Arts & Culture & At Work

The Real Dignity of Working at Trader Joe’s (and All Work)

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Social media and morning TV news shows have been abuzz the last few days with a story about The Cosby Show actor Geoffrey Owens, who was photographed working at Trader Joe’s. The photo was given to news organizations who appeared to use it to shame Owens for his apparent career “demotion.” In response, the story has gone viral. There’s been an outcry in defense of all good, honest work and of actors like Owens who work jobs like his to make ends meet. Owens told Good Morning America that he hopes the news story will spark a conversation about the value and dignity of work:

I hope that this period that we’re in now, where we have a heightened sensitivity about that, and a reevaluation of what it means to work and the idea that some jobs are better than others — that’s actually not true…There is no job that’s better than another job. It might pay better, it might have better benefits, it might look better on a resume and on paper. But actually, it’s not better. Every job is worthwhile and valuable.

But do we really believe there is just as much value and dignity in being a grocery store clerk, a dishwasher, and a barista as an actor on a national TV sitcom, NFL player, or a Fortune 500 executive? It’s conversations like these that test what we really think. Everyone commenting on social media in defense of all work likely does not understand the intrinsic, biblical meaning of work, yet there is something written on all our hearts about the God-given dignity of work. That’s why there’s been such a huge outcry in defense of Owens.

Understanding Why Work Has Dignity

Without understanding why we were created and what God’s plan is for the future, we can’t understand how our present work has value. Bagging groceries, dishwashing, deal-making, homemaking, teaching, writing, construction, project management—it all is a part of God’s kingdom work. It reminds me of a man I met in Missoula, MT. I had given some talks at a local church about why work has value because it’s a part of God’s great restoration plan to bring flourishing to his creation. After one of the talks, a man approached me with tears running down his face and said,

I am 55 years old and I wash dishes for a living. I became a believer about 10 years ago. I thought the best I could do at work was to occasionally share my faith with someone. But I work in the back of a restaurant washing dishes and hardly talk to anyone. If what you are saying is true, then every dish I wash to the glory of God, in ways that I don’t fully understand, brings flourishing to my community? That makes all the difference!

It’s stories like these that get me up in the morning. No one should have to labor over twenty-five years in a career, like this dishwasher did, thinking their work has no eternal significance.

What About the Value of “Temporary” Jobs?

But even those at the start of their careers struggle to understand the value of work. In IFWE’s video, “Fulfillment” (see below) a young barista explains how she struggled to find fulfillment in her work at the coffee shop:

Working in the coffee shop, for me, began as a way to fill the gap until I found a job doing what I really want to do. But hey, sometimes that dream career takes a while to get going, you know?

The barista explains that over time and through the encouragement of others she discovered how to be content and find fulfillment in the work God has put in front of her:

If we’re always pining for the past, or longing for what may lie ahead, then we’ll miss what God has given us to do today….When we work hard every day at whatever God has put in front of us, it pleases him, and it’s way more fulfilling for us.

The Value of Work in Retirement?

This Trader Joe’s conversation is also a reminder for those approaching retirement who may need to reassess their understanding of the real value of work.

Today, if a Christian is fortunate enough to supply for his or her needs without receiving a salary, he or she may retire from their job or career at any time. However, a Christian never retires from serving God through his or her vocational call. While we may have moved into a new season in our lives, God still calls us to grow and invest our gifts and talents in the work that he is doing in the world. For Christians, retirement should be a time of equal opportunity to do God’s work. Maybe it’s work in a different sphere; maybe it’s work in your family helping care for an elderly parent or grandchildren; maybe it’s volunteering your expertise as a teacher in an ESL program. Work is part of God’s design.

Whether you’re at the beginning, middle, or end of your career, work is a God-given gift. All work has a purpose, whether it’s paid or unpaid, to glorify God, serve the common good, and advance God’s kingdom. So dive in to the conversation about Geoffrey Owens and use it as an opportunity to encourage others with the biblical meaning of work.

Editor’s note: Read more about the biblical meaning of work in How Then Should We Work?

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