What is the relationship between Christianity and Business? Many would think that the two notions are entirely opposed to one another, and thus cannot go together. In our attempt to understand how it is that a Christian ought to live his life in the workplace, and thus to do business to the glory of God, we asked Surya Hadi Sunarto, a businessman who is seeking to think biblically about this issue, a few questions that pertain to this subject.
I think much of what he has to say here is gold. Especially in our Asian, Chinese-Indonesian context, where many still make the false dichotomy between what are so called “secular” careers, from “sacred” careers.
1. Tell us about about what you do, and what your responsibilities involve…
In the past four years I have been involved in the running and leadership of a commercial holding with interest in energy service and agriculture. We started as a provider of contracting service to mining companies in Indonesia. But since then we have adjacently invested in complimenting business, such as our infrastructure arm that seek to create additional value to these mines by developing ports and roads for better means to transport their commodities. The agribusiness investment is a new passion, we are developing palm oil plantations seeing as Indonesia is one of the only few countries in the world who can harvest such crop.
My responsibility begins with the process of restructuring all of our varied businesses into a single consolidated entity four years ago. This was done so that I may be able to build a stronger supervision of the financial and strategic directions of our consolidated interest, while implementing a standardized operating procedure that can ensure our business activities are done in the most efficient manner possible. On top of that I am privilege enough to be able to recruit some amazing colleagues in the past four years, building a team that is capable is the most important task of any company seeking to grow sustainably.
2. Why did you decide to take this career path? How did you discern that this was what you were supposed to do???
My initial plan had always been to pursue a career in politics. But one day in university I received a phone call from my father. He was telling me about one of his companies that was active in the mining service. Its small compared to his other interests, and is poorly managed by the professionals. He asks whether I want to give it a try for 3 months, and see if I like it and whether I could turn it around, otherwise he would simply have to sell the company. Back then, taking the job, for me, was considered to be a side track, the last expression of an obedient son in a culture that values submission. By the third month in it, I was having such a great time that it has now been four years.
The discernment comes from what I call the three P in one’s life; Placing, Passion, and Positioning. I believe that God has spoken the entire plan of Creation in motion since even before the world was creation. For this I am sensitive towards the events unfolding around me that is outside of my control. Had my parents not asked me, I might not come back to the family business. But I was also aware at that time in 2010; coal is a thriving business in Indonesia. The sector draws a lot of the wealthy and powerful, and I see this as the foundation for my future network in politics. Had it been 2002, I might think twice about my father’s offer, as coal was a stagnating industry then.
The passion and positioning are also important. The Psalmist was very clear, “For You created my innermost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” David here is talking about the particularize personality of all human beings. If I am born to become a doctor, I will not find the same positive passion that I have now with my job. I love my job, I love coming into my office, and handling my responsibilities. This natural joy is a strong case for the discernment; because I can’t imagine I will be as happy coming into office as a lawyer or banker. But the full circle comes when I believe that I have been equipped with the natural talents and character to succeed in this position. To be in this position I have been through things that not everyone might want to go through. This fortitude is innate. My talents too, somehow without a formal business degree I find the issues I am faced with on a daily basis to be systematically manageable. I am tailored for this.
3. A lot of people assume that business and Christianity are two mutually exclusive notions. How do the two co-exist in your mind? Is there an organic relationship between the two, or is the correlation totally coincidental?
I look back at God’s first purpose for Adam. That was for Adam to be steward of the Garden, to cultivate it and keep it and I see this to be crucial. A garden that is not tended will be left in mess over time, and a garden in mess is not a garden with any value for anyone. But when Adam works the garden, (I imagine) cleaning it, putting things in order, I see how the garden in that instance will be of value. The tended pasture that was under the great tree will become a wonderful place for resting. The river crossing the garden, when cleaned will become a source of water for drinking, and can be used to supply the needs for the crops to be harvested. The roses and daisies arrange will become a beautiful sight for the sore eye. This is business; when a human activity creates additional value out of the natural process of things.
There is an organic relationship between business and Christianity. God’s intentional purpose for humans is to be stewards of His entire creation. The stewardship of man over creation will necessitate this process of value creation. Clear pastures will be used to cattle farm. The riches of the ocean will be harvested to fulfill the physical needs of ourselves. I believe God originally see this as a way for humans to understand His greatness. From a barren land, labor and diligence from the man gives the opportunity for a bountiful crop to take place. Of course a bit of rain also help, that is why God’s grace is sovereign over every success. But this process just goes to show how majestic creation can be, should man obey God in the first place.
It is sin that changes everything. Like anything else in the world, the institution of business does not escape the totality of our depravation. We distorted the original intention of business, and use this process of creating value as a mean to a single end which is the fulfillment of our selfish needs. When businessmen lose track of God’s true calling for business, creation will not bear fruit to glorify Him, we will instead work to submit creation under our own depraved desires.
4. What steps have you taken in the attempt to practically implement that worldview in your career?
I put a lot of emphasis on being able to create a productive and efficient process in the businesses I am running. I believe our profit should not come from cutting corners or by giving under table money to influence things into our favor, but from our ability to create a sustainable business process that creates value for all stakeholders. This means I have to invest my effort and intellectual competence in things that are usually harder to do. Cutting corners is easy. It is way easier than investing in learning centers that can train and equip your workers to be able to perform their duties up to the standards required by the customers. Giving under table money is cheap. It is way cheaper than paying the cost needed to deliver the products at the quality level that the customer need. I try to encourage our management to understand that at the end of the day cutting corners and giving their middle managers under table money is short sighted and not to the interest of our reputation and our customers.
Apart from that, I have also tried my best to redefine what corporate social responsibility means. Up until this point, our company has designated a portion of our profit for cash that we hand out to local communities around our operational site, and book that as “CSR” at our account. It felt good. We thought giving these communities cash is our way of actually contributing positively to their welfare. Imagine my surprise when I found out that one of these communities have been using the money we gave them to develop a drug distribution network that supplies to some of our employees near their area. I learned from that instance the danger of resorting to simply throwing money into problems. God reminded me that He wants more contribution from all the gifts He has provided to me and our companies.
Starting this year we will be working closely with Komatsu and Hitachi, both of whom are heavy equipment suppliers to our mining service company. We will be using the cash we use for hand out to begin developing an integrated learning center in Kalimantan, a place where our operations are based. On top of 11 hectares of land we have compensated we will be opening classes for free, catering to adults around the community that want to see what kind of career they can have if they work for a mining company, and actually present them with the opportunity of working with us once they finish their program. I believe with a consistent job, someone can start getting their life together. To support their families we will also be partnering with other faith-based initiative foundations, to develop scholarship and free school and health clinics for the local villages to access, under our strict supervision. Education about drug awareness will be high on our list. No pun intended, but the land happens to be situated on top of a hill overlooking the entire city. If my calling is to witness to a shining city on the hill, then let this be one of the few small steps I start taking through what I have been called to do with my life.
5. What would you say to parents, and young people, who either don’t see the connection between business and Christianity, or are even avoiding business because they are Christians, or seek refuge in business to run away from Christianity?
I think the misunderstanding of God’s purpose for business contributes to the biggest segmentations of Christian who are involve in business into two polarized camps, both of whom does not win me any flattering reviews.
On one side we have what I call the Biblically illiterate businessman. These are the type who goes on speaker podiums and testify that being a Christian businessman simply means that our business will prosper and thrive, due to the blessing of our God. These types annoy me, because they misquote the Bible in such a perverted way. Never mind Job and God’s way of showing His love to him, never mind that every single apostle God called in the New Testament has to live the life of a vagabond, only finding peace and joy in God’s grace, never mind Christ, His only begotten son who was born into a manger. If we prosper as a businessman, it is not because we automatically win that right as we receive salvation. True salvation will set our eyes upon Jesus and the work the Cross had done. Through our success or failures in business, we must understand that all things were created in Him, and through Him, and for Him. Our eyes should not be fixed on the outcome of our businesses and the effects it will have on our life per say, but how it will work to glorify His overall plan for redemption. Colossians 3 is very clear, “whatever you do work heartily as for the Lord, not for men.” Glorifying God is the end goal of our businesses, not our face on the cover of Forbes. Should we win acclamation and prestige, it is only because He seeks to use all that for His own purpose.
On the other spectrum, I have what I call the Bitter-bunch. I have met many Christian businessmen who perform poorly in their businesses. The reasons can be varied. There is the instance of a bad investment decision made, done without due diligence or prudence. There is also the instance of a lack of hard work and determination. God does provide the rain for the crop, but our hands must work the grounds as well, with equal fortitude and determination. The Bitter-bunch then uses God’s Word to justify their failures. “Oh its not God’s timing yet, we must be patient.” These are as frustrating to me as the Biblically illiterates, because the Bitter-bunch won’t stop there. They will start saying that successful Christian businessmen are vessels of Mammon, and that they are not as “faithful” as they are. Being prudent and hardworking is important and necessary. The book of Proverbs is filled with reminders that your working ethics play a role in the sustainability of your businesses. I have met plenty of successful Christian businessmen in my life so far. True some do not conduct their businesses in the way pleasing to our God. But others do. Generalizing all successful businessmen as vessels of Mammon would simply be an exemplification of plain bitterness.
I will say that we as Christians are called for one purpose that is the glorification of our Lord and Creator. We must find joy, in Him, as He is the only true fountain of eternal joy. To follow the footsteps of other Christian hedonists, we must take it to heart that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. I will tell the layman that this is the point that the Biblically illiterate businessman misses. Our joy must not be transfixed with the wellbeing of our selves, but rather how we can be a part of His overall plan for His creation. This led me to the second thing I will say to the layman. We have been called to become a part of His body. The fingers of His loving hand, the soothing mouthpiece of His good news, and the solid footsteps that seek to erect a picture of the Promise Land here on earth, a promise of what Eternity in Him means. This takes effort. This takes dedication. And this takes competency. We are a people with a mission. To complete a mission, we need more than self-pity. We need a clear line of sight, to the race that has been presented to us. Until the day comes, when we can reminisce the words of the Apostle Paul, that we have fought the good fight, we have finished the good race, and that we have kept the faith.
I am born to become a Christian, and also a businessman. I am meant to serve my Lord and Savior in the place where He has called me to be. There is no denying that I there others like me who are called for this.
For further reading:
Christians Teachers Journal, published in Australia
On Pages 18-19, I contributed a short piece, reflecting upon why Christians ought to engage in Business.
Also, be sure to check out our post on the Christian in the workplace in
“Secular or Sacred? Work and the Christian”