At Work & Theology 101

There’s Dignity at Work for the Gleaner and the Businessperson, Too

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On the wall of our IFWE office space is a beautiful picture of Ruth, as illustrated in the Saint John’s illuminated Bible. In this print, Ruth seems to celebrate as she lives out the dignity of her calling to work.

Her arms are filled with the sheaves of grain she gathered when gleaning in Boaz’s fields (Ruth 2). Her head is held high and there is movement in her dress, as if she is dancing. She’s like the woman in Proverbs 31 who is “clothed with strength and dignity,” whose glory comes from God and her faith in him as displayed through her diligent work. She seems to know she’s a “crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God” (Is. 62:3)

Made in God’s Image with God-given Gifts

I’ve been reflecting on this biblical theme of dignity, both the dignity of human beings made in the image of God and the dignity we experience in having meaningful work. Kathryn Feliciano writes in Love Your Neighbor: Restoring Dignity, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty that these are key biblical principles that should shape our understanding of those we are seeking to help, just as they shaped Boaz’s outreach to Ruth. She writes, “As we fight poverty, we must consider that every single person is created in God’s image.”

As each one of us made in God’s image, we are also called by him to work (Gen. 1:28, Matt. 25:14-30). By God’s grace through the work of Christ, our work has eternal significance, and in turn, gives us a sense of dignity and satisfaction. This is why the poor are robbed of their dignity when they become dependent, over time, on charity, rather than provided an opportunity and the incentive to work.

Feliciano adds that recognizing that each person has God-given gifts and talents to use in serving others should also shape our outreach to the poor:

Approaching poverty alleviation in a way that cultivates the gifts of others will, first and foremost, respect the dignity of the poor. It will help the poor feel fulfilled and valuable as they use their gifts and talents to realize their callings. And, it will provide sustainability as the poor recognize their gifts and cultivate new abilities.

Dignity in Work at All Levels

What’s ironic is that many working Christians lack a sense of dignity in their work because they think it’s meaningless—outside of perhaps earning money to support their family and church. The principles that shape our outreach to those in need should also shape how we view our own work.

This is particularly true for those called to the business arena. IFWE executive director Hugh Whelchel struggled with a sense of meaninglessness in his work for years, as he explains in his book How Then Should We Work?:

I secretly envied pastors, missionaries, and others who got to work “full-time” for God. I saw little if no connection between what I did as a businessman and God’s Kingdom.

From my vantage point here at IFWE, I’ve had the opportunity to see and hear the responses of people who are learning for the first time what the Bible teaches about work, as Hugh did through the study and writing of his book.

People who felt weary from living day-in and day-out without purpose in their vocation are freed up by the truth that their work matters to God. No matter how small, no matter how “secular,” God uses the work of their hands to bring about his purposes in this world.

  • One young woman thought that in order to serve God well she must go work in Africa, even though she wasn’t necessarily passionate or gifted for that work. When she learned the eternal value of work, she rejoiced, realizing she could still support the poor in Africa but instead seek work that was a better fit for how God designed her.
  • One college student felt a pull to enter the field of politics, but thought that it would be more valuable to God to become a pastor. A half-completed application to seminary had been sitting on his desk for weeks. When he learned that all work matters to God, he was ecstatic and eagerly completed internship applications to work for various public policy organizations.

When people learn what their work is worth in God’s eyes, they are freed to work with all their might for him and the good of others. They actually become better workers, recognizing that God has called them to responsibly steward all of their lives for his glory and the benefit of their neighbor.

Have you ever seen those cardboard testimonies in church where a group of people come up on the stage, each with a sign in their hands telling, in brief, a story of personal transformation?

For example, one man’s sign says, “Once was an addict.” He flips the sign around, and it says, “Now sober in Christ for 3 years.” Another person’s sign reads, “Believed my value was in my looks.” And on the other side, “Now resting in the beauty of how Jesus sees me.”

Envision what the signs would look like for people transformed by the biblical meaning of work:

  • “Felt ashamed to have such an odd job. Now on fire to live out my unique calling.”

Imagine the impact this newfound significance and freedom could have on our cities, our nation, and our world!

Just like Ruth, may you be “clothed with strength and dignity” as you head into work today, knowing that what you do matters to God.


Editor’s note: Learn more about the God-given dignity and significance in work in How Then Should We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work.

Help reach more people with this encouraging message about work! Support IFWE today. 

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