Occupation*

The Spirit of Judgment, CFP white cover, Watchman Nee

When we were with you, this we commanded you, If any will not work, neither let him eat. For we hear of some that walk among you disorderly, that work not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread. (2 Thess. 3.10-12)

* This message when given in 1948 at the Mount Kuling Conference Center near Foochow, China was a timely one, in view of a special situation then existing in China which seriously needed to be addressed on behalf of the Christians there. The same, however, may not be entirely or even partially applicable to the believers living within Western social and economic systems. The reader himself must judge. Yet the underlying principle advanced by the author in his message is nonetheless worthy of consideration; for although economic systems may indeed differ and local situations may doubtless vary, the basic points enunciated here can be of great help to those who seek to be led by the Spirit of God in choosing their occupations.—Translator

1. Occupations Sanctioned in the Bible

The occupation of a Christian is a major consideration in life. If he or she chooses the wrong occupation, that person will be hampered in his or her progress in the Lord. Hence a Christian must be careful in the choice of occupation.

At the time of creation, God not only created man but also planned for his occupation. He appointed Adam and Eve to dress and to keep the garden of Eden. Hence their job before the fall was that of a gardener.

After the fall, they had to toil with sweat in order to have bread, for the ground was cursed because of them. This indicates that after the fall the appointed occupation for man is that of a farmer. God knows better than anybody else that farming is the best pursuit for a fallen mankind.

From Genesis chapter 4 we find Cain was tilling the ground while Abel his brother was tending the sheep. Thus shepherding is added as another occupation besides that of being a farmer, and this is also acceptable to God.

As the earth’s population began to increase, all sorts of craftsmen were raised up: the ironsmiths, the coppersmiths, the makers of musical instruments, and the manufacturers of sharp tools. And by the time of the building of the tower of Babel (see Gen. 11), there were masons and carpenters as well. Although the tower of Babel ought not to have been built, men nevertheless learned to build during that period.

From Genesis chapter 12 we learn that God chose Abraham. And Abraham was a shepherd: he had many cattle and sheep. His grandson Jacob followed the same occupation—that of pasturing.

Later on we find the people of Israel making bricks in Egypt for Pharaoh. They were masons. But when they came out of Egypt, God gave them two blessings: one was to shepherd the flocks, and the other was to till the land of Canaan that was flowing with milk and honey. That a branch with a cluster of grapes took two men to carry clearly indicated the work of husbandry. That God warned that if they rebelled against Him and worshiped idols He would cause the heaven to be like brass and the earth as iron so that the ground would yield no produce, was further evidence that their main employments in the promised land of Canaan were to be farming and pasturing. The above are the various God-approved occupations shown in the Old Testament.

What about the basic occupations mentioned in the New Testament? From the parables spoken by the Lord Jesus we find that farming and pasturing are again the main occupations—Matthew 13, the parable of the sower; Matthew 20, the parable of the vineyard; Luke 17, the servant who serves the master at table after coming in from having ploughed or kept the sheep; and John 10, the Lord as the good shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep.

When the Lord called His twelve apostles, most of them were fishermen. Were any of them a tax-collector, the Lord would demand that he leave his post. To the fishermen among them, however, He said this: "I will make you fishers of men" (Matt. 4.19b). Consequently, fishing was also a God-approved vocation.

Luke was a physician (Col. 4.14a), and Paul was a tentmaker (Acts 18.3). Tentmaking is different from fishing, in that it is manufacturing work. Whereas farming is a direct work, the labor of spinning, weaving, cutting or tentmaking involves an additional step in the laboring process, and is therefore manufacturing work.

We may say that from the Old Testament to the New, God has made His arrangement for occupations. The disciples of the Lord were either farmers or shepherds or craftsmen or fishermen or manufacturers. We can add one more occupation, that of a laborer. For the New Testament does have this word: "the laborer is worthy of his [wages]" (1 Tim. 5.18). A laborer is one who works with his hands in unskilled or manual labor. Such employment is also sanctioned in the Bible.

2. The Principle Governing Occupations

In searching the Scriptures, we find that God has ordained for men various kinds of jobs. Underlying these occupations, there is a basic principle—which is, that men ought to be profited from nature through earning their hire by putting in either their time or their strength. Apart from this principle operating in any given occupation, the Bible does not seem to approve of any other kind of employment. Let us discuss several facets of this principle, as follows:

(a) Draw Resources from Nature for the Increase of Wealth. How are we to explain this statement? Perhaps we can best explain in this way: a sower sows his seed, and later he gets thirty or sixty or a hundredfold yield. Such multiplication comes from the supply of nature which is abundant and open to all. For God causes the sun to shine on the unrighteous as well as on the righteous. He also causes rain to fall on them both. This is the advantage of farming. Since it is God who gives the increase, this shows that God’s purpose is for men to take grace from nature. The same rule applies to pasturing. As one tends the flock, he is profited with many lambs as well as with wool and milk. This is production increase obtained from nature.

In the New Testament, we observe fishing as an occupation. To fish in the sea is still drawing resources from nature. No one will become poorer because I fish in the sea. I may get richer through fishing, but no one will become poorer for my sake. My sheep may give birth to six lambs and my cattle may beget two calves, yet no one will become poorer because of me. Or I may be farming and obtain an hundredfold increase. I certainly will not cause anyone or any family to suffer hunger or loss because of the good yield from my land. Thus the basic principle for human occupations is: I gain but nobody will lose. The noblest occupations as appointed by God come under this rule.

(b) Manufacturing—the Increase of Value. Paul’s tentmaking comes under the same principle, though not without some variation. He does not make his profit by going directly to nature as in fishing, pasturing or farming; rather, he puts his effort and time into a kind of manufacturing work. We may view such work as that which increases the value. For example: A piece of cloth may be worth one dollar. If I cut it, sew it, and make it into a tent, it can be sold for, say, two dollars. But this means I increase its value and earn my wages. Nobody will become poorer as a result of my earning a fair share. I simply increase the worth of this piece of cloth by adding my labor to it. It is therefore proper for me to earn my wages in this way. Such employment may be called a value-increasing occupation.

(c) A Laborer’s Wages In the case of an employee who works for another, or in the case of a mason or a physician, such a one is simply earning the wages derived from his own labor. Though he does not make his profit out of nature nor does he increase any value by means of manufacturing, he has nevertheless expended so much of his time and exerted so much of his strength that he is entitled to receive precisely that much in wages which is commensurate with his effort and time. God permits a laborer to have his share of wages.

3. The Choice of Occupation

There is one occupation towards which the Bible looks unfavorably, and that is the job of trading. This is something to which I wish to call your special attention. If it be possible, I would hope young believers would avoid this occupation. In order for us to have a clearer view, I shall enlarge upon this subject as follows. Suppose we have a hundred people here, each with a million dollars. The total amount of wealth is therefore a hundred million. Naturally, in trading we expect to make a profit; so now, let us say I am able to double my money within one month, that is to say, I double my original million to two millions. Ignoring the fact of whether I trade righteously or unrighteously, one thing is certain: if I make a million more, some among the one hundred men must have suffered loss in the process, that is to say, they will most likely each have less than a million dollars in their respective hands.

We are all Christians, and therefore brothers. Is it fitting for me to win your money? Is it right for me to be richer but you poorer? Even if my competitors are heathens, I myself am still a Christian. And hence as a child of God, I have the obligation to maintain a dignity and position that is in harmony with God’s viewpoint. It is consequently unfitting for me to take advantage of not only other believers but of the unbelievers as well, however righteous may be the way I trade. Let us see that in trading, one particular situation is clearly unavoidable: that to transfer money from your pocket to mine, I have to make you suffer. This is a fact.

But in the occupations which God has ordained for men, such problem does not exist. For if I am farming, I shall harvest—say, a hundred loads of rice—without lessening what you have stored in your home, not even a pound less. No one will suffer because of my reaping a hundred loads of rice. We cannot call this profiteering; it is simply increasing the wealth of the land. We need to perceive the great difference between these two. God does not wish His children to set their minds on the one purpose of making profit. He wants us to take up employments which will increase wealth. This basic principle is quite simple and clear. Do not be occupied from morning till night with the one thought of making money. Keep well in mind instead that if you make money, somebody else must incur loss. To increase my money is to decrease another’s money. And this is what we call trading.

Hence we have to choose among these three kinds of occupation: trading, laboring, and producing. The noblest occupation as sanctioned by God in the Bible is that of production, for in production I increase the wealth without at the same time making others poor. If after a few years of pasturing I increase my flock from a hundred to four hundred, I indeed have an increase, but no one else will have experienced a decrease because of me; for I have only increased the wealth directly from nature.

It is not so, however, with trading. For instance, I buy a hundred sheep in one place and transport them for sale to another place. In the process of selling them I make ten dollars on every sheep, and thus I have a net profit of a thousand dollars. This money I gain without my having produced one sheep more. With the result that the world is not any the richer in its wealth because of me, and what is even worse, some people have even suffered loss because of my trading. Trading simply means profiteering without production; I increase my own money, but I do not increase the wealth of the world.*

* This is in no way overlooking the law of availability as supplied by transporting goods from one place to another. It simply illustrates the absence of the basic principles of increasing wealth or increasing value.—Translator

From the standpoint of God’s word, trading is the lowest form of all employments. If opportunity is given us to choose our occupation, may we choose that which will increase wealth or value rather than that which only increases our money. It is very selfish if we choose the latter.

4. The Increase of Value

The principle underlying an employment such as Paul’s tentmaking is somewhat different from the first category mentioned earlier—that of the increase of the world’s wealth—yet still approved of God. Now in making a tent, it is quite true that there is no increase in cotton, or yarn, or cloth. Yet by cutting and sewing, by spending time on the cloth, it does increase the value of the raw material. According to Biblical scholars, the tents made during Paul’s time were dyed. So that Dean Alford suggests that when Paul said "these hands" (Acts 20.34), he in effect was showing hands that had been heavily colored from dyes. In his making tents, therefore, Paul had to cut, to sew, and to dye.

It is good and quite acceptable to increase wealth, but it is also good and acceptable to increase value. It is good, for example, for me to make a chair out of a piece of wood; for in so doing, I have increased the value of the wood. Although I have not by this process increased wealth out of nature, I have nonetheless added one more chair to this world for its use. And thus I have made profit without having hurt anybody else. And such an occupation as this is therefore also permitted by God.

Hence we ought to uphold one or the other of two standards to our various occupations: we must either increase the world’s wealth or increase the value of things.

5. Dealing with Pure Commerce

I too have studied a little economics and I know the necessity there is for trading in the world. But I am a Christian, not an economist. The Lord Jesus did indeed say, "Trade ye herewith till I come" (Luke 19.13b). The meaning of the Lord’s word here, however, is that He wishes to have us as fully occupied with our works as the traders are with their businesses. We know that a trader is completely engrossed with the intention of making money. Wherever there is a chance to make money, the trader will take full advantage of it. So that what the Lord is saying here amounts to His desire for His followers to miss no chance but to seize upon every opportunity. In other words, we are to apply our whole heart to the work.

I suppose we all know that trading became quite prominent with Tyre and will end with Babylon of Revelation 18. Commencing with Ezekiel 28 we are told in the Scriptures that the one who symbolized trading was the king of Tyre who actually represented Satan: "By the abundance of thy traffic [trade] they filled the midst of thee with violence, and thou hast sinned" (Ez. 28.16a). We would therefore do well to keep in mind that that occupation which aims at making a profit at another’s expense and not increasing the world’s wealth is not God’s appointed employment for His children. It is rather a satanic employment, in that it works according to an evil principle.  

Trading follows the evil principle of getting another’s money. When the money in my pocket increases, that in the other’s pocket is decreased. Suppose, for instance, that there are 4 billion people in this world, and that the total world’s wealth is 20 billion dollars. If anyone desires to make money through trading, the consequence flowing from that action will be very simple. Where there is an increase of one’s money, there will be a corresponding decrease of another’s money. For the total amount of the world’s money supply is limited. Now to increase one’s money at the expense of another—this is called pure commerce. I do not suggest that we should not sell the fish we catch, nor the wheat we harvested, nor the tents we make. We may indeed sell them, but such trading activities as these are not pure commerce. Why? because we exchange our products for money, and our profits are made from nature. We do not rob from others to make ourselves rich.

A basic Christian notion is that God’s people should not ever rob others. For a believer—who has been endowed with such a high and noble position of being a child of God—to make a profit out of the people of the world is unquestionably something that looks bad. If the head of our government should come to Mount Kuling and find that the mountain people were suffering from malaria, would he sell them quinine tablets in such a way as to make for himself a personal profit? Could he or would he make money from a coolie? No, considering his position, such an act would be outrageous. Let me tell you that it would be even more outrageous and shameful were a Christian to make a profit at the expense of others.

We Christians have our noble position and dignity. It is therefore a disgraceful thing for us to profit from another’s loss. We should not enrich ourselves at all by pure commerce. We ought rather to be farmers who till and plant, for God has so ordained nature to yield its increase. It would be far more glorious to do that than to take another’s money by means of pure commerce.

Where, then, lies our course? We ought to increase either the number or the value of a thing. Such an occupation is approved of God. Pure commerce is not accepted by Him. Special attention should be paid to what is recorded in Ezekiel 28, for the principle of profiting by trading was first illustrated in the Bible by the king of Tyre. And the Lord reproached him, saying: "By the abundance of thy traffic [trade] . . . thou hast sinned." The source of commerce is wrong. We then come to Revelation 18 which shows us what the judgment of Babylon will be at the closing of this world and the beginning of the kingdom to come. There the merchants of the earth, after the lapse of many centuries since the time of Ezekiel 28, shall weep and mourn for Babylon. Of the merchandise they handle, "gold" heads the list and the "souls of men" conclude it (vv.12,13). From gold to human souls, these merchants will have traded and trafficked in everything possible. Their sole aspiration will have been to make a profit and to get rich. For this reason, brothers and sisters in Christ should flee from this the basest of all employments.

Yet here we must distinguish between pure commerce and productive commerce. Trading of production is permitted, but pure buying and selling through the commercial exchanges and other such practices is absolutely unacceptable to God. It is right for a brother to sell what he has produced in the field, but for him to buy rice in order to sell it at a higher price is objectionable. Though both are selling, they are vastly different the one from the other. If I make a tent at night and sell it the next day, I am engaged in the same kind of work as was Paul; but if I buy ten tents today and then sell them tomorrow, I am involved in a different kind of work than what Paul was involved in. To sell what you have labored in is blessed by the Lord, but the buying and selling of commodities as a kind of middleman has nothing in view but profiteering. From the Christian and Biblical standpoint, the latter is the lowest of all occupations. Aside from making a profit for oneself, it does not help the national life at all.

He who is engaged in pure commerce should not be a responsible brother in the church. For such a person can hardly be expected to be freed from the power or influence of money. Our way is clear: God’s children cannot serve unless they are wholly liberated from the influence of money. If they are still bound by money, the church will have no more future. We therefore must choose the right occupation.

Should brothers and sisters pay special attention to their occupations, the church will be spared many trials if the Lord should delay His return. Henceforth our mentality will undergo a total change: it will not be a matter of how much money we make, but one of how we can do the things which are pleasing to God.

6. The Noblest Occupation

Shepherds and farmers are productive people, whereas merchants are non-productive. In between are workers and laborers such as physicians, nurses, masons, factory-workers, and others. They put in their labor, and so their employment is also considered to be a good one in the Bible. Although they do not produce, they nonetheless take nothing away from others. They make their profit neither from nature nor from other people. They use their time, physical strength and brain power in exchange for that which can provide them with the necessities of life. A worker or laborer is worthy of his wages. The noblest of all is still a productive occupation; and the next is a working occupation.

Productive people profit from nature but take nothing from men; working people take neither from nature nor from men; whereas trading people take nothing from nature but do make a profit at the expense of men. These three are distinctive in their respective character. The productive ones have the noblest of all occupations, for they seek their profit solely from nature. The working class earn their wages through either their strength or their brain or both. Yet their gain will still not make anybody else the poorer for it. Only the traders are engaged in the lowest employment because they make their gain exclusively through depriving their fellowmen.

7. The Way before Us

Before we conclude our discussion, we need to recognize the need to be moderate when it comes to speaking out about the consequences that logically should flow from our assessment of this matter. We should not indiscriminately condemn brothers who are middlemen or merchants, for they may not have had the opportunity to choose their occupation for themselves. Yet we do hope that they may hereafter be able to change their occupation. I know a man who was a good Christian brother when he left school. But not long after he joined himself to the commercial world, his heart was corrupted. He thought of nothing but profiteering. If he was asked to purchase anything, he would try his best to make some profit out of it. I say again that his heart was corrupted. And that is why we hope no brother will choose to be engaged in pure commerce.

Because pure commerce is not a Biblically acceptable employment, I would hope that after ten or twenty years we would have our mentality so completely transformed that no one would choose to be a trader. We who are believers should rather choose to teach than to trade, to work with our hands than to buy and sell. It is of course right for us to sell the produce we get from our farmland or from our pasture, or to sell the product we make as finished goods by means of our added work. The more of our labor we put in, the more we will be blessed of God.

Today we are poor; beware lest we become rich. For I must acknowledge that it is actually not hard for us to get rich because we as believers are honest and diligent, and because we do not waste our money in smoking and drinking and luxurious living. Do remember that before John Wesley died he said that he was deeply concerned with the Wesleyans for they would soon become the wealthiest people in the world since they were honest, diligent, and thrifty. And his prediction has indeed come true: the Wesleyans are wealthy, but are they rich in God?

In conclusion, let me say that we expect young believers to earn their money with honest labor. Do not aim at making a great deal by means of buying and selling. Our principle must always be to increase wealth but not money. And thus the money we earn will be clean, and it will be blessed as it is offered to God. The rule, then, is to labor or to produce. Although we dare not forbid trading, we nevertheless maintain that we should try our best to avoid pure commerce. It is a base employment which can easily drown a Christian in destruction and pierce him through with many sorrows (1 Tim. 6.9,10).