Every Christmas (yes, I realize it’s April; calm down), my family watches It’s a Wonderful Life. Last year, a very familiar line struck me anew.
George Bailey and his guardian angel Clarence Oddbody are wandering around in the world that exists because George was never born. Although Clarence warned him of the current state of affairs, George just can’t get it — even when the two of them are thrown out of a bar that’s nothing like the almost homey bar George is used to.
Standing in the snow, utterly confused, George demands, “Well, if I wasn’t born, who am I?”
“You’re nobody,” Clarence replies. “You have no identity.”
And George replies, “What d’ya mean no identity? My name’s George Bailey.”
My name is…
Not, “I run the Building and Loan.” Not, “I’m a husband and father.” Not, “I’m a 4-F guy who couldn’t go fight with my brother in the war.”
Not even, “I’m breathing cold air into my lungs. I can feel my heartbeat. Of course I’m someone.”
No, the instinctive reply at being told he doesn’t exist is to cite his name.
Think about it. If someone came up to you and asked politely, “And who are you?” (or not so politely, “Who in blazes are you?”), how would you answer?
In movies, they come up with something smart. In real life, we give our name first.
“My name is Darcy.” Because my name somehow answers the question, “Who?”
Or simply, “I’m Darcy.”
“I am” — speaking of the very essence of my being.
If you ask about me, I’ll tell you I’m an author, a soprano in my church choir, a Narnia enthusiast, oldest of three sisters, resident of such-and-such place. But if you ask who I am, I’ll give you my name.
See, I can describe myself many ways. What I do, how I look, what I love. Some things I have in common with others, some things are unique to me.
But no one thing is me. I’m all of them, and more — a soul created unique by God. There’s only one way to sum all that up.
But why is it instinctive to hold our name as our identity?
A name change can even be referred to as “changing our identity.”
Sometimes we give ourselves names other than what our parents gave us. We might choose to go by a nickname, or give ourselves a pseudonym that also becomes our identity.
People may name their children (or themselves) based on what the words mean in their root language. My name means “dark” in the Irish. It’s also the name of a fortress in France.
Names may be a nod to other people who bore them. My name is a nod to a very proud, noble person who discovered nobility wasn’t worth much without humility.
Names may be chosen simply for the way they sound, or for other associations. My name is associated with classic literature.
Sometimes we don’t even like our names, but we still use them. Somehow it doesn’t feel right to try to change them, even use a middle name, because how could we be anyone other than what we’ve been called all our lives? I have a close friend who says this.
Names are an important matter to God.
He often named people and, in some cases, renamed them.
The most famous example is probably Abram, whose name meant “father.” That was a hint at his legacy, but not enough. God gave him the name Abraham — father of a multitude — so that his very name would testify to what God would do with his life.
But sometimes it isn’t about the name’s literal meaning.
Take the man Jabez, whose mother sorrowed when she bore him and so named him “grief.” Jabez went straight to the Lord with the problem of his name and begged God to bless him and keep him from evil, that grief and pain would not be the hallmarks of his life.
And God granted his request. He didn’t change Jabez’s name, but he changed the meaning of the name, as it were. The word still meant grief; but the name Jabez referred to a man God had blessed. In a very real sense, Jabez now means “blessed by God.”
You could say my name means “dark fortress.”
Can we picture Maleficent’s Forbidden Mountain?
Yeah, I’d rather not have my name mean that.
But a fortress is a stronghold, a place of safety, something that endures. I can dig into that. Dark can mean “mysterious” or “secret.” That sounds pretty cool.
More than that, if Darcy refers uniquely to me — writer, INTP, Christian, etc. — then, by simply living, I get to make my own meaning for the name.
Suppose I’m the first Darcy someone meets. Will they associate the name with kindness and understanding? With honesty and trustworthiness? With true Christ-following?
Will they smile when they hear the name?
(You know we all have those names we just don’t like because we once knew an incredible jerk by that name.)
So I perceived that nothing is better than that a man should rejoice in his own works, for that is his heritage. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?
-Ecclesiates 3:22 NKJV (emphasis mine)
We tend to think of heritage as what we receive from those before us. And it is.
But heritage is also what we make of ourselves. For that is what we pass to those who will come after us.
In a very real way, we are our names.
Humans were created to name. God gave Adam the privilege of naming the animals, and of choosing what to call his wife.
We’ve been naming things ever since.
Which brings up the dark flip side to this name-equals-identity phenomenon.
We sometimes stick each other with names meant to devalue. And those names have the power to crush us.
Unless we fight them.
If we are told we’re worthless, or a failure, or like that horrible person no one likes, and we believe it, we will begin to act as if those names are ours. We will treat ourselves as worthless. We will expect to fail and stop trying to succeed. We will believe that no one likes us and be unable to trust anyone.
But if we tell ourselves the truth, call ourselves the names God gives us, we can overcome the false names.
God calls us sinners. But He also calls us beloved.
When we choose Him, He calls us redeemed. He also calls us His heirs.
He calls us warriors, ambassadors, chosen, His.
They’re descriptive names. And they matter.
More than that, the God of the universe knows your given name.
He pronounces it with a native accent, the way you do. He gives it meaning — it means you, who He created you to be.
He even knows the name He will give you if you overcome. (And that’s a whole ‘nother topic.)
But rest assured, He knows your name. His voice does not find it unfamiliar.
Maybe that’s why George Bailey’s using his name for evidence of existence feels so natural.
Because that’s how the Creator wired us.
Maybe there’s so much more to a name than we realize.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether or not a name matters! And, while you’re at it, what do you want to make your name mean?
(Clip below of Disney expertly capturing this name-equals-identity phenomenon.)