At Work & Public Square

Serving One Master: How to Navigate the Struggle Between God and Money

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As I sat in my office, I asked myself, “How can I serve two masters?” This was the question that rang through my head constantly during my time on Wall Street.

The past century has been filled with a huge boom of wealth, innovation, and technology. U.S. nominal GDP has tripled in the past thirty years increasing from $6.77 trillion in 1979 to $18.63 trillion in 2018. But although the growth has been imaginable, has it come at an irreplaceable cost?

Milton Friedman, in a New York Times article on September 13, 1970 declared that the job of a corporate executive is:

…to make as much money as possible while conforming to their basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.

Friedman later goes on to state in the article that the one social responsibility of a business is to maximize its profits. I believe that this economic motivation to place profits over moral and ethical principles has shaped how we have done business the past fifty years.

The Damage

The negative effect of this principle has manifested itself in the Great Recession and, in recent news, the London Whale debacle.

Bruno Iksil, known as the London Whale, lost at least $6.2 billion for JP Morgan Chase & Co in 2012. The trader was accused of committing securities fraud by hiding the true extent of losses from bank management; however, Iksil did not face any charges. The problem in this situation is that the bank tried to isolate this incident and tie it to a “single, rogue trader.” But from my time in the financial industry, I suspect not only did his superiors know about it, the issue was caused because of the pressure on him to maximize profits. The New York Times wrote an article on this debacle stating:

Far from being the rogue trader portrayed in early news coverage, Mr. Iksil emerges in government documents and interviews with people familiar with much of the evidence as a conflicted figure on the trading floor, troubled by conscience, even as he tried to please his bosses. They pushed him to undertake the risky derivatives trading that proved his undoing and caused the great losses.

As I have spent more time in the financial industry, I have become more aware that the challenge for finance professionals is balancing the pressure to pursue profits while also putting clients first.

How Can We Serve One Master?

Shortly after this fallout, I joined J.P. Morgan. During my time there, every day was a constant struggle in the sense that I was faced with the question of, “What’s most important?” How do you make the right decisions between serving clients and firm pressure to own money? As I began to think more about these questions, I thought of one lesson that has helped me navigate challenges in my own career on Wall Street:

Do well while doing good.

What I mean by this statement is that we should focus on doing the right thing for our clients even thought it could result in forgoing some profits. I believe that the most important asset you have is your reputation. By serving your clients well, your clients will look after you by giving you a positive reputation in the financial community.

Another resource that is helping finance professionals learn how to do the “right thing” has been Gordon College’s Master of Science in Financial Analysis program. Gordon launched this program to produce highly educated and trained believers who are on par with top-quality graduates from leading secular institutions. The draw of the program at Gordon has been its ability to use the Christian faith as the anchor in approaching conversations about ethical decision-making in finance.

The Source of Wealth

As we think about how to do the “right thing” in our work, I think it is important to also realize that as believers, we have to see the pursuit of wealth as a gift of God. Moses reminds the Israelites of this idea when he states:

But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today (Deut. 8:18).

God has entrusted us with the resources here on earth to steward well. Our ultimate goal should be not to make the most money for our own flourishing but to promote the flourishing of others. If we approach our work in the financial sector as an opportunity to please the Lord who gives us this ability, this changes our motivation and our behavior.

Wealth creation is not inherently bad and is actually a holy calling in the Bible. But we must see wealth-generating work as redemptive and kingdom-focused.

Editor’s note: Is working on Wall Street less spiritual than working in a ministry job? Learn the eternal value of all work in How Then Should We Work?

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