At Work & Theology 101

Hope for Despairing CFOs (& the Rest of Us)

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What does a sermon preached in nineteenth century Scotland have to do with today’s business headlines? Plenty.

Thomas Chalmers, the Scottish pastor/professor who taught moral philosophy at St. Andrews and theology at the University of Edinburgh, knew what makes the human heart tick, whether in the 1820s or 2020s.

In his enduring sermon, The Explosive Power of a New Affection, Chalmers argues that the human heart is like a heat-seeking missile (okay, well, he didn’t use that term). It is constantly on the hunt for something to fill it; something worthy of its affection and trust. In fact, the tenacity of the heart is so intense that it not only must have, but imprison, the objects of its love. As a result, the loss of this object brings desolation, leaving “a void and a vacancy as painful to the mind, as hunger is to the natural system.”

What are these must-have objects? Just look at Instagram. Or politics. Or the stock market. There you will find people exalting penultimate objects to ultimate ones. These objects are not necessarily bad, but they shouldn’t be worshiped by the human heart. They simply can’t cut it.

The Misery of Corporate Idols (and Retirement)

Having retired from several careers already, I can relate to the “misery” Chalmers describes of one who has “retired from business…from the occupations of the chase.” Even after a decade, I feel the loss of a corporate career, like a tooth pulled when I was a child: I can still feel its empty place. It’s like the successful CEO I know, who in his battle against cancer, spends the idled hours of chemotherapy relearning French.

Not that there is anything wrong with French: many would applaud such fortitude and drive. But that, therein, is the point, says Chalmers, because it reveals the heart’s desperation for an object, any object. Applying oneself to relearn French in the face of one’s mortality might seem like a veiled coping strategy, substituting one ambition for another, lest all be lost.

On September 2, 52-year-old Gustavo Arnal, the CFO of ginormous Bed, Bath and Beyond threw himself from the eighteenth floor of the iconic “Jenga” building in New York City. All the details have yet to be unraveled, but this much seems true: the meme-stock company is financially reeling, and Arnal came under severe strain and suspicion as he tried to right the ship.

Instead he went down with it.

An investor lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia alleges that Arnal and GameStop Chairman, Ryan Cohen, planned a “pump and dump” scheme to artificially inflate the BBBY stock—and then profit from the sale of shares. The lawsuit was filed just two weeks before Arnal killed himself. On September 8, the Wall Street Journal reported that company officials “have seen no evidence of fraud or wrongdoing.”

Corporate life is not all it’s cracked up to be. It can be horrifically scary and full of deadly temptations, especially for those at the financial helm. In the face of fear, strain, trouble, or accusation, the strength of our hearts can give way. Such things, I believe, explain the tragic suicide of Freddie Mac acting CFO David Kellerman, who was pressed into service when our company was at the epicenter of the financial crisis back in 2009.

A Greater Desire

How to free the heart from its lethal attractions? Mere words or mental reasoning are not enough, says Chalmers. Neither “management” of our inordinate loves or DIY self-improvement projects can unclasp our grasping fingers. Rather, desire must be conquered by a greater desire, one that is “still more alluring.”

To find that greater love, Chalmers directs us not to look high, but low: to the Man hanging on a cross, paying the ginormous debt for human sin and folly. Only when we are “enabled by faith, which is [God’s] own gift, to see His glory in the face of Jesus Christ, and to hear His beseeching voice…it is then that a love paramount to the love of the world, and at length expulsive of it, first arises in the regenerated bosom.”

That’s lofty nineteenth century language. Simply put, Chalmers is saying that the love of God in Christ is so sweet, so true, so satisfying that it alone can release our death grip on worldly loves camouflaging as the real thing. Only “love divine, all loves excelling” can set the needy human heart on an unshakable foundation.

I still remember the day I “transacted” with God to move my heart from trusting in Freddie Mac, which seemed as flimsy as shirt cardboard, to his enduring love for me—no matter what happened. If only Arnal and Kellerman had been able to scramble to higher ground as all hell was breaking loose.

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from the author’s personal blog. Republished with permission.

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