Is Jesus Just Your Adjective?
The Problem with “Christian Entrepreneurs”
— by Paul Michalski
“Words are sacred. If you get the right ones in the right order you can nudge the world a little.” (Tom Stoppard)
Words are important and powerful. After all, God created the universe by speaking, and Satan tried to tempt Jesus by twisting God’s word. Words have the power to build up or tear down. Words have the power to clarify or confuse. Tom Stoppard got it right when he said that words are “sacred”:
Words are sacred. If you get the right ones in the right order you can nudge the world a little.
The culture of the world is filled with words that blind us to God’s purpose for work and business. Even some words and phrases common in the faith and work movement are disordered. Disordered words that embody the world’s priorities rather than Biblical priorities infect our thinking, which ultimately infects our heart.
Disordered words can shape and distort our very identity and our behavior at work. In some sense, we can become who we say we are, which means we need to be very careful how we describe who we are. For example, striving to be a “Christian entrepreneur” (or a “Christian businessperson” or “Christian lawyer“, or “Christian doctor” or “Christian artist“, etc.) is an obstacle to working in alignment with Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities.
The Importance of Primary Identity
It is said that our words become our actions, which become our habits, which become our values, which become our destiny. You can become who you say you are (or who others say you are), which means we need to be very careful how we describe who we are.
Matthew 6:24 tells us that a person can have only one primary identity (and an organization can have only one ultimate priority):
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.
Although a person can only have one primary identity, they can have many secondary identities, For example, a person can be a Christian, a businessperson, a wife (or husband), a mother (or father), a daughter (or son), all at the same time.
But when push comes to shove, there is one identity they view, consciously or subconsciously, as the primary identity—the one they will protect even if it means sacrificing success in their secondary ones. Our self-worth and value is wrapped-up in whatever we see as our primary identity.
Disordered Words That Shape Primary Identity
To illustrate the power of disordered words to shape primary identity, let’s consider a person named Mary with two identities—she identifies as a Christian and as an entrepreneur (it could be any occupation–lawyer, banker, accountant, barista, artist, musician, engineer, truck-driver, etc.).
Secular Disorder. American culture, in particular, glorifies our work as our primary identity. What is the first question asked at a cocktail party upon meeting someone new? “What do you DO?” Almost reflexively, Americans label themselves by their work: “I AM an entrepreneur.” “I AM a lawyer.” “I AM a banker.” I AM a venture capitalist.” So the secular “world” pushes Mary’s primary identity toward “entrepreneur”.
In fact, the secular “world” view of faith and occupation is that they have absolutely nothing to do with each other (unless the occupation is in “ministry”). A person’s “faith identity” is personal and does not belong at the office/factory/store (sometimes because the proponents of this view are hostile to faith). So Mary’s identity as a “Christian” is discouraged from even showing up as part of what the world tells her is her primary identity.
If the world describes Mary’s most important identity as what she DOES, there is a good chance Mary will see that as her primary identity—an “entrepreneur”.
Putting the two identities together, Mary is an entrepreneur who happens to also be a Christian. When push comes to shove, Mary will probably not let her faith get in the way of succeeding at work.
Faith-Work Disorder. Assuming Mary gets across the Sunday/Monday Gap and starts thinking more deeply about what her faith has to do with her work and what her work has to do with her faith, there is a good chance that she will read or hear or be told to become a “Christian entrepreneur” or “Christian businessperson”, which is the most frequent “identity” urged by those promoting faith-work integration.
“Christian entrepreneur” are “identity words” for which Mary will likely be affirmed in her faith communities. It feels like an identity based on WHO Mary is rather than WHAT Mary does. But that is a toxic deception that may shift Mary’s behavior.
Let’s parse the IDENTITY Mary has been urged to pursue–“Christian entrepreneur”. Remember, words have power. Our words become our actions, which become our habits, which become our values, which become our destiny.
The NOUN–the primary focus of Mary ‘s identity–is “entrepreneur”–WHAT she does, and the ADJECTIVE–the secondary attribute of Mary ‘s identity–is “Christian”–WHO she is meant to be.
As a “Christian entrepreneur”, Mary will still have a WHAT identity–seeing herself as first and foremost an entrepreneur who tries to carry out her entrepreneur identity in a Christian way.
While “Mary the Christian entrepreneur” will probably conduct herself at work in a more “Christian” manner than “Mary who happens to be a Christian”, once again, when push comes to shove, Mary will probably not let her faith get in the way of succeeding at work. Remember, a person will compromise their secondary identity to succeed in their primary identity.
With a WHAT identity, that means sacrificing the “Christian” to succeed as the “entrepreneur”. With a WHO identity, that means sacrificing worldly success as an entrepreneur (and even sacrificing that role) to pursue first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness.
Grounding Our Noun and Adjective Where They Belong
Oswald Chambers wrote “Jesus is saying that the greatest concern of life is to place our relationship with God first, and everything else second.” That is particularly hard in America, where we are defined by our job/profession/occupation.
We believe Mary will be more successful in working in alignment with Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities, and more successful in leading her business faithfully, if she makes Jesus her NOUN rather than her ADJECTIVE and begins thinking about herself–and speaking about herself–in terms of a WHO identity that puts her relationship with God first–as “a follower of Jesus called to entrepreneurship” or “a Christian engaged in business”.
How Identity Words Shape Behavior
Let’s compare how a WHO identity and a WHAT identity might impact Mary’s behavior.
With a WHO Identity:
Mary will see herself as “a Christian engaged in business”
Mary may have to make sacrifices in her worldly business success to follow God’s principles and priorities.
WHAT Mary does will be determined by God’s leading rather than its potential for worldly success.
WHO Mary is where God places her will be more important than WHERE God places her.
Mary will wear WHAT SHE DOES lightly and will be able to change disguise at a moment’s notice.
Mary will need to trust God with her provision and circumstances.
Mary ‘s identity will push her to go beyond “good” to pursue “Godly”.
With a WHAT Identity
Mary will see herself as a “Christian businessperson”.
Mary may sacrifice the two great commandments (love your God and love your neighbor) or the pursuit of God’s Kingdom and His righteousness to achieve “success” in her primary identity as a businessperson (possibly rationalizing that she is still doing better than the people with no faith inspiration).
There are numerous problems that can flow from work being our primary identity and source of worth and value.
An employer or investor has the power to take away “who we are”, if even for a short period of time.
If those to whom we answer (e.g., managers, investors) are driven by profit and power, we are vulnerable to extreme manipulation in their pursuit of worth and value through their job.
Most importantly, because a person can only have one primary identity, and they will sacrifice their secondary identities to ensure success in their primary identity, identities grounded in things like faith, family and fitness will be compromised or even sacrificed to ensure success at work.
How we see ourselves is NOT a matter of semantics.
Followers of Jesus are meant to be dressed like Superman, with our primary identity being the Superman faith-suit that represents “WHO we are” and the business outfit of “WHAT we do” serving as an easily shed disguise for operating in the world. Unfortunately, many people have their outfits reversed. They put on a “Godly” disguise while living based on worldly beliefs, principles and priorities.
Words have power, identity words can shape our destiny, and disordered identity words can keep us from living a life of integrity in alignment with God’s design.