Editor’s Note: Nineteen years ago, Gabe and Rebekah Lyons’s life took a dramatic turn when they learned that their newborn son, Cade, had Down syndrome.
Remembering the day they received the diagnosis, Rebekah said that she collapsed. “Something died in me the day Cade was born — a controlled plan for my life,” Rebekah said. “But something was born as well — surrender to an uncharted, forever-changing path.”
As her faith and ministry have grown by letting God determine her journey, Rebekah still has fought personal battles. She shares openly about her struggles with anxiety and depression in her books, including her most recent, Rhythms of Renewal, and the healing she has found through four life-giving rhythms modeled by Jesus: Rest, Restore, Connect, and Create.
Enjoy today’s excerpt from Rebekah’s book, watch her recent TODAY SHOW interview, and we invite you to join us for the Rhythms of Renewal Online Bible Study starting January 20th! Learn more and get signed up here!
LABELS DON’T DEFINE YOU
Once you label me you negate me. ~ Søren Kierkegaard
Mom, what is Down syndrome?” Pierce asked with tear-stained, chubby cheeks after exiting the bus one autumn day in second grade. The term for his brother’s medical diagnosis had yet to surface in our home. We weren’t in denial as parents; we simply wanted our younger two to know their brother for all he is, as Cade.
Growing up with a sibling who has different needs comes with its own unique set of responsibilities, a tender-hearted-protector type of calling. Pierce, being the middle child, had been pushed into the role of the eldest, even when it wasn’t natural for him. But he always embraced this responsibility with compassionate zeal.
When Pierce and Kennedy were in first grade and pre-K, friends might notice something different about Cade and ask them about it. Questions like, why didn’t Cade talk as much, or why he was slower to write words or understand a game? In “big” brother fashion, Pierce would respond, “That’s Cade. He learns differently than some kids. Sometimes he just needs extra time.” This seemed to satisfy the curious observers. After all, those inquiring were often children of our family friends, and regardless of his comprehension, they’d always known Cade as happy, great at dancing and hugs, all of which earned high praise in toddlerland.
Things took a turn when we moved to New York City.
That autumn day, Pierce continued, “These boys at school were making fun of Cade. They called him retarded and dumb, and my usual answer wasn’t good enough for them.”
A tear crept out of the corner of my eye.
I hugged his little neck and reassured him. “Honey, I’m sorry,” I said. “Those kids don’t know Cade, so don’t listen to them. I’m so proud of you for standing up for your big brother.”
“But Mom, that’s not all. A girl tried to help defend Cade and talked about how he had Down syndrome. What’s Down syndrome?
A memory flashed before my mind’s eye: the day I told a dear friend in Atlanta of Cade’s confirmed diagnosis. With tears in her eyes, Amy prayed for the day I’d first explain to Cade’s future younger siblings why he was different. Now I was fielding a pointed question from Pierce, age seven, and I knew today was that day.
I called Kennedy in and gathered both kids close. I explained that Down syndrome is a diagnosis given to children who have an extra chromosome, one more than the rest of us. I told them Cade’s particular diagnosis of trisomy 21 develops four to six days after conception — before I even knew I was pregnant. But all these details weren’t what our kids were after. They had a bigger question on their minds: Was something wrong with Cade?
Wanting to give these brave hearts the answers they needed, I paused for a silent prayer and then continued, “From the first week Cade started growing in my tummy, God saw a different future for him. He knew this little boy might act and appear a bit different to others, but in the best kind of way, his unique perspective would remind us of what is most important in life and love.”
I shared with them the psalmist’s words in Scripture:
For you created my inmost being, you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful, I know that full well. — Psalm 139:13-14
I told them the label “Down syndrome” was a way of explaining to the world how Cade’s body works, but it doesn’t define Cade. Cade is Cade. He got his love for music and left-handed writing from his mama, his love to party and his thick head of hair from his dad. I told them that if they found the term helpful, they could use it, but the most important thing was to help their friends grow in their relationship with Cade.
This felt right. To capstone the moment, I asked, “Aren’t we glad God saw fit to let us be His family?” Without hesitation, both kids nodded in vigorous support.
Once you know someone, you no longer label them.
THE POWER OF A LABEL
I’ve been struck by how many conversations revolve around our labels. “I’m ADD, OCD, manic, depressed, disabled, handicapped, diabetic…” The list goes on and on. We throw out labels as if they clarify who we are, maybe even our most defining marks. We use these descriptors as a way of helping people keep their expectations of us in order. The problem is, when we use one of these labels to describe ourselves, they often give us our deepest sense of identity. We believe the lie that the label defines us. We shift from believing a particular label is something we face to believing it’s someone we are.
This sets up expectations of an indefinite future with a predetermined outcome. Yes, I know Cade’s cell division in my womb won’t un-divide when he turns eighteen, but cell division doesn’t determine Cade’s future. His life can be just as rewarding as anyone else’s: full of vision, education, positivity, love, and hope. And he can bring education, positivity, love, and hope to everyone he encounters.
Labels are powerful things we can misconstrue as our identities. But what if we came to understand that labels don’t define us? That, instead, they are an explanation to help the world understand things we’ve dealt with or come up against? When we don’t view our identity through a label, we’re able to find ways to thrive in spite of whatever label we are living under. This mindset helps us turn from despair to hope in action.
When I faced panic attacks eight years ago, I didn’t have a diagnosis for what was happening. Looking back, it was a grace because this kept me from giving myself a label that I could make part of my identity and give up thinking I could live any other way. Instead, I tried new approaches to try and overcome my fear of being trapped in tight spaces. Each day I prayed for a heavy dose of peace and courage, and then tried to push through my claustrophobia via exposure. I continued to approach subways, elevators, and crowds, scary as it was. Some days I was successful, and some days I’d retreat.
But the game-changer was learning who Christ really made me to be and discovering my true identity.
Over time, the small spaces lost their scariness. I didn’t hesitate to hop on an elevator or a subway train. And although my panic attacks began years ago on an airplane, I now hop on an airplane on many Fridays in order to share the healing journey of these rhythms with people around the country. The irony is not lost on me.
My pain became my purpose.
WHO ARE We REALLY?
Today, 76 percent of us believe we best “define ourselves” by looking within.1 That is, if we stare deep into our psyches and evaluate our feelings, personalities, passions, desires, and even addictions long enough, we will discover our true selves. But looking only at ourselves can bring disillusionment and lead us to an empty place. Why? Because though our internal realities are true, they don’t define us. They don’t always show us who we really are. After all, isn’t the self always growing?
Isn’t the soul oriented toward God always changing on its journey to eternity? Staring into a mirror might show us what we look like in the moment, but it cannot show us who we are or where we’re going.
So how do we find our true identity, who we are and where we’re going? The Christian faith leads us beyond the trappings of ourselves and into an identity rooted in something more solid, more immovable — God Himself. Identity in Him is trustworthy and unchanging.
When our identity is found in who God says we are rather than in our highs and lows, our successes and failures, or our desires, affections, or shortcomings, we experience the freedom we were meant to enjoy. When I need to be reminded of this, I read this list of phrases that tell me the truth about who God says I am, and it always helps:
I am a child of God. (John 1:12)
I am a new creation. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
I am a friend of Jesus. (John 15:15)
I am created by God to do good. (Ephesians 2:10)
I am free in Christ. (Galatians 5:1)
I am chosen and loved. (1 Thessalonians 1:4)
I am the light of the world. (Matthew 5:14)
I am not ruled by fear. (2 Timothy 1:7)
I am forgiven. (Colossians 2:13)
I am God’s possession. (Titus 2:14)
I am free from the desires of the flesh. (Galatians 5:24)
I am a light in the world. (Matthew 5:14-15)
I am secure in him. (1 Peter 1:3-5)
I am loved by God. (1 John 4:10)
If you have worn your own identity label like a name tag, take a moment to ask God who you are in Him. Root yourself deep in that identity. Then, with an identity rooted in the God who gives wisdom, strength, and love, go out into the world, secure and confident in who you really are.
What are the labels you’ve been given, the ones you live under? How might your life be different if you shifted how you talk about yourself and the things you face? For example, instead of saying things like “I am…” you start saying, “I’ve walked the road of…” or “I’ve struggled with…”
In what ways does God’s description of you differ from the labels you’ve taken on?
What areas of pain in your life show glimpses of purpose? Write down ways your journey can become an encouragement to someone else.
- David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016), 34.
Excerpted with permission from Rhythms of Renewal by Rebekah Lyons, copyright Rebekah Lyons.
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It’s amazing how much more we find compassion in our hearts when we truly know someone. Are you quick to label others? Are there labels that you’ve been trying to break free of that people have given you your whole life? Come share your thoughts on our blog!