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Dilemmas in a Factory

by Clarence Trowbridge

Like millions of Americans, I work in a factory. I share certain problems with other workers, but I have other problems that arise because I am a born-again Christian. You might better understand what these problems are if I told you about some friends of mine. Let’s call them Christians A., B., C., and D.

When Christian A. was first assigned to the milling department in a certain factory, he was put to work with another man on the same machine. Theoretically the machine required two operators, but only theoretically. The fact was it scarcely required one. After the instruction period the co-worker notified Christian A.: “I’m going to take a nap back of the machine. If the foreman asks where I am, tell him I went to the washroom or something, then come back and wake me up.”

The co-worker took his nap, and sure enough the foreman did come around and asked where he was. Christian A. felt a little sick. What should he do? The name of Christ might be cursed if the co-worker lost his job because of telling the truth, yet neither was it right to lie. Trapped, he chose to do what most Christians would have done in similar circumstances. He lied. Down deep inside, Christian A. based his decision on two known facts: God forgives; man does not. The facts prompted his decision though he may never have fully realized it.

If you think this example is far-fetched, the chances are that you do not work in a factory.

Take another illustration, that of Christian B. who works in a chemical factory. When he was hired he determined to do his very best on the job. But after work on his third day he was met by a sour-looking delegation of men who told very plainly the way they felt about it. “What do you think you’re doin’, wise guy?” “You tryin’ to ruin things for everybody?” “Look, from now on you better get real slow!” “We don’t like guy like you around here.” And so on. They left him with this problem. Should he buck these men, or lay down on the job?

Or take Christian C. He has been working at the same dairy for a number of years. He is very well liked, and has always tried hard to be an “all-right guy.” His trouble was that he succeeded too well. One day a friend and fellow worker came to him with a casual request: “Say, old pal, I have to leave early tonight, so I stuck my card behind yours. Punch me out as you leave, will you?” And he turned on his heel and was gone. Christian C. was on the horns of a dilemma. Should he punch the man’s time card in violation of the company rules, or refuse and stand to lose the man’s friendship?

The one complicating factor in these three situations is this: these Christian men wanted to remain on good terms with their fellow workers in order to reach them with the gospel. This desire is the underlying idea of 1 Corinthians 9:22: “I am made all things to all men, that by all means I might save some.”

The difficulty arises in distinguishing right from wrong while remaining friends with the unsaved. Some say that you should ask yourself the question, “What would Jesus do?” then do it.

Let us examine the case of Christian D., who began to witness to a fellow employee on their ten-minute coffee break. So interested did the man become in what he had to say that Christian D. found himself still witnessing some ten minutes after the coffee break was over. The man was obviously under deep conviction, and Christian D. was faced with a hard decision. Should he continue to witness, hoping for a decision, on time they both owed to the company? Or should he return to work immediately, thereby losing an excellent opportunity that might never come again?

“What would Jesus do?” Frankly, Christian D. didn’t know. And the chances are that many another Christian wouldn’t know either.

To complicate things further, the Christian in the factory must make all his decisions in an atmosphere that is hardly conducive to godliness or right-mindedness. The air is often blue with language indescribably foul. And I know I am not the only Christian who has had to work in a room papered with pictures of nudes.

The union may also complicate the Christian’s problems. In theory, as a democratic organization it is good for the union to have the Christian help mold its policy. But in some cases he may find that the union upholds inefficiency, deceit, and even disobedience of certain company rules. The union may also insist on low work output in order to protect certain unionists who do not wish to work any harder. The idea that work efficiency and higher pay scales might go hand in hand is often regarded as “bunk.”

In companies that have a paid sick leave clause it is common for most of the men to “get sick for a week.” When the company eventually seeks release from such a provision the blame is likely to fall on the honest minority who did not draw sick leave. Ridiculous, you say? It happened to me.

These are real problems, just a few out of many. And no one could pretend to have solved all the unique problems that arise from factory employment. I think, however, that I have found a workable formula which may be of value to some Christian who is meeting these situations constantly and wondering if there are principles to guide him. It’s a formula found in 1 Corinthians 16:13-14. “Be always on your guard; stand firm in your faith; keep on acting like men; continue to grow in strength; let everything be done in love.” (Williams translation.)

For convenience I have reworded this formula into three rules:

  1. Make an open stand for Christ.
  2. Adopt an uncompromising attitude.
  3. Temper all your actions with love.

These rules are completely interdependent; you must abide by all three or none at all.

By making a stand for Christ I mean letting your fellow employees know openly that you are a Christian. The reason for this is that many of the problems such as we have been discussing result from a Christian trying to live on a high moral plane without first letting his fellow workers know the reason why.

Your fellow employees must understand that you are a Christian before you try to live like a Christian. If you fail to do this, your good behavior will be down either as spitefulness or just plain orneriness by the other workers.

I am not saying that a man cannot be a Christian without making an open issue of it. Indeed, I think that the majority of Christians are trying to do just exactly that. I have seen many of these “secret” Christians.

I will say that any attempt to live the Christian life in a crowded factory will end in defeat and heartache if the Christian will not take a stand for Christ. The temptations will come at the secret Christian so thick and fast that his head will fairly spin.

By making a stand and sticking to it, the Christian automatically short-circuits many temptations. Once the unsaved men understand your position they will often decide for themselves that a thing is wrong for you and never even present it to you for a decision. For example, a man who had considered asking you to help him steal something from the plant (a time-honored custom in many places) may decide beforehand that you wouldn’t do it, and not bother asking.

If he has the gall to ask you anyway, it will be easier for you to say no because he will know that you are refusing on purely moral grounds and not because you have anything against him personally.

Again, if you leave the room when the language becomes too sickening they will look at one another and nod—but they’ll understand. When you bow your head over your lunch bucket the men will know what you are doing, and only the meanest will try to bother you. In fact, if some crass individual does decide to have some fun at your expense while you are praying, he may find to his astonishment that he himself has incurred the disapproval of the men. For even the most black-hearted sense that there is something wrong in disturbing a man who is talking to God.

If your stand is open enough you may find that it becomes almost unnecessary to “preach the gospel.” You will become an “epistle, known and read by all men.” Moreover, you will find the unsaved coming to you. They will often seek you out whenever they think they can have a word with you in private. At first their questions may concern factual things like ethics and Bible truths. It is their way of finding out whether or not you will be able to answer their questions.

Later, when their confidence in you has increased, they will come out with the real question that has been troubling them. If ever a Christian has a God-given chance to testify for Christ, it is at that time.

Secondly, a Christian must adopt a firm, uncompromising attitude. This at times may tax all the determination and courage a man has. Once having made a decision based on the Bible or on what he knows to be right, the Christian must never go back on it or change it to meet changing circumstances. Painful and hard as this may be, it will spare him even greater pain in the future.

For one thing, make it a habit to always tell the truth. Lies are no longer considered sins when told within the confines of a factory. The problem of Christ A. should never have been allowed to rear its ugly head. At the other man’s first suggestion of a nap the Christian should have taken a firm stand and made it clear that he could not lie for him. This might have angered the man a little, but not half as much as if Christian A. sent the foreman back to wake him up—which was really the proper thing to do, as the situation developed.

Christian B. already had this attitude, and he continued to put out a day’s work for a day’s pay in spite of the warning. He was also careful to avoid an “I’ll show them” attitude. Now—less than a year later—most of the resentment has died down and Christian B. enjoys an envied reputation as a hard worker. When a man needs a work partner he is apt to choose Christian B., because he knows that Christian B. will make his own job easier.

In this latter case it became clear that the resentment did not arise from the majority of the men but from a comparatively small group of “leeches.” These men are vocal and usually pose as ardent unionists, simply because their kind needs the strongest possible union to keep the lot of them from getting fired for laziness.

Christian C. should have nipped his problem in the bud by stopping his friend and politely refusing to punch his card. If necessary he should even have run after him. This would have been awkward, but not nearly as awkward as the situation in which he allowed himself to become involved.

The problem of Christian D. is not so easy to answer, and I approach it cautiously. Certainly there are times when a man must take his orders from the Holy Spirit, and follow them unmindful of the consequences. At times every Christian must say as Paul said, “Necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is me, if I preach not the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16).

Nevertheless, in my judgment, in the absence of a Spirit directive to the contrary it is better to gently leave off witnessing and return to work. We can be sure that the Holy Spirit will not leave off His work but rather will continue to work in the man’s heart until there is a better opportunity to speak with him.

But it is the spirit of love that makes much of this possible. The firm, unyielding stand of the dedicated Christian seems very harsh at times. Only the loving nature of the born-again Christian can soften that harshness and reveal to the world that we are friendly and kind and sympathetic to their problems.

These three rules taken from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians will enable the Christian to live a life consistent with the faith he professes. It must be admitted that they will have little effect on the obscene pictures on the wall or the vile language that beats upon his ears. Since there may be no escape from these things physically, it is necessary to develop an inner protection against them.

If your work is largely mental you can preoccupy your mind with it. However, if your work is largely manual it would be well to cultivate a sort of mental preoccupation with the things of Christ. Since my own job is manual labor I can suggest a few devices that will help.

A favorite hymn or gospel song hummed over and over will tend to hang on all day with its message of hope or praise. Or you might memorize a verse of Scripture on the way to work, and all day long try to plumb its depths of meaning. Approach it from all angles and try to exhaust all the truth in it. But this third device I like best of all: take the offensive and tell the man to you just what Jesus means to you!

[Reprinted by permission from MOODY MONTHLY.
Copyright 1957, Moody Bible Institute of Chicago.]

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Romans 14:8