We humans have powerful tendencies to label and categorize. It may even be something that Adam passed on to us. Notice that Adam got to name the animals as he saw fit. Does part of being in the image of God mean that we have an innate drive to name things as they are?
But what happens when things don’t fit our categories? We either have to expand our definitions or shove square pegs into round holes.
The color line comes to mind. Those who are biracial face the repeated question, “What are you?” And the “one drop” rule still is holds power (one drop of Black blood makes you black).
How about those who don’t fit gender stereotypes. I’ve heard the pain of many who were accused of being gay because they didn’t fit the image of a man or a woman. These labels were so powerful that they caused confusion that other’s beliefs must be true. “If being a man means…(fill in the blank), then I must not be one. Maybe I’m gay.”
Why belabor this point? Counselors have tremendous power to label. Biblical Counselors have even more. We label right and wrong, righteous and unrighteous. We label idols of the heart. We should do so and be in the habit of helping our counselees have the right labels for what is happening in their lives.
But, HOW and WHEN we label are very important, maybe even more important than whether our labels are actually correct. The temptation for counselors is to label too quickly, before the counselee is ready. If that happens, the counselee is passive and the counselor’s label is just one more among a chorus of opinionated acquaintances.
Take a look at how Jesus interacts with sinners and self-proclaimed holy men. Who is he more likely to label quickly. Who does he engage with deep questions? What is his means for helping others see themselves? Notice how the Pharisees were quick to label what was authentically Jewish and what was not. Notice that the Lord seems less interested in that and more interested connecting to others. He was not neutral about sin. However, he engages others in novel ways to show them the righteous path and their need for a savior.
I’ve been enamored with the late Paulo Freire, a liberation theologian from Brazil. He describes how unthinking, impoverished, people becoming empowered to name things as they are. They do not, he says (in Cultural Action for Freedom), learn by being filled up with words and labels by dominant culture individuals. If this were the case, then counseling would only be a matter of memorizing the right words and phrases. No, counseling is a dialogue where the counselee is an active, creative subject in the process of change.