Many of the professors who taught me during my time in the social work program at Eastern Nazarene College opened each class session with a time of prayer or a devotional thought. One professor read from an NACSW book, “Hearts Strangely Warmed: Reflections of Biblical Passages Relevant to Social Work.” (NACSW bookstore commentary) Although I do not remember the content of that day’s lecture – or even which course or which professor it was – the thought in the devotional book has stuck with me for the first decade of my social work career.
The author referred to the parable of the sheep and the goats, where Jesus taught that people would be separated by what they did or did not do for “the least of these.” The author noted that, as social workers, we are taking care of “the least of these,” as part of our daily work – but then cautioned that, in the parable, both sets of people were surprised at the Lord’s assessment of them. For Christians in helping professions, that’s a striking thought and a caution against a self-righteousness derived from the work we do. It’s also a caution against doing helping work in an effort to overcome self-deprecation; our deepest value has to come from our status as beloved children of God, rather than the work that we do. Our righteousness has to be in Christ, rather than in our works.
But we still work as social workers.
Recently, I was thinking about why I do social work, about how faith informs social work, and vice versa. Here’s what made sense, at least to me. I believe that God loves the people of the world, and that each person has inherent value from being created in God’s image. All of our neighbors are created in God’s image, and perhaps that’s part of why Jesus calls us to love our neighbor. This love is probably more active than emotional. Social work is one of many avenues through which we can actively love our neighbors. It might look like intervening, working, praying, or advocating so that our neighbors can find the health, or opportunities, or resources they need to survive, thrive, and have every opportunity to grow more into people who reflect the image – the goodness, creativity, and compassion – of God. Faith gives the “why” to social work. Social work isn’t a good field “because it pays a salary,” or “because it makes me a good person.” It’s a good field because it allows me the opportunity to actively love my neighbor.
And social work impacts my faith, too. In Orson Scott Card’s powerful science-fiction story, “Speaker for the Dead,” (Amazon.com commentary) one character suggests that it is impossible to fully know another person and not love them. Maybe “full knowledge” of someone is outside of the scope of social work, but through social work, I have come to know the life stories of many remarkable people. I’ve come to believe that every person is remarkable, if we only look closely enough, and know them well enough. And with that understanding of someone, it’s easier to feel good about working for their good. And, in a way, that kind of sounds like realizing that my neighbor is wonderfully made in God’s image – and then deciding to love them as myself.
Addison C., LCSW, is a therapist in private practice in Springfield, MO. He runs the adoption-focused movie review website, Adoption at the Movies (www.adoptionlcsw.com). He has been a member of NACSW since 2005.