Previously, we introduced the reader to gender dysphoria and to whether there is something distinctly Christian to be offered to someone who faces real and enduring psychological and emotional distress.
Now, let’s make this discussion practical.
A Christian couple came to us for a gender dysphoria consultation, desperately seeking answers about how to manage gender dysphoria. The wife, who experienced gender dysphoria since childhood, shared that for years she had asked God for healing. She wanted to know how other Christians have navigated this experience in light of their faith. We discussed the potential value of the couple meeting with their pastor and trusted members of their faith community for support as they live with and make decisions about how to cope with the distress of this experience. The wife looked back at us, looked at her husband, and replied, “We tried that. When we went to our faith community and asked for guidance, our pastor told us to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. We don’t even know what that means, and aren’t sure our pastor knows what that means. Either way, that response didn’t help. We haven’t found support. That’s why we are here.” This answer gave us pause. As we unpacked it further, the wife told us that she is actually longing to learn the meaning of Christ’s call to each of us to carry our cross. But the comment from her pastor was experienced more as a pat answer to a difficult circumstance than a genuine desire to support her and her spouse. Similar to telling a grieving person, “Stop crying, your loved one is with God,” this response, albeit true, did not honor the pain of the moment, or offer a model for what healing would look like. Such a response is typically more about reducing the discomfort of the pastor or the faith community rather than entering into the moment and the pain. In other words, the response seemed to say, “I know you are called to suffer, but I am not prepared to help you do it.” If we only quote Romans 5:3-5, and this is the end of the conversation, the person suffering is left to suffer alone.
Sometimes the typical response has been, “I can’t imagine dealing with that” or “What a tragedy.” This is followed by prayer for healing, asking God to take away the pain through radical lifting of the cross. We have two thoughts about this. First, most Christians we know who suffer from gender dysphoria have been in prayer and have asked God for healing. They can continue to ask, of course. But a second thought is this: We may be missing something important when we only ever respond with a prayer of deliverance. Let’s keep in mind that God’s plan does not always include healing on this side of eternity—particularly not if we are focused only on physical or emotional healing (rather than spiritual healing or a journey toward greater spiritual growth). Further, because the cross is the way to Resurrection, the ultimate Christian healing, it seems inadequate to think of the cross as something bad, or only ever to be prayed away. The cross, perhaps, is an opportunity. But, what for?
In the case of the person with gender dysphoria, they may have been told, like the man born blind in John’s Gospel, that it was their own brokenness, or the brokenness of their parents, that brought on this cross. We recall the words of Jesus in response: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).
Imagine meeting with this woman and her husband. What should your Christian ministry be?
First, we could listen to them. We could start by saying, “As you’ve shared with me about your pain, it feels as though I am meeting you at about chapter 7 or 8 of your life, but I haven’t had the opportunity to hear about chapters 1 through 6, and I’d like to.” Then listen. Ask questions. Resist the urge to oversimplify what they have been facing all these years.
Second, we could ask what strategies they have used to respond to their pain. “I can’t begin to fully appreciate how difficult this has been for you. I am imagining that you have probably—perhaps through trial and error—tried different ways of responding to what has been really painful. Can you say more about what you’ve tried over the years?”
Third, we could honor the strategies the person has used, even as we set aside our own initial reactions about whether or not we think each strategy was the best idea.
Fourth, we could discuss how their Christian walk has been impacted by facing such enduring hardship: “I can’t imagine what this has been like for you. I’m wondering to what extent your faith has been a resource to you, or if that might be a tender subject. Maybe facing such pain has had an impact on you in profound ways, including your faith.”
What you might have in the back of your mind is whether such hardships could lead to God’s work being made manifest in a person’s life, but you would not start there. There are no shortcuts. You have to enter in and abide and walk with the person. You have to display true empathy before you explore the pastoral question: In what ways might the works of God be displayed in you?
In other words, we are suggesting, and at this time only suggesting, that the steps needed to explore this possibility will take time and an understanding of how enduring hardship can lead to a lasting joy and point to an eternal, transcendent reality. You would have to keep in the forefront of your mind: This does not soften the pain, but it may transform its meaning.
We can turn to St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta for another model of this alternative understanding of suffering.
“One day,” Teresa writes, “I met a lady who was dying of cancer in a most terrible condition. And I told her, I say, ‘You know, this terrible pain is only the kiss of Jesus—a sign that you have come so close to Jesus on the cross that he can kiss you.’ And she joined her hands together and said, ‘Mother Teresa, please tell Jesus to stop kissing me.’”
Mother Teresa did not pray away the cancer in that moment, although we all can be certain she believed in the healing power of Christ, and likely witnessed it throughout her work. But, in the moment, she responded by highlighting the present moment as a kiss from the Lover to the Beloved. She was gentle in her reminder, seeing the terrible pain of the woman. She did not look away from the pain, or trivialize it, but spoke life into it. She proclaimed the light of truth into the darkness of the shadow of death, calling attention to the fact that the cross is a kiss from Jesus, a love letter from the Father to his daughter. Most importantly, Mother Teresa remained with the dying woman, hearing her pain, and receiving her understandable desire that the cup of suffering be taken away.
Also, it should be noted that Mother Teresa was able to say such things out of a posture of integrity. In other words, her life of sacrifice on behalf of orphans in Calcutta gave her remarkable credibility that most pastors and Christians would not have in a discussion with someone suffering from gender dysphoria. Never underestimate the value of living your life by the very principles you suggest others consider relying upon in response to enduring hardship.
To wish that one’s cross was different is not a flaw. In fact, Jesus in Gethsemane asked that the cup of suffering be taken from Him, and then He submitted to the Father’s will regarding it all, and we want to convey that there is no sin or shame to be found in such a request. Indeed, our desires for healing, for restoration, for relief from the cross are a reminder that we are not made for this Fallen world we find ourselves in. Things are not as they should be. We are made for Christian joy. But we must remember, in the moments where we beg for the cup of suffering to be given to someone else, that the joy we seek is the fruit of suffering. It is in the painful experience of delivering the child that new life is brought forth. Every aspect of our human experience points to this reality. But suffering, whether in the delivery room, the nursing home, or on the streets of Calcutta, is not meant to be carried alone. If no one is there to bear witness, how can we see the glory of God manifest in the suffering?
This is where the rubber meets the road. All of us are called to share the burdens of this life, whether the burden is financial, emotional, spiritual or psychological. When it comes to gender dysphoria, carrying the burden within Christian communities is long overdue. We may be missing a unique revelation of God’s glory, manifest in the suffering of our fellow Christians. It is not so much for us to “diagnose” the source of the burden as it is for us to learn to carry it.
The next article will wrap up with some final thoughts on gender dysphoria.
ReferencesAntonio Guillamon, Carme Junque, and Esther Gomez-Gil. A Review of the Status of Brain Structure Research in Transsexualism. Archives of Sexual Behavior 45, no 7 (October 2016), 1615-1648.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Whatever You Did Unto One of the Least, You Did Unto Me. An address at the National Prayer Breakfast, February 3, 1994. Retrieved from https://www.ewtn.com/library/issues/prbkmter.txt
Pinckaers, Servais O.P., Morality: The Catholic View. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001.
Mark A. Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015.
Mark A. Yarhouse & Dara Houp, D., Transgender Christians: “Gender identity, family relationships, and religious faith.” In Sheyma Vaughn (Ed.), Transgender youth: Perceptions, media influences, and social challenges (pp. 51-65). New York, NY: Nova Science Publishers, 2016.