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).

Comments (5)

Christian Overman (10/5/2011 10:35:56 AM)
Larry,

This post on profit and greed is truly outstanding. The best I've read on this topic! Excellent! It really cuts through the fog. Thanks.
John Curry (10/5/2011 10:51:31 AM)
I couldn't agree with you more Larry. I read a book by Rabbi Daniel Lapin called Thou Shalt Prosper and it talks about this in depth. I appreciate your perspective very much. How can you help others if you don't have anything to share?
Craig Landes (10/5/2011 5:06:44 PM)
Thanks Larry, for articulating and helping us see the distinction. As a society we've done a poor job of teaching the next generation where wealth comes from, leaving us with today's growing belief that capitalism and profits are somehow bad. We need more like you who can set people straight.
Dave Hataj (10/6/2011 9:21:18 AM)
Bravo, Larry!
I have a different twist on the non-profit world. As a business owner, I would prefer all non-profit organizations to be FOR profit! The stress, time &; energy non-profits spend on fundraising is often crippling the mission of the organization. As a christian business owner, I am convinced the world is in desperate need of socially responsible businesses that incorporate into their corporate values issues of justice, poverty, fairness, and service. My customers want me to make a fair profit so I can stay in business to serve them. Jesus challenges me to go a step or more further. Profits are not mine to keep and spend on a lavish lifestyle. But they are a tool to advance the kingdom, to perhaps take on the jobs/missions that churches and businesses have too often neglected.
Daniel Rojas (5/22/2013 9:48:35 PM)
Larry,

Awesome article! I was thinking about this recently on why most christian business men and ordinary people are driven by profit? This makes complete sense if the true goal was to serve the kingdom, but what if its a christian tool used to motivate the employees to work longer, harder and faster to gain more profit than what is provided by the good lord already? What if your christian boss and business owner never is satisfied with the results of profit and is insisting that more can be made at all times? Also what if the christian boss and owner was critical of others and is always speaking that the way, is through profit, and as long as its achieved at the highest margin and if it becomes the oposite its because theres something wrong with you and you must not be living a good and holly life? What about this type of profit?

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