Labeling or loving?
In the children's classic, Alice in Wonderland, Alice, just before meeting Tweedledum and Tweedledee, enters the wood-of-no-names and encounters a fawn. "Neither the fawn nor Alice can remember their names. No matter. They walk a ways together, Alice with her arms clasped lovingly around the soft neck of the fawn, until they come to the edge of the wood. Once there, the fawn suddenly remembers its names and looks at Alice with horror. 'I'm a Fawn,' it cries out, 'and dear me! You're a human child!' Terrified, it runs away."1
When I read this, I got frustrated... annoyed, really. Why didn't Alice and the fawn just go back into the wood? Or better yet, why couldn't they see how great they got along when they had forgotten their perspective "labels," and gone on to enjoy a lasting friendship through the rest of Wonderland? Apparently, it's just too much to ask for, even for a fairy tale.
Then I read another story, and my thinking got whiplash. John 9 describes a scene where Jesus and His disciples came upon a blind man on the street. The disciples stopped. To help? To care? To listen and love? Hardly. They stopped instead to label. "'Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?'" (John 9:2).2 Forget that this man is a fellow human being in need. Forget that he's been rejected and ignored all his life. Forget that he is right in front of them, within earshot of everything being said.3 The disciples looked at him and saw, not a person, but a problem, a theological problem to be solved, and they invited Jesus along on their trip for truth.
But Jesus didn't go. Refusing to label, He chose to love instead. Where the disciples saw a blind man with problems, Jesus saw a blessed man with promise. When the disciples were ready to move on to prove truth and theology--the "heart of religion"--Jesus chose to stay and live the truth, showing that true religion is when you see and care with your heart (see James 1:27). The disciples wanted a solution; Jesus waited for a miracle.
Jesus refused to label. Why? Because He saw the hope of this man's future rather than the problems of his past. It wasn't about who this man had been or what he did, but about what God was going to do with him instead. "'This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life'" (John 9:3). Jesus made it clear that you have to be willing to see the way God sees if you're going to be a part of the miracle He wants to make happen.
The miracle is hard to see
But sometimes the miracle is hard to see because we are so accustomed to using labels. Labels are so practical and easy. We slap them on all sorts of containers and folders (and people) to help us know what's inside. There is no uncertainty with labels. You know what to expect, and you don't have to think. Read the label, and you just know. And there is great comfort with thinking one is in the know. There is a sense of familiarity and control because, with a label, the unknowns are practically gone.4
I read once about a boy who thought he knew what he had in his hands when he was tossing rocks into the ocean. Rock after rock went flying into the water until the pile he had found in the seaside cave was just about gone. And then, somehow a couple of rocks banged up against each other and broke open, revealing inside, not mere mud and muck as he had thought, but diamonds in the rough! Imagine the sickening feeling he must have had as he looked out into the ocean remembering all the hundreds of gems he had just thrown away.
Unfortunately, the same thing can happen with people. When we label people, we miss seeing the miracle. When we stop at the surface, we miss seeing the treasure inside. Consider again John 9:1. Jesus "saw a man blind from birth." The Greek word for "saw" suggests that Jesus looked with a searching look, beyond the surface. Jesus looked into the heart and soul of this man to see what others had missed--to see the miracle. The disciples saw the outward man only and wanted to move on. Christ said, Wait, there's a miracle about to happen here! God is going to do something great, working through us as we're open to Him. "'As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me'" (John 9:4). As long as we are living and breathing, there is a work we've been called to do...to love. Not to label. Not to judge. Not to toss aside...but to love. "'By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another'" (John 13:35).
Jesus stayed and healed the man, giving him back his sight, his self-esteem, his place in society. Jesus stayed to love. And when the man was kicked out of the temple, labeled and shunned by the powerful and the popular of the religious world, Jesus found him again and gave him an eternal vision, to see beyond the blindness of religion, to see the God of love. And "the man said 'Lord, I believe,' and he worshiped him" (John 9:38). It was a day for miracles.
The sure promise
The promise of Jesus is sure: "'Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things'" (John 14:12). I would like to suggest that you and I can do as Jesus did, and begin to heal one another today. Where there is brokenness, we can make whole; where loneliness, connectedness. It happens when we open our eyes and hearts to see like Jesus, to take the time for even the simplest of relationships, to reach out to those whom others forget and pass by. To love instead of label.
Once a visiting pastor posed a question to us, a group of ministers, to help us evaluate if our church was on track in following after the heart of God. It was a simple question: Is your church loser-friendly? Do those whom society has labeled as "losers" feel respected, listened to, and valued in your church? When they see themselves through your eyes, do they recognize the miracle God put inside them, the miracle waiting to happen?
It made me stop and think, not just about my church, but about myself, personally. Am I loser-friendly? Do I really respect, listen to and value those whom I, or others, label as "losers"? I was intrigued with the question and bothered at the same time. Intrigued because, in its simplicity, it made me stop and appraise my own heart and inner thoughts, the place where no one sees. Bothered because the question seemed to violate the very intent and purpose of the question. You see, in asking the question, "Am I loser-friendly?" I found myself having to first sort through the list of people I knew and attach a label "loser" or "non-loser" to them. The act of sorting, labeling, and naming was actually building up the very walls I wanted to tear down, and it made me wish for another reality. A reality that would be too much to ask for, even for a fairy tale. Wouldn't it be great, I thought, if someone asked that question to our church and in all sincerity and bewilderment we looked at them and asked, "What's a loser? We don't have anyone around here who fits that description!" Wouldn't it be great if we had, like in Alice's wonderland, a church-of-no-names, but one where there were no edges to come to, no walls, no labels to remember--a church of no names! A place where we saw each other as God sees, where we look for and celebrate the miracles waiting to happen. A church, like the one in Ephesians 4 where, with God and each other, it is "joined together, growing and building itself up in love"! Sometimes it seems impossible, and yet...
Jesus showed us that it is more than possible! It is more than a fairytale wish, but a reality that you and I and God can make happen, one moment, one person at a time. It happens when we choose to love instead of label. When we recognize that all of life, and each of us is a work in progress--a miracle waiting to happen, a diamond in the rough. You see, when we recognize that everyone is in process, this allows us to add a "yet" to all our assessments of one another.5
Bill isn't much of a leader...yet. Marie never listens...yet. Mark doesn't have patience...yet. We can't judge someone or write him or her off or close the book until it is finished. No one has won or lost until the race is over. When we see like Jesus, we refuse to judge, or label, or toss aside, because God is still at work. It is in believing that we will see the miracle, the beauty, the treasure in everyone we meet, if we take the time to look, and listen, and care beyond the surface. In places where you see deficiency, look instead for the growing edge of things to come, to see each other at the beginning and anticipate the discovery of unknown miracles to come. God calls His disciples, you and me, to help make it happen. He calls us to join together, while it is still day, to do the work of God. And what is that work? To love like there's no tomorrow, so the glory of God can be shown! "'By this, all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.'"
Look again before you label, and expect to see a miracle!
Denise Badger is the associate pastor of Forest Lake Seventh-day Adventist Church in Apopka, Florida, U.S.A.
Notes and references
- Quoted in Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996).
- Bible texts in this article are quoted from the New International Version.
- See Max Lucado, A Gentle Thunder (Dallas Texas: Word Publishing, 1995).
- Remen, Opus cit.