Trust in Labels
Labels are extremely appealing crutches, shortcuts that allow prejudice to flourish without being questioned. This is what fuels nationalism, patriotism and many other 'isms where hatred of outsiders becomes a virtue and is seen as honor. Labels are used in racism and for every form prejudice. Because of this we should view them with extreme suspicion and with great awareness of the high risks involved.
Labels. Truth in advertising. Faith. What do these have in common?
We come to trust certain brands of things that we purchase for the quality that we expect from them. Labels have to do with reputation, and reputation can readily be manipulated and leveraged. Large companies invest millions of dollars and pay great attention to the reputation to protect their brand name, their label. All of us are aware of the dynamics of labels and the good and harm that can come about as a result. The news is full of stories both good and bad about issues swirling around labels, whether it be about companies or groups of people.
Jesus managed to get Himself in regular trouble because of people's reliance on labels to determine their beliefs about who was right or wrong. In fact, this issue of labels is one of the main things He came to challenge when He came from heaven to earth as a baby. As soon as He arrived the labels started flying and the charges started piling up to discredit and diffuse the truth He had come to reveal to us about what His Father is really like.
One of the things that God Jesus into trouble as His defiance of labeling. The Jews, those people who placed great confidence in their label of being God's chosen nation, placed enormous importance on their status based on that label. They believed that having the right label was the highest priority even if the inward quality was totally dysfunctional and lacking. They had come to believe that God likewise was most interested in labels more than in what was inside the label. They had a real problem concerning truth in advertising.
Because the Jews placed their greatest faith in labels and keeping up outward appearances, they became confident that anyone not covered by their brand name could not have any saving relationship with God. Their pride and arrogance and self-righteousness became a facade behind which was hidden all sorts of corruption and hypocrisy, greed and ungodliness. Yet they considered anyone outside their nationalistic label as rejected and outside of God's mercy. Gentiles were the lost and Samaritans were even worse off.
Imagine the shock and horror produced then when Jesus said that He found more faith in gentiles than He could find in Israel. It was comments like these that aroused the anger of His hometown people more than anything else He said. In His homecoming sermon Jesus made inflammatory statements about God paying more attention to people outside Israel during the Old Testament times than to people inside the chosen elect. This nearly cost Him His life before His ministry even got off the ground. He didn't seem to have the respect for proper use of labels like what was expected of any good Jew.
Lest we think we are free of such prejudices, think again. We fall into many of the same labeling mistakes as did the Jews who rejected Jesus. He warned their leaders about trusting in their superior knowledge of Scriptures instead of trusting directly in Him, the Author. We easily fall into that same trap of assuming our knowledge of Scripture is sufficient to save us while failing to connect our heart to the true Source of those writings and allowing His Spirit to interpret them.
My church, as every group of people tends to do, is gravitating toward the use of labels in very similar ways. Labels are convenient ways to avoid thinking and taking responsibility. Labeling can also encourage others to avoid thinking for themselves. We can just tell people in our group to trust in our brand name and leave the responsibility up to the leaders for making sure everything is right. But this discourages individual accountability and perverts God's purpose to lead each person directly.
Labels most often bind people into forms of bondage, not freedom. Labels can rob people of their potential to learn and grow by searching out truth, being accountable and exercising responsibility under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit.
It is nearly impossible to even talk without using labels. They constitute too large a part of our thinking and our language to avoid. They may be useful in generalizations, but far too often they become crutches used in the wrong motives while at the same time conveniently obscuring those very motives.
Religious labels may purport to strengthen faith while in reality they very often do the opposite. Faith is not encouraged through a reliance on labeling and generally does not lead to growth in the knowledge of truth or in relationship with God. Rather, faith looks past the surface labels of all kinds and sees that we are all of the same family no matter what labels have been slapped on us.
Labels are not just restricted to words, though sooner or later they usually involve them. What people look like often serve as labels we use to determine all sorts of things about how we are going to feel about them and relate to them. This plays directly into the world's system of valuation. We instantly determine an estimated value of someone the first time we see them based on our own list of preferences. Because of this reality we can spend an inordinate amount of effort seeking to keep up our own appearances in order to create as good an impression as possible on others so we can be more valued in their estimation. This is all part of the 'other gods' syndrome that God warned us against.
When labels are used to identify inanimate things, they can prove quite useful. Even living creatures need names for us to identify and communicate concerning them. God gave the job of labeling to Adam as his very first assignment after creation, partly to awaken in him an awareness of his own sense of incompleteness without a complementary mate. Labels can serve to alert us that some brands of products are more likely to have the quality that we want compared to other brands that are known to be inferior. Labels themselves are not the problem. It is when we allow this estimation of value to begin to divide and gradate our love for other humans that we leave God's will for His children.
Religion in particular has exploited and abused labeling. Religious labels are almost always used for purposes of prejudice which is defined as pre-judging. That brings us to the related issue of judging which Jesus explicitly warns against doing. He said that not even He was going to exercise the authority given Him by the Father to judge, but that the words of truth He spoke would serve as our judge in the end.
What were the words of Christ? If we discern them properly we will see that the main purpose of Jesus coming to this earth was to reveal the real truth about God in sharp contrast to the false notions we have about Him so that we could come to know the truth. Whenever truth about God is allowed into the heart, genuine faith and trust in God can be awakened which is the very thing that sin has destroyed in us. This is a personal thing as well as a collective problem. But we must be extremely careful not to get trapped by labels we so frequently rely on that can blind us to the personal responsibility we have to respond to the truth God is impressing on us.
I sense that many in my own church are beginning to move in the wrong direction when it comes to labeling. It is easy for leaders all the way to the highest levels to seek to impose policies for members to only accept teachings from church-approved sources or read books by church authors. This is a blatant abusive used of labeling, for it infers that the church they control as a public corporation should be trusted implicitly to be the only source of reliable information for salvation while all other sources should be considered inferior at best or be viewed with suspicion or simply left out.
Yet this is reliance on a technique that has repeatedly proven all throughout history to be extremely fallible and even abusive. The Jews used this method, but the Bible shows that it often led to spiritual isolation, arrogance, apostasy and finally disintegration. I am not suggesting here that we should embrace without question anything that comes along claiming truth. God is very much into guidelines, parameters, exclusions and protections. However, we have far too often tried to condense God's protective boundaries into a system of reliance on labels alone to decide what is safe for us when God intends for His children to be guided by His Holy Spirit given for that very purpose.
People who listen to God's Spirit have quite often been branded as heretics by the mainstream religion of their day, partly because they exposed the corruption and evil that had been neatly hidden behind the facade of righteousness constructed partly out of labels. Because prophets and messengers challenged the labeling system of those trusting in them, they were themselves labeled as false, dangerous, heretics and many other negative labels. That same reaction will always be true to the end of time.
Jesus never once gave His disciples instructions about how to properly label people so they would know who to trust and who to avoid. On the contrary, Jesus exploded just about every labeling system in place when He walked among us which is one of the main reasons He found Himself constantly at odds with religious people around Him. He refused to endorse their neat system of categorizing people according to their indexing system and thus was accused of just about every violation that could be thought of based on their notions of righteousness. They retaliated by slapping derogatory labels on Him.
Man looks on the outward appearances but God looks on the heart. Labels depend on what we determine about a person which necessarily only involves what we have access to through our physical perceptions. But God repeatedly warns us against relying on our systems of valuation and labeling, for our ways alway lead to judging which Jesus warns us sternly against. When we judge people by labeling them, we are usurping the job of God who only is the righteous judge who reads the heart, and we find ourselves at the cross judging God as being out of harmony with our sense of justice.
Labeling stifles a gift that the Spirit of God wants us to use that is replaced by our abuse of labeling. As with everything Satan has done in his counterfeit system, for every good gift or truth that God has established, Satan has a counterfeit that seems so close at times to the true that at first it may be hard to see the difference. But the closer one comes to the true the more obvious the dangers they discover in the counterfeit.
Reliance on labeling is the counterfeit of Satan to what God wants us to have – discernment. But godly discernment needs the context of a humble mind, an open heart, a growing knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus, and most of all an vital connection with the One who called Himself not just the Truth but also the Way and the Life.
Labeling is one of those counterfeits that is used prolifically in the system of Satan which all the kingdoms of this world operate on. Religion itself becomes infected with these same principles that can seem so logical but are not in harmony with God's ways of agape life. Jesus said many things about this labeling problem that we ignore because they make us uncomfortable, so we religify His teachings, explain them away, refer them to committees of theologians who come up with reasons why we should not take them too seriously and continue to maintain our status quo.
Yet in the end it will be the words of Jesus that will serve as our judge, working to expose the fraudulent counterfeits we have relied on for our assurance of salvation. Too many assume if they belong to the right church that they have a high probability of being saved. Some people think if they just keep the right day as the Sabbath that they can guarantee their spot in the kingdom. Some think if they avoid the wrong society that their religion will remain pure (assuming that it is pure to start with) because they are relying on religious experts of the Bible to figure everything out for them.
Discernment is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that we all need. Sadly I think it may be one of the weakest gifts in our church, or at least one of the most unappreciated gifts. I believe this may be in part due to our practice of relying so much on labels rather than living in direct connection to the Holy Spirit. When we slip into a reliance on labels instead of learning to be guided by the Spirit in using His gift of discernment, we abort our responsibility and lose some of the benefits available to us as children of God. All who are true children of God are to be led by the Spirit of God instead of following their own hunches or being guided by their old ways of looking at things.
The whole New Testament seems to focus on this problem as much as anything. Yet we still continue to rely heavily on the practice of using shortcut labels for people, factions, systems of thought, denominations, nationalities and many other divisive elements. Jesus said that His kingdom is not of this world, and for very good reasons. One of those reasons is this diabolical practice of labeling affecting how we think and treat those around us instead of being transformed in our thinking, feeling, acting and living through the renewing of our mind by the Holy Spirit who is sent to lead us into all truth.
Jesus said that we should not use labels like rabbi, father or other such titles. But did He simply mean to avoid those particular labels that He listed, or are we willing to embrace the underlying principle that He was seeking to teach us? I'm afraid that we have simply substituted different labels for the ones Jesus told us not to use and then smugly think we are still obeying Him. The real problem is not which label we use but rather the mindset and spirit of using them to begin with. Jesus said we are all family – brothers and sisters. That is a safe enough label and is also a very revealing one when it comes to undo influence by the world's system of hierarchy. Brother and sister is about as close as you can get to establishing a spirit of equality. That is what Jesus intended exactly. Most other labels push us toward thinking some of us are more important while others are less which is anathema to the kingdom of heaven.
I had a pastor warn me against listening to a certain teacher because he felt that teacher would mislead me into heresy. I happened to know that the teacher in question is actually much closer to the truth about God's character than the pastor warning me. So what is really going on here with his use of labels? We try to slap a negative label on anyone who disagrees with our particular opinions without bothering to compare their teachings with the Word of God and pay attention to the Spirit of God.
I will agree that there are many false teachers in this world – far more so than there are teachers who embrace the true gospel of Jesus Christ. But our abuse of labels has far too often blocked many from coming to know God or the truth about Him from fear of what others might say or think about them. We are afraid of being tainted by the negative reports circulating about someone while unwilling to investigate the truth for ourselves to see if someone is simply being slandered or is actually deceiving others. I will agree that this is a job for the more mature; but at the same time Satan leads many to rely on others they consider experts in religion or law to do their thinking for them and to come up with neat labels on which the rest can then rely to guide them as to who to trust or distrust.
This method is extremely dangerous at best and very irresponsible when it comes to matters of salvation. Each of us must be personally accountable to God for our own souls and should never leave this responsibility in anyone else's hands no matter how expert or pious they may seem to us. If we rely more on labels than on the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth, we shall never be safe from the subtle deceptions of the enemy who relies on these shortcuts to keep millions in a false sense of security while those they put their confidence in are themselves influenced by the wrong spirit.
Labels belong in department stores, not in our search for truth and salvation. The only labels it is safe for us to embrace are the labels of Christ: abiding in Christ, resting in Christ, trusting in Christ, obedience in Christ, loving with Christ's love in the way that He loved. As we grow up into Christ in every way, we will see those around us in His body as also growing up in Him and being drawn to Him.
Too many are resisting His drawing and are being used by the enemy to discourage and mislead others by relying on labels for their security. But our focus must be on Christ alone and to cooperate with His transforming work in our own souls. As we focus on Him and allow Him to heal and grow us up into more perfect reflections of His character of love, we can live free of the curse of labels and enjoy the peace of Christ that passes all comprehension. We will also find ourselves growing closer to each other and the barrier of labels is stripped away and we enter into the joy of the Lord and the fellowship of His Spirit.