How to Elevate the Value of Work through Language

John Terrill October 16, 2020

[Published in Made to Flourish, October 1, 2020]

In his religious satire, Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis unmasks lies many fall prey to in their Christian life. Though he never speaks directly to daily labor, it’s easy to imagine Screwtape, Lewis’ senior demon, teaching his nephew and junior demon, Wormwood, to persuade his new proselyte that everyday work is fruitless, that only church work is a high calling. “To deaden the spirit, get the new Christian to think her 9-to-5 is in vain,” Screwtape might advise.

Sadly, today this devilish refrain goes unrefuted in many real-life faith communities. But the church has an opportunity to unmask and refute this false dichotomy by encouraging more thoughtful approaches to naming our work.

Choosing transformative language

One way to reframe work is through the transformative power of language. Rather than relying on terms that flatten or commoditize our labor — such as manual labor for physical trades, widgets for manufactured goods, and utils for units of customer satisfaction — we can use language that better honors the unique outputs and benefits of our work. Rather than referring to employees as outsourced labor, temps, assembly line workers, knowledge workers, or FTEs (full-time equivalents), we can cultivate language that captures and reflects the unique contributions of each worker.

Effectively, we need a vocabulary revolution. We need unambiguous terms — particular verbs and nouns — that aptly describe our unique vocational contributions. Consider the language used here: mechanical assembly, environmental hazard remediation, post-production video editing, deep tissue massage, silicon wafers, long-term disability insurance, bevel gears, chocolate confectionery, audited financial statements, honey crisp apples, and Class A motorhomes. Each of these products and services meets a felt need, and precise language ascribes its value and uplifts the dignity of the worker who helps bring it to market.[1]

Author and agricultural activist, Wendell Berry, makes a similar argument when he describes the dehumanizing impact of applying machine language to living organisms. To view the world as God’s machinery, or the human brain as a supercomputer, may have metaphorical value.[2] But by relying too heavily on technological or economic terms to reveal the fruits of our labor, we diminish wonder from our role as God’s appointed stewards of Creation.[3] Well-chosen words for our work affirm our participation in God’s divine plan for the world; poorly chosen terms obscure this connection.

Application for Christian Leaders

How can the church and its leaders elevate the value of work and workers through language? Three practical ideas come to mind. (Read further at Made to Flourish.)


[1] It can even be argued that to withhold naming is to undo God’s creational design. Consider the antagonists in Madeline L’Engle’s Wind in the Door science fantasy novel. The Echthroi (Greek for enemies) seek to diminish and destroy by un-naming creation.

[2] Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2001), 46-47.

[3] See Gen 1:28, 2:15.