So much is bound up in who we see ourselves to be and the labels that we – and others – apply to us.
We are male or female, gay or straight, young or old, rich or poor. We are each citizens of a particular country which, in turn, drives a lot of behaviours and affiliations; we support different sports teams; we vote for different political parties; we are employed or not.
Some of these labels are intrinsic to who we are, some change with circumstances. i have always been male and I was once young!
Some labels vary with context. When I was working in the IT industry and attended a conference I met a lot of people and they took on various labels. Some were colleagues working in the same company, some were customers, some were partners with whom we collaborated and delivered solutions to those customers, some were competitors. And, as people changed roles, and different projects came along, we ended up wearing different labels – a partner one day, a competitor the next – and this was necessary and helpful in terms of determining the way we related to different people and the level of information we shared with them.
In many ways, the combination of labels we carry tell us, and others, a lot about who we are and the experiences we have had. I am a Christian, a husband, a son, a father, a church leader. I used to be an IT consultant, I enjoy science fiction, I drink black coffee (and that started when someone played a trick on me 30 years ago!)
But God also says things about us – and these result in really important labels.
Right back in the beginning God was about to create human beings and he said this:
Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness (Gen 1:26)
And from that time on humanity has carried within itself something of the nature of God. We reflect Him, we are “like Him”, we are able to relate to Him. Yes, we have made mistakes, yes that image is often marred and tarnished, but there is something in us which is made in the image of God. And while that is great for us to realise for ourselves it carries with it a challenge for how we treat other people. If every person we meet, if every person we speak with, if every person driving on the same roads as we drive on, if every person on this planet bears the spark of God within them then surely this is a more important label than whether we support the same football team, enjoy the same music, work for the same company or attend the same church.
Paul, when speaking about the labels which he could legitimately use to define who he was (Philippians 3:5-6) went on to conclude that none of them mattered. What was important to him was knowing Christ, gaining Christ and being found in Christ (Philippians 3:8-9). Throughout his writings, the label which Paul keeps on applying to himself and to those whom he is writing is that of being “in Christ”.
In one short passage he was able to speak about:
- Being blessed with “every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3)
- Being chosen in Christ (Ephesians 1:4)
- Redemption being in Christ (Ephesians 1:7)
- Being included in Christ (Ephesians 1:13)
No wonder this was the core of his identity. This is what had come to matter to him, everything else was peripheral.
And the question this raises is which labels are essential to us and how important to our identity is being “in Christ”? Is this the central foundation on which our entire lives are based or is it an “add-on” to the other things which characterise us more deeply?
I wonder how differently I would have treated my colleagues, partners, customers and competitors if I had consistently seen them first as people made in God’s image and if I had always seen my being “in Christ” as the label which characterised me most.
I wonder how much those I spend time with now see this demonstrated in me on a consistent basis.