Now that Jacob had returned from Paddan-aram, God appeared to him again at Bethel. God blessed him, saying, “Your name is Jacob, but you will not be called Jacob any longer. From now on your name will be Israel.” So God renamed him Israel.
Then God said, “I am El-Shaddai — ‘God Almighty.’ Be fruitful and multiply. You will become a great nation, even many nations. Kings will be among your descendants! And I will give you the land I once gave to Abraham and Isaac. Yes, I will give it to you and your descendants after you.” Then God went up from the place where he had spoken to Jacob.
When I was little, there was a popular TV show called CHiPs and I was not a fan. At all. Not only were Magnum P.I. and the Dukes of Hazzard better shows, but the creators of CHiPs had the audacity to use my name for one of the main characters on the show. You would think that as a small boy I would want to identify with this heroic motorcycle cop and imagine myself helping motorists and chasing down bad guys. But I could not get past the fact that this guy was using MY name, and that was simply unacceptable. I couldn’t have explained it at that age, but there was something about it that just felt wrong to me. To my young mind, there was something sacred about a person’s name and they had STOLEN my identity! It’s humorous now, to think how offended I was.
Identity is interesting concept to consider. What are the variables that go into creating an individual, and what makes us different from everyone else? Is it physical characteristics, personality, or taste in music/movies/literature? Is it the relationships and roles we fill in our homes, workplaces, or communities? Is it the persona that we create and project into the world through our fashion choices, modes of speech, lifestyle, and interactions with others? There is something about the human experience that makes us contemplate who we are and what our place is in the world.
Human cultures, throughout history and around the globe, have understood this need to find one’s self. You see this reflected in rites of passage, designed to mark a moment of becoming, and often these will incorporate a confirmation or bestowal of a new name. In some cultures, it is the given name that carries great weight, and it is intended to describe something of the character of the individual. In other cultures, the identity is found not in the given name but in the family name, emphasizing your position within a wider community.
Many of us love the name we were given. Maybe we think it sounds especially unique or pretty, manly or strong. Other names are special because we carry the name of a beloved relative, or they’ve been handed down through generations of your family. Names can be important to us because of the “meaning” found when you trace its origin. (For the record, Jonathan means I am literally “God’s gift.” Haha!)
But not everyone loves the name they’ve been given. Being named for your father or mother can be a burden when that relationship is strained. Sometimes the meaning of your name is not very flattering, or has fallen out of fashion. The “name” that is holding you back may not even truly be a name, but a label that someone applied to you that you just can’t seem to shake. This can be a source of great frustration when your name doesn’t seem to fit the person you desire to be.
The good news is that if you find yourself in this situation, like the patriarch Jacob, God has a new name that he wants to give you! 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Who you are in God’s eyes is not determined by some given name selected from a baby name book, or the family you belong to, or even by your past actions.
I have to constantly remind myself of this fact because most of the time, I’m pretty disappointed and even ashamed of “Old Jonathan.” However, God is gracious and merciful, and each morning I wake up to the opportunity of a “New Jonathan.” Rather than struggling under the burden of past failures, I embrace my new identity and that has made all the difference in the world.
If you are feeling down on yourself lately and struggling with issues of identity, I pray that God will help you find your true self…in Him!
Prayer: Father, I thank you that we are not bound by the names and labels given to us by ourselves or others. Help us to find the person that You declare us to be, and give us the strength to walk in the fullness of that revelation. Amen!