I vividly remember the day that I realised I’m a man. I was about 27. You might think that’s a bit old to be realising something so fundamental about myself, and it’s true that it wasn’t a totally new revelation, but it hit me almost as if it was.
I had grown up as a boy, but as a boy who didn’t easily fit in. I’d never much liked the sorts of things other boys seemed to like. I didn’t connect with other boys and pretty much all my closest friends were girls. There was a time in my childhood when I really wondered whether I was a girl. I remember it vividly because I was struck by the fear that I might get pregnant. (Clearly before I knew how these things work!).
That feeling went away as I went through adolescence, but I still wasn’t comfortable being a man and I wasn’t really convinced I was a ‘proper’ man. I often found it hard to connect with other guys and I would say things to my female friends like, ‘He would say that; he’s a man.’ I didn’t think I was a woman, but I was also pretty convinced I wasn’t a real man, at least, not like other men are. In my mind, there were unspoken criteria for what a proper man was like and measured against those, I fell short.
All of that changed one day when I read Genesis 1. I read about how God created humans in his image (Genesis 1:27) – a given identity, true of us because of how God has made us and what he says about us. I reflected on other places where the scriptures talk about the image (Genesis 5:5; 9:6; James 3:9). They seemed to show this was an identity that is static – it’s not based on what we do or how we feel, it’s based on how God has made us and what he says about us.
Then I noticed that in Genesis 1:27, our creation in the image of God and our creation as male or female are placed in parallel. These things work in the same way – we’re male or female, a man or a woman, because of how God has made us and what he says about us. I realised that Scripture never seemed to imply that we became a man or a woman through how we felt or acted; rather, we are a man or a woman because of how God has made us.
And Genesis 1:28 seemed to back this up. What comes immediately after God’s creation of male and female? The command to be fruitful and multiply. Why? Because to be male or female, a man or a woman, is to have a body structured to play one of two roles in reproduction. Being a man or a woman is a given identity, given to us by God through our bodies.
In that moment I realised that I’m a man. A real man. A proper man. I don’t have to act in a certain way to be a man; I already am a man because of how God has made me. And I don’t have to feel a certain way to be a man. It doesn’t matter that my personality and preferences often align with what’s deemed more traditionally feminine. Those things don’t make me a man or a woman. If I know who I am – the identity God has given me – I have the freedom to embrace how I am – with the unique personality and preferences God has also given me.
This doesn’t mean that being a man has no significance for how I live. Scripture does seem to indicate that we should express the identity God has given us in our physical appearance (e.g. Deuteronomy 22:5; 1 Corinthians 11:2-16). Our bodies give us a head start on this (breasts and beards and the like). We then continue it through the way we dress and style our hair, in line with the conventions understood in our culture. This is about embracing who God has made us to be and demonstrating the beauty of God’s creation of humanity as male and female. But even this doesn’t create our identity – it’s an expression of who we already are.
As I reflect on our current cultural context, I can’t help but wonder how my story might have been different had I been a teenager today. It seems that for many young people today, being transgender has become the available explanation for a sense of not fitting in and feeling different. Some forms of the transgender narrative are reinforcing narrow gender stereotypes and are making them the criteria for being a man or a woman or neither. Would I have identified as transgender or non-binary were I a teenager today? It’s impossible to say, but I think I can understand why doing so could be appealing to someone like me.
As it is, I found that God had a better story for me in my gender discomfort. People often assume biblical teaching on what it means to be a man or a woman is restrictive and oppressive. In reality, it’s wonderfully freeing. For any of us who feel we don’t fit in or don’t make the cut as a man or a woman, the Bible tells us the good news that we are already a man or a woman based on the way God has made us, the body he has given us. There’s no need to perform. No need to conform to gender stereotypes. We embrace who we are and find the freedom to be how we are.
Good news for transgender people
But what about transgender people? We might think God has a better story for people like me who experience low-level discomfort about their gender identity. But is there really a better story for people who identify as transgender, or those who experience significant gender dysphoria?
This is an important question to ask. For some people, there is a very real and deep-seated tension between what their body says (their biological sex) and who they feel themselves to be inside (sometimes called gender identity). This might be described as transgender experience. And this tension can be deeply distressing and painful, an experience that can lead to a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Many of us will never have experienced gender dysphoria, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a very real experience for some. We might struggle to fully appreciate what gender dysphoria feels like, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it seriously. For some, gender dysphoria is a distressing, painful, even debilitating experience.
Many in our society assume that the most loving thing to do is to allow such people to transition to live in line with how they feel inside, rather than what their body says. The claim is often made that transition is the best option for people who experience significant gender dysphoria. There’s limited reliable evidence on the matter, but I’m not convinced that such a claim is supported by the research available, and in fact, much of the evidence we have would seem to call it into question. This perspective also clashes with biblical teaching about expressing through our physical appearance the identity God has given us and it creates a distinction between our body and our true self that doesn’t fit with the Bible’s perspective of humans as embodied beings, our bodies being a key part of who we are.
So where’s the better story for transgender people? It may be that some can experience a lessening in their experience of gender dysphoria. Some people – especially those whose gender questioning appears in adolescence – have found that things such as mental health, same-sex attraction, and autism have been contributing factors to their experience and that their gender related distress can be reduced by engaging healthily with these. Others find less invasive alternatives to transition that help minimise their experience of dysphoria – perhaps by avoiding single-sex environments or choosing clothes that are not highly gendered.
What if someone never experience a change in their experience in this life? I think the starting point is the Bible’s big story – it’s here that we find the better story. We can look back to understand why things are as they are, and we can look forward to understand how things are going to be.
As we look back in the Bible story, we find the explanation for the reality that we all experience in different ways. God created a good world, but then sin entered that world and disrupted what God had created – this is what we call the Fall. This part of the story helps us understand why we all have the sense that some things are not as they are meant to be. For some of us, that might include a painful, distressing disconnect between who we feel ourselves to be and who God has actually made us to be. The truths of creation and the Fall help us understand something of the root of this experience. It allows us to understand how people can feel this way, even if we haven’t experienced it ourselves. It therefore allows us to feel great compassion – recognising the reality of people’s experience and acknowledging the reality of their pain.
As we look forward in the story, we find the hope that can be looked forward to. The promise of the Bible is that anyone who trusts in Jesus will spend eternity with him in utter perfection. All pain, distress and suffering will cease. God himself will wipe away our tears (Revelation 21:4). This is the future hope for those who live with the pain of gender dysphoria, just as it is the future hope for all God’s people as we face the pain and suffering that come with life on this earth. And knowing that can make a difference here and now. We are helped to endure sufferings now as we reflect on the glory to be revealed then (Romans 8:18). Even the most painful suffering now, will seem comparatively to be light and momentary then, and it is preparing for us a glory beyond compare (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Our culture teaches us to expect quick solutions to our pain and our problems. It teaches us that we have the right not to suffer. The Bible shows us that suffering in this age is unavoidable – as so many of us know – but it doesn’t leave us hopeless. Rather, it increases our hope for what is to come: the end of suffering, the coming of glory.
That better story about the future, has power for the present. We set our eyes on what’s to come and it shapes our experience of the present. But the Bible also gives us tools for living in our part of the story. We are invited to lament – to express our pain with brutal honesty, in relationship with others, but primarily in relationship with God. The Psalms give us models for how we can take our pain to God, and God’s people throughout the ages have been witness to the power of doing so. We are also commanded to walk arm in arm with others – we weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15) and can bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). We might suffer, but we don’t have to suffer alone. Many of us will know the power of having people alongside us in suffering. They can’t change our situation, but they can change our experience of it. For some, suffering may be a very real part of life. God isn’t unaware of that. In his word, he has equipped us to walk through suffering and to help others do the same.
As Christians, we have a better story for people questioning their gender identity. For those of us who feel a level of discomfort, there is wonderful freedom to be enjoyed in receiving the truth of a given identity, lifting off us the pressure to perform or conform. We can know who we are and receive the freedom to be how we are. For those who feel an acute sense of distress about their experience of gender, there may be things that can help, but there may not be a quick fix. There may not be full resolution in this lifetime. But that’s not an experience the Bible leaves us unable to handle. It’s an experience explained by the Bible’s big story, an experience not unique to those questioning their gender identity, and an experience that God, through his word and his people, can strengthen us to endure until we stand before him. ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away’ (Revelation 21:4). This is a better story.
Andrew is part of King’s Church Hastings and Bexhill. He is Emerging Generations Director at Living Out and a training and resources consultant for New Ground Churches. He studied theology at Durham University and King’s College London. Andrew is the author of ‘Who in Heaven’s Name Do You Think You Are?’ (Charis Books, 2015), ‘People Not Pronouns: Reflections on Transgender Experience’ (Grove Books, 2021) and ‘Finding Your Best Identity: A Short Christian Introduction to Identity, Sexuality and Gender’ (IVP, 2022).
 For a defence of this perspective, see Preston Sprinke, ‘A Biblical Conversation About Transgender Identities’, Pastoral Paper 12 from The Center for Faith, Sexuality and Gender (https://www.centerforfaith.com/resources?field_product_category_tid=1)