We live in a society that gives us labels and defines us by them. Often those labels are true, but they are only a part of who we are. They only describe one aspect of us.
The labels can be helpful, but they become a problem when we use them to put people in a box and try to keep them there. Or when we only have a few boxes to put people in, and someone comes along who doesn't fit in our pre-determined boxes. That's when we can do great damage with the labels we use.
None of us can be completely understood or defined by only one label, because none of us are just one thing. We're a different selection of the labels we could use that only work when we look at the unique combination of them together - seeing how they all work together to make up who we are.
One of the labels I've often seen used in the church that can be harmful if used wrong is that of relationship status. I'm a part of an online community made up predominantly of Christian singles and this is something that comes up regularly. Many of us have had the experience of being unwelcome with those who are married, and in the process we've gotten lumped in with the college-aged in the church because that's where the other singles are - even though we're significantly older than them.
I fell incredibly blessed that this has only happened rarely in my church experience. But it's happened just enough that I know the pain is causes - both personally and from conversations that I've had with others who have experienced it. Leaving you feeling as if you don't belong anywhere because you don't fit with the pre-determined labels we've become comfortable with.
This is when our use of labels becomes harmful. Because it only looks at one part of who we are, instead of all of who we are. It just sees the label "single" and doesn't see the rest of the person for who they are.
So, how we avoid this danger? How do we avoid causing pain to others because of the labels we use?
Most importantly, we realize our need to be flexible with them. They may still be helpful sometimes, but we can't be so rigid with them that there's no room for adjustment. We need to take time to get to know more about people, so we're not putting them in a box based only on one aspect of them. This takes intentionality and work on our part. We have to actually invest in relationship with people.
We need to be willing to get to know people who look different than us from a first glance. What we see at first, may seem very different, but as we take the time to get to know them, we may discover that when we get past our surface-level labels, we have for more in common with them than we first thought.