Faith, Tech and Entrepreneurship: What difference does it make?

What difference does faith make when it comes to technology entrepreneurship?

This talk answers the question by comparing and contrasting Jeff Bezos’ wisdom with Biblical wisdom. By considering the commonalities, we discover what’s still missing, pointing us to the ways faith makes a difference in our pursuit of technology entrepreneurship.

Note: The manuscript and slides below are from a talk delivered at the “Vocational Thriving in a Changing World” conference in Seattle, WA on May 5th, 2018. Full slides are available here.

Outline:
1. Is Bezos Biblical?
2. What’s missing
3. TheoTech’s Magic Quadrant
4. How Faith Makes A Difference


Is Bezos Biblical?

About two weeks ago, Jeff Bezos–the founder of Amazon and the richest man in the world–received the Axel Springer Award for his innovative achievements in e-commerce and digital journalism. During the corresponding interview Bezos talked about: “leaving a steady Wall Street job to start Amazon, why his rocket company Blue Origin is his most important project, and what it’s like to have Trump as your biggest critic”.

Here’s what he had to say about a few topics relevant to our conference today:

First, when was asked how he was able to leave his cushy Wall Street job to do a startup, here’s what he said:

when you have loving and supportive people in your life like Mackenzie [his wife], my parents, my grandfather, my grandmother, you end up being able to take risk because I think…you kind of know somebody’s got your back and so it’s just an–I don’t even think you’re thinking about it logically–it’s an emotional thing.”

“So I think it’s, anyway, I won that lottery, I won that lottery of having so many people in my life who have given me that unconditional love

Interesting. Jeff Bezos says that the unconditional love of his family and community were the key to his risk-taking.

What could this mean for Christians who confess the unconditional love of God?

Shouldn’t we be unleashed to think big and to take big risks for God’s Kingdom?

And if we aren’t, what does it say about the love in our churches and our personal experience of God’s love?

Second, let’s talk about criticism. Here’s what Bezos said about being criticized:

“Well, first of all, with any criticism, my approach to criticism and what I teach and preach inside Amazon is when you’re criticized, first look in a mirror and decide are your critics right? If they’re right, change, don’t resist.”

Interesting. Doesn’t this sound a lot like biblical wisdom? For example, Proverbs 15:31-32 says:

Whoever heeds life-giving correction will be at home among the wise.

Those who disregard discipline despise themselves, but the one who heeds correction gains understanding.

How about generosity? Bezos is the richest man in the world, surely he could be doing so much more to help others? Some of his critics are pretty unhappy with how he uses his money.

Well, here’s how Bezos responded:

I’m finding I’m very motivated by the here and now…when you go study homelessness, there are a bunch of causes of homelessness. Mental incapacity issues are a very hard-to-cure problem, serious drug addiction, a very hard-to-cure problem, but there’s another bucket of homelessness which is transient homelessness, which is a woman with kids, the father runs away, and he was the only person providing any income and they have no support system, they have no family. That’s transient homelessness. You can really help that person. And you by the way, only need to help them for like six to nine months, you get them trained, you get them a job, they’re perfectly productive members of society.

Whatever critics may say, they can’t deny that his pragmatic and short-term approach to giving is reasonable. In fact, it resonates with what the Apostle Paul said he wanted Christians to do in his letter to Titus (3:14):

And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.”

Lastly, here’s what Bezos had to say about something very important to a lot of Christians in the tech industry in particular… on work-life balance:

…this work-life harmony thing is what I try to teach young employees, actually, and senior executive[s] at Amazon too, but especially the people coming in. We’re asked about work-life balance all the time and my view is that’s a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade off and the reality is if I’m happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy, and if I’m happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy. And so it actually is a circle, it’s not a balance. And I think that that is worth everybody paying attention to. You never want to be that guy…who as soon as they come into the meeting they drain all of the energy out of the room. You can just feel the energy level go whoof …you want to come into the office and give everybody a kick in their step.”

Some people may cynically think work-life harmony is an excuse for overwork and I’m guessing Bezos doesn’t intentionally rest on a Sabbath day, but even this response has echoes of Biblical wisdom, for example Proverbs 11:25 says:

A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.

So what’s the point? Why do I point out the resonances between Bezos’ words and Biblical wisdom?

It’s twofold.

First, I want to show how much the capital “c” Church–of which I am a member–can learn from leaders in the tech industry. Not to overstate it, but I fear complacency, cowardice and incompetence in the Church has damaged the cause of Christ more than persecution.

  • We’re more ambitious for our careers and salaries than we are for God’s Kingdom.
  • We tolerate ineffectiveness and laziness in Christian community that would be unacceptable in the professional world.
  • We forget rigor, due diligence, and accountability when it comes to Christian leaders and causes only to get blindsided by scandal and mismanagement.
  • We uncritically assume our activities are aligned with God’s Kingdom so we can focus on pursuing our own comforts, interests and definitions of success.
  • We forgo Biblical sacrifice and suffering, believing worldly methods can accomplish God’s will.
  • We seek fame, riches and recognition for ourselves, thinking we can use it as a platform to glorify God.

I don’t like speaking this way. It’s hard to be vocally self-critical.

I know it doesn’t equally apply to everyone and that there are nuances in every person’s situation. But I’ve spoken in these terms to drive home the point that we as the Church have much to learn and much room to grow.

If technology’s power can be so effectively harnessed by entrepreneurs like Bezos to deliver spectacular shareholder value and reshape our entire world, shouldn’t it be intentionally and effectively leveraged to advance the Gospel?

The Gospel is not a hobby or a community service project. The Gospel is God’s power to save the world. If we can make our greatest strengths productive for companies in the marketplace, how can we make them productive for the Gospel too?

Which leads to my second point. In all of the biblical wisdom espoused by Jeff Bezos, what’s missing?

What’s missing in Bezos’ wisdom?

Bezos doesn’t make any reference to the Bible, God, Jesus, the Gospel, or the church, yet his answers resonate with biblical wisdom. Can we just follow what he says?

What does faith have to do with any of it? What does the Bible have to meaningfully say about technology and entrepreneurship beyond what he’s said?

To think about this question, I want to share with you this diagram I made that has helped me think about vocational integration. If you’ve heard of Gartner’s Magic Quadrant, maybe you could call this “TheoTech’s Magic Quadrant for Faith-based Vocational Integration”.

TheoTech’s Magic Quadrant

On one dimension you have a range from explicitly non-Christian to explicitly Christian. On the other dimension, you have a range from the Kingdom of this World to the Kingdom of God.

 

The reason why this diagram is helpful for me is that it keeps me from making the mistake of collapsing the two dimensions.

Growing up in church, it’s really easy to mistake everything Christian with God’s Kingdom and everything non-Christian with the world.

But it only takes a little bit of experience to know how much sin, incompetence, deception and abuse happens in the Christian sphere. And it only takes a little bit of experience to discover how much justice, creativity and good there is in the non-Christian sphere.

The church has suffered great harm from the collapse of these two dimensions because it has cut it off from a lot of godly wisdom simply because it lacked the Christian label, while simultaneously embracing worldly practices simply because they were labeled Christian.

By putting each dimension on its own axis, we end up with 4 quadrants. Here’s how I’ve labeled them.

In the top left, we have explicitly Christian appearances, but beliefs and practices that are actually aligned with the Kingdom of the World. When we find laziness, cowardice, injustice and deception in quadrant 1, we are in the Hypocritical quadrant.

Below that we have the non-Christian realm intersecting with the Kingdom of the World. This is evil in its most obvious forms. For example sex trafficking. There’s nothing redemptive about it because it violates the God-given worth of its victims, abuses their sacred sexuality and robs them of their freedom.

This is the Disintegrated quadrant.

To the right we have the non-Christian realm intersecting with the Kingdom of God.

This is the “Aligned” or “Common Good” quadrant. I might place the philanthropic work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to alleviate global poverty here for example.

And above that we have the Integrated quadrant.

This is where the opening lines of the Lord’s prayer are fulfilled. Not only is God’s will practiced in justice, righteousness and steadfast love, or God’s creativity reflected in wonderful inventions, but God’s name is also explicitly hallowed.

By putting “How close is it to the Kingdom of God” on a different axis than “How Christian is it?” we have a category for all the ungodly things that happen in explicitly Christian contexts. We also have a category for all the glorious and good things that happen in explicitly non-Christian contexts. And as Christians in any context we can discern the “True North” of God’s Kingdom and actively move things in that direction.

Applying the Magic Quadrant

Let’s look at a few examples of how to use these quadrants.

How many of you have heard of Theranos?

Theranos is a startup founded in 2003 that claimed to revolutionize medical testing through new technology that could run comprehensive tests on just a few drops of blood. This would make medical testing incredibly affordable for the masses. The founder was a brilliant storyteller. Widely praised by the press, Theranos eventually raised $700 million at a $9 billion valuation. It sounds fantastic, the kind of company that would fall under the “Kingdom Aligned”/“Common Good” quadrant.

But in March of 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged the company with defrauding investors by lying about the company’s technology and business performance. It turned out the tech was a total failure and today its value is virtually nil. Not only were investors swindled, but thousands of people who used the unreliable technology may have been misdiagnosed and harmed.

If you were a whistleblower in such a company, Christian or not, your actions would have aligned with God’s Kingdom and pushed the company towards the Aligned quadrant.

For a second example: How many of you have experienced a church scandal or at least a serious church conflict?

Isn’t it scary when God’s Word and Christian religiosity are used to cover up lies, protect abusers, or swindle people out of their money?

When you stand for the truth in such situations, perhaps at great personal cost to your relationships and reputation, you’re pushing things away from the hypocritical, worldly quadrant and towards the Integrated quadrant. You’re fulfilling Jesus’ description of being salt and light.

Alright, so this is how I think these quadrants can show us what’s missing in Bezos’ wisdom.

The biblical resonances in Jeff Bezos’ thinking exist in the “Kingdom Aligned” quadrant. That’s what makes it so insightful and effective. It’s not explicitly Christian or Gospel-oriented, but as Christians we affirm and learn from it. It reflects God’s wisdom and simply acknowledging God as its source would move it towards the Integrated column.

However, it’s not enough for us as Christians to stay in the “Aligned” quadrant. If we do, we get stuck in our faith.

If the most we can say about being a Christian engineer is “be a competent and honest engineer”, then the Christian adjective doesn’t really make a difference.

Many people want to do good, find meaning and purpose in work, express their creativity, make good money, and serve with excellence. It’s all well and good, but to paraphrase Jesus’ words in Matthew 5: “If you’re just as good as everybody else, what’s the point? … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

We live in a post-Christian context. If your faith has nothing meaningful to add, maybe we’d be better off just going to top tech conferences like AWS:Reinvent or Google I/O. Maybe we’d be better off learning leadership from Jeff Bezos than pastors. Maybe we’d be better off creating the wildly successful startups of tomorrow rather than investing in church planting.

But I hope to show you, as this diagram makes clear, that these options are not mutually exclusive and that faith does make a big difference–if we’re willing to act on it.

How Faith Makes a Difference

So how does faith make a difference? Here are three ways that I see faith making a difference for technology entrepreneurship.

#1: Faith makes God your ultimate customer
#2: Faith makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy
#3: Faith makes God’s Kingdom your ultimate vision and mission

Faith makes God your ultimate customer

First, faith makes God your ultimate customer.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The customer is always right” or “The customer is king?” Well I learned from one of the panelists we will hear from later today that in Japan, they actually say, “The customer is God.”

okyakusama wa kamisama desu” / 「おきゃくさま は かみさま です”」

Wow.

In a consumerist society that supremely values the customer, the only way a Christian can be faithful is to say, “God is my customer.”

Now you may ask, “Chris, that sounds nice, but what does this actually mean in practice?”

And I’d like to give you two approaches one is top-down, the other is bottom-up.

First, when God is your customer, it means that you will apply God-centered design instead of human-centered design in everything you create. You will deeply empathize with what God desires and study the Scriptures to understand his vision. Then you will work backwards to design a product or service that delivers the results God wants.

In my company, we’ve tried to practice this principle in the design of a prayer app called Ceaseless. We worked backwards from 1 Timothy 2, where the Scriptures say that God wants Christians to pray for all people because He desires all people to be saved. With that user goal in mind, we built an app that helps Christians do God’s will when it comes to prayer.

 

Instead of adding a Facebook “pray” button or focusing on ways to request prayer, Ceaseless is designed to help you pray for others.

It integrates with the address book on your phone and shows three people to pray for each morning. By showing you the full breadth of your relationships one day at a time, Ceaseless helps Christians, not only have more discipline or enjoyment in prayer, it actually helps Christians pray according to God’s will and desire that all people be saved.

That’s one very practical example of the principle of “God is my customer” in action. That’s the top-down Bible-based approach.

There’s also a bottom-up people-based approach.

We believe God became a human being and walked among us. The Incarnation, God in the flesh, means that many of the tools of human-centered design are transferable to a mindset where God is the customer.

Let’s pretend you own a food truck startup making multi-ethnic food available in highly trafficked locations on-demand. I actually heard a pitch for a startup like this by some students from Seattle Pacific University. They called it “Chomp!”.

Anyway, let’s say you were creating this startup. What would it look like for God to be your ultimate customer?

Well, let’s imagine it’s 1pm and Jesus literally shows up at your food truck because he wants some of your famous jambalaya, Ethiopian flatbread and spicy popcorn chicken.

I’m drooling. It may feel silly, but let’s think about this.

What if Jesus showed up as a customer? What kind of experience would you want him to have?

What if your truck was really popular and he had to wait in line for an hour in the rain–what would you do for him? What if he showed up and didn’t have enough cash–how would you treat him? How would you treat your God?

Although the idea may seem comical at first, the principle is powerful. Making God your customer is a driver for innovation and excellence. It applies the words of Jesus: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Faith makes God your ultimate customer.

Faith makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy

Okay, a second way that faith makes a difference in technology entrepreneurship is that it makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy.

Today’s tech founders are so valuable and powerful because they’ve had spectacular exits. They’ve taken their startups from zero to a large acquisition or successful IPO.

They’re now so rich that they aren’t really sure what to do with all that money.

So what do they do? They set their sights on even bigger dreams. Some focus on immortality through medical science, some focus on saving humanity from the AI-apocalypse while still others focus on space, the final frontier.

Here’s what Jeff Bezos said he would do with his 12-digit net worth:  

I believe on the longest time frame — and really here I’m thinking of a time frame of a couple hundred years … I believe…that Blue Origin, the space company, is the most important work I’m doing.”

“I’m pursuing this work because I believe if we don’t, we will eventually end up with a civilization of stasis, which I find very demoralizing. I don’t want my great grandchildren’s great grandchildren to lie in a civilization of stasis. We all enjoy a dynamic civilization of growth and change and let’s think about what powers that. We are not really energy constrained…Now if you take baseline energy usage…and compound it at just a few percent a year for just a few hundred years, you have to cover the entire surface of the Earth in solar cells. So that’s the real energy crisis and it’s happening soon…So what can you do? Well, you can have a life of stasis where you cap how much energy we get to use…[Or] take the alternative scenario where you move out into the solar system. The solar system can easily support a trillion humans, and if we had a trillion humans, we would have 1,000 Einsteins and 1,000 Mozarts and unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources from solar power and so on. Why not? that’s the world that I want my great grandchildren’s great grandchildren to live in.

That’s Bezos’ vision of humanity’s salvation, filling the heavens (aka space) where we will find limitless resources to provide for all of humanity’s needs.

Let’s compare this with the Christian vision of salvation through a snippet from Revelation 22:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Although it’s apocalyptic literature, I think we can say that in the long term future of God’s plan there will be infinite energy, unparalleled beauty, boundless life, complete healing, righteous power and deeply satisfying relationships with God and one another. Everything will finally make sense. Everything will finally be made right.

Christians in technology and business need to grapple with this.

What does salvation mean to us? What’s the endgame?

Which story are we living? Where do the narratives align and diverge?

Bezos sees energy scarcity as one of humanity’s biggest existential crises and he wants to use his billions to solve it by sending more humans to space. We see sin and Satan’s dominion as humanity’s biggest existential threat and we want to see billions of people experiencing the power of the Gospel so that they can inherit a renewed, flourishing planet and Universe that the Creator will give to us forever.

Yes, space exploration can serve the common good and align with God’s vision for humanity. Human beings reflect God’s glory by being relentlessly curious: “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (Proverbs 25:2). Whose to say we won’t be a spacefaring civilization in the New Creation?

 

But as Christians, we must also seek the uncommon good. We must lead not only in creativity, curiosity or ethics; we need to lead in eschatology, in hope. We can’t be ashamed of the hope of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for every human being not only in the past, not only in the distant future, but in the here and now.

If we really believe that through faith in Jesus Christ, God will raise us from the dead and give us a magnificent inheritance in the New Creation forever, it will change the way we go about building companies, inventing technologies and serving the common good.

Everything we create will be yet another foretaste of the future we believe God is preparing for us. We can’t help but infuse our products, services and organizations with the flavor of God’s Kingdom. And anytime our customers, investors, employees, vendors and colleagues delight in what we do, we’ve inadvertently witnessed to them about God.

The Kingdom of God is like a startup, let’s call it Gospel Inc. At the price of his blood, Jesus acquired us from being slaves of the Devil and now he’s made us co-owners of his company by giving us shares.

Right now our shares may not seem like they’re worth much. Gospel Inc. hasn’t gone IPO yet. But it has paid dividends through the joy and power of the Holy Spirit that we experience today.

And one day, when Jesus returns, when the New Creation finally launches, when Gospel Inc. goes public, our shares will be worth infinitely more than we ever dreamed.

As of this writing, 1 Amazon stock would cost you $1,580 (5/6/2018) $1,974 (9/25/2018).

The price of a share in Gospel Inc.? Free.

The value? Priceless.

Isn’t this why the Scriptures say, “Good news is preached to the poor”? The poor may not be able to buy Amazon stock, but they can receive by faith in Christ, something worth infinitely more in the long term. And when we use our Amazon stock to share with them the good news in word and deed, we show that our hope is in that future too.

Here’s how the Apostle Paul put it in 1 Timothy 6:17-19

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

Faith makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy.

Faith makes God’s Kingdom your ultimate vision and mission

Every modern organization has a vision and mission statement. Churches, businesses and even small meetups have a reason why they exist and how they fulfill that purpose.

A lot of books, teachers and coaches focus on how to help you find your calling, your purpose, your personal mission(s). I get it, everybody wants to know “Why do I exist?”

However, I think sometimes we can get stuck and frustrated trying to figure out our passions, interests and skills instead of lifting our heads and being captivated by the big picture vocation God has given to the Church.

What if instead of working forwards from our personality and life situation towards what God might want, we worked backwards from God’s vision and mission to our circumstances and calling?

Here’s how we’ve tried to do it in my company TheoTech. We’ve built a real time translation product called spf.io with a very succinct and common good mission: “To make every event accessible in any language”

Spf.io enables events like this one to be accessible to people in many languages with the tap of a button on their smartphones. I can speak freely and you can receive captions or translations of what I say in real time. It has widespread applications throughout society and I think spf.io’s mission is something that a lot of people can get behind, Christian or not.

But where did this mission come from? It came from God’s vision and mission.

In Revelation 7, the Apostle John receives a vision from God where he sees people from every tribe, tongue and nation worshiping Jesus together. In Matthew 24, Jesus specifically says that the Gospel of the Kingdom must be preached to every nation before the end will come.

So working backwards from this criteria, we decided on a mission for our product spf.io that would align with God’s as best as we could: “to make every event accessible in any language.” If that mission is fulfilled, it will contribute to the gospel being preached to every nation. If that mission is fulfilled, it will contribute to foretastes of God’s vision by making it possible for people to worship together in many languages every Sunday in every church.

 

That’s one example of how faith has informed and shaped the way we practice technology entrepreneurship. It’s how we move from the “Aligned” quadrant to the “Integrated” quadrant.

Faith makes God’s Kingdom your ultimate vision and mission.

So what?

So what.

You may think, “Chris, that all sounds really cool, but what does it mean for me in my work? I’m not a senior leader. I’m not an influencer. I’m still just learning, trying to figure out the basics. I just need to make a living. I want to integrate my faith and work, but what can I do?” (Start now. Build God’s Kingdom into the DNA of your career from the outset.)

Or maybe you think, “Chris, you’re crazy. You take the Bible too far to the extremes. Can’t we just do good works, succeed in our jobs and lead a quiet, dignified life as the Bible says?” (You can do all these things. But just know that they are not all of what God calls us to. You get to choose how much you want to buy into the Kingdom of God.)

Or maybe you’re thinking, “Chris, this is too abstract and impractical. I’m bored at work and stuck in a dead end job with a manager who doesn’t care. I’m tired of the drama and just want something more fulfilling that pays well.” (God cares about your work. When you make it about serving Him wholeheartedly instead of your boss, you may find the freedom, joy and guidance you’ve always longed for.)

Well I’m glad you asked, because we’re about to get really practical.

I’m going to invite three panelists to share about how they’ve practiced faith and work integration in tech, their struggles as well as their successes. (Unfortunately panelist responses were not recorded.)

But before we move on, let me restate the outline of this talk.

We started by asking, “Is Bezos Biblical?” and traced through some of his thinking and how it aligns with what the Bible says in several areas. The Church has much to learn from technology entrepreneurs and Bezos in particular. He may be a modern Cyrus or Solomon.

Then we asked, “What’s missing in Bezos’ wisdom?”

I showed you this diagram to help categorize our experiences and orient our actions towards God’s Kingdom in any context. In whatever quadrant we find ourselves, our organizations, or our societies, we serve as salt and light by relentlessly pressing into the Integrated Kingdom of God quadrant. Being a pastor is not anymore significant than being a software engineer, but serving God’s Kingdom is significantly different than serving the Kingdom of the World.

Next, we asked, “How does faith make a difference?”

I gave three examples of how faith impacts technology entrepreneurship:

First, faith makes God your ultimate customer. In a world-age where the customer is god, making God the customer is not merely a nice idea–it is the only way we can be faithful to Christ while benefitting society and thriving at the same time. By obsessing over God as your customer, you get to know God better.

Second, faith makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy. Instead of hoping to become overnight billionaires by going IPO, we fix our hope on the return of Christ as our true reward.

Third, faith makes God’s Kingdom your ultimate vision and mission. Even though we don’t always have control or even clarity about our personal or organizational visions or missions, we proactively seek to align any areas of our influence with God’s stated plan.

All Things Work for Good?

I got to preach from my favorite Bible passage on August 2017. If you’ve ever struggled with believing God loves you, this message is for you! 🙂 Below is a recording of the sermon as well as the English manuscript.

All Things Work for Good?

My favorite Bible verse is Romans 8:28. It goes like this: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

I can’t remember when it became my favorite, but I do remember why. As an anxious young person, that verse was a great comfort whenever I was afraid of a bad outcome.

Before taking important tests, before violin auditions or sports tryouts, before applying for school or jobs, before nerve-wracking interviews, before asking a girl out, before difficult conversations and major decisions, I could pray and remind myself that for those who love God, all things–including the possible undesirable outcomes–work together for good.

So all I had to do was love God…and go crazy doing everything I possibly could to ensure that I got the outcome I wanted.

Sometimes things would go well. When they didn’t, I could attribute it to God’s will and trust that it would work for my good. This was my way of practicing the saying, “pray as if everything depends on God, work as if everything depends on you.” It was a form of therapy, a way to let go of negative things outside of my control by believing something better was on it’s way.

As Christians we can be conditioned to always look for ways God is turning unwanted circumstances for good. But, as I’m sure many of you can attest, life does not always follow this pattern.

Eventually, you hit a stretch, a prolonged season of trials, disappointments, hurts, failures and defeats. A season of doubting God’s love. A season that feels like it will not end until it contradicts and crushes your formerly childlike faith.

This season began for me about four years ago.

Weathering the seasons of doubt

To keep a long story short, about four years ago, I believe God called me (and confirmed it through trusted friends and family), to leave my job as a software engineer at Amazon in order to start a technology company that would make God its customer. A company that would obsess over God’s desires and work backwards to invent products that would aim to fulfill those desires.

It was like a voice saying, “Chris, I want you to leave your job and devote your attention to the purpose I have called you to and trust in me to provide for you.”

And so I did. I co-organized an event bringing together Christian technologists to use their tech skills to build solutions to Kingdom challenges. We launched Ceaseless, a free smartphone app that helps people pray for others by showing them three contacts to pray for each day. I built spf.io the real time translation solution my grandma is using to get this message in Indonesian right now, believing that it would help churches reflect the multilingual glory of God’s Kingdom.

Yes, by God’s grace we’ve accomplished many things, but what is the #1 thing a business needs?

Paying customers.

And this was the great struggle. We certainly had fans who were supportive of our mission, but paying customers were scarce.

I wanted to trust that God would provide, but many times it felt like I was providing for myself. It felt like I was being faithful and giving my best to serve God’s purpose only to find that seeking “the Kingdom” first wasn’t working.

Maybe it isn’t more blessed to give than to receive. Maybe God won’t bless and establish the works of our hands. Maybe God called me to failure to humble me. Or to mimic ancient Israel’s grumbling: Maybe God brought me into the wilderness to kill me.

When everything feels hopeless, Romans 8:28 can become a forgettable platitude instead of a strong comfort.

Today, I’m using my story in conversation with Romans 8 as an example, but the real aim is to help all of us remember and rejoice in the hope of the Gospel, so that in the most difficult circumstances we are facing or will face, we can praise God for His unfailing love and obey Him.

I think sometimes we feel far from God, not because God is far from us or doesn’t “get us,” but because we don’t “get him”. The Bible helps us to “get him”, so that instead of assuming we know God, we get to have the heart to heart conversation with God that we need. And not just a one-way, “I’m pouring out my guts to you God” conversation, but also the “I’m listening…oh, so that’s what’s on your heart…I see”

What are we hoping for anyway?

So let’s read through Romans 8 beginning with verse 14.

14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”

16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

A little commentary here: Paul has explained the new identity in Christ we receive as a free gift, and the holy living it creates by the Spirit (as opposed to the law, which could only condemn). The spirit of slavery to sin controls us through the fear of condemnation and death.

The Spirit of God whom we receive by faith casts out fear and testifies that we are God’s children. This includes the intimacy of crying out to our Dad as well as the regal privilege of inheriting everything that belongs to Him, namely all of Creation.

But God’s promise and inheritance come with suffering. God’s children suffer with Christ because suffering is the prerequisite to glory.

Let’s continue with verses 18 to 25.

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

So first Creation is groaning. Adam’s sin subjected Creation to futility and decay–it can’t fulfill its purpose, its full potential. Creation desperately wants to be set free, so it eagerly awaits the revelation of the glorified children of God, those who are to rule Creation, so that it can be unleashed to its full glory also.

Second, we are groaning. Why do we groan? Well, it’s not because someone told a bad joke. It’s because we’re in pain. Creation is in the pains of childbirth and we are in the pains of waiting for the day of our adoption when we will attain the full rights and privileges of being children of God, a major one being immortality, eternal life, the redemption of our mortal bodies for new glorified ones.

This is the payoff. This is what we’ve been waiting for. This is why we put our faith in Jesus.

Why were we justified by Christ’s blood? Why were we saved from the wrath of God? Why were we reconciled by Christ’s death and saved by his life? It was for this, getting in on this resurrection from the dead is what the Apostle Paul and us have been hoping for all along.

Let me restate it. We are hoping and eagerly waiting for the day when God will restore and glorify all of Creation, beginning with us, his children, who are to inherit the New Creation and rule it with Christ.

Paul is lifting our sights here to show us why our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. He zooms out to a cosmic scale, stretching our imagination and making us think bigger and bigger in order to feel the vast scope of God’s redemption, so that we get why the groaning and waiting is worth it.

When we’re clobbered by our circumstances, we need to Think Big. We need to zoom out and think about the Big Picture of God’s redemption. Don’t shift from the hope of the Gospel. One of the mistakes I often make is to shift from the Big Picture hope to the small. I interpret Romans 8:28 in light of my immediate circumstances and shift my hope from receiving a resurrection body in the new creation to a particular relationship, a financial breakthrough, defeating an adversary, a miraculous healing, etc.

If I shift my hope and get disappointed, I end up doubting God’s love and God’s goodness. I try to clobber the circumstance into a lesson learned. I try to psychologize why the bad circumstances are actually good. I get obsessed expecting that God must do the impossible in my life (for his glory of course!) only to feel utterly let down when he doesn’t.

Even if I get what I want, shifting my hope is dangerous because I get comfortable thinking I must be in God’s will because of my successful circumstances and so in love with the comforts of this world, I stop hoping for the Kingdom of God.

Keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t shift from the hope of the Gospel.

Getting the help we really need

Now on to verses 26-30.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

So we read earlier that Creation groans for the glory, that we ourselves groan for the glory, and now we read that God’s Spirit groans with us.

I have a friend who likes to end every phone call with, “Brother, is there anything I can do for you?” and it’s funny because most of the time it catches me off guard and I just think of something he can pray for me.

If God were to ask, “Is there anything I can do for you?” I’m sure we would blurt out quite a few ideas, but pretty soon the breadth of our requests would be so overwhelming, we would be too weak to think, much less say them all.

And here is where the Spirit comes to our aid, groaning with us and turning our groans into intercessory prayers that God fully understands. You have a Comforter who fully empathizes with your inexpressible pain and expresses it to God for you. Think about that.

How we know God absolutely loves us

And now we come to my favorite verse Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Why? Why do we know this? In Romans 5, Paul wrote, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is a past reality that assures us of God’s love.

But in Romans 8, we read about the future reality that assures us of God’s love: God predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son. Keep in mind, this image is not just character, it’s a full likeness that includes an immortal resurrection body. We will be with Jesus and we will be like Jesus biologically as well as spiritually.

This is why we know all things work together for good for those who love God, for those who love God’s Son, for those who love the future God has prepared for them. It is a future so certain, Paul writes about the progression as if it has already happened: “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

Now Paul knows that some people may still have doubts.

“What if this glorious future does not apply to me?”

“What if I sin and fall out of God’s favor?”

“What if someone or something powerful attacks me to prevent God’s good purpose for me?”

“What if my life falls apart and everything goes bad? Does that mean I’m separated from God’s love? Does it mean God’s purpose for me failed or wasn’t good after all?”

He immediately addresses these doubts in verses 31-38

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.

34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is Paul’s response to any lingering doubts that God loves you.

First, God has proven that he is for us, not against us. God gave up his Son for us all, how could he ever be against you? On the contrary, he is so for you, that he will give you everything along with his Son.

Second, sin could separate us from God’s love, but God has already declared us just and Christ, the very person who was condemned for our sins, lives and continues to pray for our salvation with complete authority. Any accusations against us would defy God’s righteous judgment that we are justified and any condemnation for sin has already been fully exhausted on Christ–there is no condemnation left for those in Christ Jesus.

And lastly, suffering circumstances cannot separate us from the love of Christ. The Gospel teaches that we are fundamentally inseparable from Christ who loved us. He is in us and we are in Him and we are one. So, it is impossible for suffering–even the worst kind–to cut us off from his love. Whenever it tries, Christ in us makes us more than conquerors and the circumstances are overturned for our good instead.

Nothing in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Conclusion

So what happens when we are absolutely convinced that God loves us?

Take a moment and think about that. In the hard trials you or someone you love are facing, what happens when you’re absolutely convinced that God loves you?

I’ll close with some of the things I thought of:

When we are absolutely convinced that God loves us, we stop going crazy trying to figure out how all things work together for good when they really feel like they aren’t. We stop interpreting negative circumstances and suffering as evidence that God doesn’t love us. We stop blaming ourselves for our failures and circumstances. We stop blaming God for our circumstances.

And what do we start doing?

We start to love God for giving us everything to ensure we are glorified with Christ. We start to love our neighbors as ourselves hoping that they too will share in our future inheritance in the New Creation. We start to rejoice in our sufferings because we finally believe they just aren’t worth comparing with our future glory. We start to identify with Christ as closely as he identifies with us in everything: the terrific, the terrible and even the mundane. And lastly, we start producing an abundance of good works because we simply can’t contain our eagerness for God’s good Kingdom to come.

And that is why Romans 8 is my favorite text.

What Have I Been Up to Lately?

It’s been awhile since my last post, so here’s an update on one major thing I’ve been working on lately. My company TheoTech, built spf.io, a product that provides AI-assisted real time captions and translations of live events.

You plug in audio from the soundboard, spf.io converts sound to text, translates it and distributes subtitles/captions to people’s smartphones.

This past weekend, we used it to run everything from slide projection and video playback (NO Propresenter or Powerpoint needed!), to of course real time English captions and Spanish translation. One speaker even controlled slides from her smartphone without any training!

It was an exciting milestone. Seeing the product mature enough to handle everything was particularly gratifying.

Many people ask how to pronounce spf.io and what it means. Here’s the story behind the name [the rest of this post was originally posted on the spf.io site].

How it all started

Many years ago I took a class on entrepreneurship. We formed teams to write a business plan and pitched it at the end of the quarter. The iPhone had just revolutionized the world so my team pitched a real time translation app.

The problem was that pitches can be pretty boring without a product demo. You can talk about the problem and market opportunity but unless your audience experiences the solution, it’s all theoretical. So I decided to build a “minimum viable prototype” or MVP.

My MVP was a powerpoint slide with the picture of an iPhone in landscape mode. I scripted an introduction in Indonesian and put the English translation in the picture of the iPhone. Kind of lame, I know. But then I added animation so that the text would appear character by character.

I memorized what I wanted to say, practiced the timing a few times, and presto! A magical demo.

On the night of the pitch, I nervously walked up to the front, took a deep breath and started speaking in Indonesian so my audience could feel the confusion.

Then I advanced the slide.

An early prototype of spf.io

Suddenly, the English translation appeared, in sync with my speech in the giant iPhone mockup projected behind me. The class erupted with cheers and applause.

Despite my “smoke and mirrors” prototype, they were impressed and delighted to “understand” my language.

A better way to do translation?

Fast forward several years later to the inception of spf.io.

We were feeling the painful drag of doing bilingual worship services at my church. Service lengths were doubled and people were tuning out half the time, hearing a language they didn’t understand–or worse, hearing the exact same thing twice!

There had to be a better way.

Then I remembered what I did for the business class. Even though my MVP felt silly, I realized that my audience loved it and that it actually worked! They didn’t care that it was scripted, they loved the experience and my presentation became “performance art”.

So I built a prototype for my church to make it easy for the pastor to upload his manuscript and project the translation on screen, in sync with what he said. I called it the “Synchronous Presentation Framework”. (I’m a nerd, I know).

I used the internet to keep everything in sync so the pastor could release his manuscript from an iPad and the translation would appear on screen. I also built a mobile view so people could follow along on their smartphones in the language they preferred.

That’s when I bought the domain name spf.io. I wanted to keep it short to make it easy to type on a phone. I also wanted it to not mean anything in any language to avoid problems down the line.

What spf.io means

In the beginning, I kept spelling “s-p-f-i-o” out literally until my co-founder pronounced it “spiffy-oh” one day. It felt right and the name stuck around ever since.

When people see “spf.io”, they may feel confused about what to call it, but when they hear it pronounced “spiffy-oh” it suddenly makes sense and that tiny moment of understanding brings a smile to their face–a moment that mimics the joy we hope to spread through our product.

So what does “spf.io” mean? Technically, it means “synchronous presentation framework,” but I hope one day it means “the joy you feel when you finally understand someone for the first time”.

What spf.io can do today

A screenshot of spf.io in landscape mode, showing a slide with subtitles overlaid.

Spf.io has come a long way from the early prototypes.

We now support automatic captioning of live speech, automatic translations into more than 60 languages, automatic slide translation and much more. We also enable humans to intervene at any time to keep quality high.

All of this is carefully designed to create a simple and seamless experience for your audience. They just visit a url, select their language and get translation on their mobile device. They can even hear the translations read to them!

It doesn’t get much easier than that.

——

If you made it this far, thanks for reading! Would you or someone you know like to try our product? Drop us a line today to get startedhttps://spf.io.

Untangling 10 Life Assumptions

My twenties have been a season of un-learning assumptions about life. Here are ten I’m untangling:

1. emotions and truth. It’s tempting to believe something is true because of how deeply we feel about it or that it is false because we don’t feel strongly about it. Deep emotional experiences are not indicators of truth, although they often accompany powerful expressions of truth. Emotions must be tested as much as facts to see if they are true.

2. success and love. Success is no indicator of love or the lack thereof. They are completely separate. Love cannot be earned or lost, success can. Seeking love through success brings anxiety and depression. Believing you are loved makes success a fun day at the beach instead of an existential crisis.

3. ignorance and fear. Ignorance doesn’t have to produce fear. Fear obscures truth by belittling or exaggerating the unknown (i.e. I don’t know it, so it must not be important OR I don’t know it so I’m probably going to completely fail). Do not fear the unknown, fear God and explore the unknown.

4. passivity and God’s will. Don’t think something is an indicator of God’s will simply because it happened outside of your control. Being passive is not a way to discern God’s will, it is a way to hide behind your fears. Your actions are as much a part of God’s will as the actions of others, so don’t discount it in your prayerful discernment.

5. parsimony and frugality. Saving money is good. Not spending money is not necessarily good. There are things you should gladly spend money for and there are things you should gladly withhold money from. Which is which requires judgement.

6. acceptance and trust. Someone may accept, welcome, encourage, help and praise (i.e. flatter) you, but it does not mean you can trust them. Trust is built through trials, conflicts and vulnerable experience. Acceptance can be given or taken away on a whim.

7. rejection and self-rejection. Rejection is usually not your fault nor is it a reflection of your worth. People are usually self-focused and their own circumstances and values are often bigger factors than your actions. So don’t beat yourself up if you are rejected…rejecting yourself does not help.

8. perfectionism and responsibility. Perfectionism says that if you’re perfect you can’t be rejected and conversely if something fails, it must be your fault. That assumption is false. First you’re not perfect, second even if you (or your work) was perfect, you could still be rejected for it for no fault of your own. The world often runs off favors, advantage, envy and image rather than truth or righteousness. So relax. Accept responsibility for your part and relax about the rest.

9. responsibility and reward. Many times you will not be rewarded for taking responsibility. Sometimes this is because life is unfair, other times it’s because you missed something (i.e. you make a great app, but nobody uses it because you didn’t market it). If you want to be rewarded in this life, you need to pay attention to the mechanisms for turning your effort into reward; you cannot not take responsibility for this part. However, you can be free from a lot of stress if you also humbly believe God will take care of it eventually.

10. merit and grace. Human effort matters, but grace is real too. Sometimes after experiencing grace we want everything to be given so freely because it is such a relief and seems to be so obviously of God. Then we confront situations where grace does not seem to be operative…nothing happens unless we make it happen or nothing changes period. Instead of wanting everything to be one or the other, patiently live with both. Some things are accomplished by God’s grace alone. Some things are also accomplished by our effort. Life is both and that back and forth is how we experience Jesus’ life lived through us.

I hope some of these disentanglements are helpful for you (they are admittedly easier said than done). Feel free to share more in the comments below!

App Review: Accordance Bible Software

At TheoTech, we have three Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) that exemplify the need for technology entrepreneurship for the Gospel:

  1. Personal prayer for everyone on earth
  2. Thriving, Ubiquitous Multilingual Churches
  3. Worldwide Biblical Literacy

Each goal stems from a Biblical mandate with a contemporary flair rooted in technology’s leverage and scale. We’re pursuing BHAGs #1 and #2 through Ceaseless and spf.io, but haven’t done as much for #3.

So when my friend David Sanford at Accordance Bible Software gave me a free review copy of their English Learner Collection, I was delighted to give it a try and see what’s already happening in this space.

My Bible Study Background

I got hooked on the Bible as a pre-teen, putting the book on my nightstand to remind me to read a passage before going to bed. In middle school I got a Dell Axim PDA and discovered the useful Pocket e-Sword app. This got me reading on the bus. My favorite feature was seeing different translations like the ESV and The Message in parallel.

During my college days I devoured podcasts from Ravi Zacharias, John Piper, RC Sproul and Chuck Swindoll, listening to their teaching during the long commutes. And as a student leader in Cru at the University of Washington, I often referred to Blue Letter Bible and BibleGateway to prepare Bible studies.

Then came the Bible app. By this time I had switched to an Android phone which didn’t have Pocket e-Sword, so I tried the Bible app and stuck to it for two reasons: 1) my notes were synced to the cloud, 2) the daily reading plans were built-in. To this day, I miss viewing translations in parallel and having quick access to commentary resources. I don’t care much for the activity feed/social features.

Which leads to this review of my first real experience with professional Bible software.

Review: Accordance Bible Software

I have a confession to make: It’s been a long time since I’ve done an in-depth Bible study of a text. Though I read for personal and devotional reasons nearly every day, I rarely need to prepare a Bible study, sermon or paper. Most of my recent talks have been focused on the intersection of God’s Kingdom and technology and hence, I’ve leaned away from word studies to working with passages and themes.
Accordance Bible Software

So without further ado, here’s my experience using Accordance as a complete novice.

Installation

I received a link to download the English Learner Collection, entered my key and was greeted with this installer. 705MB of resources! Not too shabby, but I had to wait awhile before I could start using it.

Installation was simple, but it took awhile to download all the resources.

First Impressions

I looked up Ecclesiastes 4 and researched the word “toil”. The Research panel opened on the right showing me the definition. So many words are hyperlinked, which makes it convenient to look up related materials, but I also found my curiosity taking over and leading me down Wikipedia-like rabbit trails. I suppose getting lost in the Bible isn’t a bad thing :).

Looking up the word “toil”.
Diving into “toil” in the original language.
Worship leaders could find this hymn lyrics search useful.

After poking around for a few minutes, two things came up on my wishlist:

  1. I wish I could hear the original language words spoken in Hebrew/Greek by tapping on it.
  2. I wish I could have this on my mobile phone since that’s where I do most of my Bible study nowadays.

 

Word Study

I decided to dive deep into the word “reward”. First stop, the Hebrew lexicon. First discovery: the name Issachar means “there is reward”.

While taking a screenshot on my mac, I discovered that holding the command key while hovering over a word conveniently shows details in the instant detail view.

I clicked on the scripture reference and the instant detail view gave the context for the use of “Issachar”.

Average hits for the word “reward” in each book of the Bible.

Next I tried the “Simple Construct” workspace and stumbled on an analysis view that gave several visualizations to see where words appear in Scripture.

I was surprised to find that “reward” occurs relatively frequently in 2 John, but it turned out to be an anomaly because the book is so short.

A sophisticated analysis tool, which I need more training to understand how to use.

Parallel View

Next I looked up 1 John 5:6 to see if comparing different translations would shed light on the tricky passage.

Unfortunately, my English Learner Collection didn’t come with the translations I wanted to compare, so this view may not be useful unless you buy additional translations.

Also, the comparison view begins as a diff (showing you what words were added/removed between each translation), which makes it hard to read.

The parallel view was difficult to read by default because it shows the differences between each translation. Unchecking “Compare” makes it more readable.

Readability

Speaking of readability, it turns out that the app has a nifty reading mode (shortcut ^R) which makes the text fill the screen.


You can also pop out the instant details widget and put it close to the words you are looking up.

Note Taking

The last thing I tried was creating a note based on my study of the text.

This step is where I realized that although jumping from resource to resource satisfied my curiosity, I needed to pause and simply meditate on the text. The application puts a lot of information at your fingertips, but you still need to stop and think to make something of it.

 

Conclusion

After using Accordance for an hour, I noticed that the tool was leading me to pay closer attention to words, to ask questions about syntax and grammar, to explore inter-textual relationships and to probe. I found myself slowing down and trying to pronounce Hebrew words while reading verses in English. And I found the interface to be easy to explore with many features discoverable by simply clicking around.

I think people seeking an intuitive way to explore the Bible in its original languages will find Accordance very accessible and useful.

However, not being a biblical scholar or pastor by profession, I’m not sure how often I would turn to these tools and resources for personal devotions. Oftentimes the rich resources resulted in more questions than I had time to research.

This curiosity-driven exegesis was enjoyable, but I didn’t reach the point where the app helped me interpret the text and synthesize its implications for my life or others. Perhaps I simply need to spend more time learning the relative value of the different resources and how to use them effectively.

With regard to the goal of Worldwide Biblical Literacy, I think the biggest win would be having the Instant Detail View on my phone (Accordance has an iOS app, but I use Android) along with Strong’s numbers linked to foreign language translations.

The ability to tap on a word and study the underlying Greek or Hebrew and see where else it is used can go a long way to understanding the Bible more precisely. Having it widely available for the majority world (in their language!) on mobile devices would be transformative (Note: it seems like Accordance hosted several seminars in Asia in 2011 2016, see links in comments).

Of course, ultimately Biblical literacy means going beyond understanding Scripture accurately to believing and obeying it and for that we must rely on the Holy Spirit :).

You can learn more about Accordance at accordance.bible and thanks to David for the review copy of the software.