Anyone who has gone through high school in the last 30-40 years have had it drilled into us not to put labels on people. We had assemblies and special days and campaigns that taught us that it is unkind and unhelpful and wrong to put people in boxes and assign them a label. Does that ever stop teenagers from segregating others into groups like “jock,” “nerd,” “prep,” (or whatever the groupings are these days)?
It doesn’t stop, though, when we get out of high school or even college. Even as adults we label. The labels get more complex, but we also tend to put them on the people closest to us, like our spouse, kids, coworkers, and fellow church members. We may not think of them as labels, but how different is it when we say things like, “My husband is so __________,” or “My wife is such a __________,” or “My kids are just __________”?
It really shouldn’t take us long to come to grips with the notion that such labeling, complex or not, isn’t healthy. It colors our expectations and interpretations and every negative label we apply damages the relationship. So why do we do it? It would be easy to blame it on sin in general, but we have to get more specific than that if we want to address the problem.
I recently was at Camp Phillip for the Confirmation Retreat, and the Bible Studies were all on this topic. As I worked through it alongside the kids, it struck me how great a tendency I have to label myself. And I think this is where the problem starts.
I assign negative labels to others because they salve the inadequacies and insecurities I feel in myself. I label myself as weak-willed, and so to comfort myself I label others as overbearing or inconsiderate. I label myself as awkward, and so to comfort myself I label others as arrogant or cliquey. And on it goes. The sinful man in me feels better when it tears others down, emphasizes their weaknesses, and ignores their God-given individuality. Isn’t that wretched? It’s also true.
It might seem to that the solution is to work on my self-esteem and talk up my good qualities, make myself feel better about myself, and then I won’t be tempted to bring other people down. Just look in the mirror and practice some good old self-affirmation. And that might work, until the next time I bungle it big time and all my self-affirmation sounds hollow and naive.
The key is not assigning myself new labels that I can feel good about. That isn’t going to help me in the long run. What I need is to have someone else, someone I can be sure has my best interests at heart, tell me who and what I am. Maybe you see where I’m going with this.
God tells me who I am and what I am. And one thing he says about me is that I’m a sinner. The worst of sinners, in fact (1 Timothy 1:15). And at first that may not seem all that helpful. I mean, how is it better to be told how awful I am? But if the reason I am assigning labels to others is to try and minimize my own issues, then it’s actually really good to be reminded that I am a hopeless case. There’s no point in trying to make myself feel better if I know, for sure, that I’m as bad as it gets.
All that would be pretty depressing if there wasn’t more, but there is. God doesn’t just tell me I’m a failure and walk away. He also tells me I’m loved, that I’m forgiven, that I’m his child, that I’m chosen, that I’m called, that I’m redeemed, that I’m his workmanship, that I’m his servant. He tells me that through Jesus I am a priest and prince in his kingdom. This changes everything. There is nothing I can say or think about myself, no label I can apply, that can trump the God of the universe saying, “I love you, and you’re mine.”
With this going for me, I don’t need to label others to make myself feel better. I already have everything I need. Beyond that, the same thing God says about me he says about everyone, including those closest to me. If I know my family and friends are all sinners, I’m not going to expect better from them than I should expect from any other sinful human being. If I know they are loved and forgiven, I don’t have any reason to withhold my love and forgiveness. If I know they are God’s workmanship, uniquely talented individuals God has made, then maybe I can look for what makes them special.
The apostle James probably knew what it was like to carry some tough labels. “Jesus’ little brother.” “Not perfect like Jesus.” “Not as good at anything as Jesus.” No wonder he tried to label Jesus as “crazy” and tried to stop his ministry. We don’t know exactly James came to faith in Jesus, but we know that Jesus met with him privately after his resurrection (imagine being a fly on that wall), and that soon after James became one of the most important leaders of the Early Christian Church.
It changed everything for him. He let go of all the labels he had carried before, and was left wit this: “A servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1).
When Jesus tells you what you are, it changes everything.