When I was a permanent deacon men would ask me a certain question with some frequency. When I was working with men’s groups in my parish they would ask me this question. They knew that I was still working in my business career, like most of them. Men with whom I worked in business would also ask this question.
This question is an important one: How do you combine your faith with your work in the world?
The assumption behind the question is that you must suspend your faith to be successful in the world, because business and religion don’t mix. There was a time when I believed that to be true.
As I matured in my faith I came to see the LIE in that assumption. On the contrary, there will always be great demand in the world for men and women of virtue, trust and courage. In fact, true progress requires honesty and integrity. Faithful, practicing Catholics will always be in demand.
Here is how I learned to answer that question: First, I would ask, “Did you get paid last month? Did you cash the check?” Then, you are not owed another penny! In return for your pay, the company expects of you two things: 1) To do well the job they hired you to do; and 2) to be a good steward of company property and reputation. If you cashed your paycheck, then it’s up to you to be a faithful employee. Then, I would tell them, “So, STOP STEALING PAPER CLIPS!”
They would look at me strangely, so I would continue, “Don’t look at me that way. You know what I mean! When we cashed our paychecks all debts were paid. The company didn’t owe us another penny! Not even a paper clip! Or a personal Xerox copy; or pens and pencils; or paper or envelopes; or personal long distance phone calls. We are supposed to be trustworthy stewards of the employer’s resources; all of them.
If I couldn’t trust myself in the small things, how could the company trust me to be a good steward with large things? So, my challenge for myself, and everyone who asked was: If it doesn’t belong to you, it’s not yours!
That has become my personal standard.
One of God’s Ten Commandments is, “Thou shalt not steal.” I decided a long time ago that it was useless to try to convince myself that taking little things like paperclips is not stealing. And, I began to realize that there is a huge market out there for good stewards, courageous men and women who are truly dependable and trustworthy.
It’s not that God is going to send me to Hell for stealing a paperclip. If I am to be condemned for breaking one of God’s commandments, it’s because I chose to break it! It doesn’t matter whether it was over paperclips. A wise Christian man or woman knows three things. First, only God knows how many days we have on earth, and we can’t add a single day with any amount of money. And, second, a wise person knows to share fairly his bounty with others who have less, and third, Eternal Life is promised for those who keep God’s Commandments.
In practice, becoming a Christian is a lot like learning a sport, like golf or baseball or tennis, or swimming or riding a bike. It takes practice to build strong Christian habits, like never missing Sunday Mass! Being a Christian is a lifelong struggle to grow in personal discipline and learn good habits; and stop bad habits. At first it is often difficult to change a habit. With time and perseverance, and with God’s help, we get better at the good habits, and overcome the bad ones.
We call these good habits “virtues”, Christian virtues, like honesty, charity, chastity, faithfulness, respecting the property of others, loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. I decided that if I couldn’t keep God’s Commandments regarding paperclips, then I was on a really slippery slope, even a “hypocrite” for calling myself a Christian. If stealing paperclips is not stealing, then at what point does taking something that is not mine become stealing? One dollar? One hundred dollars? I decided to draw the line with one simple definition as my personal standard, “It’s not mine.”
I have found peace in this personal standard. By holding myself accountable I began to see a number of other personal areas in which I could improve, like small lies, or cheating in small ways, or gossip. It’s all the same thing: It’s respect for what is true! Respect for others. I began to be better at discerning my own flaws like greed and dishonesty and gossip.
But there was one area of growth that surprised me. As I learned the discipline of not stealing paperclips, growth in generosity became easier.
That man in the Gospel story asked Jesus to tell his brother to share an inheritance. Jesus side-stepped that family feud by refusing to get involved in a dispute over greed. The first brother was calling the second brother immoral, but was blinded by his own greed.
Then, Jesus told the crowd the parable of the man who had so much grain and other possessions that he decided to build larger barns to store his wealth. He was so self-absorbed that he was blinded by his greed, and lacked concern for those who were less fortunate. And that night God took his life. All his possessions could not earn for him eternal life.
In the second reading, St. Paul was providing guidance for our personal spiritual progress when he said, “Stop lying to one another, since you have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed…. (Meaning growth through the Grace of our baptism and the sacraments.)
How did I learn to reconcile my Christian faith with my work in the business world? I stopped stealing paper clips! You know what I mean.