Blog - Doing Earthwork
Are Profit and Greed Identical Twins?Wednesday, October 05, 2011
You don’t have to listen or read very long these days before finding the words "profit and greed” smeared together like peanut butter and jelly. I recently heard a musician singing the complaint that, "with profit and greed we destroyed our land.” According to the headline on a website blog, "Profit and greed drive jobs overseas.” A few days ago I heard a Christian say he wished for-profit companies would all become non-profits.
But blurring the difference between profit and greed makes no more sense than equating surgery with stabbing. It slurs not only entrepreneurs but also those who work for them. After all, if you’re employed by a "for-profit” company, aren’t you just enabling it to carry on its greedy agenda?
Even believers can get swept up in this confusion unless properly grounded in the biblical theology of work. Theology of work? That’s what God says in Scripture about labor-related issues. To the surprise of many, legitimate profit is the idea of the God who looks for increase in his creation.
Consider, for example, the wisdom of Proverbs: "All hard work brings profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (14:23). Or, "The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.” And, "the blessing of the Lord brings wealth” (10:22). According to Deut. 8:18, it is the Lord God "who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” No, these passages do not support what we today call the "health-wealth gospel.” But they do demonstrate that God endorses the making of a profit.
On the other hand, God strongly condemns greed, as the tenth Commandment, "You shall not covet,” makes clear. In the New Testament, Greek words often translated as "greed” carry connotations of a lust to possess something that leads to cheating, defrauding, outwitting, taking advantage of, and seizing control over. Paul warns that greed amounts to idolatry (Col. 3:5).
So profit and greed are not identical twins. We may pursue profit in a godly way or in a greedy way. Paul, the tentmaker, worked with his hands to support himself and to share with others (Acts 20:34). If he turned animal skins into tents, his labor increased the value of the leather. The products were then sold for a profit—God-approved profit. By contrast, some greedy teachers in the church on Crete were working for "dishonest gain” (Tit. 1:11).
Making this distinction between profit and greed is especially important in the political debates now taking place in the U.S. Yes, corporations can and do operate in greedy ways. But simply making a profit does not render them guilty of greed. In Col. 3:5, When Paul describes fleshly drives we need to put to death, he lists greed, but not profit. Profit is just an instrument, a tool. Like a knife, it can be used to serve or to destroy.
In Questions of Business Life, Richard Higginson says, "Instead of seeing service as the means to profit, we could say that service (i.e. aiming to give the client or customer the best possible quality service) is the goal and profit is the means” (p. 65). We might picture this difference in terms of a football field and the goal post. The field is the tool used to reach the goal. When profit is the goal, service becomes merely a way to get it. But if we make service the goal, then profit takes its rightful place as an instrument to help us provide it.
What sector of our society produces the wealth that funds all the rest? Government? Churches? Schools? Non-profit agencies? Unions? No—none of these. Only profitable businesses generate the wealth that creates and sustains jobs, permits charitable giving, enables us to pay taxes, and so on. That’s why, as Michael Novak says in his book, Business as a Calling, "Business is, bar none, the best hope of the poor. And that is one of the noblest callings inherent in business activities: to raise up the poor” (p. 37).