This is the last post in this short series about names in the book of Genesis. I know that whole idea might sound strange, but it’s something I’ve been rolling around in my mind for a while, because I’m convinced that our names matter more than we think they do. I think our language to describe the world and ourselves matter a lot to God.
That why Genesis talks a lot about names. Because a name is a story, and if we don’t name well, we might not tell the story we are wanting to tell.
Did you ever wonder why God changes people’s names? Does this strike anybody else as bizarre? And it happens all the time in the Bible, especially in Genesis. Like when God comes to Abram and Sarai, these people who’ve had their names for 70 years, and he’s like “Let’s add an H” in there.
Or what about Jacob? God comes to this guy who is one of the worst heroes in ancient literature (He’s kind of a jerk, he’s selfish and he’s always trying to get ahead) and God tells him that he’s going to change his name to Israel.
To which I would say, can’t we go with something that sounds more normal like…Gary or Robert?
But I’ll come back to this.
One of my very good preaching friends is a guy named Charlton. Charlton is a young preacher and one of the best ministers I know. He and his family are some dear friends of ours, and I trust him implicitly. A year and a half ago, Charlton was serving at a large church that we both care about, when he had a moral failure that hurt him, his family, and the church that he was serving.
It’s something that we all know we are very capable of, but Charlton had the misfortune of being a very public figure when his life imploded. Meet my friend Charlton:
My name is Charlton. I spent most of my life investing in, upgrading, and polishing my name. In high school, my efforts were awarded with the title, “Mr. Integrity.” I continued to build on my reputation in college with the “Mr. LCU” crown. A few years later, my alma mater invited me back for the cherry on top: the “Young Alumni Award.” The constant attention I paid to my name was paying off, so no one was surprised when I devoted my life to full-time ministry. I was the “type” of person you would expect to do ministry. I could hear them in my head, “Charlton is perfect for ministry!” I had worked hard to be.
As my years in ministry increased, people became more aware of the cracks in my name, so I worked harder to seal them – an exhausting and futile exercise. Eventually I gave up and let all the secret dark places of my heart rise to the surface. I made a series of sinful choices with a blast radius that affected hundreds of good people. The explosion left those closest to me emotionally dismembered. In that moment the “Charlton brand” went bankrupt. All the effort, energy, time…meaningless. This launched me on a three-month journey to utter brokenness. I had shattered my life and was helpless to put the pieces back together.
I crawled back to God and to a community of people who loved me and I asked them to superglue me whole. The redemption process began. With my now impotent name I was forced, for the first time in my life, to claim another name as my identity… I began to live in God/Christ by praying, “It is God who justifies” a hundred times a day. Some nights, to silence the shame, I prayed this simple prayer until I fell asleep. It was the first step to finding my identity in God rather than in Charlton.
I recognized that I could not undo the damage my sin created. (I could repair relationships and seek restoration but I could not fix what I had done.) By praying, “It is God who justifies!” it allowed me to live out of the reality that although I could not make the past right, God can and does make me right.
My sinful choices brought judgment from others, and rightly so. I wanted to change people’s perception of me. I wanted to redeem my name. But praying, “It is God who justifies” reminded me that the condemnation or acceptance of others does not make me right. God makes me right; he justifies.
It was the only thing that gave me inner peace. It assured me I had a “right” standing before God, not because of my failure or success, but because of his great love incarnated in the crucifixion and resurrection.
“It is God who justifies!” became the foundation for my new identity, an identity in God and not in Charlton. Charlton is fatally flawed, but God is glorious! God has since restored more than I could ask or imagine. Like Peter, the apostle and denier, he has called me back to ministry. Every Sunday when I stand to preach I am living testimony, not to the name of Charlton, but to the mighty name of God.
You know what’s interesting about Jacob? His name means liar. Israel is a word that means something like “Prince of God.”
Jesus gave the shakiest character in the New Testament the name Peter. Which means Rocky.
God cares about the names we take, and the ones we try to make, because God wants to name us. He wants to story us, and then let us live into that story.
Which is why Revelation ends the Bible the way it does. By telling us that one day God will give us all a new name, because only he can give us a name that is big enough to stand the test of time. This is the destiny of us all.
It’s God who justifies.