This excerpt is adapted from Business for the Glory of God. Copyright © 2003. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, http://www.crossway.org.
Several passages of Scripture assume that buying and selling are morally right. Regarding the sale of land in ancient Israel, God’s law said, “If you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another” (Lev. 25:14).
This implies it is possible and in fact expected that people should buy and sell without wronging one another—that is, that both buyer and seller can do right in the transaction (see also Gen. 41:57; Lev. 19:35-36; Deut. 25:13-16; Prov. 11:26; 31:16; Jer. 32:25, 42-44).
Benefit of Voluntary Commercial Transactions
In fact, buying and selling are necessary for anything beyond subsistence-level living, and these activities are another part of what distinguishes us from the animal kingdom. No individual or family providing for all its own needs could produce more than a very low standard of living (that is, if it could buy and sell absolutely nothing, and had to live off only what it could produce itself, which would be a fairly simple range of foods and clothing). But when we can sell what we make and buy from others who specialize in producing milk or bread, orange juice or blueberries, bicycles or televisions, cars or computers, then, through the mechanism of buying and selling, we can all obtain a much higher standard of living, and thereby fulfill God’s purpose that we enjoy the resources of the earth with thanksgiving (1 Tim. 4:3-5; 6:17) while we “eat” and “drink” and “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
Therefore we should not look at commercial transactions as a necessary evil or something just morally neutral. Rather, commercial transactions are in themselves good because through them we do good to other people. This is because of the amazing truth that, in most cases, voluntary commercial transactions benefit both parties. If I sell you a copy of my book for $12, then I get something that I want more than that copy of the book: I get your $12. So I am better off than I was before, when I had too many copies of that book, copies that I was never going to read. And I am happy. But you got something that you wanted more than your $12. You wanted a copy of my book, which you did not have. So you are better off than you were before, and you are happy. Thus by giving us the ability to buy and sell, God has given us a wonderful mechanism through which we can do good for each other. We should be thankful for this process every time we buy or sell something. We can honestly see buying and selling as one means of loving our neighbor as ourself.
Buying and Selling and the Imago Dei
Buying and selling are activities unique to human beings out of all the creatures that God made. Rabbits and squirrels, dogs and cats, elephants and giraffes know nothing of this activity. Through buying and selling God has given us a wonderful means to bring glory to him.
We can imitate God’s attributes each time we buy and sell, if we practice honesty, faithfulness to our commitments, fairness, and freedom of choice. Moreover, commercial transactions provide many opportunities for personal interaction, as when I realize that I am buying not just from a store but from a person, to whom I should show kindness and God’s grace. In fact, every business transaction is an opportunity for us to be fair and truthful and thus to obey Jesus’ teaching: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).
Because of the interpersonal nature of commercial transactions, business activity has significant stabilizing influence on a society. An individual farmer may not really like the auto mechanic in town, and the auto mechanic may not like the farmer, but the farmer does want his car to be fixed right the next time it breaks down, and the auto mechanic does love the sweet corn and tomatoes that the farmer sells; so it is to their mutual advantage to get along with each other, and their animosity is restrained. In fact, they may even seek the good of the other person for this reason.
So it is with commercial transactions throughout the world and even between nations. This is evidence of God’s common grace, because in the mechanism of buying and selling God has provided the human race with a wonderful encouragement to love our neighbor by pursuing actions that advance not only our own welfare but also the welfare of others—even as we pursue our own. In buying and selling we also manifest interdependence and thus reflect the interdependence and interpersonal love among the members of the Trinity. Therefore, for those who have eyes to see it, commercial transactions provide another means of manifesting the glory of God in our lives.
Temptations to Sin
However, commercial transactions provide many temptations to sin. Rather than seeking the good of our neighbors as well as ourselves, our hearts can be filled with greed, so that we seek only our own good, and give no thought for the good of others. (This would happen, for example, when one person in a business transaction wants 99 percent or 100 percent of the benefit and wants the other person to be reduced to 1 percent or 0 percent of the benefit.) Or our hearts can be overcome with selfishness, an inordinate desire for wealth, and setting our hearts only on material gain. Paul says,
Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Tim. 6:9-10)
Because of sin, we can also engage in dishonesty and in selling shoddy materials whose defects are covered with glossy paint. Where there is excessive concentration of power or a huge imbalance in knowledge, there will often be oppression of those who lack power or knowledge (as in government-sponsored monopolies where consumers are only allowed access to poor quality, high-priced goods from one manufacturer for each product).
Sadly, even some who call themselves Christians are dishonest in their business dealings. I have heard several stories from Christian friends about how other so-called “Christians” have broken their word, “forgotten” their business promises or failed to keep them, betrayed a partner’s trust, done shoddy work, or been dishonest about a product or the condition of a company. These actions by a small minority in the Christian community bring reproach on the whole church and bring dishonor to the name of Jesus Christ. Such actions should not be swept under the rug, but should be subject to the process of personal confrontation and church discipline that Jesus outlines in Matthew 18:15-20.
But the distortions of something good must not cause us to think that the thing itself is evil. Commercial transactions in themselves are fundamentally right and pleasing to God. They are a wonderful gift from him through which he has enabled us to have many opportunities to glorify him.