Answering This Generation’s Question of Essential Identity

Each news cycle brings with it one more saga about sexual and gender identity. North Carolina establishing bathroom laws against transgender usage. The mayor of New York City restricting travel to the state of North Carolina to boycott this action. The Obama administration issuing a directive late last week mandating public schools and other institutions receiving certain federal grants to give transgender students access to bathrooms or face the risk of the loss of funds or even lawsuits. The lieutenant governor of Texas declaring they will forfeit the funds rather than comply. As Trevin Wax, Russell Moore, and other are pointing out, the ramifications of these actions on society and the church are great.

At the heart of this issue and related ones is the fundamental question of identity. Repeatedly, when proponents of gay, lesbian, and transgender rights speak, they use the terminology of self-identification. This generation is trying to discover itself and, in the spirit of this postmodern age, looks within to find the answer.

The most well-known example of this inward-turning search for identity is seen in Bruce Jenner. Not long ago he self-identified as a woman, began dressing then went through procedures to become such, and now calls himself Caitlyn. He appeared as Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair and (Can this even be true?) is reportedly going to do the same for Sports Illustrated yet sans clothing. All of this while reports are circulating from family members that he may “de-transition” back to a man in the future. One can only imagine where the sad trajectory of this story is heading.

Or where the trajectory of our culture is taking us. At the recent Sex, Sin, and Salvation conference held in Pittsburgh last month, in a talk called “The Sacrament of Homosexuality”, Dr. Peter Jones showed from LGBTQ literature that the goal of this movement is the removal of all binary definitions and boundaries. He explained that LGBTQ proponents are resurrecting Gnostic heresy, which seeks to make all religions look like one. In so doing, sexuality will be made to look as one as well by breaking down all male and female distinctions. (You can read more about this here.) Similarly, Dr. Rosaria Butterfield, author of Openness, Unhindered which deals with this subject, explained that Western culture has not seen a movement like this in its 2000 plus years of history, where many seek through legal and cultural means to erase the God-given categories of sexuality and gender.

Finding research that demonstrates the harm in allowing people to determine for themselves their gender identity is not difficult to locate. For years Dr. Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist in chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, has been warning that their research has found gender self-identification is in reality self-delusion, a mental state that requires compassionate treatment rather than societal encouragement. He states:

At the heart of the problem is confusion over the nature of the transgendered. “Sex change” is biologically impossible. People who undergo sex-reassignment surgery do not change from men to women or vice versa. Rather, they become feminized men or masculinized women. Claiming that this is civil-rights matter and encouraging surgical intervention is in reality to collaborate with and promote a mental disorder.”

However, natural and scientific observation alone will not be powerful enough to cut through the confusion that Dr. McHugh recognizes lies at the core of these matters. What this generation needs help in finding once again is the answer to the most fundamental question: Who am I?

Fortunately, the need and means for answering this question have been raised by earlier generations. John Calvin began The Institutes with these words.

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone…

On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also —He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced.

Calvin reminds us, and the church must remind this generation, that true self-knowledge can only be ascertained by looking to God. Men and women will remain in their folly of improper self-identification until they see themselves as God sees them. More than ever, the church must help this confused generation find the answer to “Who am I?” by declaring these three truths to each and every person.

You were made by God; you did not make your own self. Cutting through the evolutionary fog that hangs over the land and brings many a poor soul to shipwreck is the lighthouse beam of the truth that God created all things. We must shine brightly upon every person the psalmist’s words about the Lord, “It is he who has made us, and not we ourselves” (Ps. 100:3). Preachers must return to declaring the basic truths of the Genesis account of creation. The church must join the heavenly host in praising God, “Worthy are you, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for you created all things, and because of your will they existed, and were created for his worthiness in making all that we behold” (Rev. 4:11). When God’s people become captivated again by the glory of his created order, they will realize that, with so much Biblical knowledge erased, nearly every apologetic and gospel encounter must begin with this foundational truth.

You are made in God’s image, you should not seek self-identification. Another glorious Biblical truth is that men and women are separate from the animal world in that we were made uniquely in the image of God. Our identity is that we were made in a representative likeness to God and are to live in the accompanying knowledge, righteousness, and truth of the Lord that brings. Though man has fallen into sin, as J.I. Packer says,

We still bear the image of God formally—that is, we still have in us the abilities that, if rightly harnessed, would achieve a fully righteous, Godlike life—and so the unique dignity of each human being must still be recognized and respected (Gen. 9:6; James 3:9), as a gesture of honor to our maker. But we have lost the image substantially, and it takes God’s grace-gift of union with Christ to restore it fully.”

Though a mirror may be dirty or even broken, it still retains the essential quality of “mirror-ness.” Similarly, God’s image in man was greatly shattered by the fall, yet every person retains value as one made to be like God. We must tell those looking inwardly at the confused state of their broken souls for their identity that they need to lift their eyes to the mirror-maker and seek their re-imaging in Christ.

You are made either male and female in this image; you do not have the right to deny it. We must help people see it is their rebellion against nature and its God, and not arriving at some holy grail after an inner odyssey, that has them denying their gender given to them by God at conception (Rom. 1:18-27).  Because of original sin, they may struggle accepting certain features of their gender or have confused and even perverted views regarding it and how it is to be expressed. Regardless, the church must call people to accept the gender that was given them when it was knitted into their very chromosomes in the womb by God (Ps. 139:13-16).

These cultural battles may be defining new, necessary starting points of our discussion regarding true identity. Yet the ending place of finding it in the true God-man is still the same.

5 Comments

  1. Andrew Horning May 16, 2016 at 6:49 pm #

    Good one; thank you!
    We too often look to politicians to fix the problems of heart and mind.

  2. David Carr May 19, 2016 at 11:53 am #

    Thank you for putting an evangelistic emphasis on our interactions with the fallen and falling culture in which we live.

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    […] York is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh. This article is used with […]

  2. Answering This Generation’s Question of Essential Identity -IKTHUS.NET - May 21, 2016

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  3. The Early Bird Gets The Link  – Intersections - May 25, 2016

    […] Answering This Generation’s Question of Essential Identity the church must remind this generation, that true self-knowledge can only be ascertained by looking to God. Men and women will remain in their folly of improper self-identification until they see themselves as God sees them. More than ever, the church must help this confused generation find the answer to “Who am I?” by declaring these three truths to each and every person. […]

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