This post is related to our upcoming public forum “Navigating the Tensions Between Faith & Work." Join us Wednesday, March 9, 2016, 6-9 p.m. at Galvanize Boulder as we explore how the biblical narrative speaks to our uncertainties and tensions in day-to-day work. This article by Bethany Jenkins, who will be a keynote speaker at the event, was first printed by The Gospel Coalition. It was republished here with permission from the author.
By Bethany Jenkins
On a flight from London to New York, Mark Campisano sat next to a senior partner of his firm. When dinner arrived, knowing that many of his colleagues held unfavorable opinions of Christians and their faith, Mark didn’t want to trigger any negative stereotypes or give thanks “so as to be seen by others” (Matt. 6:5). So he tried to bow his head as inconspicuously as possible.
But Mark wasn’t subtle enough. Immediately, the senior partner said in a booming voice, “What are you doing?! Praying?! You’re not a Christian, are you?!”
Mark felt a bit trapped, but the words of Jesus came to mind: “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father” (Matt. 10:32). He gulped, then replied, “As a matter of fact, I am.” There was silence. The senior partner smiled, winked, and said, “Good! Me too. Can you thank God for both our meals?”
Identifying as a Christian can be tricky, especially when living and working in a culture with an anti-Christian bias. On the one hand, it’s wise to be shrewd and patient in our witness. (See “When to Go Public with Faith at Work.”) On the other hand, the gospel is a public truth, and Christians are called to a public faith.
Plus, when we don’t identify as God’s people, we risk building relationships on false foundations, and it’s only a matter of time before our true identity is revealed. Just ask Esther.
The book of Esther is a complicated story about identity. In its first few chapters, Esther offends almost everyone. Feminist liberals note her compliance and failure to identify as a strong woman. Religious traditionalists lament her hidden faith, which leads her to break religious laws and sleep with a Gentile who isn’t her husband.
Yet the text doesn’t allow for these interpretations. First, although Esther’s rise to power is remarkable, the author’s main issue isn’t female empowerment, but the death threat faced by God’s people. In other words, the main distinction in the book isn’t between men and women, but between Jew and Gentile.
Second, although we’re told that Esther hides her background, we’re not told why (Esth. 2:20). We don’t know her motives, only know her situation — she’s a young Jewish girl who has been conscripted unwillingly in a pagan king’s harem. The moral ambiguity of her story raises the question, “What real choice does someone in her situation have?”
There comes a time, though, when Esther is forced to make a choice about her identity. Upon discovering that powerful forces are plotting to kill the Jews, Esther’s cousin Mordecai urges her to use her political connections and risk her place in the palace in order to save her people:
Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this? (Esth. 4:13–14)
But Esther is afraid. Approaching the king unbidden is a capital offense forgiven only by the king and, although she’s the queen, there’s no guarantee she’ll receive his mercy. After all, he didn’t forgive the last queen, and he hasn’t slept with Esther in a month—and he hasn’t been sleeping alone.
Esther has no prophetic vision or biblical promise to claim for her safety. Without knowing the end of the story, she must decide whether or not to identify with God’s people.
Yet Mordecai’s point is clear — her life may potentially be lost if she goes to the king, but it will certainly be lost if she doesn’t. Perhaps with mixed motives of self-preservation and missional calling, she replies:
Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf. . . . Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish. (Esth. 4:16)
In this moment, Esther goes from being a young woman making compromises to a mature queen giving orders. Her response, Tim Keller notes, is the language of identification, mission, and obedience. Mordecai’s call to action causes her to realize that she’s not in the palace for herself, but for others.
Some of us are in positions of influence in our culture — whether as public school teachers or public company executives—and we have to navigate questions of identity in complicated situations that might cost us. Does it matter whether anyone at work knows I’m a Christian when my faith isn’t directly related to my work? If I’m seeking a job in an industry that has an anti-Christian bias, like journalism or higher education, should I refrain from putting church volunteer activities on my résumé? Isn’t being present at a company—even if that means engaging in morally questionable activities—better than abandoning it altogether?
To answer these questions, seeing Esther as an example will crush us, but seeing Jesus as a Redeemer will save us. He’s the ultimate mediator who risks the palace and its riches to save us (Phil. 2:6–11). Going before the King, he doesn’t say “If I perish, I perish,” but “When I perish, I perish.” When he’s our security, value, and worth, we can risk the palace—positions, connections, careers, and riches—because, in him, we’re truly free. As the gospel becomes increasingly precious to us, we begin to see that these questions aren’t just about us, but about others, too. When we’re in positions of influence and open about our identification as God’s people, we can be a part of his redemption of his people.
But some of us wonder whether God can use our ambiguous moral pasts or our questionable mixed motives. As Karen Jobes writes:
Perhaps, like Esther, you have been brought to this moment in your life by circumstances over which you had no control, combined with flawed decisions you made along the way. Perhaps instead of living for God, you have so concealed your Christian faith that no one would even identify you as a Christian. Then suddenly you find yourself facing calamity. . . . Regardless of the straights you find yourself in, turn to the Lord. . . . his purposes are greater than yours.
Wherever you are right now, you are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works (Eph. 2:10). You have certain gifts, abilities, talents, weaknesses, sufferings, and experiences that enable you to help certain people — though it may cost you. No matter how you came to power in your company, church, or organization, it’s never too late to hear and obey God’s call. If you understand that you’re his child, then your mission isn’t for yourself, but for others. And who knows? Perhaps you have come to your position for such a time as this.
Bethany Jenkins lives in New York City and serves as the director of The Gospel Coalition's Every Square Inch and director of Vocational & Career Development at The King's College. She previously worked for the New York Stock Exchange, the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Congress, before starting The Park Forum, a nonprofit based in New York City that seeks to plant the Word in the hearts of urban professionals daily. Come hear her speak on tensions we feel about our faith when we're at work in Boulder on March 9, 2016.