Label (noun): 1. a slip of paper, cloth, or other material, marked or inscribed, for attachment to something to indicate its manufacturer, nature, ownership, destination, etc. 2. a short word or phrase descriptive of a person, group, intellectual movement, etc.
Labels are a part of life. Many of them can be very helpful. Labels help me distinguish between Gala and Fuji apples. They allow me to choose the right size shirt. Thanks to labels, I’m able to determine which grade of gasoline I’m putting in my truck. In many ways, I’m thankful for the various labels I encounter throughout my day.
In some cases, though, labels can be frustrating. Like when certain labels (due to excessive amounts of adhesive) refuse to come off an item that I’ve just purchased. It’s no fun trying to scrape off the remnants of paper and glue that seem to be determined to cling to my newly purchased item. And, of course, nothing seems more agitating when something is mislabeled. Ah, the annoyance that comes from having to return a mislabeled item that doesn’t fit or fails to work!
We often use labels to describe people. We use words like funny, kind, handsome or intelligent to characterize the people we come in contact with. It’s our way of classifying their physical attributes or personality traits. And generally, there’s nothing wrong with seeking to use a descriptive label to understand one another.
But there can be a real danger when we rely too heavily on using labels when it comes to distinguishing members of the human race. As helpful as most labels are, some labels carry negative connotations. The nursery rhyme may state that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But the reality is that some labels can be extremely discouraging and damaging.
I believe that if we are people seeking to accomplish effective ministry, we will have to make a concerted effort against employing the types of labels that often keep people from experiencing recovery and restoration.
Perhaps the best motivation for avoiding any negative labeling of people is by understanding some of the reasons why we label them in the first place. A few thoughts:
We label others because we’re fearful of trying to understand a person’s complexities. The reality is that every human being is complex, multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. When we put a label on someone, we put on blinders and see only a narrow view of an expansive and complicated human being.
We label people because we’re too lazy to take the time to get to know them. Sometimes we’d rather just assume something about a person than really take the time to discover who they really are. What we end up doing is casting a stereotype upon that person. It’s easy to assume a person is snobby or uncaring, when the truth of the matter may be they are just shy.
We label others because we’re judgmental. Labels are a quick and easy way to spread our prejudices. Without knowing anything about a person, we may make all sorts of presumptions based upon the color of their skin, where they live or how they dress. We ought never judge the actions of others until we know their motives. In other words, we need to judge them with our heart and mind, not our eyes and ears.
We label others because we don’t want them to succeed. In some cases, we cast labels upon people hoping they will permanently stick. We call someone a loser. We describe them as failure. We brand them the “black sheep” of the family. And the reason we do so is an insidious attempt to put limits upon their ability to flourish and thrive.
Once we understand why we label others, we can work on eliminating the habit of labeling. We can overcome negative labeling by cultivating unconditional acceptance, compassion, and understanding. We can learn to observe and experience the world without judgement. We can remain detached from expectations and demands. We can learn to accept what is and people as they are. We can grow in humility.
As a pastor, I encounter all sorts of people from a myriad of experiences, cultures and backgrounds. As a result, I can often feel the tug and temptation to resort to labeling. At times like these, I seek to remind myself that there is one label that applies to every human being: we are all created in the image of God. God has formed, knit and crafted His amazing imprint into each and every individual. True, humanity is a fallen and broken race. We have faults and we experience failure. But, by God’s design, we represent (in a limited fashion) many characteristics of our Creator.
The other thing I try to keep in mind is that, because of the grace of God and the power of the Gospel, every person is redeemable. In other words, we can break free of the labels that daunt us. Through Christ, we can leave behind labels like loser, failure or disappointment and exchange them with new, fresh descriptions of our identity in Jesus: beloved, victorious, overcomer.