I’ve never liked labels. Maybe it was because words have always carried such weight for me. With words we bless and we curse. We can build up and we can tear down. The scripture says that the power of life and death are in the tongue… Literally, words can make the difference between life and death. I am not going to take the time to build on this right now, but when you consider the amount of people who choose to end their life because of the hateful, hurtful words spoken to, about, or over them…it is staggering.
It is profound to consider the impact that words, in the form of labels, can have on a life. Moment of vulnerability here… As a kid, I had really big ears. Huge... Epic, in fact. At least that’s what I believed because of the litany of insults I received as a kindergartner. One insult in particular, “Why don’t you fly home Dumbo?” really wounded my young heart. I can still remember the place, time, weather, and the feeling of my face going red the first time one of the other boys in my class said those words. I recognize that, on the grand scale, this kind of insult is small potatoes. But the fact that I so vividly remember, and that my self-perception was altered for years to come, proves the point: words have power. I can also vividly remember the first time I heard, and applied the label “abomination”. The pastor had just finished quoting Leviticus 18:22. What I don’t remember is whether he actually said “it is an abomination” or “they are an abomination”, but I remember feeling it was the later. I remember where the pew was in relation to the stage. I remember, of all things, the pastor’s haircut. I remember how hopeless I felt. I remember the feeling of my face going red. And I remember that for years to come, my self-perception was altered as words created a label, and that label stuck to me.
It is an incredibly demoralizing thing to feel condemnation for something that you feel you have absolutely no choice or no control over.
I am happy to report that over the years, a few very important transformations happened. First, I am pretty sure that my ears are more appropriately proportioned to the size of my head. Second, I realized that I was not helpless or hopeless regarding my same-sex attraction. Neither of these shifts happened overnight. Both required a certain amount of self-acceptance to get through the rough periods, but just like most things in life, had more to do about self-perception than a fixed reality. Time, growth, and perspective shifts helped immensely. If I were to try to stretch the analogy any further, I am sure it would crumble, as big ears and same-sex struggle are VASTLY different animals, so I will end it here and get to the real point: The words we speak or accept as true have incredible power over us. James 3 is a great reminder about the power possessed in the tongue. “5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.” Strong words about the tongue.
I can’t recall how many times I was labeled as gay. Whether it was an explicit remark made by some school-yard bully, or whether it was a more passive insinuation made by my culture interpreting my internal struggle for me by means of a TV show or movie, but I can tell you for sure that it was countless. I also can tell you that the condemnation spoken over that identity being spoken over me was equally numerous. From every derogatory joke made by friends in youth group, to the hatred and disdain that dripped from the mouths of people in church as they talked about “those people”. The words spoken to me were clear… I was gay, and I was hated. The odd thing in all of this: I never spoke those words over myself. Call it denial, call me a self-hating gay if you want to go there, but even when I was engaged in a sexual relationship with another guy, I still did not personally speak that I was gay. Oh I felt gay for sure…And I was certainly acting gay. But I could never actually bring myself to say that I was gay. When I began coming clean with people about my feelings and behavior, my confession was that I was struggling with homosexuality. That was true enough… I was experiencing homosexual attraction, and I was struggling against it. When I was years into my personal discipleship / healing process, I also did not really embrace the label of “ex-gay”. I didn’t want to be identified for what I wasn’t. Why am I making a big deal about this? Because; words have power.
As a believer in Jesus I live with the distinct conviction that the only words I want to accept as part of my identity, or that I want to speak over anyone else, are words that speak truthfully and in accordance with His word. Practically speaking, this means that I need no other labels than those of “redeemed, forgiven, adopted, co-heir with Christ, transformed, made new, etc.” Now don’t get me wrong, I am adamantly in favor of telling the truth about our struggles and temptations. In no way am I advocating that people deny the reality of a struggle with their sexuality by hiding behind labels that can quickly dissolve into platitudes. But what I am saying is that making a struggle into an identity is unhelpful at best, and potentially damaging at worst.
I never embraced a gay identity, in spite of very real gay feelings and behavior. Ultimately I think this served me and my walk with the Lord. Because I never embraced an identity as gay, it was never a fixed and unchangeable reality. It was a struggle that remained subject not to the Lordship of my self-perception or the power of my experienced feelings or history, but rather it was subject to the Lordship of Christ, who had the authority and power to do whatever he wanted with that very real struggle and history.
A thought to consider… Could we as believers in Christ choose to temper the words we speak about ourselves and others through the redemptive lens of the Gospel? Can we leave the power to speak identity safely in the hands of the only One who has the authority to speak truthfully to who we are? Can we purpose to point people to the hope found in Jesus by the words we speak? Let’s see what that can do!