Labels

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.

Getting Back to Normal

Who knows how long the COVID-19 pandemic will alter our way of life?

Things  certainly have changed.

  • Theaters are closed.
  • Sporting events are cancelled.
  • Beaches are off limits.
  • Restaurants are trying to function under severe restrictions.
  • And when we are able to go out for commerce or entertainment, it’s all face masks, disinfectants and social distancing.

More than once I’ve heard people mention their desire to “get back to the way it was.”

Back to a time when we could work, shop, gather or worship without thinking about what was touched or how close we get to other people.

Simply put, many are longing for a time that wasn’t so heavy and disheartening.

I imagine that’s how Adam and Eve felt.

For a time, Adam and Eve enjoyed unfettered fellowship with God in the Garden of Eden.

They delighted in the beauty of creation.

And they functioned with a sense of order and purpose.

All was good!

And then sin messed everything up. Disobedience against God broke the harmonious connection they once shared with Him.

Genesis 3:21-24 describes how it all fell apart:

The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (NIV)

I imagine Adam and Eve often thought about what it would be like to go back to normal.

They lost so much!

  • They lost significance.
  • They lost security.
  • They lost relationship.

Regarding the Coronavirus, “normal” seems to hinge on finding an effective vaccine.

But when it comes to normalizing our relationship with God, everything depends upon Jesus.

When Jesus carried out his ministry here on earth, healing people of physical maladies was part of how He demonstrated his power over the physical realm.

But, I believe these healings also serve as a reminder of Jesus’ ability to heal us spiritually.

Jesus ultimate mission was to restore our fractured relationship with our Creator.

Colossians 1:21-22 says:

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him. (ESV)

There is a pathway back to God. It’s Jesus.

Jesus himself declared. “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

What was broken and lost in the garden can be restored and reclaimed.

I think Timothy Keller sums it up nicely when he says:

“When we look at the whole scope of this story line, we see clearly that Christianity is not only about getting one’s individual sins forgiven so we can go to heaven. That is an important means of God’s salvation, but not the final end or purpose of it. The purpose of Jesus’s coming is to put the whole world right, to renew and restore the creation, not to escape it. It is not just to bring personal forgiveness and peace, but also justice and shalom to the world. God created both the body and soul, and the resurrection of Jesus shows that he is going to redeem both body and soul. The work of the Spirit of God is not only to save souls but also to care and cultivate the face of the earth, the material world.”

Through Jesus, everything will ultimately line up as it should be.

Order, meaning, beauty, security and purpose will all be in place.

Some things will happen now, others are reserved for the future.

But the bottom line is this: Jesus is the source for discovering and experiencing what “normal” really is.

 

 

Daring To Get Real With God

One of the by-products of the COVID-19 situation has been the increased use of video as a means of communication.

Several of us have been part of Zoom meetings. Others have created videos in order to teach, preach or sell. The interesting thing about creating video content is that we can create an image that isn’t entirely accurate. We can create the illusion that we live in an orderly, sanitized environment depending on where we point our camera.

Think about it: our “set” may look cool and pristine, but if we turn the camera just a few feet either way, we may see a pile of unfolded clothes or a sink full of dirty dishes! We can also make our videos appear seamless through editing. Here, we can eliminate anything we don’t want people to see. All of our stammering and mess-ups are simply excised from the original recording.

I’m not against purposeful camera placement or editing. They can help us create a more palatable video experience.

But, it got me thinking. I wonder if sometimes we try to do the same thing to God.

You know, we try to fool God into thinking things about us that aren’t really true.

Which, in the end, is a fool’s errand. Because God knows the truth about us, whether we present it to Him or not.

Sadly, I think we might be tempted to try and give God a picture ourselves that is highly edited and contrived.

But here’s what the Bible has to say about such an approach:

As for you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve Him with a whole heart and a willing mind; for the Lord searches all hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts. If you seek Him, He will let you find Him; but if you forsake Him, He will reject you forever. (1 Chronicles 28:9)

O let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous;
For the righteous God tries the hearts and minds. (Psalm 7:9)

Would not God find this out? For He knows the secrets of the heart. (Psalm 44:21)

This ability of God to know us inside and out is theologically known as OMNISCIENCE, a word which speaks about God’s capacity to know everything. God knows the amount of grains of sand on a beach and the number of hairs on a human head. And he knows the thoughts and motivations of the human heart.

We can approach God’s ability to understand in two ways: we can continue to try and hide from Him, or we can stop trying to fool God about who we are and what we’ve done.

Psalm 139 is an amazing description of a proper attitude toward God’s omniscience. In it, Dave acknowledges God’s ability to know all things; even the things that may appear hidden. And in response to this truth, David writes:

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (verses 23-25, ESV)

Instead of considering hiding from God, David moves toward God! Why? Because that’s the safest place to be.

Here’s the deal: because God is omniscient we can be real. God’s omniscience means we don’t have to pretend with Him. We don’t have to clean up our thoughts and emotions before we approach Him. He already knows everything. God understands why we’re upset. He knows the root of our insecurities, disappointments, and our needs. He can handle our doubts, fears, and critical thoughts. He’s the perfect One to guide us to peace, health, and healing.

And, regarding those areas where we fall short, God’s heart is to hear our confession and fully forgive us (1 John 1:9)

Edward Welch said,

“The fact that God sees every aspect of our lives may, at first, leave us afraid and eager to hide from God rather than in awe, wanting to embrace Him. But the fear of the Lord makes us aware both of God’s holy purity and hatred of sin and His holy patience and forgiveness. When we remember both, we have no reason to run in fear, especially since there is no place to run beyond the gaze of God. Instead, as we look at the Lord, we see that He invites, cleanses, and empowers us to grow in holiness.”

The truth is that hiding stuff from God (which He already knows about!) is a lot of work. It’s tiring trying to keep up an image that doesn’t match reality. No wonder Jesus uttered these words found in Matthew 11:28-30:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (ESV)

What’s better? Us trying to maintain the image of having it together, or actually allowing God to put us back together? It’s only when we get real with God that He can do a cleansing, transforming work in our lives.