What’s In A Name?
“When I forget my name, remind me.”1
Listening to Andrew Peterson’s song, “Dancing In The Minefields”, I was struck by this line. In particular, the importance of naming jumped out at me. The fact that names are special isn’t a huge surprise. One need only think about how strongly people feel about their own names to confirm this. Feelings aside though, when we look at Scripture, naming often appears to go beyond merely identifying an object to calling out it’s characteristics. It is a means of telling something (or someone) what they are. Consider for instance, what happens at the end of Jacob’s wrestling with God:
But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.”2
As a result of the growth that Jacob has gone through since we first met him, God renames Jacob. “He who strives with God”3 captures Jacob’s character more accurately than the meaning of his original name, “He cheats.”4
There is a further concept related to naming which is worth taking into account. In Scripture, it appears that naming someone or something also indicated authority over the person or thing named. This fact still influences our culture. Parents name children, not the other way around. This is reflected when Paul describes part of the results of salvation: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:15-17)
Both of these concepts are key when it comes to helping point each other back to the Gospel. Naming can also be used in damaging ways, as Frodo’s warning to Gollum points out:
“No food, no rest, nothing for Sméagol,” said Gollum. “He’s a sneak.”
Sam clicked his tongue, but restrained himself.
“Don’t take names to yourself, Sméagol,” said Frodo. “It’s unwise, whether they are true or false.”5
This danger is most obvious when we look to name ourselves. When we attempt to provide the definition for our lives, to dictate what our story will be, we end up with meaninglessness. Practically speaking, we cannot create a context for our lives. In this sense, it is worth considering Jesus’ admonition that, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39) Striving to create our own name, our own life, is doomed to fail. Setting our stories down though, and accepting the call God gives us, is the means to living the full life for which we were created.
Tolkien provides us with a sobering example of the effects that come from defining life ourselves. This example comes from Sauron’s emissary, who chose to serve the forces of Evil, rather than fight against them. As Tolkien describes for us “The rider was robed all in black, and black was his lofty helm; yet this was no Ringwraith but a living man. The Lieutenant of the Tower of Baradûr he was, and his name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: ‘I am the Mouth of Sauron.’ ”6
“His name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it.” The impact of that sentence flows from the insight contained in “Whoever finds his life will lose it.” This is the alternative to rejecting God’s authority and God’s call. It is the alternative to accepting God’s name. Forgetting our name, losing our life, these are both incentives to bring ourselves back to the Gospel.
This is not merely a matter for individual application, though. It also directs how we interact with other members of our Christian community. If you’re anything like me, making the Gospel the center of life is easier said than done. Often, I need someone to remind me of where my focus needs to be set. Bonhoeffer talks about this need for another brother or sister this way, “He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.”7 Phrased another way, we sometimes need to remind each other of our name — of the fact that we are members of God’s family, of the fact that we are to be like Jesus.
This idea isn’t a new one, but hopefully the phrasing gives us another way to think about it. More importantly, it highlights that the Gospel is part of the core of our being. Because it connects us to the rest of our community, our family, it also lays on us the responsibility to remind each other of what it means to take Christ’s name. As it is, Peterson’s phrasing captures all of this well: “When I forget my name, remind me.”
What names do I give myself? Do they bring me closer to or further from Christ?
What are ways that we can remind our brothers and sisters of their name?
2. Genesis 32:26b-28. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3. The ESV Study Bible™, English Standard Version® (ESV®) (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 108, text footnote 1
4. Ibid. 94, text footnote 3.
5. Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), 743.
6. Ibid. 922.
7. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together translated by John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper One, 1954), 23.
Photo Courtesy of lee Scott.