I am terrible with names. Seriously, terrible with a capital “T”. I’ve tried all the tricks – saying a person’s name back to them, visualizing each letter in my head. And when I greet someone whose name got lost in the shuffle of my unorganized brain, I’ll go through the alphabet and “try on” names with the face in the hopes something will click. Too often I end up trying to hide my ignorance and hoping my conversation partner won’t notice. Geesh.
My faulty memory bank embarrasses me because I really do care and I want to call each person by her own name. Because my name matters so much to me.
See, when I was much younger, I went by my first name “Laura”. Bummer for me because I was one of five “Lauras” in my grade in a small town school. Thank you, “Little House on the Prairie.” At age 13, in a pique of rebellion and struggle for my own identity, I switched to my middle name, Katherine. When I turned 21, got engaged, and put “Katherine” on my wedding invitations, my parents figured I meant it. By then, those closest to me had shortened my name to “Kat,” and that’s what I go by today.
But when it really comes down to it, what’s the big deal? Why do those three little letters matter more to me than the five-letter moniker my parents preferred?
After all, what’s in a name?
If you’re a student of Scripture, then you know God puts a lot of stock in names. He actually takes time to rename several key people precisely because those syllables matter. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, Simon becomes Peter, Saul becomes Paul. God’s not the only one in the renaming business in the Bible. King Nebuchadnezzar tries his hand at the game renaming Daniel (“God is my judge”) as Belteshazzar (“Bel will protect”) to honor the gods of Babylon.
In Hebrew tradition, people would get a clue about the character the parents hoped for or the circumstances of the birth by the name a son or daughter received at birth. The classic example shows up in Genesis 29 and 30 when Leah and Rachel name their sons, each mother saddling her child with marks of the competition for Jacob’s affection. In light of the permanence and importance of a name, you’d think the two mothers would have been a little more mindful. I could say the same for whoever named their children Plymouth Rock and Snow White, both of whom graduated from the University of Texas during my college years. Seriously. Doomed their kids from birth.
We don’t put as much stock in the meaning of names in our culture, but some part of our identity attaches to those few letters anyway. What you think of when you say my name matters deeply to me. And if someone on the phone calls me “Laura” instead of my preferred nickname, then I know they don’t really know me. They’re probably just looking at some legal or medical document, which means they’re from the IRS, a doctor’s office, or some random sales office. Makes screening my calls much easier.
Perhaps we shouldn’t care that much about what people think of us, and certainly we can lean into unhealthy places here. But I don’t think not caring at all is an option. After all, we’re made in God’s image and even God has a name – Yahweh, the Great I Am. What we think of Him when we speak His name matters a great deal. Who He is to us informs every aspect of our lives at every level. In fact, that matters so much to Him that He commands us to keep His name holy, honoring His name at all times (Deuteronomy 5:11, Matthew 6:9). And He’s got dozens of names because His identity won’t fit within just a single word or phrase. We call Him Adonai, Elohim, El Roi, Jehovah Jirah, El Elyon, I could go on.
So what’s in a name? Nothing less than our very identity.
Which begs another question. Who gets to give us our identity? Who names us?
Perhaps you, like me, wrestle to name yourself. You want to detach from one identity and attach to another more desirable one. Something catchier, with more pizzazz. Maybe your identity issues aren’t as obvious as mine were in my teens, but you’re struggling to change all the stuff you feel comes with your name. Your appearance, for example. Or your job. Or your financial status. Or your accomplishments. Or your personality. Or whose social circles you run in. On and on it goes. And we struggle and we strive to make names for ourselves, to be known and to know that our names matter.
Can I let you in on an important little bit of information that might make this a lot easier on us all?
You and I – we don’t have to worry about naming ourselves. The God who made us has already named us. And since we ultimately belong to Him alone, He’s the only One who has the right.
No matter how well our parents chose for us, or if we ended up choosing names for ourselves at some other point in life, what God thinks of when He says our names is the fundamental and most important truth about who I am and who you are.
He calls you Child (John 1:12).
He calls you Friend (John 15:15).
He calls you Free (Romans 8:12, Galatians 5:1).
He calls you Heir (Romans 8:17).
He calls you Accepted (Romans 15:7).
He calls you Saint (1 Corinthians 1:2).
He calls you Temple (1 Corinthians 6:19).
He calls you Blessed (Ephesians 1:3).
He calls you Redeemed (Ephesians 1:7).
He calls you Chosen (Colossians 3:12).
He calls you Loved (1 Thessalonians 1:4).
I wonder what would happen if we called each other by these names even before we speak the names that our parents gave us. Not in some weird cultish or rote fashion, but actually attached who God says we are to the identities on our driver’s licenses. If before we think of what she said or what he did, we remembered who God says we are to Him. Would that make a difference in how we love each other? I think it might.
What if we believed these names about ourselves? Would that put an end to all of our striving and comparing and feeling “not enough” or “too much?” It just might.
By the way, at the end of it all, when Jesus comes to set all things right and make all things new, we’ll get brand new names all over again.
[Jesus says] To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it. (Revelation 2:17)
A new name. A new identity. Personally picked out and perfect.
I hope when I see you that I’ll remember your name. I’ll try, I promise, and if I’ve forgotten, that says more about my addled brain than it does about how much I want to know you. I do long to see you for who you really are, even as I want to be known by you. But even if I don’t come up with the particular set of syllables that go with your particular face, please know that I stand with God and say that you are who He says you are in Him, no matter what.
Kat Cannon is the Austin Oaks Church Women’s Ministry Director and Women’s Brave Conference Chairperson (BraveWomen.org) Kat has been a member of AOC since 1993 and joined our church staff overseeing ministry to women in 2011. She is married to Derry and has two children, Liana and Devin. Kat is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with degrees in Broadcast Journalism and Government. She enjoys music, her cats, triathlons and chocolate.