Useless People and Worthless People

I recently spent some time hanging around downtown Houston, and one of the things that struck me was the strange mix of feelings I had about the homeless, the strong desire to be compassionate combined with a latent unease at their presence and, of course, the shame that accompanies such a feeling.

I often tell people, mostly jokingly, that I don’t really like people very much. As K reminds me, it’s a horrible thing for a Christian to say. Even more, it isn’t true. Part of the reason I say such things is that I’m an introvert and especially uncomfortable in large crowds or gatherings. Really, though, what I mean to say is that I love people, but I find myself frequently disappointed by humanity as a whole.

Seeing and interacting with the homeless brought to the forefront of my mind my own complicity in the corporate horribleness of humanity at large. But it also made me think about the way society tells us we should view people and the way that Christ tells us that we should view people.

At least in Western (and specifically American) society, we are taught to commoditize people, to value them based on their productivity. What is the first question you’re inclined to ask a stranger after learning her name? “What do you do for a living?” It’s a shortcut to a determination of pecking order. We could just as well ask, “How much money do you make?” or “How important are you?” or “Where do you rank in the social hierarchy?”

We live in a society that believes that success means the accumulation of personal property–especially the ownership of more home than a typical nuclear family could practically use. We hear about “boomerang” children with jocular disdain and live in a society where a stay-at-home parent must defend himself from accusations of “having it easy” because he does not occupy a place in the standard workforce.

In short, we see useless people as worthless people. This, I think, is what gives us trepidation about the homeless: we fear associating ourselves with people whom we view as worthless. Hence the common fear about giving a beggar money that he’ll only use on booze and drugs–it’s the primal fear of wasting resources, the selfish fear of losing personal worth in giving away that for which we’ve worked.

Jesus does not think this way. Quite the opposite, in fact. I don’t need to provide specific scriptures for you to know that he called poor men to be his disciples, that he spent much of his time with the downtrodden of the lowest social classes, and that he warned repeatedly about the dangers of worldly wealth (see the post on Dukkha in Christianity).

But, there are scriptures that describe people as “worthless.” In the old testament, we have the Hebrew word בליעל (bĕliya`al; Strong’s H1100).[1] The New Testament gives us several words that have been translated to “worthless.”[2] Ultimately, though, I think that a word study on “worthless” in the scriptures is unhelpful. For one, this is a lexicographical or semiotic inquiry more than a theological one. More important, the words used in Greek and Hebrew seem to fall prey to the same conflation of profitability and worth—this issue is not a modern one.

One important thing that struck me from reviewing the words translated as “worthless” is that the use of these words tends to describe moral or spiritual worth rather than practical worth. Those described as “worthless” are those who have fallen away from righteousness or those who destroy rather than create. From this point of view, the words provide an important soteriological reminder—our salvific worth comes from the grace of God’s intervention within us and not from ourselves (compare with Romans 3 as cited below).

Instead of focusing on specific words, though, I think it’s best to focus on God’s assignment of worth to individuals. In both the Old Testament and the New, we see that God’s measure of worth is, at the very least, more complicated than what one produces. We commonly speak in Christianity about how God chooses the unexpected or seemingly unfit to become leaders—the younger son David, the stuttering Moses, etc.

If this is our tack on the subject, we focus the potential usefulness of a person as a sign of worth. A person who is in some way available to be transformed and used by God has a worth apart from her current contribution to society. In this way, all people have worth, because all may be—knowingly or unknowingly—servants of the Lord.

Even this thought gives me some trepidation, though. This again reduces human worth to our ability to do or produce—on a cosmic scale to be sure, but it nevertheless associates the value of a human with his action as an agent for God and not his identity. Despite our common imagery of the sovereignty and lordship of God—which I do not discount—it is also clear that our God is a deeply relational one. If the heart of Christian doctrine is that God created out of love and a desire for relationship beyond God’s self (which I argue is correct), then it is axiomatic that real worth comes from relationship and love rather than use.

The scriptures support this. We see this clearly in the first part of Psalm 139 (before it turns to asking God to slay one’s enemies!), where the psalmist exclaims “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made!” (Psalm 139:14) and describes how God knew him from his very creation. We see it so profoundly shown in the Incarnation of Christ and in his treatment of the least and the last, his willingness to spend time with sinners, his healing of those who produce nothing for society. We see this in the very nature of a triune God, where in three parts God is in relationship with God’s very self!

In the beginning, God created man (and woman) and pronounced them good. The Fall may necessitate our redemption, but it does not change the fact that God created us to be good, not just to do good.

As we relate to other human beings, then, we ought to take an ontological view of worth rather than a teleological one—each person is created to be a child of God, a unique and individual creation whose very existence is wonderful, to be celebrated and protected.

Are there useless people in the world? Under the secular description, we must admit that there are—people who take more than they give. Should we assign blame to such uselessness? That depends heavily on circumstances if we are to judge at all. We might also say that there are useless people in a spiritual sense—those who seek to destroy, to tear down, to lead astray rather than to create, to build up, to love. I would stress, though, that we ought to think that thought only in terms of the abstract and in the evaluation of our own selves; to do otherwise would certainly attempt to judge the spiritual value of another, something that we should humbly acknowledge is to be reserved to God alone.

Are there worthless people? No. The work of Jesus Christ clearly shows us that all people have intrinsic worth and we ought to love them, even when doing so is difficult or uncomfortable.


[1] The word is often translated as “worthless,” but carries with it connotations of “wickedness” and “destruction.” So we have:

(1) “worthless fellows” in Deuteronomy 13:13 who lead others to serve foreign gods

(2) “base” thoughts that lead to sin in Deuteronomy 15:9

(3) “worthless fellows” who attempt to rape a sojourner in echo of the Sodom and Gomorrah episode in Judges 19:22 and 20:13

(4) “worthless men” throughout 1st and 2nd Samuel

(5) torrents “of destruction” in 2 Samuel 22:5

(6) “destruction”, “deadly things” and “worthless” things in the Psalms

and a smattering of other “worthless men” who are evildoers. Note also that the Belial is the name of a demon (or the devil) in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other apocrypha.
[2] Curiously–or perhaps accentuating the conflation of use and worth–Strong’s gives the definition of ἀχρεῖος (achreios; Strong’s G888) as “useless”, despite its being translated as in Matthew 25:30 as “worthless (servant)” and in Luke 17:10 as “unworthy (servant).”

The verb form of the same word (Strong’s G889) is used in Romans 3:12 in Paul’s citation of the Psalms that “all are worthless.” Both G888 and G889 also carry the possible translation of “unprofitable.”