At Work

Compromise and Character in the Workplace

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I have heard there are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don’t.

Jesus (at least in some of his teaching) seemed to believe in two kinds of people. He talks a number of times about “either-or” situations:

  • “Enter into the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). There are two ways—the broad and the narrow—and we are all headed down one or the other.
  • In a similar way, there are only two kinds of character. Jesus uses two trees to make his point. “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit…Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 4:17-20).
  • There are also only two foundations that can be laid—one on the rock and one on the sand: “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock…But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27).

In all three of these sayings the focus is not on isolated individual actions but on a way of life, a type of tree, a kind of foundation.

Evangelicals have focused for many years on individual sin but not so much on the type of person who acts in a particular way, or the kind of person produced by a pattern of previous choices.

Notice in Matthew 7:24-27 that the foundation of rock is produced not only by hearing but by habitually acting on Jesus’s words.

We can choose to follow a pattern of choices to become a certain kind of person, follow a certain path, or build a solid foundation. It is important to shape character.

Stanley Hauerwas writes in his groundbreaking book Character in the Christian Life: “To stress the significance of the idea of character is to be normatively committed to the idea that it is better for men to shape rather than be shaped by circumstances.”

Compromise and Character in the Workplace

Each choice you make at work sends you down a path to make you one kind of person or another.

C.S. Lewis says:

Every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before…You are turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature…To be one kind of creature: that is joy and peace and knowledge and power! To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to one state or the other.

Choosing to do excellent work, to be faithful in using company time and money, or to care for co-workers is only part of the call of believers. To habitually be this kind of person creates value for your employer and pleases God.

Sometimes it is costly to be faithful to these things. It may mean saying “no” to the temptation to compromise.

I have a friend who worked for a number of years as chief of staff for a congressman. I thought he had great gifts of oratory and could run for political office himself. I would periodically ask him, “If you could do anything you wanted, what would you do?”

He always had the same answer: “I want to survive the year.”

His congressman could ask him at any time to do something he could not do in good conscience as a believer. Then he would have to quit or be fired.

Fortunately, such situations only came up rarely, and when they did, he could come up with a way to accomplish the same goals in a way that satisfied his boss and his own conscience. If he would have compromised, he would have started down a different road and turned the central part of who he was into something different.

In his classic essay “The Inner Ring,” C.S. Lewis talks about the danger of compromise.

It may not always come in bold letters but in a more subtle fashion. Perhaps in a business setting the temptation may come from those higher up, that if you want to be a partner (or similar status), you need to do certain things “as we do”—in a way, not entirely honest. Just as the promise of advancement is introduced, you have a choice about how you will respond.

Lewis says:

And you will be drawn in, not by a desire for gain and ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see that other man’s face – that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face – turn suddenly cold and contemptuous to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected…And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year, something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude: it may end in millions, a peerage and giving prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

That first compromise could lead you on to a bigger and bigger one, and eventually into being a different kind of person.

Our choices are serious matters. That little mark on the center of your soul moves you down one road or another, to be one kind of person or another.

There are also inevitable consequences to building your house on the sand either in this life or the next. The career you build will only be as solid as the kind of foundation you establish. That invests each choice with real significance.

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