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Faith, Work, and Forgetfulness

A few weeks ago I had to miss our family’s Friday movie night for an event at work. Our AEI Executive Council (student group) was hosting a screening of “To Whom Is Given: Business for the Common Good” and I had agreed to moderate a discussion following the film. When I let the kids know I wouldn’t be home for the 47th (not literally, it just feels that way) viewing of “The Lego Movie” they were quite disappointed. My son immediately wanted to know the reason for my absence. I’m sure he was thinking who in their right mind would skip a movie. When I responded that I would be watching a movie with my students, I piqued his interest.

“What is the movie about?”

I struggled to summarize a 30-minute movie on faith and commerce to my 7-year-old son. After what seemed like an eternity of silence, I settled on “the ways in which companies make our lives a little bit better.” I was proud of my impromptu answer. It isn’t 100 percent accurate—there are more themes covered in “To Whom Is Given,” but it felt good enough for the circumstances.

My son scoffed at my answer. “Why do your students need to learn about that? I’m seven and I already know it!” Out of the mouth of babes. Before my very eyes my son was turning into a junior-level NPR reporter. His line of questioning was backing me into a corner. He had stumped me and I had a few seconds to come up with an answer. First, my mind went to Timothy Keller and Katherine Alsdorf’s “Every Good Endeavor” (Katherine is actually is in “To Whom is Given”), Steven Garber’s “Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good,” or so much of the great content coming out of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. Next, I had the brilliant idea to deliver an impromptu lecture on Deirdre McCloskey’s incredible work on the virtues that market capitalism fosters. A Ted-talk in our minivan… brilliant! But I couldn’t find the words to translate the insights of these great thinkers to a first grader. After a lull in the conversation that was way too long, I knew I wasn’t up to the task, so I responded as I so often do to my kids’ profound questions, “I don’t know.”

So, why was “To Whom Is Given: Business for the Common Good” made? Spoiler alert, the movie does a great job addressing this question. Since you should watch it, I am not going to reiterate their answers but offer my own. The short answer is: we’re forgetful. We forget that God is infinitely generous. We forget that God has chosen to meet our needs through his creation. We forget that God implemented work before sin entered the world. We forget that we were designed to work and steward our God-given talents and abilities. We forget that meeting the material needs and wants of others can be a commendable endeavor. We forget that God wants us to go and make disciples of all nations. We forget that there is just as much spiritual brokenness in the United States as elsewhere in the world. When we forget these things we believe that we can only be “on mission” for God in remote corners of the world, far from home. In our forgetfulness, wrong notions of work and grace slip into our consciousness. We believe that work is entirely irksome, mundane, and a way to pay the bills. We believe that businesses are only out to rip us off and make a quick dollar. We believe that God isn’t the one providing the blessings in our lives.

These lies take hold because they contain a seed of truth. Some parts of work are lame. I’m a professor of economics, and try as I might, I loathe grading. But grading is a small part of my otherwise completely amazing job. The worst job I ever had was emptying the lavatories on airplanes. It was disgusting. But even in that horrible job I played a small part in facilitating something of great value; people being able to travel the globe for work, play, or to visit loved ones.

Some businesses do offer reprehensible products and services or base their business models on fraud and deceit. But I submit to you that these firms are the exception, not the norm. When I think about the goods and services I enjoy over the course of a normal day, whether it be a roof over my head or a bagel from Newberg Bakery, I rarely feel ripped off. Most of the things I buy I do so of my own free-will and they really do make my life a little bit more enjoyable. While not literal manna from heaven this is how has God chosen to meet our material needs. Individuals stewarding their talents and abilities allows for exchange which is the foundation of any properly functioning economy.

Don’t you hate it when you come up with a good answer after the conversation has ended? It wasn’t until later in the day that I was able to articulate a worthwhile answer to my son’s inquiry. Hopefully next time my kids ask about faith, work, and God’s provision for us I’ll remember what I (and they, apparently) already know.