Posted by: Rodney Shaw | June 24, 2009

What Are People For?

The title of a book by Wendell Berry puts the question of human coexistence to the fore: What Are People For? We ought to answer that question. Not in academically or theologically correct terms which exhibit our grasp of concepts, although we should do this too, but we should ask what are people for in my life today? Do they exist to accomplish my bidding, to run on every errand I may think to be important, to minimize my discomfort or inconvenience, or to execute “my vision,” which could be no more than a foggy perception of right now as seen through the groggy eyes of one just awakened from sleep?

Any answer to Berry’s question that sees people as those “through whom” we do anything at all borders on enslavement and usurpation of divine prerogatives. People do not exist in order that we may accomplish anything through them. People are not tools; they are not pawns; they are not hobbies; they are not property. As George Bush said in his Second Inaugural Address, “No one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave.”

People are to be loved. People are the apex of God’s creation, His only creation in which He invested His image—the imago Dei—and this is a twofold reason for love. (1) We are to love others because they bear the imago Dei. As bearers of the imago Dei, people are worthy to be loved. Anything that shares in God’s image is deserving of my care. (2) We are to love other people because we bear the imago Dei. As bearers of the imago Dei, we are to love what God loves. Seeing that God loves people, to the extent that He incarnated Himself and died for them, it follows that we ought to love what God loves. If we cannot love what God loves, it is doubtful that we love God. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (I John 4:20, NIV).

Love is precisely the issue we face today. Capitalism, democracy, consumerism, entrepreneurism, enterprise, education, and just about any human institution conceivable fly unashamedly in the face of Christianity—and so do all other human endeavors including socialism, communism, monarchy, and so on. Although these all are not on equal footing, a conversation that must be reserved for another time, they all are superintended by sinners, all of whom frequently botch the answer to the question: what are people for?

Cain and Able saw one another in purely utilitarian terms. The other was a way for each to achieve something for himself. The other’s future was considered expendable, something to be used like so much pocket change. The outcome of that relationship was predictable: embezzlement and murder.

The decision to love is a commitment to give rather than to get. Getters push their way through life, grasping at opportunity and nipping at the heels of others. Getters are more concerned about their goals than the people they encounter along the way. Getters are devoted to their visions of success and progress rather than to the well-being of the individuals with whom they share office space. Although they often have some altruistic explanation for how their grand schemes will benefit people, the people nearest them never seem to realize these benefits on a daily basis, and the ultimate payback tends to flow right back to the chief getter himself.

Love is about giving, not getting, and if that be so, then what are people for?

Jesus said loving others is the second-greatest commandment. I wonder if the greatest commandment is more difficult than the second-greatest.


Take the survey: “What Do You Believe?”

This article was simultaneously published in the May-June 2009 Vision.

© Rodney Shaw and 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Rodney Shaw and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



  1. Brother Shaw,

    I was unaware of your blog until now. You’ve got some great ideas that I truly appreciate. With this topic, you have highlighted something that I have contemplated for many days. Utilitarianism is the predisposition that causes us to look for profits around every corner and within human relationships. Once a person has lost usefulness, we tend to cast him or her aside. The word utilitarian does come to mind when thinking about our failure to nurture meaningful, reciprocally life-giving relationships. Wonderful exposition!

  2. Well written! I agree; love is the issue. We have sold people out to selfishness, and narcissism. It’s all about our happiness, rather than someone else’s. It’s all about us being comfortable, rather then stepping out of our comfort zones in order to reach people where they are at. We draw back so many times when our “love” is thrown back in our face. We decide to never be hurt again, rather than saying; “hurt me again and again, but I am not giving up on you. As long as I am breathing, I am going to work with you to be everything God desires you to be!”
    Didn’t Jesus do this? He died on a cross for the sins of the past, present and future. I am sure He knew many of us would repent and sin again, and yet He took the bullet of justice, for us anyway! He was love, love, love, and when we spat it back in His face, He loved us some more……

    Great stuff Brother Shaw!

  3. “What are people for” — the question itself presupposes the premise that people have a selfish purpose. We do know that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” (WC)

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