“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound;
and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”
- G.K. Chesterton
In the busy grind of work, sometimes we need an awakening to the paradoxes of following Jesus in the marketplace. One Christian writer who brought that awakening for me is the British journalist and theologian, G.K. Chesterton. C.S. Lewis claimed Chesterton as a spiritual father. “If I were stranded on a desert island and could bring only one book apart from the Bible, it would be Chesterton’s Orthodoxy,” wrote author Philip Yancey. When I first read Orthodoxy, I knew I would be getting in deep waters, but I couldn’t have known how challenging one chapter called “The Flag of the World” would be for my faith. In that chapter, Chesterton pounds you with a paradox that I believe lies at the heart of the intersection of faith and work. I want to suggest some implications of this paradox for work.
“When you love a thing, it’s gladness is a reason for loving it, but its sadness is a reason for loving it more,” says Chesterton. Love is an unconditional commitment; it is bound. But that commitment is also the basis of our deepest criticism; it is not blind. Chesterton explains this paradox in a marital illustration. In his customary wit, he writes, “A man’s friend likes him but leaves him as he is; his wife loves him and is always trying to turn him into somebody else.” Whether you are a husband or wife, I bet you can relate! In our workplace or within our industries, we can hate the dysfunctional relationships or systemic brokenness, but we also belong and are bound to our work and our workplace. To be a change agent in our work, we need what Bonhoeffer called a kind of “this-worldliness” to our faith. I want to suggest three practical applications of this paradox: in leading others, in giving feedback, and in staying connected to people.
First, compassion is the foundation of any effort to lead change. Chesterton warns about the error of the optimist and the pessimist. The pessimist finds error but “does not love what he chastises.” She is like the person who claims to “just be honest” and at the same time is hiding the fact that she takes pleasure in saying unpleasant things. The optimist is more inclined to defending than reforming; they want thriving without conflict. To lead, we need both the optimist and the pessimist on our team. We need to say to our colleagues, “we are so committed to you that we think you can be better.” I remember the challenge of a newly hired faculty member during a time of low morale at a university where I worked. He was observing how few stickers of the university he saw on cars in the parking lot. This was a small thing, but it told a big truth: we had not planted our flag. Leaders point out when our criticisms lack loyalty and when our commitment shields us from change.
The second implication is how we give difficult feedback. Think about the last time you felt disgusted with someone’s behavior: did you feel committed to that person at the same time? There is something darkly insistent in human nature about distancing ourselves from those with whom we find fault. When we give difficult feedback to our employees and co-workers, our feedback is not Christian if we don’t do it with a genuine and consistent loyalty to their well-being as people. Research on giving healthy feedback finds that correction and critique is only helpful if the giver conveys to the receiver that he/she belongs here, that we have high expectations, and that they have what it takes to reach those expectations. To grow and be productive, people need feedback that is specific and shared in the context of unconditional safety and connection. When you have a criticism, get right to it, but find a way to convey it with the context of commitment to them as people. Believe in them and show it.
Our intentional connection to those with whom we may sharply disagree is a third application. G.K. Chesterton wrote during the time of the philosophical movements of fascism, determinism, Darwinism, and the eugenics movement in the early 20th Century. Among Chesterton’s best friends were the atheist playwright George Bernard Shaw and the socialist writer H.G. Wells. He was not only in literary conversation with the philosophical ideas of his day, but in personal contact with the people who held them. It seemed to be authentically part of his “this-worldliness”. It was also the source of his harshest criticism. Do we have it in us to stay engaged and committed to those in the world that we sharply disagree? Can we keep a critical and loyal connection instead of a distanced debate? You may be thinking politics, but this is for our industries and workplaces. Innovative teams mix critical debate and camaraderie. A sign of organizational health is the degree to which “troublemakers” are protected.
Chesterton’s challenge for us a century later is beautifully summed up in these lines,
“We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe as at once an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.”
For our work, the question Chesterton poses is “can we hate it enough to change it, yet love it enough to think it worth changing?” Leaders like Gandhi and King that have shown us that apathy, not hate, is the opposite of love. It is when we disengage from one other and that we all lose. We see apathy show up when people are uncritically loyal or when we criticize while keeping distance. In our apathy, workplaces can be filled with harsh critique or fearful acquiescence. When we love our work, our sense of accomplishment and contribution is a reason to love it, but its brokenness is a reason to love it more.
Josh Hayden is a guest contributor for the Nashville Institute for Faith and Work (NIFW). Josh has almost 20 years administrative and university teaching experience and is a leadership consultant awaiting his departure to work as an educator in Western Europe with Global Scholars. He is an alumni of the Gotham program, NIFW’s nine-month faith and work intensive.