I remember going to Sammy’s birthday party when I was 10 years old. It was that awkward intersection of dutiful and obligated parents, already-disheveled boys and girls dressed in their party duds, and the games of freeze tag that allowed prepubescents to run and contact other people and work out that pre-teen angst.
A seminal moment of my life took place at Sammy’s party, and sad as this may be, I always go back to it and think, “This is how God deals with me.” We were playing one of these tag games as the mommies looked on wearily. John came at me a little too aggressively. I knocked his hand away from pushing at my shoulders. He shoved me hard. Twice.
I remember feeling hurt and angry, but that wasn’t the worst of it. I looked over at my mother, wordlessly pleading for her to come and defend me. She returned my pleading eyes with disengagement and then looked away. In that moment, I told myself two things:
1. I am not worth defending.
2. I am on my own.
I have rehearsed these conclusions at every hard turn in life: after a bad break-up, when friends have betrayed my trust, when I have been treated unfairly. These conclusions have cozied up to my life’s narrative.
At church, we’re reading a book by Dan Allender called To Be Told. The book describes how each of us can discover the glorious story that God is writing in our lives. Part of the book speaks of names–how we have been labeled, and how we live out our labels, even if those labels are not of God. I tearfully read through that part of the book, recalling all too easily the labels I pinned on myself, a thorny corsage from Sammy’s party.
After a while, our labels interpret the stories in our lives. My boyfriend broke up with me because I am disposable. I struggle to connect with people at church because I am forgettable. God allowed that person to take advantage of me because He abandoned me.
Labels patchwork our souls with a tidy, succinct inaccuracy. They deftly remind us of what we deserve and keep us penned in with low expectations. The labels wrap themselves around us and, with tight embrace, whisper to us that they are God’s will. Be still and know that you are disposable. They convince us that true intimacy with God comes through accepting the label without striving for more. Labels can suffocate hope, and at the very least, thwart creativity.
But God does not label; He names. Labels describe a feeling or circumstance, names describe who you are. God encourages us by name.
Take the story of Abram. Abram means “exalted father,” which must have been a constant reminder to the man of his father’s legacy and his own childlessness. His own name made a mockery of him. God knew that He would establish His chosen people through the child of Abraham and Sarah, but there were 23 years between that promise and its fulfillment. Twenty -three years of doubt, meddling, lying, and even the taking of an Egyptian slave to force God’s hand. Twenty-three years of labels: illegitimate father, user, doubter.
But God, well aware of Abram’s labels, encouraged him by giving him a new name: Abraham, “father of many” (you can read about this in Genesis 17). God renamed Abraham based on His plan and His glory. Abraham was able to push forward in faith into the unknown through God’s encouragement that labels did not define him–God’s covenant did.
What’s true for a Biblical patriarch is also true for us. Though we may be influenced by our doubts, our sins, or wrongdoing done against us, those circumstances are not our name. Our name is defined by the spaces of grace and perseverance in our lives that only God creates. Those spaces of grace are our opportunity for freedom from the chains of labels. Freedom to push forward into the unknown.
God’s covenant to believers is that He will never leave or forsake us, and no one can take us from His hand. He has paid the ultimate price for us through the blood of Jesus; He won’t back down on His love or fidelity. He knows us by name and has taken great care to write that name in the Book of Life.
It has been an act of worship for me to dig through the hard places in my life, find God’s hand through it all, and discover my true name. There are some days I don’t wish to revisit. The same may be true for you.
Tears still come to my eyes when I think of 10-year-old me, pleading for rescue, getting shoved, feeling abandoned. It’s a struggle to rip the label off because I have felt so alone and indefensible many times since then.
Now I know that in that moment so many years ago, God was showing me my name, and it could not be found in my mother’s eyes or John’s shoves. My name is from God alone.
My name is Still Standing.
What’s your name?
Sharifa Stevens is a wife and mother, singer, and writer. She earned a B.A. from Columbia University and a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. She lives in Dallas.