Our Labels’ Struggle to Truly Define


Words are a curious thing. They help us define ideas and communicate thoughts to one another. The problem is that sometimes they can create a sticky mess. What a word or phrase means to you may mean something totally different to someone else.

I came across this great video blog by John Green discussing religion. In it, he talks about the very issue of how religion gets blurred by the fuzziness of how we define our faith and elements of our faith – and what it means to be a follower of a particular faith. (I love his story about the Pentecostal church. Funny stuff.)

For many people, the term “Christian” carries so much baggage that it needs its own portable luggage cart. For people who have been hurt by a “Christian”, it holds a very negative connotation, likely one that fits neatly into the universal idea of what the word “hypocrite” means. For those whose life direction was changed the moment they decided to become a “Christian”, it holds a happy meaning, one that denotes how they abandoned one way of living for a new way. And then there’s every meaning in between, which is why so many Christians I know prefer the term “follower of Jesus” or “Christ follower”.

But it won’t be long before people who consider themselves a “follower of Jesus” will be doing what imperfect people do – hurting someone, whether intentionally or not, and turning that phrase into one that holds negative connotations.

We need words to help us define ideas and concepts, but we can’t let them define us – at least, not totally. I may call myself a “follower of Jesus” but there are times when a more accurate moniker would be “mostly following Jesus, sometimes taking a lonely walk”. Or I might consider myself a “convenient follower of Jesus” on other days.

Ultimately, I want to follow Jesus – but I don’t always do it with such striking consistency that I can confidently say that labeling myself as such will never become a negative connotation for someone else. So, I hold that label lightly and suggest we all do the same with others. Don’t let labels define people. Let’s really be like Christ and relate to others not through their own self labels but through considering the motives of their heart. Because on some level we’re all like the Apostle Paul when he writes in Romans 7:15: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

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