If you had to answer the question “Who are you?” right now, what would you use to define your answer?
Genius and inventor of the theory of relativity, Albert Einstein was called “lazy, sloppy, and insubordinate” by his teachers all the way from elementary school to the university level.
Bestselling author and founder of the ministry Life without Limbs, Nick Vujicic struggled with feeling like an outcast at school and a burden to his family and attempted suicide when he was in elementary school.
Christian evangelist Nicky Cruz had his mother declare that he was the “son of Satan,” and later a court-ordered psychiatrist pronounced Nicky “hopeless.”
The world can put some hard labels on us. “You’re a failure. You’re too emotional. You’re pathetic, ugly, stupid.”
These harsh names are a benign apéritif in the dinner course of cruel labels that people give one another. There are far worse ones that I won’t write out here, but you’ve heard them on the street, permutations of four-letter words and grotesque pejoratives that reduce people to less than animals.
We all carry names that carve away at our souls and batter away at the value of the Holy Spirit’s temple.
The Names We Call Ourselves
In a conference sermon, Nicky Cruz pointed out that labels can be very difficult to peel off once they are on a person. In some ways, labels can become self-fulfilling prophesies. They may influence our individual personality, temperament, and destiny. That's what can happen, but, as Nicky points out, “There's good news. We don't have to live up to our labels.”
Perhaps none would know it so well as he would, a child cruelly called the Devil by his mother. “I believed that I was a failure. I believed that I was evil. All the name that she gave me, one by one, about seven curses. You might try to change this name, but…” Nicky trailed off, looking out at the crowd.
We grow up with certain names put on us by our family. Hopefully, they’re good and loving ones, but far too often they aren’t. Perhaps it was a name thrown at us out of frustration, weariness or absentmindedness. Maybe it was born out of very deliberate abuse.
Even if those labels seem relatively benign or accurate—if you often hide the truth from others, being called a “liar” isn’t incorrect—they carry a warped idea that “the behavior reflects a person’s essence.” Rather than accepting that every person is multifaceted, a label reduces us to one trait.
In addition, the labels we receive now will often determine what descriptions we will accept from others or even use for ourselves in the future.
Worse yet, the pervasiveness of labels has only increased with the advent of social media and many jobs’ requirements for an online presence. In our free time, we pigeonhole ourselves through whole batteries of personality tests. While these can serve a purpose, they can also be unhelpful when they encourage stereotyping and unrealistic expectations of others.
“The sad and tragic reality is that underneath a label or a classification is a person, a flesh-and-blood human being, a living and breathing creation with a soul, who has been reduced to a cheap descriptor…” stated Brandon Andress, author and podcast speaker.
How do we escape our labels then?
Escape the Box and the Labels
After his dramatic pause, Nicky Cruz said softly, “Everybody knows that I’m an ex-gang leader. Everybody knows about it, but if you listen to my story, am I still a gang leader? Why not?”
His voice rose, “Because the God of Israel, because Jesus Christ has changed my life completely. He has changed me.”
Before our relationship with Christ, we were all defined by our sin. Our identity warped and wrapped around the activities we did or the roles we filled, regardless of whether they were healthy or true to who God made us to be. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the LGBTQIA+ movement of our modern culture where sexual preference has come to define people.
You’re no longer a human with certain sinful proclivities; you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, [fill in the blank].
“We live in a culture addicted to identity labels,” pointed out Jeff Buchanan, executive vice president of Exodus International. “We seek to summarize everything essential about an individual in a word, phrase, or 140 characters. With every label and category there comes another level of segregated identity…”
He goes on to identify the same solution as Nicky. “Understanding our identity in Christ is essential for Christian living. When we were born again, we received a new identity, and we are complete in Christ (Col. 2:10). We will share in Christ’s inheritance, and as we grow in the revelation of our new identity, we will increasingly be enabled to live according to God’s will. If our identity is ‘in Christ,’ can we add to this identity without implying that Christ is somehow deficient?”
When we come into a relationship with God, we are redefined.
Often we will run into people who still want to label us beyond our new God-given identity, and even more often, we will still struggle with the inner voices of labels we formerly used to define ourselves.
When we find ourselves caught in this struggle for how we outline ourselves, our natures and our value, it’s vital to return to God’s words for us. The Bible is very clear about who we are, before and after salvation.
Who God Says I Am
In a conversation like this, it’s important to acknowledge that labels do have their uses as a tool to help us identify and deal with specific sins.
Eric Johnson, director of the Gideon Institute for Christian Psychology and Counseling, and Warren Watson, founder of the Deep Haven Counseling Center, wrote a incredibly informative article about understanding and walking alongside believers with personality disorders.
“There are, of course, times when the misbehavior of those with a PD [personality disorder] must be publicly addressed. Criminal activity, sexual aggression, and child maltreatment warrant a firm societal and ecclesial response,” Johnson and Watson explain, carefully delineating the borderlands of where labels are valuable for addressing deep and troubling sin issues and also where their usefulness comes to an end.
“At the same time, we must never lose sight of the image of God in all people and our familial relation with other Christians, no matter how terrible their behavior. A holistic Christian framework allows for a multilayered approach to the care of souls with a PD.”
Used properly, a label becomes a tool to help us pinpoint and deal with problem areas in our lives. They never, however, become our identity. That lies elsewhere, as the Bible plainly lays out.
We are beloved children of God (Ephesians 5:1). We are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). We are witnesses to God’s goodness and power (Acts 1:8). We are ambassador for Christ, imploring others to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20).
That is who God says I am.