Who are you? The real purpose of labels, names & identities

A friend of mine was once the victim of a clever prank that lasted for months. The person he and his wife had asked to house-sit for them removed all of the labels from all of the canned foods in their cupboards and put the labels in a photo album (those things we used before digital photos, Facebook, and Instagram). Every time they opened an unlabeled can, they engaged in an adventure in cooking.

But after awhile, what started out as a humorous adventure in cooking turned into an annoyance. Opening up five cans in order to get to that one can of refried beans left them with four opened cans that they didn’t know what to do with. So, they ended up tossing out the remaining unlabeled cans.

Labels are important. And not just on food cans. They’re important in a life-and-death way on prescription drugs. The wrong chemistry in the wrong dosage will wreck havoc on a person’s body. Labels save lives.

Labels orient us to the world around us. The labeled cities, lakes, rivers, mountains, etc. on a map help us know where we are and how to get to where we want to go. Without them, our worlds are limited by what we can see and have experienced. With them, a world of opportunities opens up before us.

Labels help us sort out the desirable from the undesirable. Putting tags (labels) on my blog posts enables readers to find and read or not read them, depending on what they’re looking for. Labeling restaurants by the kinds of foods their prepare and serve helps diners select their cuisine. Obviously, there are downsides to this. There are foods we dismiss without trying because we have a negative association with their labels. And there are whole people groups that we dismiss because of the labels associated with them politically, ethnically, religiously, nationally, theologically, etc.

Names are the first labels we encounter in our lives. Each of us receives one fairly close to the day we are born. And for the most part, these name-labels stick with us for the rest of our lives. But not always. I was called Peter all the way through high school, but when I started college, my friend Dave started calling me Pete. And that’s what my friends have called me since. Though anyone who wants to be in a more formal relationship with me calls me Peter.

The Bible has an interesting relationship with name-labels. Many significant characters have their names changed. God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah. A few chapters later, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel. And Jacob changes the name of his son Benoni to Benjamin. The Babylonians give Daniel and his three friends Babylonian names. Jesus renames Cephas as Peter. And Saul of Tarsus chooses to go by Paul for missionary purposes. And his right-hand man is known as Barnabas, because the nickname (which means Son of Encouragement) fits him so well. And finally, in Revelation 2:17, we read of people receiving new names engraved on a white stone, names no one will understand except those who receive them. There are questions about what this means, but I’ve heard it means that our own names fall short of capturing who we really are and that God will give us a name that finally does the job. I like that.

And then there’s the name of our God himself: YHWH. It’s a name that so captures who our Lord is that he protects it from being tossed around in ways that empty it of meaning by insisting on it in the 3rd commandment.

That insistence is something to take seriously not just with God’s name, but with every name. When we sum up a person in a single word by using a name, we need to treat that word as something sacred. We spend a lifetime making a name for ourselves. And when we die, all that is carved into our tombstones, other than a pair of dates bookending our lives, is our name. We are our names. In addition to our own names, we have identities. An identity is a name or label that we attach to ourselves that gives definition to who we are.

Many years ago, I brought a date over to my apartment to cook dinner for her. My two roommates were also there. And afterward, my date said, “You never told me that Dennis is black.” And I said, “I never thought to. There are other characteristics about him that stand out to me more than the color of his skin.” The label “black” applies to Dennis, but it doesn’t have to. In my date’s case, “black” was a helpful label (or she thought it was). But because Dennis never talks about black or white or any other ethnicity, it isn’t a helpful label or a matter of identity for him.

I live in a part of Oregon that has many people who are fiercely loyal to the University of Oregon’s Ducks. Hats, sweatshirts, and bumperstickers with their logo are ever-present here. The Ducks are a matter of identity for us (yep, I include myself here). Because of this, when the Ducks win, we are happy. And when they lose, we are sad. Our happiness is tied not to our own behavior, but to the behavior of the team we have identified ourselves with. That is always the case with identity: It centers our happiness in something or someone outside of ourselves. When I make something my identity, I lose control of my happiness. (I was exuberant when the Ducks destroyed the Seminoles in the Rose Bowl and deflated for days when they lost to the Buckeyes in the National Championship game. Neither of those outcomes were under my control in any way at all, but both affected my happiness.)

And here’s the thing: We are identity collectors. We pick them up all over the place.

Political party. Religious denomination. Sexuality. Sports team. Musical style and artists. Economic status. Occupation. Ethnicity. Nationality. Diet. Hobbies and other pass-times. We’ll even go so far as identifying with video games and TV shows, the cars we drive and the beverages we drink. If you took five minutes, I bet you could easily jot down 20 different identities that have stuck to you.

And here’s the thing about that thing: All these added-on identities keep us from being who we were created to be in the first place. Each of these things — which are fine to engage in in non-identity-forming ways — deform us when they shape our identities.

For the Christian, there is only one acceptable identity. It’s repeated over and over and over again in the New Testament. Our identity is “in Christ.” Hear the words of Galatians 3:26-28 —

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Baptized into Christ. Clothed with Christ. One in Christ.

Notice how ethnic, economic, and sexual identities fall away when we are soaked in and wrapped up in Christ? Baptism washes away every other identity. And then we are clothed in this new Jesus identity. Clothing is something we add to ourselves and Jesus is the only identity that Christians are allowed to clothe ourselves in.

Those Galatian Christians continued to be ethnically Jewish and Gentile. They continued to be slaves and free. They continued to be men and women. But none of these things that still touched their lives was to determine who they were anymore. Jesus alone.

So, be careful about how you label yourself and others, about what names you let stick to who you are. You might find yourself less yourself with a whole bunch of false identities stuck to you. But freshly bathed in baptism by Jesus, you can dress up in the clean clothing of Christ and be the person God intended you to be in the first place.