TRANSFORMATION: NAMING AND LABELING
I want to do what is good, but I don’t.
I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do
…Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.
-The Apostle Paul
Think of all the times Jesus gets his dander up. It’s never at sinners! It’s always at religious people who posture and pretend that they are complete on their own, refusing to confess that they are poor and broken. Hypocrisy and pride—that’s what got Jesus’ goat, because Jesus knows they cut people off from true life in the love of God. This is why Jesus says that “the poor in spirit,” fully aware of their weakness, are blessed.
Just think about that: We are blessed when we are fully aware of and honest about our weakness and suffering. Huh? To human hearts always inclined towards looking good and feeling powerful, this is foolishness. But what is upside-down to us is right-side up to Jesus.
Flying upside-down is what religion, which is all about power through earning and performance (yes, even under the banner of “grace”), just doesn’t get. And for this reason, the church often pedals grace even while training people to hide and push away their weaknesses. In fact, church culture often trains us into hypocrisy–into putting on a good Sunday face–rather than rejoicing in our weakness. Transformation then eludes us, as we judge and blame ourselves for not being able to climb up into grace, when all along, all we are asked to do is have the humility to fall down and be caught by it!
That’s because Jesus asks us to do something that is counter-intuitive to our power-hungry hearts: be honest about your weakness. The only way to fall into grace and transformation is to name and label, at the leading of God’s Spirit, your weaknesses. And further, to be honest about all the ways you’d love to hide those weaknesses from God and from every one else. This naming and labeling means being honest while refusing to judge or hate ourselves, which turns out to be difficult spiritual work.
Paul’s struggle recorded in Romans 7, quoted above, most beautifully captures someone moving from self-judgment into finally saying, after a long internal battle, “Yes” to God and then falling into grace. After naming and labeling the nature of his struggle, Paul finally looks up and says, “Thank God, thank Jesus! I was never able to get it all right on my own anyway!”
Both the wrestling and the naming cannot be rushed through or short-cut. Paradoxically, we have to be intimate enough with our struggle that we can name and label it, and only then can we move away from it. We have to become convinced that we can’t “handle it” or “figure it out” on our own. Falling into grace only happens once we have no energy left for trying to climb into it. Practically speaking, this means a lot of struggle and a whole lot of honest self-reckoning. But when we come to the end of our efforts to destroy our weakness on our own terms, we can receive the grace of Jesus which frees us from having to eradicate it. This makes the journey about Jesus and his goodness, and not about how great or powerful we are. And in this reality, we finally find liberty.
Transformation always looks like this. Paul clearly has specific failures and sins—ways that he tries to be powerful on his own terms—in mind. Then, rather than continuing to judge himself, he gives thanks to God for grace and love. Turning to God rather than to self-judgment and self-hatred is the catalyst of transformation.
In Corinthians, Paul says it succinctly: “I don’t judge myself.” (I Corinthians 4:3) Judgment, of others and of self, is a waste of time, and it’s way better to get your eyes off of yourself and refuse to waste mental energy in self-focus and self-hatred. We can interrupt this persistent self-focus by turning to God and saying, “Whoa, how can you be so good, Jesus, that you receive me when I’m still unsorted!?” Yet many of us crave the sense of power that comes from judging and even hating ourselves, rather than the vulnerability and humility of simply naming our weakness and then shaking our heads in awe and wonder that God still adopts us in, despite of it.
Yes, we turn into the grace of God by naming and labeling weakness, not by judging, hating, and resisting it. I am reminded of this truth even this morning, as for some reason I woke up feeling especially insecure. I woke up with worries about my leadership and whether I have “what it takes,” (whatever that means). I find myself comparing myself to other leaders. It’s basically a garbage conversation, but the irony is, the more I judge myself for having these thoughts, the stronger they become!
When instead, I simply say, as Paul does, “Yup, that’s there. I don’t want to feel or act out this self-focus…but I do,” and I stop hating or judging my weakness, the weakness ceases to be some big bogey man I have to wrestle to the ground. Simply naming it as insecurity and self-focus creates space for transformation, because naming our weakness allows us to separate it from our true self, adopted by God, rather than as something which defines us (which is in fact how most people relate to it). It’s like putting it on a shelf; it’s still there, but I’m no longer holding it or preoccupied with it.
If you spend your life judging your weakness, you will never receive and awaken to your true identity as an adopted child of God, which is the heart of the New Testament story of New Creation and new identity given to us in God by Jesus. But if you will name and label the parts of you that you are tempted to judge and hate, you will soon discover that you are being held by the love of God. And that, indeed…He’s been holding you all along.
What thoughts, emotions, and weaknesses are you tempted to judge and even hate? Practice naming and labeling them as part of you, but not your true (adopted in God, risen with Christ) self.
Now close your eyes and give thanks to Jesus for accepting you, even when you are unsorted. What does it feel like to make this move? How do you see Jesus responding to you?
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 As Dallas Willard points out in The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God.