June 15, 2019 • Life for Leaders
May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.
I have spent much of my working life trying to develop “covenantal” business relationships. The word “covenantal” implies a focus not merely on the economic transactions of the relationship, but on the well-being of the other person or institution. While there is considerable interest today in forming strategic business partnerships, those partnerships are usually dominated by, if not exclusively concerned with, matters of business self-interest. But what if self-interest were supplanted by—or at least augmented with—a real interest in the common good made possible by the relationship?
One such relationship that I experienced started well. Our business counterparts shared many of the same strategic interests and cultural values as our company did. We built a mutual business relationship rooted in figuring out what made business sense not only for ourselves but for the other. But, over time, things changed. For a variety of reasons, our business partners began to treat the relationship like any other. From their end, the business relationship had devolved from a covenantal one to a transaction-oriented one. We were faced with the question: How should we respond?
In Psalm 140, the psalmist focused on the external threat posed by enemies of the faithful. In today’s psalm, the psalmist is concerned with the response of the faithful themselves as they react to the presence of their enemies. As those seeking to follow Jesus, we are at risk not only from the actions of those who oppose the Way of Jesus, but also from our response to their opposition. To quote noted Old Testament scholar John Goldingay, “We need protection from other people’s attacks, but also from other people’s influence.”
So the psalmist prays: “Set a guard over my mouth, LORD… Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil so that I take part in their wicked deeds along with those who are evildoers” (Psalm 141:3-4a). The psalmist even acknowledges how tempting and how attractive it is to participate in what would seem to many to be the normal way of being in the world, adding, “Do not let me eat their delicacies” (Psalm 141:4b). The temptation to respond in kind, and thereby embrace the evil we seek to oppose, is powerful. It was for me.
Our text today gives us a canonical reminder of who we are and what our work is about: “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” I need continual reminding that my vocation is to be God’s image-bearer in the world, as countercultural as that may be. Today’s text focuses our attention on our work as an act of worship. Consequently our work must be done in such a way as to reflect the character of the One to whom we offer our prayers. So begins the transformation of our work (and our prayers!) from mere self-seeking into loving even our enemies.
Doing business this way is no guarantee of success. As some have astutely observed, when Jesus loved his enemies, they crucified him. In practical business terms, covenantal business relationships may cost us some of our business relationships. This way of doing business may even ultimately cost us our business. But, life, even business life, is ultimately about “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). One of the practical indicators of that in my life is whether I can sleep well at night.
On occasion, doing the right thing may seem foolish – why not just act the same way as everyone else? But, in the end, life is about covenant faithfulness. And, such faithfulness will ultimately be vindicated, even if it costs us all we have in the meantime. As the Apostle Paul said so articulately, reflecting on Jesus’ ignominious death: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow … and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).
Something to Think About:
Which of your relationships do you find to be transactional and which ones have a covenantal dimension to them?
Something to Do:
Find one relationship in your leadership role where you want to cultivate more of a real concern for the interests of the other. Pray about and practically explore ways to develop that relationship in that direction.
Lord Jesus Christ,
Help us to have your mind in us. By your Spirit, transform our hearts and minds, so that we might work not merely out of our own selfish ambitions. Rather in humility, may we value others as we value ourselves, and may we look to the interest of others and not merely to our own.
We ask in your name, Amen.
Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online
Personal Integrity in Work (Psalm 1)
During his adult life, Uli Chi has lived and worked in the intersection between business, the academy and the church. He has had the privilege of serving as past Board Chair of Regent College in Vancouver, BC, as current Vice Chair of the Board of the Max De Pree Leadership Center at Fuller Seminary, and as current Chair of the Executive Committee of the Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University. He has also been involved in all aspects of local church leadership, including as a member of the adult ministries team’s teaching faculty at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle.
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