Article Mar 22, 2017

A hymn that teaches us about human dignity

Most nights, my wife or I sing a short hymn to our son as we put him down to sleep. A couple gave my wife the idea, and we have loved implementing it. Lately, we’ve been singing “Jesus Loves Me.” This memorable little hymn was taught to many of us as little children well before we became believers. It’s a hymn that can easily get stuck in your head because of it simple repetition and lines.

One night after singing to him, I decided to look up the history of the hymn and discovered an interesting backstory. It was written by Anna Bartlett Warner and published as a poem in an 1860 novel called Say and Seal, written by her older sister Susan Warner. In the novel, the poem was sung to a child as they lay dying. The familiar tune was added to the poem in 1862 by William Batchelder Bradbury, who added his own chorus to the song “Yes, Jesus Loves Me!”

As I thought about this simple hymn, I was struck at how beautifully it illustrates two biblical truths about humanity and propels me to value all people, regardless of perceived worth in the eyes of our society.

1. Our concepts of being pro-life and pro-human dignity must be rooted in the scriptures.

“Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

As Christians, our understanding of God and the gospel comes to us through the Scriptures. God chose to reveal himself to us through the scriptures. They tell us that God created all things (Gen. 1) and that he sent his own son to die on our behalf so that we could live again, even though we rebelled against him (John 3:16, Rom. 3:23-24). The scriptures also tell us that God not only created the entire world, but that he specifically created each human being in his image. (Gen. 1:26-27). We’re set apart from the rest of creation because of this fact.

Humans’ worth and dignity is rooted in the fact that God created us. We were made distinctly different from everything else that God made. This is the basis for the pro-life stance that we take as Christians. We believe that all people are valuable and deserving of our love and protection because each are given the imprint of our Creator God. Warner illustrates this truth in the hymn as she writes, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” She rightly ties the love that Jesus has for all people to the biblical revelation that we have in the Bible.

To root our pro-life convictions anywhere but the scriptures misses the foundation of those positions. Without a scriptural basis for our pro-life ethic, our stance can easily devolve into an arbitrary worth that can shift throughout the generations based on our feelings at the time.

2. Our strength and abilities don't determine the value or dignity of our life.

“Little ones to him belong—they are weak, but he is strong.”

One of the great tragedies in society is that our value and dignity is often based on our strength, abilities or what we can contribute to society. This shows us in a popular argument for abortion, which reasons that if a child in the womb can’t survive on his own outside the mother, then it’s okay to discard the child, because he really isn’t a human life at that stage of development. The child’s worth and dignity is somehow dependent on his strengths and abilities. The heartbreaking end of this type of logic is now being applied to those outside the womb in cases of infanticide, assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The fault in this logic is that it ties our dignity as humans to our strength, abilities and/or what we can contribute to society. But the biblical understanding of worth and dignity is not dependent on our abilities or strength. The scriptures tell us that every human is completely dependent on God for our life. He is the one who created us, gave us life and sustains our every moment. Simply stated, we are nothing outside of God’s sustaining power, for “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Bartlett illustrates this truth by writing, “Little ones to him belong—they are weak, but he is strong.”

Whether the person is my 94-year-old grandmother who could barely move a muscle as she laid dying, a 26-year-old tech giant that “contributes” so much to our culture or a preterm baby who hasn’t even taken a breath on his own, scripture teaches that our dignity and worth as human beings is not dependent on our past, present or future value to others or on our ability to sustain ourselves. Our worth and dignity is solely dependent on our worth in the eyes of our Creator God who created us in his image, for his own glory.

Anna Bartlett Warner understood these truths and sought to remind us that the scriptures are the basis for our beliefs in human dignity. Her song lives on proclaiming that “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.” Let this be a rally cry for us as we seek to honor the least of these in a society that so easily devalues human life.