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Name It To Tame It, Part 2
Last week I discussed a simple principle that “naming” our experience helps “tame” our reaction to it. Today I want to explore the deeper meaning behind this.
Naming is a powerful act. God demonstrated his sovereign power and wisdom when he named creation (Genesis 1:5, 8, 10), and Adam imaged God when he named the animals (Genesis 2:19) and his wife (2:23). Naming is integral to who God is and how humanity reflects his image. As with everything affected by Adam and Eve’s rebellion, naming is abused by fallen image bearers when they “misname” reality.
By believing Satan’s lie and acting on that belief, Adam and Eve misnamed as good what God had forbidden as evil. In the words of Isaiah 5:20, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” That verse indicates the sin of misnaming, but it also suggests the remedy: God calls us back to himself when he names our sinful misnaming for what it is.
So naming is not just creational, it is redemptive. Naming is at the heart of existence, integral to the biblical worldview of creation, rebellion, redemption and recreation. Luther emphasized this in his articulation of the gospel. Commenting on Luther’s Heidleberg Disputation, Gerhard Forde explains Luther’s contrast between theologians of glory and theologians of the cross. Theologians of glory are guilty of misnaming: seeking to be justified by works requires that one call such works “good”, when they are actually evil because they start and end in the self. As Forde explains, “Theologians of the cross, however, ‘say what a thing is.’ That is, a characteristic mark of theologians of the cross is that they learn to call a spade a spade.”
To “say what a thing is” is to agree with God about the nature of reality, confessing as good what is truly good and confessing as evil what is truly evil. And agreeing with God is always the healthier choice. As human creatures, we cannot flourish when our experience is misnamed, whether by ourselves or others.
Consider Job, who could not digest the “counsel” offered by his friends. They misnamed his experience, for which God fiercely rebuked them: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). But notice that, according to God, Job did speak what is right of God. I like Eleanore Stump’s suggestion when she writes, “God approves of Job’s uttering these accusations because something about giving voice to the accusations is good even if the accusations are not true.”
When God disapproved Job’s friends, he rightly named Job’s experience and affirmed that Job did not deserve any of his suffering (Job 2:3). By “saying what a thing is,” by hearing that from God himself, Job was able to digest what on all accounts should be indigestible evil.
Naming is why empathy is so powerful. An empathic person is willing to look at another’s experience that is inherently “other”, because it is not one’s own, and agree with how that other names the experience. Just like our sin has to be named for what it is before we can receive grace, so our ability to digest life in general – thoughts, feelings, actions, experiences – depends on “saying what a thing is.”
So, in the words of Luther, be a theologian of the cross: help others tame their experience by naming it and calling it what it is.
Quote from Confucius
“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.” (Chinese proverb attributed to Confucius)
“If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” (The Analects)
Where have you experienced the power of empathic naming in your own life?