Paul describes three everyday situations that have direct relevance for the workplace.
Paul asks the Philippians to help two women among them, Euodia and Syntyche, come to peace with each other (Phil. 4:2–9). Although our instinctive reflex is to suppress and deny conflict, Paul lovingly brings it into the open where it can be resolved. The women’s conflict is not specified, but they are both believers who Paul says “have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel” (Phil. 4:3). Conflict occurs even between the most faithful Christians, as we all know. Stop nurturing resentment, he tells them, and think about what is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy in the other person (Phil. 4:8). “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7) seems to begin with appreciating the good points of those around us, even (or especially) when we are in conflict with them. After all, they are people for whom Christ died. We should also look carefully at ourselves and find God’s reserves of gentleness, prayer, supplication, thanksgiving, and letting go of worry (Phil. 4:6) inside ourselves.
The application to today’s workplace is clear, though seldom easy. When our urge is to ignore and hide conflict with others at work, we must instead acknowledge and talk (not gossip) about it. When we would rather keep it to ourselves, we should ask people of wisdom for help—in humility, not in hopes of gaining an upper hand. When we would rather build a case against our rivals, we should instead build a case for them, at least doing them the justice of acknowledging whatever their good points are. And when we think we don’t have the energy to engage the other person, but would rather just write off the relationship, we must let God’s power and patience substitute for our own. In this we seek to imitate our Lord, who “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7) of personal agendas and so received the power of God (Phil. 2:9) to live out God’s will in the world. If we do these things, then our conflict can be resolved in terms of what the true issues are, rather than our projections, fears, and resentments. Usually this leads to a restored working relationship and a kind of mutual respect, if not friendship. Even in the unusual cases where no reconciliation is possible, we can expect a surprising “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). It is God’s sign that even a broken relationship is not beyond the hope of God’s goodness.
Paul thanks the Philippians for their support for him, both personal (Phil. 1:30) and financial (Phil. 4:10–11, 15–16). Throughout the New Testament, we see Paul always striving to work in partnership with other Christians, including Barnabas (Acts 13:2), Silas (Acts 15:40), Lydia (Acts 16:14-15), and Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:3). His letters typically end with greetings to people with whom he has worked closely, and are often from Paul and a co-worker, as Philippians is from Paul and Timothy (Phil. 1:1). In this he is following his own advice of imitating Jesus, who did almost everything in partnership with his disciples and others.
As we noted in Philippians 2, Christians in the secular workplace don’t always have the luxury of working alongside believers. But that doesn’t mean we can’t support one another. We could gather with others in our professions or institutions to share mutual support in the specific challenges and opportunities we face in our jobs. The “Mom-to-Mom” program is a practical example of mutual support in the workplace. Mothers gather weekly to learn, share ideas, and support each other in the job of parenting young children. Ideally, all Christians would have that kind of support for their work. In the absence of a formal program, we could talk about our work in our usual Christian communities, including worship and sermons, Bible studies, small groups, church retreats, classes, and the rest. But how often do we? Paul went to great lengths to build community with the others in his calling, even employing messengers to make long sea voyages (Phil. 2:19, 25) to share ideas, news, fellowship, and resources.
Finally, Paul discusses how to handle both poverty and plenty. This has direct workplace relevance because work makes the difference between poverty and plenty for us, or at least for those of us who are paid for our work. Again, Paul’s advice is simple, yet hard to follow. Don’t idolize your work in expectation that it will always provide plenty for you. Instead, do your work because of the benefit it brings to others, and learn to be content with however much or little it provides for you. Tough advice indeed. Some professions—teachers, health workers, customer service people, and parents, to name a few—may be used to working overtime without extra pay to help people in need. Others expect to be amply rewarded for the service they perform. Imagine a senior executive or investment banker working without a contract or bonus target saying,
“I take care of the customers, employees, and shareholders, and am happy to receive whatever they choose to give me at the end of the year.” It’s not common, but a few people do it. Paul says simply this:
I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, or having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. . . . I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied. (Phil. 4:12–13, 18)
The point is not how much or how little we are paid—within reason— but whether we are motivated by the benefit our work does for others or only for our self-interest. Yet that motivation itself should move us to resist institutions, practices, and systems that result in extremes of either too much plenty or too much poverty.