In my family, I am the one who does most of the grocery shopping. It’s not always that way, but it is our current reality. I attempt to plan our meals out a week in advance and then make a list of what needs to be purchased to pull it off, all while trying to stay “in budget”. Most of you know what that is like…and how difficult it can be at times.

Since I tend to go with this long list of particular ingredients, grocery shopping can sometimes become a little tedious and take a little time (think Frodo on his epic journey to Mordor) as I wander around different parts of the store trying to find out just where the employees have hidden the maraschino cherries!

I also like to go to the store at odd times to avoid the crowd…like really early if possible. I want it to just be me and the milk dude in the entire store so I don’t have to worry about other people (I’m sure Frodo could have done without the orcs too) and the stress of maneuvering around them in the consumer labyrinth trap. Not to mention the ever-present concern of being run over by the people on the big electric buggy carts…which happened to me last week.

Recently, I chose a bad time to go to the store! It happens. I don’t know what I was thinking. But everyone and their mother was crammed into that money maker! (And of course only one checkout line was open…arghh)

My stress found its origin in the parking lot as I fought valiantly for curbside dominance and my frustration only grew as I began my treasure hunt.

All of that to simply say…I am thankful for labels. Yeah, pretty anti-climactic right? Hang with me. I was at least thankful the store attempted to help out stressed people like me to know which direction I should head to find toilet paper by hanging a sign above the aisle that said…toilet paper. If those aisles weren’t labeled I am fairly certain I would still be trapped in the swirling grocery vortex of death.

So sure, labels can occasionally be helpful. But often, I find them doing more harm than good. Not grocery labels of course, but other labels.

I absolutely can’t stand it when we label people. I am more than a label. I don’t like to be described in some grand, sweeping over-generalization and I don’t think many of you do either. But people do it all the time and honestly; I am often tempted to do it myself.

I have been in church most of my life. What I mean by that is; I have been in the “culture of religion” for quite some time. One thing I have experienced in that culture is it can be an absolute breeding ground for labelism. We love to label!

Religion is full of rules. Both written and unwritten. We love a culture of rule keeping because that provides us some sense of objective measurement of everyone’s spirituality. I can compare myself to others and quickly label where they are spiritually; maybe even determine if they are “in” or “out” of my religious club and treat them accordingly. Self-righteousness in a religious context is simply spiritual competition. I need to identify who you are…put labels on you…so in turn I may know how I am supposed to relate myself to you. It just so happens that most of the time that I compare myself to you, I always seem to come out better than you somehow. Funny how that works! I must be more spiritual and closer to God right?

Why do we create this environment?

Because we are broken. (That’s the short cliche answer) Let me explain myself.

Our Christian faith teaches us that we find our ultimate sense of purpose and value in God Himself. He is meant to be the place where we find our identity. The place where we truly know ourselves. So, to have a relationship with this holy, utterly righteous being, it follows that we should be holy and righteous ourselves. So we can relate!

But we aren’t. We are truly broken and full of all sorts of twisted stuff.

The good news of the gospel is that God knows this and made a way for us to relate to Him through the righteousness of Jesus. By looking to Christ, we are “clothed in His righteousness” so to speak and thereby we can actually have a relationship with God. Of course, then if we can properly relate to God we can truly know and be known as we were meant to be. Sounds simple right?

The issue comes when we take our focus away from Christ’s righteousness (which is a daily temptation) and it’s ability to allow us to relate to God and turn to our own righteousness in an attempt to justify our participation in the relationship. We quickly learn that our righteousness holds no such capacity, so you know what we do? We lie. We lie to ourselves and others. We are actually quite good at it! We hide our true identity (broken, unrighteous creatures) and build a false version of ourselves that we feel God would approve of. The easiest way to prop up this false version of ourselves is to compare ourselves to others and become fixated on their failures and weaknesses to convince ourselves internally that we aren’t as jacked up.

So I label you…because that is how I prefer to relate to you. As long as I can put you into some box…then it is easier for my ego to keep you at a certain distance. After all, if I wanted to truly know who you are…I would have to get close to you and know the particulars. But then, I run the risk of you knowing my particulars and you find out the false image of myself was just a smokescreen. That my false self was just me trying to label myself all along. I’d rather you not know my weaknesses. I’d much rather cover myself in the fig leaves of self-righteousness and focus on your weaknesses…they make me feel better and give a sense of validation to my false self.

The answer to this situation and the culture we create by feeding into it, is of course (as the answer so often is), Jesus.

We need to continue to ground ourselves on the reality that my truest self, as broken and ugly as that may be, is known and even loved by God. God relates to me through the righteousness of Christ and not through my ability to please Him. I can let go of the idea of building my own self-worth as He has already declared me as valuable and worthy. Jesus proved it with the cross. Interestingly, when I am grounded in my value in Christ…I tend to no longer feel the need to compare myself to others. I don’t have to label them. I can let them go and allow them to be who they are…with all of their particulars. I can even have better relationships with them as I am no longer needing to hold them at a safe distance. I don’t have to be fearful of being known. I don’t have to hide behind my fortress of labels and self-righteousness.

I think we must continue to push against our propensity for self-righteous labelism and move away from this harmful culture we have so often created. Let us embrace the true freedom that comes from the grace of Christ to be loved as we are and to love others in the same way.

Maybe then we can use labels in a healthy way, to help us find the toilet paper.

“Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8 ESV)

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18 ESV)


One thought on “Labelism

  1. There’s a new song in my heart,”Keep your eyes on Jesus,the one who makes it right” it is upbeat and kinda bluesy and it just fell outta my heart into my mouth one day and I can’t quit singing it to self and outloud to others.Your words ring so true, thank you for your willingness to serve God in your realness, broken pieces and all……….

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