God values human life infinitely more than we do. Man was the only part of creation made in God’s own image (Genesis 1:27) and formed personally by Him rather than simply spoken into existence (Genesis 2:7). He loved those He made so deeply that He sent His one and only Son to die for their sins and restore their relationship with Him. Though He is the God of the universe, He cares for us (Psalm 8:4) and He continues to think loving thoughts about us (Psalm 139:17). We fail to love others like this every day. In our pride, we elevate ourselves over others because “we deserve it.” In our selfishness, we dehumanize other people to justify exploiting them to get what we want. In our hardheartedness, we become callous and indifferent to the needs of hurting people around us. We attempt to explain away these sinful tendencies in a million ways, but God will have none of it. His heart for the marginalized saturates the pages of the Bible. He judges those that forget them or treat them poorly (Proverbs 21:13) and promises to come to their defense (Psalm 12:5).
God's top two commandments—to love Him and love others—convey His priorities for us. Affirming human dignity is not a secondary task for the believer but an integral part of the Christian life. “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken,” writes C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory. “...[I]t is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.” He continues:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors (p.45-46).
One of the primary ways we honor God and bring Him glory is by promoting the welfare of those made in His image. There are three main ways believers are called to pursue this kind of flourishing. We are to use language that edifies and promotes life (our words), meet the tangible needs of those hurting and suffering around us (our works), and petition God to move in ways only He can (our prayers).
“With [our tongues] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” – James 3:9-10 (ESV)
We rarely appreciate the power of our words to build others up or tear them down. The apostle James compared our tongues to small rudders that steer enormous ships and tiny sparks that ignite massive fires (James 3:4-5). It is a deadly weapon, he writes – a tool we all too often use to belittle, humiliate, and condemn others with hateful language. When we slander and gossip about others, we are desecrating the image of God etched on to every single human being. Representing God rightly with our words means using them the way God used His: to create life, to encourage, to correct, to warn people of danger, and to draw people’s hearts toward Jesus.
Our words of truth should be bathed in gospel love, humility, and graciousness, not poisoned with hate, disdain, and contempt. “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts,” writes King Solomon in the Book of Proverbs, “but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (12:18). We have a choice every time we open our mouths or reply to a comment box on social media. We can “cut and maim” or we can heal. “ [A] Christianity that doesn’t prophetically speak for human dignity is a Christianity that has lost anything distinctive to say,” observes author Russell Moore. “The gospel is, after all, grounded in the uniqueness of humanity in creation, redemption, and consummation.”
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
– James 2:14-17 (ESV)
A true pro-life ethic demands more than kind words. However good our intentions or motives, words of empathy and compassion cannot put food in a single mother’s pantry or a warm blanket around the shoulders of a refugee far from home. In most cases, sacrificing time and resources costs us more than an intentional conversation with someone or a note of encouragement. These things are right and good, but they do not display the gospel in its fullness. While on earth, Jesus both proclaimed the Good News through speech and met tangible physical needs by feeding the crowds, restoring sight to the blind, and healing the sick (Matthew 4:23). In His ultimate act of service, Jesus gave His life on the Cross for us to save us.
Just as Jesus entered into our world to love and serve, we are to meet the needs of others with our service and time. He made this abundantly clear in his parable about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). While the priest and the Levite saw an injured man on the side of the road in desperate need of material assistance, they ignored him and continued on. Maybe they said a quick prayer for him in their heads, asking God to do something to help him. What they failed to realize, however, was that God uses His people— His church on earth— to meet so many of the physical, social, and economic needs we see everyday. Though the priest and Levite went on their way, the Samaritan stopped to humbly and lovingly render aid. He saw, honored, and affirmed the dignity of the beaten man lying in the dirt by going out of his way to help. There is something beautiful about the way the Good Samaritan bent down low, pouring his oil and wine and rubbing it into the man’s wounds. Perhaps he even touched the man and said, “You’re not alone. I’m here with you. I’m here to help. You don’t have to be afraid.” The priest and Levite physically moved away from the hurt man, but the Samaritan moved in close to offer care.
Christians today can also affirm the dignity the life and dignity of the human person by meeting the tangible needs of those crushed under the weight of poverty, discrimination, and hardship. While our human hearts are prone to selfishness and pride (Mark 7:20-23), God has put the Holy Spirit inside every believer, a good Counselor and Helper that will teach us the ways of righteousness and help us walk in them (John 14:26). “[W]hen the Spirit enables us to understand what Christ has done for us,” writes author Tim Keller in his book Generous Justice, the result is a life poured out in deeds of justice and compassion for the poor (p.xiii).”
“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” – 1 John 5:14 (NIV)
When we truly begin to understand the needs of the world, we often respond in one of two ways. Some come to believe the problems are just too big to solve, which produces a cold, pessimistic, and apathetic heart that simply accepts the injustices at hand. They may view the poor or their advocates with contempt, even mocking them or their “idealistic” goals. They grow cynical about the church and perhaps even God Himself. “Where is God?” they may ask. “Why would a good God allow exploitation and injustice to happen in the first place?” Others, convinced they alone are responsible for ending marginalization and hardship, take things into their own hands and exhaust themselves before realizing their individual actions are insufficient. In their quest to “end” the hardship, they may inadvertently turn marginalized people into initiatives to be completed or resources to be “improved.”
While members of the first group see others as problems, those in the second group view them as projects. Both are dehumanizing and strip people of their God-given dignity. Rather than ignore the problems we see or attempt to solve them on our own, we are called to come to the Lord in prayer. Though we don’t always know why God allows injustice to happen, we know it cannot be because He doesn’t love us. Jesus Christ voluntarily subjected Himself to suffering and persecution when He died on the cross for us so that we could be reconciled to God. He lived the perfect life we could not live and beat death in a way only He could. We can trust that the God we serve is not only deeply in love with the marginalized but the only One capable of crushing sin and its destructive effects once and for all (Revelation 21:4).
Living in a way that dignifies all people is not easy. In our flesh, we have no intrinsic desire to love others through our words, works, and prayers. We elevate ourselves above others and even use or manipulate them to gain control, power, influence, and comfort. The blinders of sin keep us from seeing human beings for what they really are – image-bearers deeply valued and loved by God. So loved, in fact, that He died to rescue and redeem them. This is the definitive source of our dignity and the dignity of others. This is why we enter the fray even when it is difficult. “Human dignity must be at the heart of our Christian lives,” writes Daniel Darling in The Dignity Revolution, “because it is at the heart of the gospel story” (p.16).
Christian, you are not just a saved son or daughter but an ambassador of Christ on earth (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). You are now one of God’s representatives to those that don’t yet know Him, a messenger carrying gospel hope to a world groaning under the heavy burden of sin. This is a difficult charge, but Christians have the advantage. We know how the story ends – one day, God will make all things new and establish a new heaven and new earth. Today, we live out of this truth. How we engage in the fight for human dignity today reflects what we believe about God, His redemptive plan for the present, and His promise for the future. The question for each of us today is, “What do you believe?”