Alasdair Groves and David Powlison sit down and talk about Gender Identity.
Additional Resources Available: Truly Male Truly Female: A Biblical View
What does it mean to live life as a gendered being? Is there an “essence” of maleness or femaleness? If so, how should we define it and how does it relate to the concept of masculinity or femininity? This elective will explore a biblical understanding of gender as a subset of sexuality, and will speak to those who struggle with their gender identity and offer guidance to those who care for them.
AG: What’s the hardest part of your faith to talk about? What’s the least comfortable conversation you can have as a Christian today? I don’t know about you, but I find most of the time, it’s conversations about sex, gender identity, transgender, and those sorts of things. People look at us like we have two heads, or we keep silent, or we don’t even know what exactly to say.
I was intrigued recently — author and pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC wrote an entire book as an intro or a prequel, if you will, to his book called The Reason for God, which is trying to reach out to people in our culture and speak about faith in a way that would connect with them. He wrote an entire prequel basically saying, “The reason I needed to write something before reasoning about faith is because sex and gender identity and stuff like that is such a huge issue and such a change in our culture.”
Well, that’s the topic that David Powlison and I tackled today in a podcast about gender identity and how we can think about responding to and reaching out to the people around us in the face of a very, very challenging issue.
Intro: You’re listening to CCEF-on-the-Go, a podcast of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. Here at CCEF, we are committed to restoring Christ to counseling, and counseling to the church. You can find our podcasts, books, articles, videos, and more resources for Christ-centered pastoral care at our website, ccef.org.
AG: Hello, and welcome to CCEF-on-the-Go. I’m your host, Alasdair Groves. I serve on faculty here at CCEF and I also run our New England office. Today my conversation is with David Powlison who is CCEF’s executive director, an author of countless articles and books. Most recently, he published a book called, Good & Angry: Redeeming Anger, Irritation, Complaining, and Bitterness. David, thank you so much for joining me today. How are you?
DP: I am well, Alasdair. And I’m always better talking to you. So it’s a pleasure to be able to connect.
AG: You’re kind. Thank you. The topic today that I wanted to get your input on is this issue of gender identity. And it’s increasingly something that I am seeing people around me think about. It comes up, of course, in our political dialogue and you see stuff about it in the news and what’s going on in North Carolina in the last few months. And I think as I hear Christians around me talking about it, I hear a few different things. I hear a general level of concern that our culture is embracing something that is not good, is not biblical in how they think about gender, identity, people transitioning genders, reassignment surgeries, and all the rest. And then I also hear this concern for not pushing people away from the faith and from the church. And so I sense a lot of the people that I know living in this tension in between: “Okay, I want to love people who are different, who believe different things than me. And at the same time, I find myself very troubled by where the culture is going. And people I find are not sure how to think about this and not even sure how to think about the right and wrong — the ethical issues: Is it okay to feel like I’m a man but be in a woman’s body, or vice versa? If so, what should I do about that? Is that sinful, is that just how God made me?” So all these questions are bubbling around, that I’m bumping into.
Where I hear most thoughtful Christians beginning their own thinking about this is in Genesis 1, thinking about, “Okay, God made humans male and female, and that sets a trajectory through the rest of Scripture. That’s our foundation: this is where we start our thinking about this kind of question.” And I’d be interested to hear (I know this is something you’ve thought and spoken a lot about), is that where you tend to start in your own thinking? Is that the seminal passage for you? Are there other Scriptures that direct you? Where’s the platform from which you step off into this conversation?
DP: That’s a great question. It’s interesting just hearing you pose that question because I don’t start the conversation at Genesis 1. I would describe Genesis 1 as deep structure. It’s this framing background. But it’s the difference between your deep structure: your formal theological convictions about true and false, right and wrong, good and evil. It’s formative there, but when you’re talking about how to engage someone who is arguing a different way or is having a different sort of experience of their sexuality, I tend to try to start more by connecting to what the experiential issues are. So I want to find a point of contact in how this person is, in this case, constructing identity.
So I might say that my core conviction that is first on the table as I’m looking for a point of contact is that the fallen human heart, without fail, misconstrues who I am. In a sense, I’m starting with an implication of Romans 1 —fallen human hearts suppress the knowledge of God, which I think one of the direct correlates to that is that thus we suppress the knowledge of who we really are. Because if who I am as a human being is: “I am in the image of God, I am a creature, I am dependent, I am accountable to him” — He is actually the one who defines who I am. There’s an outside voice defining who I most truly am. And that outside voice actually defines where my own sense of who I am, my conscience, the way I evaluate myself, the way I understand anything in life — He assesses whether that’s true or false and then offers an alternative.
So I would actually start much more widely than what you might call “gender identity” and start with “identity” as a wider concept —the human heart is a “misconstruer” of who we really are, and that part of the essence of biblical revelation is giving us a new identity. The place in Scripture, there are a lot of places you can go, but the place I must love on the way we construct identity is Ephesians. And there must be (depending on what you consider an identity statement) twenty or thirty different identity statements just within six short chapters. And every single one of them is God-referential – being a child of God, being part of the wife of Christ, being this temple in whom God dwells, being chosen of God, being a servant of God, being a saint unto God, being in Christ — there are all sorts of things. Even your clothing is God Himself – the armor of God, the armor of who he is and what his purposes and ways and such are.
So that would be my starting point – is a wider concept of how identity is a complicated issue, and thus you can immediately broaden it and say: What people are doing with their sexual feelings is no different from lots of other ways people “misconstruct” an identity around their social status, the amount of money they have, how far along they are on their bucket list, who their friends are, how their sports team is doing. There are a hundred different ways to go astray in how we think about who we really are. And sex obviously has the headlines these days. But that’s just the local variant, if you will, on a pathology of the heart that applies in all times and places.
AG: It’s helpful to me, David, that you’re trying to broaden it out the way you are. Will you take that a step further toward the particulars of gender dysphoria? I want to be careful not to over-generalize here, but my sense of the problem is something like, “I don’t feel like I fit in this body that has this gender,” and often also a sense of, “I don’t feel like I fit into this society as this kind of gender.” But it’s a both/and, and people in general in my experience talk more in terms of the physical/biological: it’s the body that’s the problem for me. Although I certainly see plenty of places, too, where there’s a social sense of I don’t feel like a man or a woman. Do you want to say a bit more? Talk about a point of contact you can see yourself making there.
DP: Sure. It’s interesting even the way you frame your questions. One of the big debate points is the relationship between male/female and masculine/feminine, which is sort of the difference between sex and gender. Even your question nicely plays at the fact that that could be complicated and people can certainly feel a disconnect between either/and/or — body and/or society.
I’ll be personal in a certain sense. I’ve never felt disconnect with my body, but one of the things I’m really grateful for is that I had a father who was clearly the man of the house, and he was a very sensitive man. He cared about people. He was very compassionate. He wept at things that were hard and difficult. He had an empathy. So far from those traits, those more sensitive traits — and he had an appreciation for the fact that I was an artistic, aesthetically wired kind of person. So if I were to go by the kind of Marlboro Man gender definition of masculinity, I’d come out a girl. It has actually been a source of humor at times with my wife and myself, because those sort of, “’Men are from Mars and women are from Venus,’ or ‘Men’s minds are like boxes and women’s minds are like spaghetti,’ or ‘Men are black-and-white and women see all the connections.’” On those, my wife comes out as the guy and I come out as the girl. So I’m very grateful both for being a Christian obviously because God does not give warrant to those cultural biases that can shape that, but also for an upbringing in which who I was as someone who was more on the sensitive end of the spectrum had no problem seeing that as a legitimate part of what it would mean to be a man. So that’s an initial comment.
Jumping in more specifically on your question, let me pick up just a piece of it and not talk about the culture at large, but talk about the experience of professing Christians who feel those dysphorias or disconnects. I had a really interesting conversation with an old friend, someone I went to college with, hadn’t seen since the late 60’s. He was a few years older than me. He’s a professor at an Ivy League university, he’s a biochemist, he’s not a Christian. He actually tracked me down, wanted to get together for lunch, reconnect, and he wanted to ask me questions first just about what biblical counseling is — which was interesting to be really engaged by someone who’s a terrific scientist, always asked the right follow-up questions, and “got it.” Never did explain what was driving his interest, but I look forward to a follow-up conversation. But then halfway through our conversation, he switched gears and said, “What about the issues of gender, same sex attraction, transgender, and so forth? How do you as a biblical counselor approach that?” That opened the door for two points that seemed to me really central to how we as Christians think about this issue in the first place with our own brothers and sisters who struggle.
The first point that I said to him was, “I’m not out there proselytizing to the world and getting into the political, ‘Are you for/against?’ The people I talk with want help, because they themselves sense a different kind of dysphoria or disconnect between their sexual feelings/their gender feelings, and their faith.”
And then the second point: “They sense that disconnect because they have a deeper sense of their identity than their sexual impulses. And their identity roots in something where the particular objects of their sexual attraction, arousal, affection, are not the defining thing about them, and they find their attractions actually contradict their deeper sense of identity.”
He totally got it. It was a fascinating conversation. It didn’t take a “politically correct” turn and he wasn’t asking a loaded question. It made sense to him.
So one of the ways you could put that really practically is that… if you think about gender identity… that there’s actually something wrong with my gender identity being same-sex attracted; parallel to my gender identity is I have transgender, transsexual feelings; parallel to my sense of identity being that I am a heterosexual – in other words, defining oneself by one’s sexuality as the core. So a starting point is this question of identity: do you make your sexuality a prime point in your identity, or is it one of many things that are part of the overall mix and makeup, but it’s not the definitive issue on who you are? And thus there’s a dysphoria that can be in a person between their body or their sense of gender identity. There’s also a dysphoria between their sense of gender identity or sexual feelings and their deeper identity. That issue just clears up a lot of fuzz and confusion about the issue because you can so easily generalize it. What if your sense is that I’m a heterosexual male and you’re married and you have opportunity for sexual life, and then your wife dies or becomes disabled, or you age and become no longer sexually potent? Have you lost your identity? I do think one of the glories of an identity that is in Christ is that it’s the one identity that can never be lost. It’s not your résumé, it’s not your sex, it’s not your money. It’s not your athletic ability, how good looking you are. It’s an identity deeper than all of those things which is critical to then, when you perish physically, or when you lose X, Y, or Z, are you losing your identity or are you just losing something that was one part of the whole, but your identity is eternal?
AG: You’re getting me going in lots of directions. For the sake of time, I think I want to ask you just two more. Let me start with the one that probably for me is most poignant especially as the father of young children. My children are 7, almost 5, and 2. I’m just thinking of them as they try to navigate this. The poignant question that I probably come across most often is, “How do I handle this with my own child?” Let’s take a 9 or 10 year old, the child is articulating a sense of, “I don’t belong in this body. I feel like a girl or I feel like a boy, and I want to live as that instead.” And at that age, presumably mostly we’re not talking about a sexual attraction but simply a statement — a gender thing rather than a sexuality thing per se. Obviously there will be different situations for different families and each parent and each child are different. But any thoughts on just a start of how would I respond to a troubled parent who is saying, “What do I do? How do I speak to my child? How do I connect? What kind of approach should I take?” Any just off the top thoughts on that?
DP: Boy, that’s a great question. It’s going to vary based on, you’ve alluded to that, based on so many different circumstances. Is the child fearful about it? Are they confused about it? Are they assertive about it? What form — is there a curiosity in cross-dressing or something like that that seems fascinating? So that sense, a generalization is not going to always apply.
I think the first thing I would say is for the parent to settle into a commitment to a patient process. One of the landmark passages on ministry to people is in 1 Thessalonians 5: “Admonish the unruly,” which means there’s times where someone is acting out and you confront them in love. “Encourage the fainthearted” — it’s a term of just tender encouragement and reality testing and arm around the shoulder. “Hang on to the weak” — just hold fast to them, don’t let them go. And then the closing line is, “Be patient with them all.” And I think it’s no accident that the first ingredient in how love is defined is, “Love is patient.”
So for a parent to grapple with the shock, the concern, the anxiety and fear, the catastrophic imaginations of what might happen, but then to actually settle in their hearts, “You know, here’s where my child is struggling. If my child were struggling with a temper, if my child were struggling with being very anxious socially or being afraid of going to school, if my child were struggling with fears of food or extreme gluttonous desires for certain kinds of food, I would need to do ministry. And that ministry can never go in, as much as I wish and throw the switches in my child’s heart… but I can patiently and persistently seek to bring what is true and right and good to bear.”
That is a place where the Genesis 1 bedrock certainly comes in. “You are a boy. And it’s not an unknown thing for someone who’s a boy to struggle with feeling like they might wish they were a girl, or more like certain things that are girl-like. But you are a boy. And let’s work together through how you can be a boy that has some of the kinds of sensitivities and such that you do.”
I’ve found a number of people over the years who, for example, men who came across very feminine who were interior designers or very aesthetically oriented, or by mannerism might be thought to be homosexual or very effeminate who were men. And they had to come to terms with the fact that they were not going to be a “Type A” male, but their identity was mastered by their faith in Christ and they lived as a man because they were a man.
So those would be a couple of thoughts just getting the ball rolling. Patience is always so key because it refuses to give way to panic and then desperate measures and aggressions and quick fixes and magic cures. And then just the simple reality of what is — that you are a boy, or you are a girl. And one of the marks of sanity (moral sanity as well as kind of theological sanity) is that you live in terms of what is and you learn to live in terms of what is — both who we are and what creation is, who God is, who Christ is, what suffering is, and what we can learn about cells and galaxies. There’s just something about living with what is that is a uniquely powerful Christian value.
AG: One thought just quickly picking up on that and then I’ll ask my final question, which will be much shorter. It’s helpful to me to be reminded that so many aspects of what God gives us are blessings that come with struggles and challenges, and there are so many places where you will be asked as a person of faith to endure things that are difficult to struggle with. I appreciate the way you’re saying, There’s just something about patience that accepts, “Okay, this may be an ongoing struggle” that just normalizes this thing that for so many is so out there and left-field and we don’t know what to do with it. Just to say, “Okay, like any struggle with who you are or who you aren’t, who you wish you could be or feel you were made to be but don’t have the capacity or strength or opportunity, or whatever the case may be, there’s something about living with a sense of, ‘God is telling me a good story. He has a good intent in all that He’s bringing about. And at the end of the day, I can trust Him if he has put me in a male body or a female body, to have made that decision, even if I find that difficult.’ And there’s actually a strengthening of faith across the board that can come from wrestling with this particular situation.
DP: Let me just add one thing to that. It’s not as though people who are alternative gender, alternative sexuality-drawn uniquely have this struggle. Everyone struggles at some level with impulses, romantic, sexual impulses that are askew. So the notion that one part of life, you brought up, can involve enduring certain pain and struggle, it also involves learning in an essential way to say “No” to some or many of the impulses we find rising up within us. Those aren’t just sexual. They’re impulses to be mean, or to be a thief, or to give way to fear, to be lazy and avoid something, or to tell a lie.
So there is a sense where the biblical understanding of what it means that we’re redeemed people — one of the many definitions or angles of understanding that is that we are people who actually learn to say “No” to things that arise within us, and to say “No” for a reason, because there’s a bigger “Yes” that we’re saying to who God is, to what’s true, what’s right, what’s good, what’s loving, and so forth.
AG: Well, that leads perfectly to my last question. I don’t imagine too many 10-year-olds will listen to this podcast, but I would love for you to pray for the children, for the parents of children wrestling with this, and for adults who are still asking questions, or perhaps for some it’s not a question that was even raised until they were an adult. That disconnect between sense of body, sense of gender — would you just pray for those who may listen to this who are feeling those painful tensions in light of what we’ve been saying?
DP: Our Father, we thank you that there is no part of what it means that we’re human that is outside of your care, your gaze, your will, your concern, your ability to enter in, and to bring about a redemption into something that is holy and true. And Lord, I praise you for the many men and women I know who have lived long, long years with saying “No” to things that really arose very powerfully from inside them, with dignity, with courage, with a sense of self-respect, with a deeper core to who they understood themselves to be. They have sought to live an honorable life within struggle and doubt. Lord, all of us face a struggle like that in some ways, but we do know that to feel that a disconnect with one’s own body is a particularly painful, difficult struggle to face. Would you give grace? Give grace to children who are wondering and confused. Give grace to parents who want to be sources of wisdom and refuge and genuine aid and guidance. And give wisdom to those who are adults who wrestle, who want to wrestle honestly, or who don’t wrestle that need to wrestle honestly, and to embrace what is actually true. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
AG: David, thank you so much for your time.
DP: You are welcome, Alasdair.
Outro: If you enjoyed today’s podcast and you’re looking for more information or more resources, one thing you might want to check out is a talk by Mike Emlet called, “Truly Male, Truly Female: A Biblical View.” It’s a talk he gave at our 2008 National Conference, and I was there and heard it live. I really appreciated the balance he brought to the topic, pushing us forward, but trying not to overstate things that shouldn’t be overstated. He’s looking at the broader question of what it means to be male and what it means to be female in our culture, and not so much focusing on bodies per se. He engages with some of the well-known thinkers out there like John Eldredge, and so on and so forth. If that sounds interesting to you, you can find that on our website available for purchase: ccef.org. And you can find a host of other resources there on a multitude of topics as well.