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Out of the Gray

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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As Christians, we are generally pretty clear on the black-and-white, the do’s-and-don’ts, the rights-and-wrongs. It’s the shaded areas that get us into trouble, that cause us to trip. Join us as we explore what it means to avoid a Conflict of Interest.

“Merry Christmas!” Bernard winked with exaggeration as he slid the envelope with my name on it across the counter. I thanked him and then proceeded to help him mail his package. Signed. Sealed. Almost delivered. I stacked the card along with the others, to be opened later.

Twenty years ago, I was a small-town postmaster serving an affluent community. At the time, it was the one of the most affluent zip codes in the United States. The people were generally kind and respectful of those who served them at the grocery store, gas station, and retail establishments. Christmastime was a season of bounty from the community, and I would bring home plates of cookies, fruit, and handfuls of cards.

That night, I opened the envelopes, reading and smiling at the kind words. A few of the cards had low-value coffee gift cards to fuel my caffeine level during long days. But the card from Bernard had a special insert—a $100 bill. As a public employee, I knew the rules. We were there to provide a service, and a gift like this could influence my professional dealings.

I knew he gave it with no ill intent; he was a man who could afford the gift. And in that economy, our young family could have used it. I showed the rare bill to my kids, and their eyes danced with possibility. But before they could mentally spend it, I told them my decision. I had to return it.

“Why, Dad?” my eldest son asked. “You work really hard.”

The other piped up, “If you don’t want to take it, I will!” His eyes pleaded with the deepest sincerity.

“I can’t … and you can’t.” I looked at them, still slightly amused. “It would be a conflict of interest.”

When in Doubt, Don’t

As Christians, we are generally pretty clear on the black-and-white, the do’s-and-don’ts, the rights-and-wrongs. It’s the shaded areas that get us into trouble, that cause us to trip. The grey is where leaders fumble, marriages crumble, and the righteous stumble.

A few years ago, I was contemplating a career change as a public relations officer. The pay was great, the commute was short, and the exposure was broad. But the downside was huge—I didn’t agree with the company’s policies or mission. There was a good chance I would have to go against my principles every single day—or get fired.

So, I did what any wise grown man would do: I called my mother, who was as close to an ethics advisor as I would ever have. She didn’t have a manual or on online resource; most of her guidance was in the form of little phrases that seem to fit every situation. When the time was right, she would reach into her pocketbook of timely advice and drop the perfect phrase.

“When in doubt, don’t,” she advised. This wasn’t the first time I had heard those words. She had dispensed them from her pharmacy of timely advice throughout my life regarding dating, friends, family choices, and work.

Paul tells us to “abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22). His choice of words conveys the sense that even in this world of righteousness and evil, it’s the place in-between that we need the most guidance.

I could have delicately danced my way through the intricacies of the new job, but I would never have been able to hold my head up high, be honest with my kids, or look my mother in the eye.

Blurred Lines

There’s no shortage of opportunities to exercise this principle of right living.

As I write this, it’s tax time for many Americans. Between the receipts and paperwork, there’s ample opportunity to blur the line between fiction and reality. I once overheard two business partners discussing the tax strategy for their company. Let’s just say there wasn’t much dabbling in the gray—they were covered in it.

The world of business is full of potential potholes, molehills, and land mines—walk in them, and you can break a leg or twist an ankle and sink your company, ruin your reputation, or lose customers.

Kevin Cullis, who just released an intriguing new book, How Would Jesus Do Business, reminds us that business ethics apply to both the entrepreneur and the consumer. He references Leviticus 25:14: “If you make a sale, moreover, to your friend or buy from your friend’s hand, you shall not wrong one another” (NASB).

Cullis writes:

Notice that God uses both words "buy" and "sell" when it comes to making a sale. That means that even at the most basic level, everyone is in a business. Whether it’s selling to a neighbor an item ( such as a farm animal, a sofa, or a used bike) or a service (like cutting a lawn), everyone is in a business when trading time or value for money.

When money enters the picture, the opportunity for conflicts of interest intensifies.

Choose Truth

We don't have a thick rulebook full of lists of how to handle every situation because it’s tough to define exactly what a conflict of interest is until you’re in the middle of it. That’s why we need the guidance of the Spirit, who serves as an on-call ethics advisor and helps sort out all the various shades.

My standards need to exceed expectations. It might mean giving back a gift that looks questionable, turning down a job, or telling the whole truth to the IRS. You’ll have your own list. We need to look at every situation and evaluate it against Scripture, the wisdom of our forefathers, and our community values.

Avoiding conflicts of interest is a daily struggle—as it should be. That’s why I pray. It's also why, when I’m in doubt, I don’t.

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