Written by Dr. Phil Monroe
Friday, 04 May 2012 00:00
We humans have powerful tendencies to label and categorize. It may even be something that Adam passed on to us. Genesis tells us that Adam got to name the animals as he saw fit. Does part of being in the image of God mean that we have an innate drive to name things as they are?
But what happens when things don’t fit our categories? We either have to expand our definitions or shove square pegs into round holes.
The color line comes to mind. Those who are biracial face the repeated question, “What are you?” You may recall that when Tiger Woods came on the national golf scene, he faced pressure to identify himself by race. When he chose not to, he faced criticism from both minority and majority communities.
How about those who don’t fit gender stereotypes? I’ve heard the pain of many who were accused of being gay because they didn’t fit the image of a man or a woman. These labels were so powerful that they caused confusion. “If being a man means [fill in the blank], then I must not be one. Maybe I’m gay.”
We pastors and counselors carry tremendous power when we label. We label right and wrong, righteous and unrighteous. We label idols of the heart. We give names for disorders. When the label is right, it can invite healing.
Beyond Wrong Labels
But, HOW and WHEN and WHY we label are just as important as whether or not our labels are correct. Years ago, my wife and sought the expertise of a top infertility doctor in the city. We were excited to get the best mind working on our problem. Within a few minutes of looking at our records and data, she said in a final and abrupt tone, “Well, it is clear you won’t be having biological children.”
She spoke the truth. She spoke a painful truth, one we had not heard before and were not prepared to hear. Her lack of “bedside manner” made the truth a crushing blow. How we speak matters almost as much as what we speak.
But the how is not the only matter to consider. The temptation for counselors is to label too quickly, before the counselee is ready. If that happens, the counselee may passively receive the label—making the counselor’s label is just one more among a chorus of opinionated acquaintances. Pastors and counselors love others well as they use good probing questions and invitations to prepare a person to hear something that might be difficult to receive.
Another question for us to consider is why we want to give a label. What do we hope to accomplish with our label? Prove our rightness? Hurt? Invite into dialogue?
Take a look at how Jesus interacts with sinners and self-proclaimed holy men. Who is he more likely to label? Who does he engage with deep questions? What are his means for helping others see themselves? Notice how the Pharisees were quick to label what was authentically Jewish and what was not. Notice that the Lord seems less interested in labeling “Jewish” and more interested in connecting others to God. He was not neutral about sin. However, he engaged others in novel ways to show them the righteous path and their need for salvation.
The late Paulo Freire, a liberation theologian from Brazil describes how unthinking, impoverished, people become empowered to name things as they are. They do not, he says (in Cultural Action for Freedom), learn by being filled up with words and labels by dominant culture individuals. If this were the case, then counseling would only be a matter of memorizing the right words and phrases. Even novice counselors recognize that progress happens when the counselee is an active, creative subject in the process of change.
Are we in the habit of helping our ministry targets or counselees have the right labels for what is happening in their lives?
Phil Monroe is professor of counseling & psychology and directs the Masters of Arts in Counseling program. He maintains a private practice at Diane Langberg & Associates. You can follow his counseling blog here or read his faculty bio here.