Do Names Define Us?
Written by Lydia Tan, Singapore
“Hello, it’s nice to meet you. What’s your name?”
I sure we can all agree that names hold some importance since it’s the first thing we want to know when we meet someone new. And naturally, we go on to introduce ourselves by our names after that.
But do we know the meaning of our names? Should it matter at all?
The renowned poet and playwright Shakespeare wrote this in his play Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” A name, to him, is just a name and it doesn’t define a person for who he or she is. If we were to call a rose a different name, like a broccoli for example, it wouldn’t change its nature—it would still exude the sweet fragrance it was made to exude.
So, does a name define one’s identity?
I was recently reminded of the meaning of my English name in a conversation with my mum. My first name means “worshipper of God” and the Bible character with whom I share the same name was a businesswoman who sold purple cloth and whose life was transformed when she heard Paul’s message and became a believer (Acts 16:13-15).
On this same occasion, I learned the precise meaning of my Chinese name, 思惠 (to be read as “si hui”). It means “to meditate on God’s grace”. My parents had chosen this name to express their desire that I would live a life characterized by worship and devotion to God. Similarly, this is also my heart’s desire.
Names have held much significance in ages past, dating all the way back to the Old Testament times. Held within a few syllables lie expectant hopes, dreams of great possibilities, and expectations of the one who gives the name. Think of our Lord Jesus, whose name means “God Saves” (Matthew 1:21).
Names have also been used to denote significant turning points in a person’s life. Consider Bible characters like Jacob whose name was changed to Israel (as part of God’s covenant with him) and Saul whose name was changed to Paul (after he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus). Their new names were symbolic of the new lives they were called to lead.
Even today, some of us would do this at significant junctures, for instance, when we are baptized. Baptism symbolizes new life in Christ. Names are changed to represent the individual’s desire and hope in his or her relationship with God. I know of a friend who did just that—he changed his name after his baptism to signify the “new life” he was about to lead. It took his friends—myself included—a while to get used to calling him by his new name, but he definitely earned my admiration in his resolute show of commitment to live the life God had called him to live.
As I reflect on my own name, I’m wholly aware that I’m on this journey of life with God—and it is by the grace He gives me daily that I’m able to walk closely with Him and trust Him as my good Father in every decision I make. Though I feel I’m light years away from ever fully embodying the meaning of my name, I take heart in knowing this: While our names give us an inkling of the hopes and dreams harbored by our parents, it does not and should not define us for who we are. Identity is a much more complex issue and it goes beyond just the physical representation of a name. God does not favor us just because we have a nicer sounding name or one that has profound depth of meaning to it.
And this is because our identity is not rooted in our names—but in who He is.
He calls us “dearly beloved” and refers to us as “His children” (John 1:12, Colossians 3:12, 1 John 3:1). The greatest discovery that we can ever make in our lives is to know and understand the depth of God’s love for us; this knowledge ought to shape how we see ourselves and how we live our lives.
We should not find our identity in the opinions of others or the value they place on us because that always changes—according to the world’s standards and sometimes, one’s current mood. Our identity is meant to be rooted in God’s love because that’s the only foundation which is secure, unwavering, and unchanging.
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