“Words, so innocent and powerless…when standing in a dictionary, how potent for good or evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne –
Over a Baskin Robbins mint chocolate chip cone, I chatted with some friends about their prison ministry.
With wide eyes, one friend told me of the man they had just visited. He had been on the run from the law for months and finally brought into custody, to the relief of family members fearing for his life.
He had a tattoo across his forehead–the name that he had printed on his own skin, embedded into his existence:
And he lived believing it.
Hating himself, hating the law, hating everyone and everything around him.
And I wondered….what would it be like to scrawl on my forehead all my own shame? What would it be like to stare into my bleary, just-awake eyes every day and see my worst fear and my constant torment written indelibly on my face?
Not loved. Not accepted. Not tolerated. But hated.
What happens to a person to make them brand themselves with hate? By what twisted penance or cocky flagrancy does a man emblazon his greatest pain across his skull?
Names. Labels. Appellations.
We inscribe them on our hearts. We chant them to ourselves over and over, like a cursed mantra. We foist them on others and forge them for ourselves, invisible chains.
Dumb. Unloved. Retarded. Ugly. Unvalued.
What kind of names do we give ourselves? When we look in the mirror, what do we call our own faces? When we step out the door, how do we address our own friends?
We label everything, slap on and spit out names that may sting longer than we know.
Our words are killing us slowly–a poisonous death that we scarcely notice. And surely the tongue has the power of death (Proverbs 18:21).
The young man across the table from me in Sunday School had a rose blooming full and red on his left forearm, and words scripted in green across the other arm.
I wondered if it was a recent way of evangelizing his biker friends or something he had acknowledged about himself long before coming to faith.
What makes a man write the secret sins of his heart upon his body for all to see? Does it make the pain ebb? Does it make the guilt cease?
Words of condemnation are the echoes of our broken hearts and dark-twisted souls. We mutter them to ourselves to keep us somehow feeling through the numbness. We fling them at others to somehow make ourselves seem less fragile.
In our darkness, all we can do is pronounce the death settling upon us all.
But what if a word could bring life?
What if a man was also God, and what if he was God’s own speech wrapped up in sinew, with a mouth instead of letters, and a life instead of pages? What if God’s own Word came down and spoke life to us?
Into the labels of “Hated” and “Sinner,” He steps and looks around.
And He doesn’t contradict them, because we are. Hated, yes, by others. And, worse our sinning hearts disgust the God of holiness (Psalm 11:5). Hated.
Sinner. He confirms it. He goes out of His way to make sure we get the fact that we are dirty, incapable of working our own way to God.
God Himself does not deny our plight.
How can words bring life to this? How can our mess of hate and sin be solved by words, when all we know to do is remind ourselves of despair?
“I have come.”
He has come? To us? But…whatever for? We, the Hated? We, the Sinner?
“That you might have life.”
Life for the desolate, the dirty, the despised? Life, indeed….for me?
“And have it more abundantly.”
Abundance? When I have inscribed my sin on my skin until I can see nothing but my own decay, smell nothing but my own foul stench in God’s nose, feel nothing but the jagged rasp of my throat when I try to speak my cursed mantra again?
How can He–this Word-man–make it all whole again? How can he draw the indelible sin-stain from my forehead?
How can these names be erased?
Piecing together the things He has said, I can almost imagine the scene: He stoops before me–me, the Hated–writing my sins in the sand.
“I will take the hate. I will be despised and rejected instead of you (Isaiah 53). I will take the anger of God Almighty at your rebellion. I will bear the brunt of His wrath. I will take your shame….
“And do you know why?
“Because I have loved you with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3). I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). Because this is how much God loves this world–He sent me to die for your redemption (John 3:16).”
I, the Sinner, am so like the woman caught in sin and dragged to Jesus, a scarlet blush stamped like condemnation on each of her red cheeks. But when the living Word-man speaks, I start to feel the names I’ve been called slip loose from my shoulders.
And when the Word dies, the Word truly does give life.
When my heart knelt at His cross, and visited His empty tomb, the names that weighed me down rolled away.
Hated…no! No more. I am loved, with that Love everlasting, that Word that will not fail. I am loved.
The ink-stain of hate is washed in holy blood and I have a new name stamped on my head–Daughter of the Most High.
Sinner? Ah, no longer am I under the curse of that name. Its power is drained. My arms no longer ache with the weight of that name printed on them. That too has been washed.
And what instead is written on my arms?
Oh, oh, how I love to proclaim it.
“My name is graven on His hands, my name is written on His heart.
I know that while in heaven He stands, no tongue can bid me thence depart.”
– Charitie Lees Smith, from “Before the Throne of God Above” –