The Real Dignity of Working – by Hugh Whelchel
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.”
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, [lawyer] 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.
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.
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Hugh Whelchel is Executive Director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (www.tifwe.org) and author of How Then Should We Work?: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work.
CLS works with the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (IFWE) to provide thoughtful and inspiring devotionals to CLS members. IFWE is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) Christian research organization committed to promoting biblical and economic principles that help individuals find fulfillment in their work and contribute to a free and flourishing society.