What’s in a name?

By 1985 it had become clear that a major expansion of Christianity had been under way in Africa. …there were over 16,500 conversions a day, yielding an annual rate of over 6 million. In the same period, some 4,300 people were leaving the church on a daily basis in Europe and North America. [The author goes on to cite reasons for Africa’s explosive growth: a “national awakening” at the end of the colonial period; “Bible translation into African languages;” indigenous leadership in the African church.]

little noticed in the statistics is a theological [cause]: Christian expansion was virtually limited to those societies whose people had preserved the indigenous name for God. Africans best responded to Christianity where the indigenous religions were strongest, not weakest…. —Lamin Sanneh, D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity and professor of history at Yale Divinity School, from Whose Religion is Christianity?, Eerdmans, 2003.

Human beings are organizing and relational creatures; therefore, names play a central role in every aspect of our lives. Naming stuff is so second-nature, it may even be genetic—perhaps an antidote against the complexity of the world we live in.

We have named (or numbered) every visible heavenly object. We have named every insect and plant, every bacterium and virus, every bone and muscle and organ in our bodies. We are making good progress towards naming every gene in the human genome.

When we discover something new, our first act of recognition is to name it. So necessary are names to everyday communication that we’ve invented a grab-bag of name substitutes for those situations where our minds fail us: gizmo, whachamacallit; thingamabob; whosiwhatsits; doohickey. You may die without identification, but not without a name: the coroner will name your lifeless body Jane or John Doe.

There is no greater thrill than to name a child. Even while a baby is being formed in its mother’s womb, parents pore through family genealogies and baby books in search of the perfect name. A child’s name becomes precious to its parents, almost sacred—it becomes so much of a symbol for the child itself that hearing it spoken can bring tears of joy, or sorrow.

Names are even important to God. In the book of Genesis we’re told that when God had finished with creation, he gave Adam the job of naming the things he had made. So the Lord God formed from the soil every kind of animal and bird. He brought them to Adam to see what he would call them, and Adam chose a name for each one. —Genesis 2:19, NLT

What Lamin Sanneh observes about the importance of the name of God to African indigenous communities led me to this question: What happens to a society when it forgets the name of God?

Consider a young couple in love. They marry, they have children, they are blissfully happy together. But something happens and their love dies. They divorce and go their separate ways. Dreams are shattered. The love they once felt has turned to bitter pain. If they could erase the memories they would, but they must sometimes acknowledge the relationship they once had together. I find it telling that such people will often stop referring to each other by name. Names are charged with emotion—a wife of 20 years becomes “my ex;” a husband becomes “my son’s father.”

I wonder if that isn’t precisely what has happened in western spirituality. Church attendance has plummeted; spiritual experimentation is on the rise. Perhaps we fell out of love with God, and after the divorce, hoping to erase his memory, we choose to acknowledge him only in the most oblique and impersonal of ways.

For instance, we often talk about a “higher power,” a “spiritual being,” a “life force,” or a “positive energy.” We often speak of listening to our “muse,” sensing our “aura,” or being instructed by a “spirit guide.” These are not names; they’re spiritual bar-codes—they lack any sense of endearment, love or devotion. I’ve been struck by how often I hear someone exclaim “Omygod!” when surprised or shocked. Surely, when something holy is used so frivolously, it means that it long ago lost whatever sense of the sacred it once held.

In the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day, a child’s name was a mark of his destiny. The Gospels tell us that an angel visited Joseph and Mary to instruct them as to how to name their child: His name would be Jesus, said the angel, meaning “the Lord saves,” because he would save his people. The prophet Isaiah predicted that the Messiah would also be known by an equally significant name: Immanuel, which means “God is with us.”

God has a name. In fact, he goes to great lengths in Scripture to make his name known. He instructed Israel to call him “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” signifying his long and unbroken commitment to the Jewish people. In the prophetic book of Isaiah, God says:

I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not give my glory to anyone else. I will not share my praise with carved idols. —Isaiah 42:8, NLT

In the New Testament we discover a new name for the Lord: Jesus Christ. Jesus has been given many names and titles, all intended to underscore his divinity and to reveal aspects of his character and mission. He is called the Alpha and Omega (beginning and end), the Rose of Sharon, Wonderful Counselor, the Prince of Peace, the Sun of Righteousness, Faithful and True, the Light of the World.

In Revelation, John’s prophetic vision of the end of the world, he predicts the return of Jesus to battle evil and usher in God’s kingdom. John describes his vision this way:

Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. And the one sitting on the horse was named Faithful and True. For he judges fairly and then goes to war. His eyes were bright like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns. A name was written on him, and only he knew what it meant. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God…. On his robe and thigh was written this title: King of kings and Lord of lords. —Revelation 19:13-16, NLT

There is one name that is above every other: The name of the True God who calls himself our Heavenly Father, who walked the earth as Jesus Christ, who redeemed us from the slavery of ignorance and sin with his own blood.

Because of this, God raised [Jesus] up to the heights of heaven and gave him a name that is above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. —Philippians 2:9-11 (Paul speaking), NLT

God has a name. He wants to hear you call it out with love and respect. He wants to know you, and he wants to be known. God already knows your name—perhaps you’ve heard him whisper it in the night. Answer the Lord Jesus Christ, and he will hear you.

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