultural elite, if not libeled and blacklisted for their religious convictions.

Of course many Christians experience far more painful and extreme forms of suffering than being fired, or shunned, or attacked in public. Throughout history, and in many countries throughout the world today, Christians have been imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their faith. As we speak, believers in the Sudan are being sold into slavery because of their faith in Jesus Christ. A fellow Presbyterian pastor who serves in a Vietnamese congregation not too far from my own spent many years imprisoned in Vietnam, often locked in solitary confinement in a space so small he couldn’t even stretch out to sleep. The suffering of our brothers and sisters throughout the world needs to motivate both our prayers and our activism. Fellowship with our persecuted Christian family will touch our hearts, both inspiring our prayers for their deliverance and moving us to work for their freedom. Moreover, knowing that thousands of Christians are standing up for Christ in the midst of severe persecution emboldens us to endure whatever suffering we must face.

But, even if our suffering does not compare in harshness to that experienced by some of our spiritual siblings, we should expect to face adversity as we live holy lives in an unholy world. If we never experience difficulties because we are Christians, then we are probably falling short in holiness or insulating ourselves completely from the world into which Christ has sent us. Suffering is not an avoidable accident, but an essential element of the genuine Christian life.

Topics: Christianity and the World |

6 Responses to “A Saintly Struggle”

  1. Joe Lorencz Says:
    May 5th, 2007 at 8:33 am

    I have been reading this blog for many years and always appreciate Mark’s thoughtfulness and gentle spirit. This recent post about workplace faithfulness is especially outstanding.

    Joe Lorencz
    Campus Minister
    UC Berkeley

  2. Jennie Says:
    May 5th, 2007 at 10:21 am

    In the same way that the story of starving children in Zimbabwe never really helped me finish my broccoli, I wonder if using stories of non-believers helps truly get your point across. Statistically, in the US, so many people say they believe in God and go to church, the president of Steve’s company may very well have been a believer. And, for every person fired for not telling a white lie there is a church staff person NOT fired for telling a lie. This is not to say that your accounts are not true or don’t really happen, but do they carry as much weight as those about Christians who do the same things?

    If stories are presented as a “them against us” scenario, the VP non-believer who invites her janitor to lunch could be, rightfully, offended and write you off as bigoted instead of hearing your valid point! Christians do not have a patent on doing the right thing.

    Because I believe so strongly in what you are saying and because your other brilliant posts suggest that you want to help Christians (and yourself) to be better people and light in our world, it is my suggestion, in this case, to keep your stories within the family. Using similar anecdotes about people within the Christian community who make the same mistakes of value and judgment erases the possible stumbling block of righteous indignation and lets others know that you are not separating us from them.

    Keep up the good work. This is important stuff!

  3. Rick Says:
    May 6th, 2007 at 7:00 am

    The stories you shared are quite inspirational to me. However, the struggles I have experienced were put into perspective for me on a mission trip to Zambia with other members from my Church.

  4. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    May 7th, 2007 at 10:59 am

    Re: Jennie: Your point is a good one, it’s just not the point I’m making here. Yes, indeed, many Christians don’t live out their faith in a consistent way, and do instead go with the way of the world (whether that be corporate values, or whatever else). But my point here is that because of his faith, Steve found himself at odds with the values of his corporation. It isn’t so much a matter of Steve against his boss as against the corporate values. Righteous indignation is surely not the point, as you way. But awareness of when our faith puts up at odds with the culture, the corporation, or you name it is crucial, I think.

    Re: Rick: Yes, indeed. There are many Christians in the world today whose faith is putting them at risk of death. That does change our prespective, or at least it should.

  5. Jennie Says:
    May 7th, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    I understand what you are trying to say and agree with your point. So I guess, also, it might be good to point out that there are many examples of people’s faith being at odds with their own church’s or Christian corporation’s values and those might be easier for a believer to relate to. Standing up for your faith in a church committee meeting is certainly just as daunting as to your boss … and just as likely to get you ostracized.

  6. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    May 8th, 2007 at 9:24 am

    Yes. It is sometimes emotionally harder to try to be a faithful Christian in a Christian community that has bought in to non-Christians values (which we all do to some extent). I think of an obvious case of a friend of mine who wanted her church to use some of its large endowment (several million dollars) for a relatively inexpensive ministry to care for the poor, and the trustees wouldn’t support it.


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