I forget the situation that caused me to sit on the stairs and cry. But there I was, my 11-year-old head tucked within the folds of my arms, tears dripping onto the carpet. I looked up to see a friend of my parents standing before me. He paused only for a moment to impart his wisdom, “Don’t be a wimp” he said. For years I could not unstick this label.
It’s hard to break away from labels, particularly ones we listen to over the course of years or decades. These labels engrain themselves into us, working themselves in two directions; they speak down to us, lying about our personality, our ability, or our identity; and they climb upwards, we hear in them some declaration about how God views us. These two movements cause turmoil deep within, we can’t help but feel the onslaught. Whether it is the label “weakling” or “failure”, “rejected”, “or unloved”, these labels do violence to our inward selves. How exactly do we live a life of abundance if everything within us feels low and dejected?
I would like to write: “Then I met Jesus and all those labels disappeared!” But I can’t. I have struggled to accept the voice of love. I have struggled to hear Christ’s voice as a bigger voice, a deeper voice, a better voice than the voice of my labels. At times I have done this well. I’ve enjoyed moments of resting deep in the declaration of God’s love for me. Yet these get replaced by times when I am besieged by doubts and fears, where God’s love seems a distant reality.
Why all the back and forth? Well, this is because I once believed that the love of God was just another label. Sure, it is a more sanctified label, a more biblically based label, but a label in itself. I attempted to plaster over “wimp” with “strong in the Lord”, or “unloved” with “beloved of God.” Yet fighting labels with labels always leads to frustration, and never freedom.
Being loved is not just something nice that God says to us. The love of God is the very atmosphere in which we live. It is the reference point of our lives. It surrounds us each moment, it defines each day. Whenever we assume the label “sinner”, God responds with the affirmation that “love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1st Peter 4:8) God tackles the designation of “unlovable” by declaring “I have loved you with an everlasting love, and I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” (Jeremiah 31:3)
Jesus invites us into this truth by defying all labels. He willfully stepped outside the classifications and labels that dominated the world around him. In his light a Roman centurion could be an exemplar of faith; a blind beggar could have greater spiritual sight than all the faithful elite; and a woman at a well could be just as beloved as the holiest of holy men. In each of these places Jesus affirms the God-bestowed identity of someone shackled under a label. Enemy. Accursed. Unlovable; one by one the labels fall away as Jesus affirms who they truly are; created, accepted, lovely.
Labels sap our spiritual vitality because they mask our truest selves. They attempt to convince us of a reality that is simply not true. We are not our labels. We are not who others tell us we are. We are not even who we tell ourselves we are, for even this can be based on unfair assumptions and outright lies. No, we are who Jesus sees us to be. His vision alone is pure. He sees us clearly. Neither height nor depth, heaven, hell, present, future, nor any label or classification can ever take away this fundamental reality for our lives; we are loved. It’s not just a label. It’s a fact.