In our Life in These United States Series, we are talking about what everyone is talking about. This week we look at the topic of gender distress. Months ago Bruce Jenner announced that for years he struggled with gender and was now Caitlin, changing his gender from male to female. Then Target stores said that their customers of one gender could use their restrooms for another gender, if those customers identified with the opposite gender. The result has been a divisive and at times bitter national conversation. So today I ask, what is a Christian response to people who are struggling with gender?
First, have compassion. I urge you to work on ridding your heart of anger and disgust. Instead be filled with compassion and seek to understand, seeing people as people, loved by God and made in his image. Transgender people can draw up within us lots of strong feelings. When anger or disgust rises up inside of you, instead of assuming that it is righteous anger, ask yourself, why is that anger there? Perhaps the situation is not the problem, but the solution to the problem. Perhaps the problem is really that your heart is filled with anger and disgust.
When I was in college, a group of students would lead worship services from time to time at Water Street Rescue Mission. Or we would just attend worship there. One evening I remember walking out of the chapel, headed to our vehicle to return to campus. As we stepped into the parking lot a man to our right was there. He was older than us, maybe in his 60s, and he was dressed in women’s clothing. A feeling of disgust raged inside me. All I wanted to do was get out of there. Yet he was clearly hurting, possibly drunk. He turned, heaved, and vomited. He needed help. We kept walking. It was a grand failure on my part.
When we respond to people who are different from us, we first need to be honest about our inner short-comings like prejudice, disgust, anger and rage. All people are created by God, loved by God, just as we are.
Then avoid condemnation. Take yourself to the stories of Jesus. Remember the story when the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus? They wanted Jesus to condemn her. His response? In John 8:1-11, he said, “Is anyone left to condemn you?”
“No” she said.
Amazing, the words of Jesus: “Neither do I condemn you. So go and sin no more.”
He chose not to condemn, but in the same breath he says what “Go and sin no more.” Jesus was always for truth and righteousness. He called sin “sin”. And we should do the same.
But I want you to notice something else about Jesus here. Jesus’ pattern was that he was harsh with the Pharisees who thought they had God figured out and were not gracious about their relationship with God. Jesus was also sometimes harsh with the disciples who should have been further along than they already were. But Jesus was compassionate to those who were struggling with sin.
What we learn from Jesus is this: no matter what view you hold, hold it with grace and humility. Lancaster County has a heritage of definitive thinking. We don’t want to be wishy-washy, but we need to express love to toward those who disagree.
Encourage contentment. Once you have assessed your own heart, and you are filled with loving compassion, the third way we can respond is to apply the biblical principle of contentment to gender distress.
We need to be content with how God made us. He made us in his image, and said “it is good!” He loves us. Therefore followers of Jesus should be exceedingly cautious about allowing thoughts of discontentment with ourselves to creep in. This could relate to much more than just gender distress. There are many ways in which we can grow discontent and have distress about our bodies. Think of plastic surgery, excessive working out, excessive dieting, pills, trying to get a perfect body, constantly purchasing the newest trends in clothing. Even curating our Facebook and social media accounts so that we look better than we really are.
That is not to say that we can let our bodies go. The principle of 1 Corinthians 6, that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, enters here. Paul said, “Honor God with your body.” That means caring for it in a healthy way. Healthy eating, exercise and healthy medicine are important, but as with all things, they must be done in moderation.
I would urge anyone who wants to change anything about their body and life, to take that before the Lord and examine the motivation of your heart. If God is enough for us, that means he made us this way, and he can be sufficient for us, despite the very real struggle that we feel inside. I would encourage anyone who feels distress about their gender, about their body, to first ask the question, “Is God really enough for me?” Do you remember that God loves you so deeply?
Finally, practice community. All people need community, and our final response should be one of welcoming all.
Here in the Family of Faith Church we want to be a community where anyone will feel they belong, for the church is, after all, a community of broken people saved by grace.
Mark Yarhouse in a wonderful article in Christianity Today mentions that “A few years ago, my research team at the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity conducted the first study of its kind on transgender Christians. We collected information on 32 biological males who to varying degrees had transitioned to or presented as women. We asked many questions about issues they faced in their home, workplace, and church, such as, “What kind of support would you have liked from the church?” One person answered, “Someone to cry with me rather than just denounce me. Hey, it is scary to see God not rescue someone from cancer or schizophrenia or [gender dysphoria]…but learn to allow your compassion to overcome your fear and repulsion.”
He goes on to talk about the Gospel in his article, and I think this is important for us to here, so I’m going to quote his words at length. He says, “Most centrally, the Christian community is a witness to the message of redemption. We are witnesses to redemption through Jesus’ presence in our lives. Redemption is not found by measuring how well a person’s gender identity aligns with their biological sex, but by drawing them to the person and work of Jesus Christ, and to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform us into his image.
“As Christians speak to this redemption, we will be tempted to join in the culture wars about sex and gender that fall closely on the heels of the wars about sexual behavior and marriage. But in most cases, the church is called to rise above those wars and present a witness to redemption.
“Let’s say Sara walks into your church. She looks like a man dressed as a woman. One question she will be asking is, “Am I welcome here?” In the spirit of a redemptive witness, I hope to communicate to her through my actions: “Yes, you are in the right place. We want you here.”
“If I am drawn to a conversation or relationship with her, I hope to approach her not as a project, but as a person seeking real and sustained relationship, which is characterized by empathy as well as encouragement to walk faithfully with Christ. But I should not try to “fix” her, because unless I’m her professional therapist, I’m not privy to the best way to resolve her gender dysphoria. Rather, Christians are to foster the kinds of relationships that will help us know and love and obey Jesus better than we did yesterday. That is redemption.”
So how are you responding? Do you have people in your life that have some kind of gender distress? Will you respond to them like Jesus would?