“To err is human,” or so the saying goes. When someone gives into temptation or makes a mistake of some kind, such a person will often say, “Well, I’m only human after all!” In other words, when we think of what it means to be a human being, usually we include all the ways in which we fall short of some kind of ethical or behavourial standard. To be human is to be finite and flawed. Such a way of seeing human nature is well-engrained into our cultural consciousness. We’re all aware of our own personal shortcomings and of the shortcomings of humanity as a whole. To put it in theological terms, the Christian doctrine of sin is empirically verifiable. There is evidence aplenty that you and I do not always live up to who we ought to be. We disappoint and are disappointed by one another. This is, in part, what it means to be a human being. Yet, secular people in our culture are often loath to admit that the source of the problem is the human heart itself. Many hold the belief that human beings are intrinsically good and that we learn poor behaviour or give into sin on account of our environment.
For this reason, the pride of the secular mind is believing that we can arrive at the solution to our own limitations. We can be the architects of our own utopias. The more effective our education systems and the more advanced our technology, the more we can mitigate human finitude and weakness. Usually those with this view conceive of this happening at a societal level. It’s not us as individuals that are problematic as much as it is our economic, govermental, and social systems. And while Christianity recognizes that there are larger–say, systemic–problems at play in our world, it also points to the individual human heart as the primary location for the human predicament.
At the same time, Christianity is all about redemption. Acknowledging that we are sinful, Christianity tells a story of spiritual transformation. The arc of the biblical narrative bends towards hope: hope that no matter how broken we are, we needn’t remain this way. However we experience our flawed human nature, the promise of God told through the trajectory of the Old and New Testament is that we can be forgiven for the ways in which we have brought hurt into the world; and that we can also experience the kind of spiritual change that diminishes this hurt and its effect on us and those around us. We can experience personal, spiritual change. That is, if we seek to do so.
As it happens, this change is possible because God himself comes into our world as a flesh and blood human being. Without going into all of the complexities of trinitarian doctrine, Christianity teaches that the second person of the Trinity, the Son, becomes a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This Jesus is the incarnation of the divine Son of God. He is both fully divine and fully human. For our purposes here, this is important because it is in Jesus that we see humanity as God has always intended. Jesus is fully human; we, in fact, are not. More, it is our very brokenness that prevents us from being fully human. To err is not what it means to be fully human; it is, however, what it means to be a human being in need of restoration. Put another way, if we want to know what it means to be fully human, we need to look to the person of Jesus.
More specifically, in Christ we see who we are supposed to be. Through the transforming power of the Spirit in our lives, we are to become more and more Christlike. That is, we are to become more and more free from the power of sin and more obedient to God. Our very desires are to be transformed so that we want what is sinful and evil less and less. It’s about living in complete and joyful freedom in relationship to God and one another. It is to become who we were created to be. Think of these words from the apostle Peter:
His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. By these he has given us very great and precious promises, so that through them you may share in the divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire.2 Peter 1:3-4
Through God’s power working in us we can come to share, as Peter says, in the divine nature. This is what allows us to experience forgiveness and freedom from sin and healing for our brokenness. It’s what frees us not only from sinful actions but sinful desires. Through Christ and the Spirit we can become who we were made to be in the presence of the Father. We are to exhibit what Scripture calls the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), characteristics that describe the person of Jesus. Indeed, in the very next verse Peter shares a list of spiritual qualities believers ought to display that is very much like the one Paul shares in Galatians 5:
For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with godliness, godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.2 Peter 1:5-9
In view of what I wrote about in part 1 of this series, that each of us is made in the image of God, it is also of profound importance that Christ is described in Scripture as the image of the invisible God. The image of God in human beings was broken through sin and disobedience. In Christ we see this image perfect and complete. And it is through his redemptive work and the sanctifying work of the Spirit that the image of God is us can be restored.
Of course, this process is life-long. Only in eternity–when we have been raised by Christ to enter his kingdom–will the imago Dei in us reach its fulfillment. Only then will we be complete. Only then will we be fully human. This means that in our lifetimes now, we will in various ways continue to struggle with our limitations, sin, and brokenness. Those of us who are “in Christ” are moving in the right direction but only with his return will we reach our destination and achieve our final telos. As the apostle Paul says: For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Colossians 3:3-4). It is with the parousia of Christ that we will also see ourselves (and one another) for who we really are.
Given that this series of posts has been about looking at what it means to be a human being in light of the conversations in our culture surrounding the LGBTQ+ community, and especially the transgender movement, what does the possibility of our restoration in Christ have to say to this?
First, there’s no reason to deny that there are people who experience an inner-sense of self out of step with their biological identity. Until recently this was known as gender dysphoria. However, acknowledging someone’s feelings as genuine to them does not automatically prescribe a particular course of action, medical or otherwise. Seeing the many stories of families being torn apart because the parents did not want to affirm their child as transgendered is both disturbing and immensely sad. This seems to me to be indicative of the various ways in which the tendrils of human brokenness insinuate themselves into all the nooks and crannys of our lives. Clearly, there are people in our world who believe that somehow they are trapped in the wrong body. What we do about this and what we do for these people is a very important conversation to have. Unfortunately, in my country, thanks to the recently passed Bill C-4, it is unclear whether having certain views or even having conversations about these matters is even legally permissable.
Second, human sexuality and identity is broken but there is hope for healing and redemption. The process of redemption that Christ invites us to enter is one that will continue until the day we die. Part of what this means is having to live with aspects of ourselves that remain outside of God’s purpose for us. For example, someone who experiences same-sex attraction may have to live with that desire even after coming to faith in Christ. There’s no guarantee of complete transformation in this life. No doubt different people with same-sex attraction may experience sanctification to different degrees. Each of us has to deal with temptations and sinful desires and forms of brokenness, though the Spirit of God indwells us. Indeed, God by his Spirit is renovating the hearts of those who have come to faith in Christ, but not altogether overnight. One day we will be made completely new but we live between the now and the not yet.
Third, since we are each a work in progress, it is up to God and not to us which part of ourselves (and others) he chooses to restore first. What I mean is this: if someone experiences the sense that they are in the wrong body or a same-sex attraction or another sense of self incongruent with God’s design, we shouldn’t assume that this is what God plans to work on first. We are complicated creatures, and God knows perfectly well what keeps us from enjoying fellowship with him. Indeed, what someone else sees as my more egregious shortcoming may not be what I experience as my biggest struggle with sin. More important than helping someone with what we think they ought to change or work on first is listening to them, demonstrating the truth and love of Christ, and leaving the work that has to happen in their heart and in their lives to God. Not that we can’t ever offer spiritual direction, but we ought to do so with humility and grace and compassion. Yes, we may have some wisdom, but God is wisdom.
Underlying all of this, of course, is my assumption that the Christian story–the biblical narrative arc of creation, fall, and redemption–is the story. I believe that this story is the human story. All of our lives fit into this story. You fit into this story. God wants to tell his story through your life. What this means is that understanding ourselves as human beings begins with who God has revealed himself to be and how he has created us. For each of us, there will be ways in which our desires and our thoughts and our choices do not line up with God’s purposes for us. This includes how we see our sexuality and gender identity. But because God created us out of the infinite abundance of his love, he also makes it possible for us to be realigned with his purposes. And this is so through Jesus the Christ, the one through whom and for whom all things were made. This includes you and me. Therefore, if we want to know what it means to be human in the fullest sense, it is through Christ that this is revealed and through him that we can begin to have the fullness of our humanity restored.