Posted by: 15shekels | November 2, 2010

What’s in a Name?

“Our names are labels, plainly printed on the bottled essence of our past behavior.” -Logan Pearsall Smith

“Bob Marley isn’t my name. I don’t even know my name yet.” -Bob Marley

In modern America, names are not considered a big deal. Some names were changed by authorities at Ellis Island, some names are changed to be more memorable when their owners seek fame. I will always remember the girl in my elementary school classes who would calmly tell teachers, “Your sheet says Mallory, but call me Galeena.” It wasn’t her middle name. It was a name she had made up that she preferred. It seems that easy—if you don’t like your name, you can choose a new one.

In the Bible, however, names do matter. They matter so much that God often changes someone’s name when He calls them into His service:

-After Jacob wrestles with God, God gives him a name which means “he strives with God”—”Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” (Genesis 32:28)

-When Simon the fisherman confesses Jesus as the Christ, Jesus gives him a name meaning “rock”: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah…And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 16:17-19)

There are many other important name changes in the Bible, most occurring at important transitions: Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Saul becomes Paul. If names were just superficial labels, they would not need to be changed. But in Biblical history, names are closely tied with identity. When God renames somebody, He is making them a new creation, a new person.

Courtesy of Epic Bloom

I was thinking about this concept a week ago, when I was in Phnom Penh meeting with girls who had been rescued from sexual slavery. The women who run one of the aftercare and training centers for former victims told me that they often sing the song, “I Will Change Your Name” with the girls at the center. Most of these girls have grown up hearing only derogatory names: perhaps Worthless and Burden by their families; Dog and Whore by their captors and pimps. They have been told they are nothing, and most of them, somewhere along the line, start to believe it. One can imagine how powerful these lyrics might be to them:

I will change your name
You shall no longer be called
Wounded, outcast
Lonely or afraid

I will change your name
Your new name shall be
Confidence, joyfulness
Overcoming one
Faithfulness, friend of God
One who seeks my face.
-D.J. Butler

The girls can rename themselves, and many of them do, choosing a new name to signify their fresh starts. When they are brought into a loving environment, they are addressed with care and tenderness, and this can be incredibly healing. But in truth, only God can change a name in a way that is identity-shifting, heart-restoring. He has the power to wash us clean, to make us new:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” – 2 Corinthians 5:17

When someone accepts this invitation to be “in Christ,” their identity is transformed in a millisecond: From sinner to saved; from “object of wrath” to “seated with him in the heavenly realms;” (Ephesians 2) from prostitute to bride. In Cambodian culture, there is a saying that “men are like gold, women are like white cloth,” meaning that women, once impure or soiled, lose their value, while men can always retain their shine and worth. The truth is, as sinners who fall short of the glory of God, we are all soiled cloth. But God, in his rich mercy through Jesus, has ordained a trade: Jesus’s eternally white cloth for our soiled ones. The “bottled essence of our past behavior” is swapped for Jesus’s “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). Whatever awful things we have done, or whatever has been unjustly done to us—these things no longer define us. The King places crowns on our heads, as we have become His sons and daughters. And those are shining gold crowns that cannot be soiled.

This is not a message only for trafficking victims. We sing “I Will Change Your Name” with teenagers during the summer, and tears flow freely. Mine have been among them. We all seek our identity and worth from things other than God, and these things let us down. If I define myself by what my friends think of me, then when rejected I am Outcast or Unlikable. If I define myself by my success, then when I fail I am Inadequate or Worthless. In my heart I have called myself all of these names, and many others: Unlovable, Ugly, Uninteresting, the list is long. It is only when we seek our identity in Christ that we realize that the names given to us by the king are the only ones that matter:

“Your new name shall be
Confidence, joyfulness
Overcoming one
Faithfulness, friend of God
One who seeks my face.”


  1. I’m teary-eyed reading this. I think of those rescued children singing this song, learning the truth, being set free by God’s love, and I, too, am overwhelmed. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Beautiful words…images…lyrics. Thank you.

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