Imago Dei

What does it mean to be “the image of God” and what hope does that provide for those navigating dysphoria?

 

The following is a message I preached with two goals in mind. First, to equip the church and push us to have a deeper compassion for hurting people. Second, to provide hope, relief, and healing for those experiencing gender dysphoria.

Imago Dei is the fancy Latin phrase that means “Image of God”. In the beginning of Genesis, the Bible tells us that God made humans “in His image”. Now when scholars or theologians want to talk about this, they call it the Imago Dei. Why do they say that instead of just “the image of God”? Because when you say anything in Latin it sounds way cooler and you look way smarter.

But what does it mean to be the “image of God”. A lot actually. It has to do with the value and purpose of human life, as well as our ontological makeup- what it really means to be human. There is so much meaning packed into that phrase that it is literally an entire area of study. So I am not going to try today to condense thousands of years of Christianity or trudge through theological texts books. Instead, I have an analogy that I hope will be helpful to grasp what we are talking about today.

When you look in a mirror, what do you see? Your reflection of course, but now is that reflected image the real you?

It looks like you. It has a lot of your traits. But in the end, its nature is different. Its nature points towards yours, in fact, that’s its purpose.

But if the glass in that mirror was cracked, what then would you see?

Your reflection is still there, but it’s broken. You can see parts of it but not all. Unless the reflection is fixed, it can never fulfill its purpose. It can never do or be all it was meant to be.

How useful is a broken mirror? Not much. If an image no longer accurately points to whatever it is supposed to be an image of, how will we recognize the real thing?

 The Bible says we are the image of God. The Hebrew word it uses is “tselem”, and it’s actually the same word used for idols and idol statures. What was an idol? It was a physical thing that represented and pointed to an unseen deity.

The Bible is doing some deep work on what it means to be a human. Not only does it level the playing field by saying all humans are equal, but it elevates them in that the call of all humanity is to image God. To be a physical representation of who God is, and how He loves.

But ever since sin entered the world, that image, like the mirror, has been shattered. It’s distorted. Every now and then we catch a glimpse of it, but the fall has twisted what it means and looks like to be human.

This shows up whenever we react out of anger, are selfish, prideful, or degrade another human being for any reason. Often the expression “I’m only human” is used as an excuse for such behavior or to sweep our faults under the rug without dealing with them, or looking at them in the mirror.

“I’m only human” takes a very low view of humanity. It sees humanity at its worst and says yep, this is natural. What more do you expect? The Bible does not share this view. In fact, it sees humanity as called to a high and glorious purpose to represent God on Earth.

But this image has been distorted, largely in the way that humans treat one another.

nd today I wanted to focus on one group that I think in our context can be particularly mistreated. And that group is people who have experience with or identify as trans*.

 

What does trans* mean?

Trans* can mean a lot of very different things, to a lot of very different people. In these next few moments, my intention is not to convince anyone of anything, and it is definitely not to offend anyone.

Rather, I want us to spend a moment educating ourselves, truly understanding one another, and being better equipped to love and honor all people as the image of God.  That is, after all, the reason the church exists, is it not?

I said trans* can mean a lot of different things. As I was reading and preparing for this message, probably over 100 hours worth of research, one author I read preferred to write the term trans* as such to recognize that word can mean very different things.

The definition of Transgender is: denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity does not correspond with their birth sex.

 That can mean a number of different things. On one end, that could be the teenage girl that just doesn’t enjoy what society considers mainstream femininity and would rather have short hair and play sports.

On the other end, it could be an adult male who would describe their experience as being trapped in the wrong body and would take surgical steps to change their body to female.

Often, Gender Dysphoria is associated with being trans*. It describes the feeling- the stress, the anxiety, the depression, the self-hatred, that can be caused by the sensation of being trapped in the wrong body.

Why are we talking about all this stuff? Because God loves trans people. He does. And if He does, it is the responsibility of the church to love trans people.

Do you know what the vision statement of our church is? Is it to always have really predictable services? Is it to always talk about comfortable topics? Is it to only invite people to join us if they are like us?

No. It’s to help all people become fully devoted followers of Jesus. I think often we say that, but we expect people to match our idea of what that means before we will talk to them. The great commission doesn’t say “wait tell people to figure out your rules then let them in your church”.

No, it says go into all the world and tell the good news.

 What’s the good news? The good news is that God has a high view of humanity, in fact, He wants all of humanity to represent Him and enjoy Him forever. But even though sin has messed all of us up, He still loves us and sent Jesus to die, so that we can find forgiveness, and be restored to be the image-bearers He always meant us to be.

The great commission says to go. Our mission statement says to help.

Go and help imply that you are meeting someone where they are at.

Have you ever gone on an out-of-country missions trip?

When you go to another country to share the gospel, do you land, get off the plane, and expect everyone to look like you, dress like you, talk like you, and think like you?

No. That would be ridiculous. Even if you are just going to tour another country you plan ahead of time, try to learn some of the words you will need to know to communicate properly.

The American culture in some ways now shares some of those descriptions. And if we are serious about getting people to Jesus, then we are going to need to be able to communicate in a way that makes sense to them.

If I use a word one way, but then just assume that everyone means the same thing by that word, that’s not communicating. That’s narcissism. We need to be able to communicate the truth of Jesus into every context, even if that means learning how to do that.

One place for improvement in the church’s response is in our communication. Another place is to start seeing people and hearing their stories, not jumping at headlines.

Do you know what makes it into the headlines? Whatever sells. News is a money-based service like anything else. Even if you’re not the one paying for it. Any time a super aggravating or shocking headline crosses your Facebook feed and you click on it, the writer is profiting off the ad revenue from the page, all because you clicked it.

So, people will write whatever it takes for you to click.

People like to champion certain stories or limited studies that provide the “ammunition” necessary for them to win the culture war.

And while I would be inclined to believe there is a “culture war” at some level, that is not what we are talking about today. The Bible tells us the world (referring to the system of spiritual evil) will hate the church. So we should expect that. It’s not new, news, or surprising.

But today we’re talking about people. People who have no agenda, people no more interested in the culture war than we are. But people whose stories have been weaponized, even while their experiences have been marginalized.

Jesus would leave the 99 for the 1, and He often was found amongst those with who the religious elite would never be seen. Jesus was about people, so we should be about people.

And when we see people as individuals, we learn that no two stories are the same. And if their stories are different that means their reasons are different. This means there is no prepackaged one size fits all solution for anyone. What there are people in dire need of a friend, and a place to belong.

In preparing for this message I read many stories of trans people who have had very different experiences. Some are trans because they were abused growing up. Some were pressured into it. Some lived for years, if not decades, with continual pain and discomfort of their bodies that would leave them ready to take their own life. Every person, every story is different. As Christian Psychologist Mark Yarhouse says, “If you’ve met one trans person, you’ve met one trans person.”

It is easy to fight in a culture war. You just talk about concepts and sling sound bites at each other. But loving people, that’s hard. That’s messy. We are talking about something most people have not experienced and much less understand. But if we want to be like Jesus, we need to be doing life with people, hearing their stories, loving unconditionally, and modeling what it means to be like Jesus.

To help us this morning I wanted to show you a video of the testimony of a women names Laura Perry.

People in the trans* community are not the enemy. Sin is. And sin comes for us all. People in trans* communities are not the enemy, they are people the same as us, who need to know the love of a savior.

Do you know part of the reason that trans* communities continue to grow? Because they are that- a community. A group of people who really care and look out for one another. And to those who feel marginalized and like they don’t belong, of course, they will be attracted to that.

Do you know where hurting people just trying to navigate life should feel like they belong? In Church communities. But statistically, they don’t. I’m not saying that means you surrender theology or change the Bible. But it does mean we need to change our attitude.

Of all the trans* stories I’ve read where someone came to know Jesus, it was never because someone was really good at arguing. It was never because someone posted soundbites on social media. It was never because Christians avoided them or told them they are not welcome. It was always because someone took the time to actually care, actually listen, and actually be a friend. They took the time to be like Jesus.

Let’s look back at that broken mirror. Can you fix it by throwing facts at it? Can you fix it by throwing it out of the church? No. The only way would be to slow down, sit down, and patiently make sense of each piece one at a time. 

There are many more statistics, and different studies will portray things a bit differently, and we could spend hours talking about them. But my goal today is not for us the memorize statistics, but rather to be moved to compassion for hurting people. Many trans individuals, even those who regret their transition, admit that at the time they saw no other option. The pain had them so close to taking their own life that they felt like they had no choice.

What if they had a  friend who lived out a better way?

So what causes Gender Dysphoria?

 The short answer: no one knows.

There are tons of theories. Many studies are being done to try to understand what can cause an individual’s body to feel foreign to them.

 Some, like Laura, can trace the patterns of their life and see what led them to their decision. Many can’t, from their perspective it’s just always been true.

 Experts argue between nature vs nurture, questioning whether Gender Dysphoria has any biological causes or not. Brain-sex theory is the most popular explanation right now, but it isn’t the consensus. There are many who argue against it and equal research to disprove it.

 Brain sex theory hinges on the idea that male and female brains are biologically different. If they are, then there is a biological marker for stereotypes, and they believe can create a situation where an intersex of the brain happens in utero, causing the body to develop one way and the brain another.

 While popular, it remains a theory and has no hard evidence right now. Feminist activates and other scientists argue that it’s based more on wanting people to conform to gendered stereotypes than actual science.

 For some trans, it’s not that they reject God’s created order- they believe in two sexes of male and female. They just believe that the fall has caused a situation where there is this incongruence.

 Society has rightly had compassion on these individuals but has wrongly attempted to fix that incongruence their own way.

 The man solution presented is to “transition to the real you”. Transition takes three forms. There is the social aspect, which is how you present yourself and want to be seen. There is the hormonal aspect where a person begins to take cross-sex hormones. Then there is the surgical aspect where one has cosmetic surgery done to make their body appear more like the opposite sex.

Some say this helps them manage and cope with their dysphoria, but there have been few long-term studies done. That is studies that monitor longer than 2-4 years. There is a growing movement of “detransitioners”, people who have transitioned to one of those three degrees and found themselves still dissatisfied. Transition did not fix the problem like they thought it would.

Some felt that although they made as many changes as physically possible, it did not really change their sex. They felt they were just a pretender. Others found it did not permanently deal with the mental health issues they were facing.

Some studies find that Up to 20% have regrets about their sex change. One long-term study finds that 10 to 15 years after surgical reassignment, the suicide rate is 20 times that of non-trans individuals.

The suicide rate is 20 times higher. Yet, transitioning is considered successful. Successful for who? If transitioning cannot really fix all the things it claims to, why is it so supported?

Why, whenever someone questions if this is really the best path, out of concern for the safety of individuals, experimental procedures, and growing numbers of detransitioners, are they met with hatred and silenced?

As someone who has dealt with clinical depression in my life, I’ve sat before multiple doctors, counselors, and psychiatrists. And a common word I hear used in the psych field is “cope”.

“Let’s explore ways to cope with this.” “Let’s find some tools to use to cope.” “I’ve just got to figure out how to cope with this.”

I hate the word cope. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing doctors out there who really are saving lives. And sometimes, we do need to cope. But the ethic of copping as a long-term strategy makes me angry.

Do you know what copping means? Copping means there is this issue in my life, whatever it is, depression, addiction, dysphoria, anxiety; and I will never be free of it, it’s a part of me, and I just got to figure out how to deal with it and manage the best I can to keep it at bay.

Did Jesus teach the hurting to “cope”? Did Give tools to “cope” with sin? Do we serve a God of the halfway that says just do the best you can to deal with this, or do we serve a God who takes what’s dead- and brings it back to LIFE.

 People are there, and maybe even some in here- and you’re just coping. You think this is all you can do, just manage and struggle with this. But Jesus died, to deal with it for you. Anxiety, depression, dysphoria aren’t of God. They are OF DEATH.

Not just annoying, not just an inconvenience, not just a diagnosis. They are dead things that prevent you from living the LIFE God made you to. But before God can bring what’s dead back to life, we have to let it be dead and stop coping with it.

In the next few moments, I want to humbly suggest what I believe the Bible claims about identity.

Identity- because that’s the root issue. It’s not a behavior issue, although it involves behavior. It’s not a psychological issue, although it involves our minds. It’s not a biological issue, even though it can have biological factors. At its root, it is about identity. Because everything in life starts there.

Who you believe you are affects every single decision you make in life. What I believe the Bible says about identity doesn’t just provide hope for the dysphoric, but for anyone who is suffering in life.

What does God say about us?

We started this message by talking about the image of God, and how that image has been shattered. If we are supposed to represent God in His goodness and perfection, how can we do that when the image is shattered. Genesis 3 and Romans 3:23 tells us that all of us are shattered.

We said you can’t fix the mirror by throwing facts at it or by just throwing it out.

We said it will take patience and care. And it will, that’s the human aspect of it and the church’s mission.

To pick broken people up and love them.

 Even if we do that though, and put all the pieces back, we can’t fix it back to the way it was. No human effort can.

 But Jesus can. That’s what He does. And He does it, by allowing Himself to be broken. Will you allow yourself to be broken?

What did that image look like originally, what were humans made to be?

In chapter 4 of his book “Embodied”, author Preston Sprinkle gives 8 thesis statements on what the Bible claims about our identity. When we shift the conversation from feelings or behavior to Identity, I think it is clear that God’s desire is for every individual’s gender identity to be congruent with their birth sex. I think some of his points are compelling, and worth our consideration.

Preston suggests that The Body Is Essential To Our Image-Bearing Status.

Genesis 1:27

So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

The next verse unpacks what it means to be made male and female in God’s image. To govern, reign, and multiply.

 Reign and govern speak to the functional nature of humanity- to represent God. Multiply further solidifies that male and female are fixed terms relating to biological sexes.

Genesis 1:28

Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.”

Gender identities that are incongruent with birth sex rely on the presumption that there is a part of you that is more real than your body.

 An atheist may call this your mind or rely on psychology for definitions, while the spiritual would lean on terms like spirit or soul.

 The Bible, however, while explaining there is a non-physical part of what it means to be human, never considers it as distinguishable from the body.

 Scripture does not present us as “ghosts in the machine”, souls that have bodies, but rather as embodied souls.

 The Hebrew word for soul is nephesh, and literally means your throat, yet is also used to talk about the non-physical part of us.

 The idea that the non-physical is more important is called Gnosticism. It was a growing belief that threatened the early church, and Paul spoke often against it.

 Gnostics hold that since the non-physical is more important, what you do in the body is of no moral consequence, or conversely that everything is evil.

 Emphasizing one part over the other leads to the idea that you can be trapped in the wrong body.

 

 

 Further evidence that God sees our embodiment as part of our identity is the incarnation and resurrection.

 Jesus, when entering humanity did not do it apart from embodiment, an embodiment that included biological sex. This does not speak to the elevation of one sex over the other but rather shows that the creator Himself sees sexed embodiment as fundamental to what it means to be human- not an afterthought, addon, or DLC.

 If sexed embodiment was not important to identity- why then would the creator endorse it when there was no need?

 The resurrection. Many religions have an “afterlife”. Christianity does not. Did you ever notice this? Afterlife implies that the real part of you, the non-physical, will someday escape the body and exist in a non-physical state.

 The gospel doesn’t say we will escape the physical. The gospel offers freedom from sin, in a bodily resurrection. Resurrection is different than a disembodied afterlife.

 Jesus’s resurrected body still maintained the physical markers from before His death. He was recognizable and still had the marks on His hands and side.

 This gives us reason to conclude our resurrected state although different, will not be totally foreign to our current embodiment.

What does the Bible teach in regard to sexuality?

While the Bible does not speak directly to every issue, it does have a lot to say about identity. And the Bible never affirms any lifestyle that transgresses the created order of Genesis 1-3, whether trans or non-trans. In fact, when the Biblical authors want to give a reason for their stance, they appeal to the created order in Genesis. This includes Jesus.

Paul also taught that everything done in the body has moral weight. These verses are all buried in their own context, and should not be removed from it. These aren’t one-liners or trump cards, but when they are viewed in the context in the narrative of the Bible, point to an understanding that the created order is not just a description of what occurred, but a prescription for how we do life.

We of course could talk much longer on this subject, but this is a summarization of what Preston presents and what I believe is a good case for believing that God desires every individual’s gender identity to match their birth sex.

But he doesn’t ask you to do it by willpower- Jesus will help you.

Not as a matter of obedience to a set of moral rules, but out of a conviction that true identity and true fulfillment cannot be found outside of God’s created order.

We saw how even for the transitioned, problems can remain. In fact, anything we seek fulfillment in, porn, sex, money, fame, possessions, can not satisfy or fix what’s missing. Only Jesus can.

Sam Allberry from the Gospel Coalition says that Christians should be the most compassionate and understanding people when it comes to this issue. Because we uniquely understand that all of creation, including everyone’s body, has been subjected to frustration because of the fall. And that understanding should give us unique compassion.

The central root is our identity- everything flows out of it. We all experience having a broken identity, not all in the same way, but we all do.

The solution is not an idea, concept, code, program, or process- He’s a person. Jesus wasn’t made in the image or likeness of God- He was God. And He chose to identify with humanity in their brokenness. The ultimate dysphoria was when the immortal perfect holy God entered a human body and took on the sin that did not belong to Him.

Talk about being in the wrong body. Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, yet did not sin, and died so that you and I can be reconciled to God.

And I know from my own experience that nothing can compare with that. Find your identity in Christ. See if that does not fulfill and blow away your wildest expectation. You were made in the image of God, to be in a relationship with God. Everything else is a distraction or a detraction from your purpose.

How you guys doing. Still with me? That was a lot of dense concepts and theology. And it’s important. As we close though I want to get very practical. How do we live this out? Cause it doesn’t matter how much we know if we don’t live it out.

 

NEXT STEP #1

Get Correct Perspective: On Sin

Do you know that in regards to salvation all sin is equal? We like to act like they’re not. “Thank God I don’t struggle with that”. Or “At least I am not as bad as some people.” Sin is sin. The difference between lying, pride, and sexual immorality is just what cell is reserved in Hell.

Or this question: “What do you do if a trans person shows up at your church?”

Why don’t we ask “What do you do if a guy shows up at your church who is living with His girlfriend.”

Why don’t we have a survey at the door that asks people to check off every sin they ever committed?

I have seen a disproportionate response to some forms of sexuality while we overlook porn and heterosexual sin, or even gluttony or hatred.

I am not saying we need to lower the bar on sin- I’m just saying that bar needs to be level.

 

Get Correct Perspective: On Compassion

While we are getting the correct perspective, we need to raise the bar on compassion. Is it not the kindness of God that leads to repentance? Why then do we resort to other methods?

Understand- that although there may be a culture war, not everyone is fighting in it. There are victims on both sides.

I think most things people deal with result from a false sense of identity, not from not knowing rules of behavior.

If someone’s identity isn’t in Christ, changing their behavior won’t keep them from Hell. That’s backward.

Whose job is conviction? Is it the church’s or the Spirits? Who’s job is it to Go and Help? Isn’t that the churches?

Let’s do our job- take Jesus to people, and let Jesus do His- changing lives.

 

 

Get Correct Perspective: On Stereotypes

We didn’t have time to get into it, but this topic is interwoven thought this conversation. Stereotypes have forced people to see their identity in broad categories, by comparing them to others. Our identity is found in Christ- not stereotypes.

Look at this list of gender stereotypes.

There are many like it online. Generally, we associate pink with females and blue with males. Yet in society in 1918, it was reversed. Before the 17th century, high heels were a masculine accessory.

Stereotypes are what can be a true observation about the majority of a population- but it’s just that- an observation, not a prescription for how the entirety of that population must act.

Looking at this list, many people probably see themselves traits on both sides. Often sports is considered masculine, dance is feminine. Dress up is feminine and getting dirty is masculine. Boys are encouraged to be physically strong and aggressive, girls are supposed to be more communicative and compassionate.

All of these things are stereotypes. None of them are described in the Bible as the definition for manhood or womanhood.

These stereotypes create the very seedbed that breeds gender confusion. If a male finds himself more at home with traits that society, not God, calls feminine, he may feel he was supposed to be a girl.

If a girl would rather have short hair and play sports, then she must be masculine.

Now the church probably wouldn’t draw that conclusion, but we definitely have played into the stereotypes. I’m not saying we infringe on the dignity of Biblical sexuality, but rather we drop things that are harmful. Stereotypes are not Biblical, as Pastor Rodney preached a few weeks ago.

Let’s say and believe what the Bible actually says about being a man or woman, while not shaming individuals that don’t conform to our cultural expectations of them. Are we made in society’s image or God’s?

 

NEXT STEP #2

Don’t Be Afraid to Wrestle

Did you know that God is not afraid, surprised, or threatened by what you deal with? He is not in any way threatened, and he isn’t surprised. In fact, before the creation of the world, He made a plan to help you- Jesus. Discipleship and sanctification are processes. Often, people don’t change all at once or overnight. We need to be okay coming to God with our questions, get comfortable with being vulnerable, and know that there is space to ask genuine questions and see answers.

We all need to do that. The more we did it, I think the less we would struggle with things. That’s why the apostles encouraged confession. If we leave something in the dark it has power. But we bring it to light and then the test becomes a testimony.

That can be scary, I know. But the healing is worth it. And, if we do Step 1 right, the church should be the best place to wrestle. To ask hard, honest questions, to have people to cry and laugh with, and to seek the only one who has answers.

If we are not that place- guess what? People will still ask those questions. They just won’t do it here. What kind of answers will they get then?

 

NEXT STEP  #3

Do Something

James tells us to be doers of the Word- not just hearers. I laid out a lot today that should have challenged everyone. It challenged me.

If you have questions- seek answers. I am happy to help. I’m not an expert, but I like to read. I spent over 100 hours preparing for this and am happy to share my notes and references.

If you don’t feel equipped or are afraid of this topic, spend the time. Be a good listener, get grounded in what the Bible says, and be filled with the Spirit to love in compassion.

If being trans applies to you, then I encourage you not to take my word or opinion on anything I said. Rather seek God, read scripture, ask Him to show you His will for your life.

If you need help, just want to talk, or just need someone to listen, I’m here ([email protected]). And believe it or not, there are many others who would be as well.

You are not the first person to struggle with this, and you are not weird or gross for doing so. We are all just people in need of Jesus. There are some who have struggled with this and found true freedom in Christ, and I’d be happy to connect with you. They would love to hear your story and share theirs.

I highly recommend Preston’s book Embodied”  to everyone. Not just those navigating identity. Not only does it equip you to be compassionate and knowledgeable, it’s filled with just a strong message on what being the image of God really means, in a way that is easy to understand.

And no he’s not paying me to say that. Although Preston if you see this…

And to all who consider themselves Christians, we are on a mission. A mission to tell a broken world about Jesus. Will you join me in praying and working so that our church can be a beacon of hope for people navigating identity, a place where they find love, truth, and hope. Not condemnation.

Recommended Resources:

Book: "Embodied"

Preston Sprinkle draws on Scripture as well as real-life stories of individuals struggling with gender dysphoria to help readers understand the complexities and emotions of this highly relevant topic.

Book: "Understanding Gender Dysphoria"

Mark Yarhouse, an expert in sexual identity and therapy, challenges the church to rise above the political hostilities and listen to people’s stories. In Understanding Gender Dysphoria, Yarhouse offers a Christian perspective on transgender issues that eschews simplistic answers and appreciates the psychological and theological complexity.

References:

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