The Power of a Label

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.


Filed under biblical counseling, Uncategorized

2 responses to “The Power of a Label

  1. hello. sir,
    my name is moses, 23, Psychology undergraduate with James Cook Uni. I am a Christian.
    Actually, i was having this thought of “The power of Self-Labelling”, Self fullfiling prophecy, Self suggestions, curse? Learned helplessness..

    I mean, to be frank, i am gay. But i told my friend (like me), that, i don’t want to LABEL myself.. or give myself a NAME, or box myself in.. to be GAY or CHRISTIAN. U know how stressful that is?
    I mean, WHO KNOWS? In God’s name… maybe one day i will like the opp. sex? anyway… i dont wanna talk about that now…

    Anyway, i figured, it could be possible that, if someone believe that he is such and such, he could really become such and such! Do u get me ? 🙂

    So, this is really interesting for me, and i plan to do some research on it. And i did a google and i found u!

    It will be great to hear from you. and maybe give me some pointer on where to find materials?

    God bless you..

  2. Moses. Thanks for your post. Not sure what materials you might be looking for. Certainly, self-talk is important. Does it change the object of sexual desire? Maybe not, but what you tell yourself about identity is important. You might like to take a look at some literature by Mark Yarhouse, PsyD (professor at Regent University in VA). Check out his page on the site as he has a long bibliography on the matter. He has written on the topic of sexual identity and the problem of foreclosing (e.g., I have homosexual desires so I must be gay) without careful consideration of the matter. Both Christian and nonChristian society alike seems to suggest that life is always either or. If you have one drop of same sex desire then you must be gay. There is something wrong with that. Yarhouse argues that we should talk about the issue of same sex desire rather than gay since “gay” has so much label baggage with it.

    Wheres James Cook? I’m happy to take this conversation off-line into email if you would prefer.

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