Carrying the Cross of Gender Dysphoria
The second of a 4-part series titled, “Gender Dysphoria & the Question of Distinctly Christian Resources,” this blog originally appeared January 21, 2018, on the website of the Andreas Center at Dordt University in a publication titled “in all things,” and was written by Mark A. Yarhouse, Psy.D. & Julia Sadusky, M.A, We repost this blog by permission in its original format. Visit in all things website to read all parts of this series.
One thing we have seen as a successful method of coping for gender dysphoria is offering oneself in service to others. This may seem counterintuitive at first. Isn’t it draining to invest in other people, especially in the very moments when a person is struggling immensely? But, one biological female who uses she/her pronouns and describes herself as transgender shared otherwise: “Helping other people—focusing on the problems of others. I was created to love God and love people. God made me generous and empathic and that’s what matters” (Yarhouse & Houp, 2016, p. 58). This is not as surprising a conclusion as it might seem, at least not when taken in light of the many Scriptural references to receiving much in giving of one’s self (Proverbs 11:25; Matthew 10:8; Luke 6:38; 2 Corinthians 9:11; Galatians 5:13). In fact, we are told that the greatest among us will be servants to others (Matthew 23:11), and that the mission of Jesus was “to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; Matthew 20:27-28). Thus, the transgender person’s generosity with her time and talents is a beautiful response to Christ’s call to follow His example. In the midst of her own struggle, she can offer a powerful witness of Christ-like love and humility in serving.Perhaps the greatest contribution from Christianity has to do with our experience of enduring hardship. A discussion of hardship and pain in the life of a Christian is often Christ-centered, as it entails uniting with Jesus in His suffering. Certainly, it is true that Christ invites each person to follow Him through concrete acts of charity and service. After all, the ultimate expression of God’s love for us, the greatest expression of love and the most radical act, was His suffering and death (John 15:13). His suffering, once for all, won our salvation. But still He commanded that we pick up the daily cross and follow Him (Matthew 16:24-26). In Paul’s words, the task for us is to identify with His suffering. But why? Why would a loving God command the embracing of a cross? If He loved us, wouldn’t He carry the burden for us? What is the value of Him carrying it with us?
Because He knew what we do not always remember. Death is the door to Resurrection. Encountering our weakness is the path to experiencing grace beyond human comprehension. It seems that we would be much less aware of our need for God if we were not brought face-to-face with crosses that are too heavy for one person to carry alone. Grace makes possible what certainly is, apart from grace, impossible. If you are hyperaware of your weakness, your lack, and your inability to cope, precisely there is the place where your childlike need for a Savior is discovered. Jesus, perhaps, is able to unite more fully to us in those moments, and to work more fully within us when we come to Him as children, desperately in need of Him.
Uniting suffering to Christ involves a conscious choice to embrace the cross and share it with Him. We can fight the cross, drop the cross, look away from the cross, compare it to that of others, but it will still be there. How are we to respond to the cross? Surely God knows our desire to distance ourselves from it. Why then does He call us to “Come”? Again, he knows that which we easily forget. Embracing the cross is a prerequisite to Christian joy. Whether it be minor inconveniences, temporary pain, chronic illness, or death itself, the freedom that is promised to the Christian is discovered in a willful assent to the pain of the present moment. Rather than fighting it, which brings its own challenges, accepting the cross is liberating. And in this freedom, we can face the cross that we fear most, and enter into joy beyond all telling.
Every person longs for joy, and the early Christians wrote less about pleasure than they did about joy, according to Servais O.P. Pinckaers’ book Morality: The Catholic View (2001). We are fully alive when we are most joyful. This reveals the supreme human calling to endless joy: that is, eternal life. But joy, properly understood, is associated with enduring hardship. Joy is tied to pain that is endured, and, as a result, joy itself is enduring:
Joy is lasting, like the excellence, the virtues, that engender it. Sense pleasure is individual, like sensation itself. It decreases when the good that causes it is divided up and shared more widely; it ceases altogether when the good is absent. Joy is communicable; it grows by being shared and repays sacrifices freely embraced. Joy belongs to the purity and generosity of love. (p. 78)
Too often, we long to find life for ourselves, but we find ourselves less drawn to the way by which this life and this joy comes—by risking or even losing one’s life for Christ’s sake (Matthew 16:24-26). We are much more comfortable praying for healing than for the grace to suffer well. And perhaps as a result of our constant exposure to hedonic goals of the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure, we easily forget that the Christian faith stands in opposition to an easy life, even going so far as to say that Jesus on the cross embodies an absolute rejection of the notion. His embracing of His cross with absolute consent of His will reveals an altogether different goal for the Christian, and a potential pathway when faced with enduring conditions.
Christian history demonstrates rich examples of embracing suffering. Many Christians before us have walked this path, and we stand on ground soaked with the blood of martyrs who were witnesses of the fruit of this embrace of suffering. In suffering, though, they did not lose sight of Christian hope. Their hope was the root of their joy. Theirs was not a grim-faced suffering, or a begrudging acceptance. At the same time, the saints certainly were not superficial or naively optimistic. Rather, their hope was a grace itself, sufficient for their present difficulty. It was a hope that did not disappoint, we are told.
Still, how can we be sure, lest we find ourselves expecting good things to come and left wanting? We only have to look back to the reason for our hope. Hope certainly did not disappoint the first Christians when they found an empty tomb and came to know that our Lord had risen, just as He had said (Matthew 28:6). Hope did not disappoint when the Holy Spirit descended in the upper room, soon after Jesus had promised He would send the Advocate. Hope did not disappoint when thousands were converted and baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, just as He had told them.
Certainly Christ loves us now with as much love as He loved His other disciples. He will give hope in our own dark nights and raise us into newness of life, just as He said. This brings us back to the reminder that it is in suffering well that the beauty of life in Christ is made manifest. We rejoice in our suffering precisely because it is through our hardships (and handling of those hardships) that God is glorified. This joy is not exhibited primarily through a smiling face. Sometimes it is through tears and open hands that might feel empty. Suffering in these moments, especially, is an act of worship, in which believers unite their suffering to Christ.
Gender dysphoria is painful and real. The question is, is it possible to validate the reality and depth of the suffering and invite one another to pursue Christian joy in and through this particular hardship? Or will this only ever lead to trivializing another’s pain? Can we discuss sanctification without moving the entire discussion of gender dysphoria into the realm of morality or moral categories of sin? With our transgender family, friends, and neighbors, we as Christians have not always done so well. This could be because we have been less vocal in calling one another to be sanctified through suffering, while shouting down those we have labeled “uniquely sinful” (perhaps the phrase “uniquely wounded” is more appropriate in these cases). Thus, we have missed the opportunity to recognize the real place for exploring what sanctification could look like in the lives of transgender Christians, and all other Christians.
That such a perspective is counter-intuitive to the American Christian makes it difficult to apply it to gender dysphoria. This is a countercultural move that requires a more substantive shift in perspective. This shift would necessarily include a discussion of gender dysphoria, but wouldn’t focus on it exclusively, while maintaining hedonic presuppositions for others of maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain.
Only if we agree that we all are in need of embracing suffering fully, of being sanctified through our crosses, can we begin to find unity, rather than division, when we discuss gender dysphoria. Before any discussion, we must first acknowledge that we struggle to love well when another is suffering. Too often, we have abandoned one another to carry these painful crosses in isolation, masking our departure by quoting Scripture verses as we walk out the door. Next, we must resist the urge to avoid our own pain and the pain of others. In Christian communities, we have gotten quite good at praying for miraculous healing, but there is also much to be gained in praying for the grace to suffer well, even praying for the desire to want to suffer for love of God and love of one another.
It is certainly natural and good to ask for healing, to beg Jesus to give us reprieve from the weight of the cross. And sometimes, Jesus does give reprieve through miraculous healing, whether it be physical or psychological, or the timely support of another person. Sometimes, we have to think to ask, what is our response when the cross is not lifted? Can healing take the form of spiritual healing as we receive the grace of God in the presence of our real and enduring psychological and emotional distress?
Links to other parts of this series, Gender Dysphoria & the Question of Distinctly Christian Resources:
Part 1: Introduction to Gender Dysphoria
Part 3: Sharing the Burden of Gender Dysphoria
Part 4: Continuing to Seek Answers for Gender Dysphoria
Antonio 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.