Pretty much everything we buy has a label on it. Can you imagine going to the canned vegetable aisle at the grocery store and finding that none of the cans were labeled? There are hundreds of cans, and every can is identical. You really want some peas, but you have no idea which cans have peas in them. You don’t want to risk buying a can and taking it home, opening it only to find something you don’t want—like lima beans. There’s got to be a label, a way to classify and describe each can. The label tells you if you want or like the contents of the can. Labels make finding what you want easier. We like labels.
The funny thing is, we like labels so much, we put them on people. Think about the labels we give people. Someone who plays multiple instruments is "talented." Someone who doesn’t say much is labeled "shy." A person lies to us and we label them a "liar." A person interrupts us, and from then on they are "rude." We label virtually everyone.
I guess we label people for a lot of the same reasons we label cans. It makes finding what we want easier. Like the cans, we label people so there’s no need for us to "buy" them and "open" them ourselves. This is especially true when it comes to negative labels. We go about calling people annoying, rude, two-faced and other things we don’t like so we don’t have to invest in them. There’s no risk involved. And it makes things much easier. The only problem? People are not peas.
These simplistic labels are insufficient and misleading. Who a person is cannot be defined in a word. However, so many times we label someone a "jerk," and because we avoid jerks, we never learn they’re also funny, lonely, caring and smart. Some of my favorite people now are people I once thought were rude, mean and conceited. I found they weren’t those things at all—but only because I really got to know them.
Labeling people gives us ground to avoid and despise people. We like nice, not mean. We like fun, not boring. We like peas, not lima beans. So, everyone that we label "lima beans," we alienate and talk badly about. We say, "They’re gross. I don’t like them." We place less value on certain people and leave them on the shelf.
Doesn’t sound very Christlike to me.
Jesus was probably the best example of someone who paid no attention to labels. Everywhere He went, people criticized Him for eating with tax collectors, hanging out with lepers and defending adulterous women. Jesus didn’t care what they were labeled; as a matter of fact, Jesus didn’t even seem to have a preference. He didn’t pick and choose people based on their looks, occupation or reputation. Jesus didn’t alienate people because of past experiences. He was loving, accepting and eager to know people and for people to know Him. And it changed people’s lives. Remember the woman at the well?
Moses was more like us. He accepted and used labels. We can see this clearly in Exodus 3. God tells Moses to go to Egypt, and while he’s there to tell Pharaoh what to do. Moses thinks this is a little crazy and responds to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Essentially, Moses labeled himself. He basically told God, "In case you can’t see my label, I’ll just tell you. I am inadequate, incapable and unqualified." However, God saw through that simplistic, insufficient and misleading label.
Moses, like us, was so caught up with labels he even asked God what His was! Moses asked God, "What should I tell them if they ask me Your name?" He thought the Israelites would want a label, and he wanted to be able to give them one. He essentially asked, "God, what is your label?" God’s answer shows how He really feels about labels. God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
"I AM WHO I AM."
God didn’t say He was omnipotent, omniscient or omnipresent. He didn’t list His qualities. He didn’t say He was truthful, caring and loving. He didn’t want Moses to give the Israelites a list of traits and characteristics. He didn’t say, "I am this" and "I am that." He didn’t give Moses a label. Why? Because He is so much more.
God said, "I AM WHO I AM." He did not say, "I AM WHAT I DO," "I AM WHAT I SAY," "I AM WHAT I LOOK LIKE" or "I AM WHAT YOU ASSUME I AM."
And the same can be said of His people. We shouldn’t give people labels because they are so much more than what they say, what they do, what they look like and what we assume they are. People are people. We should be loving, accepting and eager to know others and for others to know us. After all, people label you too.
What would it look like to treat people how Christ treats us? Christ doesn’t love us because of what we do. He doesn’t have compassion on us because of what we say. He doesn’t measure our worth by what we look like. Jesus doesn’t love labels. He loves people. He loves us because of who we are. And no label, quality, trait or characteristic will ever change that.
Jeremy Caruthers is a freelance writer, poet and musician. He frequently lectures on topics such as practical Christianity and interpretation of Scripture. He blogs and is working on a book based on Philippians 2. Jeremy is currently studying sociology at Lee University in Cleveland,Tenn.