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How do you know you are a woman or a man?
Perhaps you would simply say, “Because of my body.” After all, the physical differences between males and females are not difficult to spot. This objective, physical reality is what the word sex describes.
Yet many of us concede that we also feel like a man or a woman. How do we describe this feeling? Surely it doesn’t have to mean full alignment with the qualities our culture often assigns to men and women. For example, I’m more “think-first” and less “feel-first” than most women. I love sports of all kinds, including football. Makeup and ultrafeminine clothing don’t bring me to life; they shut me down. My primary romantic and sexual attractions are to other women. Yet I have never for a moment doubted that I was a girl, that I am a woman. I have felt comfortable and secure in being female, even as tomboyish as I am.
The ways we live out our given sex in the world is commonly known as gender. Gender can be manifested in how we dress, the hobbies we have, the roles we play. We fall all along the spectrum of how closely we align to various (and changing) cultural gender expectations and expressions. This is normal. Your story may be similar to mine, or quite different. Yet most of us, no matter our place on that spectrum, are not troubled by our sex and gender. Being a female or male, and thus a woman or man, simply is.
But for people who identify as transgender, it doesn’t seem simple at all.
What Is Transgender?
Though transgender is an umbrella term for many experiences, at its most basic, it describes people whose internal, subjective sense of gender or identity doesn’t match the objective sex they were born into.
Some people respond to this friction by living according to their subjective sense, as opposed to the gender that matches their sex. A transman is a female in sex who lives in the world as a man. A transwoman is a male in sex who lives in the world as a woman.
A small percentage of transgender people elect to surgically align their bodies with the gender they identify with. In the past, this surgical procedure was called a sex change, though more people are now calling it gender affirmation surgery. But most trans people do not have surgery for a variety of reasons ranging from preference to affordability. Instead, they may wear different clothes and take hormones that affect their hair patterns, voice frequency, and things like fatty tissue. They may also choose a new name and use pronouns that match their gender identity.
These are consequential and often controversial decisions, made because that internal feeling is so compelling. What would it mean to not feel like you were the sex you were born into? To feel this so strongly that you would say you know you’re the other gender?
For many, it is extremely disorienting and psychologically painful. But we need to be careful. Like many things, these feelings occur along a spectrum. Some transgender people feel slight incongruence between their sex and gender, whereas others feel it debilitatingly. Some experience distress at the presence of their feelings, while others do not. There is no one-size-fits-all trans experience.
For example, some people reject the sex binary altogether. That is, they don’t feel only masculine or only feminine, but may choose to express aspects of both at once, or express them differently from one day to the next. They reject being only man or woman, and may identify as genderqueer, nonbinary, or gender-fluid.
Is the Gospel Big Enough?
In my experience, many Christians are not sure what to do at this point in the conversation. Some even become angry or shut down. That response is due sometimes to convictions, sometimes to confusion, and sometimes to both.
I want to invite you to think about transgender concerns not primarily as topics to be discussed, but as issues affecting real people, human beings made by God. Many transgender people (though not all) are extremely vulnerable to homelessness, suicide, and abuse ranging from verbal insults all the way to murder. And even if they were not vulnerable in these ways, as image-bearers of our God, they deserve for us to treat them with dignity, respect, and love. If we have any battle to fight, it’s with spiritual forces of evil, not flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12).
Therefore, we have an important question to ask: Is the gospel big enough for our trans neighbors?
We who have lived the miracle of rebirth know that no one is more powerful than God. He alone brings the dead to life, and defines life correctly. Still, confusion and conflict jostle our newsfeeds and our minds. How can we begin to understand what coming to Christ would look like for someone who identifies as transgender, or for someone who identifies as genderqueer?
Our Story of Rescue
God has given us his Spirit and his word so that we can be “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). As good ambassadors, we ache to represent our Sovereign accurately and discerningly. We are on his mission to rescue sinners — to extend the same rescue that Jesus has brought to us.
Our culture believes in the power of story, and God’s authoritative Story gives us a framework to understand even very difficult experiences. No brief treatment could begin to answer all our questions about how to love our trans neighbors, but we can gain some bearing in the conversation by looking briefly through the biblical lens of creation, fall, redemption, and glorification.
Creation: Male or Female
Eden was not yet perfection, but it was good. God’s initiative, power, and love were on display as he set up a planet bursting with potential that was waiting to be realized. In the midst, he placed two humans, the potential realizers. In Genesis 1–2, God created a man first, and then declared this man insufficient by himself for his noble task (Genesis 2:18). Therefore, God also created a woman, and together they received the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28: “fill the earth and subdue it.”
The creation of humanity into the twofold structure of sex — male and female — is purposeful and good. God has freedom in his authority. Had he wanted to make one sex, or more than two, he could have. But he decided to make only two, and according to Genesis 1:27, this sexual difference is a fundamental part of what it means to be a human, an image-bearer, a vice-regent of God in the world.
Male and female was not just an Eden phenomenon: you also are human, and you have a sex. You did not choose your sex any more than you chose your parents. Your sex was given to you by a loving and wise God. How you respond to your God-given sex is part of how you respond to God himself. But because we no longer live in the garden, that response from birth — for all of us — is treachery.
Fall: Not Shocked by Sin
If creation was defined in part by relationship and purpose, sin is marked by alienation and frustration. Scripture shows that the fall touches everything: men, women, and the entire world we live in (Genesis 3:16–19). This fallenness includes our very bodies. Not everything in the world or in our bodies is meant to be the way it is. God has a revealed will — that which he declares he desires. He also has a will of permission — what he has allowed given the reality of the fall. Our feelings and circumstances are twisted and unstable from the beginning. They may be very real, even so powerful that they feel decisive, but they are unable to guide us toward life (Jeremiah 17:5–6).
Not one of us is unscathed. We are each born glad rebels, rejecting God for our own meaning-making. We are each alienated and frustrated in our roles and relationships. That some people experience alienation or frustration in relation to their sex should not surprise us at all. That others chafe against the goodness of the sex binary, desiring to blur the distinctions between male and female partially or entirely, also should not shock us. Which one of us has not desecrated a good gift of God, by viewing pornography, or lying to a loved one, or worshiping success?
Paul wrote that “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3). One big mistake we can make as we think about our trans neighbors is to forget that we are one with them apart from Christ. One in fallen humanity. But also one in being able to be lifted up.
Christ: Grace and Patience
In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can find life. He is our one hope. Only his death can pay for our sin (Romans 3:23–24); only his resurrected life can give us power by the Holy Spirit to receive transformation now and life eternal (Romans 6:4). Salvation includes the breaking of the curse of the fall even today, while we live on an imperfect earth (Romans 8:20–23). We must repent of our unbelief and receive Christ by faith.
As Christians, we know with tears that being in Christ does not heal all sickness or remove all temptation and sin (Matthew 6:12–13). For example, though I was born again almost fifteen years ago, I still battle same-sex attraction, as well as pride, selfishness, and a host of other struggles. I have seen growth in understanding and in obedience because of the Spirit, though the progress has been slow and uneven. Hasn’t each of us had frustrations and alienations that have lingered?
We should expect that this also will be true for our trans neighbors who come to Christ. It will be a journey to figure out how to live in their given sex and how to express gender in biblically appropriate ways. God compares life in him to the growth of a tree (Psalm 1:3; Isaiah 61:3). These things can be slow, so gradual they are sometimes imperceptible. Will we be patient with each other?
We can and must affirm that God created humanity male and female. We can and must also walk patiently with all people who struggle to know what that means for them right now.
Glory: Our Struggles Will End
“Behold!” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:51–53.
I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.
Someday, our struggles against sin will be done. We will rest in the complete victory that Jesus won for us in the new heaven and new earth. We will rest in glorified, beautiful bodies. All of us who feel the frailty of aging, who weep with painful chronic injury, who can’t shake feeling we’re not supposed to be the sex we were born with — we will find rest if we trust in Jesus. There is not a tear that won’t be wiped away by our tender, powerful God. The promise of future peace doesn’t take away present pain. But we know that the one who makes the promise cannot lie, and we have hope.
Is the gospel big enough for our trans neighbors? Is it big enough for us, for our pain, disappointment, and sins? In fact, it is the only thing big enough for us all, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
Let’s live like we believe it.