Language Matters

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I cringed when I saw the “Dead End” sign while my nine-year old son Alex and I were driving to a get-together. When Alex spotted the sign, he said, “what does THAT mean?” I explained that the street was like the cul de sac we live on, but these days the signs usually say, “No Outlet.” We agreed that “dead end” sounded ominous and negative. Both terms described the same thing but the images and feelings they conjured were completely different. 

Alex had taught me a lesson about labeling the week before. He explained to his siblings that he’d graduated from the dyslexia program at school. For two years, he had worked with a  dyslexia teacher for 45 minutes every day with remarkable results. He told them he wouldn’t be pulled out of class anymore, but said, “I’ll still get the perks.” Alex referred to the accommodations that he receives as part of his individual education plan, like getting extra time on a test if he needs it. Some people might take a negative view of his dyslexia, but Alex knows that his hard work paid off and he benefits from the “perks” that help him.  

Language can make a difference. Social scientist Brene Brown said, “we have compelling research that shows that language does more than just communicate emotion, it can actually shape what we’re feeling.” (Atlas of the Heart). In other words, the way we talk about how we feel may help dictate what we experience, not merely describe what we experience. And that goes for the way we talk about ourselves too. If we call ourselves negative names – loser, failure, lazy, stupid – we will believe that those names accurately define us. But God doesn’t see us that way.

In the Bible, God changed the names of several people. In Genesis, we see two examples. Abram and his wife Sarai were old and childless. But in an encounter with God, “Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.’” (Genesis 17:3-5). God wanted Abraham to believe even though the promise seemed impossible. Abraham didn’t always follow God’s directions and ended up in some difficult circumstances, but God fulfilled his covenant. 

On another occasion, Jacob was on his way to meet his brother Esau whom he’d cheated years earlier. The night before the meeting, Jacob felt anxious and went off by himself until a “man” appeared and wrestled with him. When the man demanded Jacob let go, Jacob demanded a blessing. Jacob ended up with a hip injury and a different name. Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.’” (Genesis 32:28). Israel would need the reminder that he was an overcomer throughout the ups and downs of his life. 

In the New Testament, Jesus’ disciple Simon said that he believed Jesus was the Messiah when Jesus asked who he thought Jesus was. “Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.’” (Matt. 16:17-18). Even though Peter would eventually deny Jesus three times on the night of Jesus’ arrest, Jesus continued to make Peter the foundation of God’s church.

God didn’t change who these men were but simply relabeled them. They still made plenty of mistakes afterward, but God gave them names that they could live into. Their new monikers were reminders of how God saw them and what God wanted for them.

God calls us his beloved children. When we resort to degrading orr destructive labels, we deny who God says we are and hurt ourselves in the process. God aspires for us to believe in his love and in ourselves. Let us choose labels and language that build people up. We are God’s people, made in God’s image, and God proclaims that we are “very good.” (Genesis 1:26-31).

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