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The precariousness of the true self and the need for Compassion.

As a culture we tend more than ever to hold our identity in our own hands, and because of this we also sense more acutely the fragility of such a precarious identity.

James Houston

I am not sure there has ever been a generation living with a more precarious identity than this one. This precariousness with holding one’s identity in one’s own hands is intensified by increasingly being defined by impulses, affections, and/or feelings however strong they may be. In other words individuals who find themselves apart from the “One who made us for Himself” are steadily left to find other ways to define themselves.

How does Jesus speak to our precarious identity in this hyper-self-referenced generation? One unexpected way may be found in Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question on divorce (Matthew 19:1-12). I say “may be found”, since Jesus’ answer is both clear and enigmatic. While Jesus intends to speak to the issue of divorce, he goes to the most antecedent source that speaks to what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God: “… at the beginning the Creator made them male and female.” James Houston says “this implies that the mystery of our humanity is unknowable outside of God’s revelatory purposes. Thus anthropology is defined by theology – not the reverse…” Secondly, this “implies relationality, as male and female the Creator made them in coequality and complementarity.”

While Jesus clearly affirms humanity is created male and female, it is not entirely clear what it means to be male or female – most notably because of Jesus’ own example of being a male. Brittany E. Wilson describes Jesus as being “unmanned” to describe his lack of attention to having to be “manly” or “very masculine”, including his suffering crucifixion that Wilson describes as a process of “literally unmanning a person”.  She argues that “both masculine and feminine images intimate Jesus’ identity as the God of Israel, a divine being who also cannot be confined by singular gender demarcations.”

Yet Jesus is the one against whom we understand what it means to be human, and therefore what it means to be male and female. This represents an entirely different worldview to the contemporary considerations on sexual and gender identity, for it is centred on the person of Jesus Christ; as James Houston states, “we are never more ours true selves than when we are most ‘in’ Christ Jesus.”

Though on the one hand Jesus gives a clear answer to what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God, he adds layers of nuance to what it means to be human in the context of marriage by including the category of eunuchs who do not marry for various reasons: “there are eunuchs who are born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom.”  Megan K. DeFranza suggests that eunuchs fell short of the masculine ideal (as Wilson contends in her discussion about “unmanning”). We are left with more enigma than clarity on what it means to be male, female, or any other gender as contemporary culture would have us believe. 

Thus popular culture expressed in social media like Facebook implies there are 58 genders from which to chose. Soren Kierkegaard suggests a kind of “identity amnesia” for persons who have forgotten their true selves, and therefore are not themselves, stating, “spiritually speaking, they have no self before God – however self-seeking they are otherwise.”

A self-seeking world is alienated from God and alienated from ourselves, left to define the self with the most precarious of parameters: impulses, attractions and/or feelings, however strong they may be. Perhaps it is this reality that makes it so difficult for so many people in our world to locate themselves in the male-female framework. Stephen R. Holmes writes:

… true maleness and true femaleness are, theologically considered, a memory and a hope, not a present possession…We are broken, warped, fallen – we are not as we should be… In the beginning the One who created them, created them male and female. Now we are – all – shadows and broken images of our true selves; the promise of the gospel is that one Day we will become who we were created to be. This is as true of our maleness and femaleness as of every other area of our lives.

What good news does the church have to say to people who are broken, warped, and fallen when there is no toleration for such pronouncements or self realizations? What is good news for those whose quest to find their true selves is entirely self-referenced? As Wesley Hill puts it, “until the church can answer clearly, no amount of exegetical and theological defence of the “orthodox” position will finally prove persuasive or life giving.”  Thus Hill promotes the vocation of “spiritual friendship”, stating that people need “more intimate attachments and kinship relations in order to flourish.”  Alastair Roberts says however we may feel about transgendered people, the story of so many is “of lonely suffering and self-alienation and should excite our compassion.”

Compassion: in contrast to the hard hearts that motivated Moses to permit divorce, compassion is a word used to describe Jesus’ response to the harassed and helpless, and it is the word for our time more than ever.  If we want to know what compassion looks like and how it acts with people who cannot seem to locate themselves in the male-female framework, we look to Jesus interactions with broken, warped, and fallen people.

All the exegetical and theological work, while necessary, is no replacement for the compassion one sees expressed in the person of Jesus, and compassion needs to mark our interaction with people trying to define or find their true selves. Compassion also needs to mark our interaction with Christian friends and relatives: I interviewed a woman in my church whose sister is transitioning her gender identity. This reckoning, while personal, is not singular; it involves everyone of her family, extended family, and even her sister’s church family, as my friend has had to endure confusion, comments, and felt rejections from our church family.

Everyone wants to be understood every bit as much as Jesus demonstrates in all his encounters with broken people throughout the gospels. While our culture experiences the fragility of a precarious identity, perhaps “com-passion” is the most important process we have to “co-explore” where the true self may be found in Christ.


Augustine. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

Goldman, Russell, Here’s a List of 58 Gender Options for Facebook Users. Accessed July 28, 2020. Online: https://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2014/02/heres-a-list-of-58-gender-options-for-facebook-users.

Hill, Wesley, “Review of James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships”. June 26, 2020 reading for Regent College course: “Male and Female in Christ”.

Holmes, Stephen R. Shadows and Broken Images: Thinking Theologically about Femaleness and Maleness. Accessed July 28, 2020. Online: http://steverholmes.org.uk/blog/?p=7538.

Houston, James M. Joyful Exiles: Life in Christ on the Dangerous Edge of Things. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

Houston, James M. The Mentored Life: From Individualism to Personhood. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002.

Houston, James M., Michael Parker. A Vision for the Aging Church: Renewing Ministry for and by Seniors. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011. 

Packer, J.I., Loren Wilkinson, ed. Alive to God: Studies in Spirituality. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Roberts, Alastair. Call Me Caitlyn. Accessed July 28, 2020. Online: https://www.threadsuk.com/call-me-caitlyn.

Smail, Thomas A. The Forgotten Father: Rediscovering the Heart of the Christian Gospel. Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1980.

Sprinkle, Preston, ed. Two Views on Homosexuality, The Bible, and The Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.

Wilson, Brittany E. Unmanly Men: Reconfigurations of Masculinity in Luke-Acts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.