Sam Allberry: Christians & Gender Dysphoria
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Sam AllberrySam Allberry is a pastor based in Maidenhead, UK. He is part of the global speaking team for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, and an editor for The Gospel Coalition. He is the author of a number of books, including James For You, Why Bother With Church? and the bestselling Is God Anti-Gay?
How can we bring God and the Bible into the painful complexities of gender dysphoria? Author Sam Allberry offers tips to express Jesus’ compassion and help.
Sam Allberry: Christians & Gender Dysphoria
Ann: What percentage of people do you think, Dave, look in the mirror and absolutely love what they see?
Dave: Wow! What percent?
Dave: The first number that came to my mind was one percent.
Dave: Very, very, very low. I remember—do you remember—the opening to Happy Days?
Dave: Don’t you remember Happy Days?—Fonzie?
Ann: Yes, I do.
Dave: That’s how Happy Days started—he looked in the mirror; he was getting ready to do his hair—and he just goes, “Oh, I’m perfect”; then he walks away. [Laughter] That was the opening of every show of Happy Days. I thought, “Nobody does that!”
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: Nobody looks in a mirror and goes, “Oh, I’m perfect! Look at me! I’m a work of God.” I think—am I wrong?—do you? Do you look in the mirror and go, “There’s nothing I would change. I just absolutely love how I look”?
Ann: I think, since the age of 13, I’ve been wanting to change things about me. And before that, I just never thought about it. I think that’s true of the Western culture; I don’t know if that’s true in other parts of the world.
Dave: Well, let’s find out. We’ve got Sam Allberry back with us on FamilyLife Today. Welcome back, Sam.
Sam: Thanks for having me.
Dave: I mean, we’re talking about this because you wrote a book called What God Has to Say about Our Bodies. It’s really about applying the good news of the gospel to a theology of the body. Obviously, many know you as a pastor, a writer, a speaker, and an apologist.
Talk about the UK. Is it any different there? Do people look in the mirror in the UK and say, “Oh, I just look awesome! There’s nothing I want to change,” or is it a struggle there as well as in the US?
Sam: It’s a huge issue in both of our countries and in so many parts of the world. As you rightly say, it’s predominantly a Western thing; but given the kind of globalization of culture and everything else, it seems to be spreading into everywhere.
Ann: You guys, I’m just going to say—this is probably not true, and I’ll probably offend a bunch of people—but we, as women, we feel more sorry for ourselves; because we think, “Guys have it easy!” Women/we have cycles every month which changes us hormonally. Some of us have babies, and then we have this added weight; and then we lose the weight.” It’s hard! See?—it’s way harder for us as women! Is that true?
Dave: I think you’re/I think you’re right.
Ann: Do you?!
Dave: I do. Sam, do you agree?
Sam: I mean, I only have an experience of being a man, so I can’t comment outside with that. [Laughter] But I would imagine so. What I would also say is that it’s harder for men than most people realize.
Dave: I agree.
Sam: We’re not always as open and honest about it. But I know a lot of men who have huge angst and anxiety about their bodies and their appearance.
Ann: I think that is true, and it’s become more so. I know that Dave has coached young men for years—
Dave: I’ve coached, you know, for almost 30 years. Thirty years ago, when I was coaching middle school basketball, you could say, in a practice: “Hey, you guys take off your shirts. Let’s go skins versus shirts,”—you know, to pick teams. You cannot say that anymore. They look at you like, “I am not taking off my shirt. You can’t ask me to do that. Give me a different color shirt. I’m not going to let my peers even see my skin.”
So it is definitely true for men as well as women. Do you feel that, Sam? That it’s even more so?
Sam: Very much so; it’s increasing. The surveys, that have been done on this, show that, amongst men and women, unhappiness about how we look is just going up, and up, and up, and up.
Sam: Lots of reasons for that; but I think, at least, one of those reasons is, with all our kind of online social media stuff, and just with the kind of technology that we live with, the standard of what counts now as being beautiful is almost entirely unrealistic and unattainable. Even the images we’re seeing on the billboards and on the movie screens are not necessarily real: it’s all been photo-shopped, or it’s a Hollywood actor who looks the way they do because they’ve been forced into a certain regime of training and eating that would not be sustainable beyond the lifespan of making that particular movie. But it’s training all of us to think, “Well, if you don’t look like that, you’re just kind of a waste of flesh.”
Dave: You know, as you said, to look like a Hollywood actor is their life/it’s their job. I remember watching The Rock, Dwayne Johnson, on a talk show. The host of the talk show—this was years ago—he’s [The Rock] got this sculpted physique that’s just unbelievable. It’s just what he does; right?
I’ll never forget: this host asked The Rock: “Do you ever take a day off?” I’ll never forget; The Rock looks at him and goes, “Oh, yes; I cheat! Once every six months, I’ll have a slice of pizza!” [Laughter] Once every six months?! The truth is, you can’t look like that if you cheat every day. For us to think that’s the normal body—that is not the normal body!
But let’s talk about—
Ann: And even The Rock is going to get old, people.
Dave: One of the sections of your book is you talking about “broken bodies.” One of the big questions in our culture right now is gender. As you think about physical—and our bodies—and the theology of the body from God’s perspective, how would you enter into this question of gender?
Sam: Yes; it’s a big issue; and it’s, obviously, a very tender issue. I think we’re aware, with all the discussion going on about transgenderism—we’re particularly aware of that part of the conversation—but it’s actually a much broader conversation. So many men and women I speak to wonder if they’re everything they’re supposed to be, as a man or as a woman. Again, I think that anxiety is on the rise. Even among people within the church, there can be a sense of, you know, “I feel like, if I’m a man, I’m supposed to be this sort of way, and I’m not sure I am,” —or if I’m a woman—“I’m supposed to be like that, and I’m not sure I am.”
It's an area where, again, I think more than we might realize, people are not as comfortable as they may appear to be, even with their own sense of who they are as a man or a woman. Again, we can praise God that we’re not left completely to ourselves to figure these things out; we have the Scriptures, and we need them. It’s one of those areas where we need to be so careful not to say more than the Bible says about what it means to be a man or a woman, and certainly not to say less than the Bible says.
I think—and this is very broad brushstrokes—I think sometimes Western culture says less than the Bible does, and I think the church sometimes says more than the Bible does. I think one of the ways that the Western culture often says less than the Bible does is simply by kind of denying that male and female are distinct physical categories at all. The focus is now much more on the inner sense of identity/the inner sense of self—and who you feel yourself to be—being the real determiner of whether you are a man or a woman.
Whereas, in the Bible, we see that, you know, God created us male and female in
Genesis 1. Jesus reaffirms that in Matthew 19; and very significantly, just a few verses after, Jesus reaffirms that God has made us male and female, He says, “Some are born eunuchs.” He’s saying, you know, the fact that we are male and female doesn’t mean there’s no complexity; doesn’t mean there’s no difficulties. There are people, whose experience and feelings of their own gender are not going to be straightforward.
In the case of the eunuch, Jesus is speaking about people who, in this instance, men who may not have all of the sort of anatomical package that you would expect a normal man to have. Jesus anticipates that there are going to be some complexities to that. So, being male and female doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a eunuch—there’s no such thing as complexity—but the presence of a eunuch, similarly, doesn’t mean there’s no thing as male and female. We need to, again, let the Scriptures show us that—there is brokenness; there is pain; there is confusion—but there are also some fixed points that we can build our understanding around.
And I think that the church often goes further than the Bible by sort of adding to what it means to be a man. You know, “If you’re a man, you’re meant to be shooting stuff,” [Laughter] or “…aggressive and athletic,” or “If you’re a woman, you’re meant to be…” I remember a friend of mine saying his homeschool textbook said, “God wants women to be dainty.” He was saying, “There wasn’t a bracket with a Bible verse next to that sentence, because you can’t/there isn’t a Bible verse that says that.”
I think sometimes, if our culture sort of obliterates any distinction between man and woman/male and female, I think sometimes that the church has too narrow a view of what it can look like to be a man and what it can look like to be a woman. We see, within the Scriptures, some wonderfully-varied examples of great, godly men, and some varied examples of great, godly women.
I think of King David. He epitomizes something of the stereotype—you know, he was a warrior; he was a fighter—that fits that kind of stereotype; and yet, David was also artistic. He spent a lot of time playing a harp and writing poems, things that we wouldn’t necessarily associate with being sort of a real man. I think the Bible gives us slightly broader categories than we’ve typically thought in.
Ann: Walk us through, Sam—because I’m thinking of our listeners, whose kids are struggling, maybe, with gender dysphoria—they’re confused, and they don’t know. I talk to so many moms who are saying, “I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to say it. I don’t know how to bring God and the Bible into this in a way that they would understand and even receive.”
I feel like you’ve really helped us with a biblical context of how to communicate that. Talk to those parents, as their kids are confused: maybe they’re in adolescence; and they’re starting to wonder about themselves, especially in schools and in a culture that’s really highlighting a lot of these things.
Sam: Yes; it can be an agonizing situation for a parent to be in and, also, agonizing for the child as well. I think the very first thing we need to do is to be compassionate. Again, the Bible shows us that we don’t have a straightforward relationship with our bodies. Paul says in Romans 8, “Creation is being subjected to frustration.” Our bodies are part of that creation; and so there is all manner of ways our bodies can be a source of pain, and confusion, and hurt.
Actually, Christians of all people should be the most instinctively compassionate to someone wrestling with gender dysphoria; because we’ve got the Bible that accounts for how someone can end up feeling that way—someone could even feel so alienated from their own body/their own flesh; feel so ill at ease in their own skin—we can understand that. The Bible shows us how that can be the case. I think [we are] to show compassion and understanding. Often, in the culture around us, a lot of the thinking and discourse around the issue of gender dysphoria is quite unhelpful and quite unbiblical; but the pain is very real. We should be very much alive to that.
We all have broken bodies. That gives us, even if I don’t know what it feels like to wrestle with gender dysphoria, it means I should feel some form of solidarity with that struggling person—because I don’t know what their battle’s like—but I, also, have a broken body.
We also know, I think, that the answer to our bodily brokenness is not going to be found in our own bodies, not ultimately. Although, culturally, there are options for people who wrestle with gender dysphoria—there are surgeries; there are hormonal treatments; there are all kinds of other things that can be done to the body to try to make it feel right for that person—actually, we know, as Christians, that that is not going to be, ultimately, what helps; because underneath that gender dysphoria/underneath all of our bodily brokenness, is a much deeper brokenness.
Trying to fix one aspect, like our bodily brokenness, without attending to that deeper brokenness, means we won’t really address the heart issues. We see around us instances, tragically, of people who’ve gone through surgeries and transitions, and have ultimately not felt better about themselves. The rates of mental health and suicidal ideation amongst people, who’ve gone through transition, can be so dramatically higher than for the wider population, which just means that we need to remind ourselves that the answer to this kind of bodily brokenness is ultimately the broken body of Jesus. That is where we find healing for our bodies; that’s where we can begin to find peace when it comes to our bodies.
Jesus went through ultimate bodily brokenness for us: we know the physical afflictions that He went through; we can barely imagine what those must have been like. But we also know that, in His flesh, He bore our sins: “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us.” If I could put it this way, the ultimate experience of being in the wrong flesh was when He, who knew no sin, became sin for us. That is the ultimate dysphoria. And it’s only going to be in that that we can find hope for our own. Because of what He’s done, we will one day have bodies that will be perfectly fitted for our service of Christ and His people.
Until that day, for some people, gender dysphoria may be a life-long battle. I can think of one dear Christian friend of mine, who has wrestled with this his entire life. He just has to keep—as we all do—he has to keep bringing how he feels about himself under the gospel, and reminding himself of what God says about himself. All of us need that; because, again, as we talked about before, we have been fearfully and wonderfully made. By God’s grace—and it can take a long time—with His help, we can begin to receive the body we have as a gift from Him.
Again, David says, “I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” That is not going to happen overnight for someone with gender dysphoria; it can be a battle for them, for decades, to praise God for the body that they’ve been given. But it is a gift to us—our bodies are a gift and a calling from the Lord—they may not be the gift and the calling we would have chosen, and there can be so much about our physical experience in life that we would not have chosen, and that will not ultimately be fixed until the age to come, which is why we need to keep remembering there is an age to come; and we will not be disembodied in that age to come. We will have resurrected bodies. This life now—this physical life now—is not the only experience of embodied life we’re going to have.
So, for our dear friends listening, who deal with chronic pain, there will be a time when you feel pain-free in your flesh. For those of us getting a little bit older and—
Dave: —losing our hair? [Laughter]
Sam: You know, I’m in my mid-40s; and every now and then, I manage to cause myself bizarre amounts of pain just by getting out of bed the wrong way or something. [Laughter] It’s ridiculous. But you know, our best physical days are ahead of us! That’s what it means to have a resurrected body. You know, I may have been in my prime in my early 20s, or whenever it was; but actually, my best physical days are ahead.
I don’t have to constantly look back; I can look forward.
Ann: I’m going to start using that!
Dave: That’s a beautiful thought! But I’ve got to say this, Sam: what you just said in the last seven/eight minutes was such a beautiful theology of the body. You started with something I think we really have to lean in[to] a little bit. It was the best response from a parent or a Christ-follower to someone who’s struggling with whatever issue it is with their body, whether [or not it’s] dysphoria, is compassion and empathy.
Help our parents understand what that would look like, and maybe even what that wouldn’t look like. What should we or should we not do, as a Christ-follower—especially our listeners, who are parents?— they’re like, “Man, you’re talking to me.
Dave: “My son” or “My daughter is right there!”
Ann: —because they’re gripped in fear.
Ann: So many parents are gripped with fear.
Dave: Coach us up! What should we or should we not do?
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Sam Allberry on FamilyLife Today. We’ll hear Sam’s response in just a minute; but first, let me just say that we’d love to send you a copy of Sam’s book, called What God Has to Say about Our Bodies. We’ll send that to you when you make a donation of any amount this week to support the work of FamilyLife Today. You can do that at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can give us a call with your donation at 1-800-358-6329. That could be a one-time gift or a recurring monthly gift. Again, the number is 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Alright, now let’s get back to Dave and Ann’s conversation with Sam Allberry.
Sam: I think what we shouldn’t do—and I’m sure this is obvious—but you know, if someone is expressing pain of something like gender dysphoria, then simply saying, “You shouldn’t feel that way; you’re not supposed to,”—you know, telling someone to “Stop it!”—is never a good first approach to an issue like that. We can’t help experiencing some of these particular pains. We can help how we respond to them, and what we do with them, and what we allow ourselves to think about them and what they might mean or not mean.
I think, you know, when someone is hurting: tenderness, listening well. Let’s not turn, as parents, into Job’s comforters and start kind of diagnosing where that person has clearly gone wrong. Or I’m sure an easy reaction for a parent is to think, “Well, what did I do wrong that means you are experiencing this?” You could have done every single thing right as a parent—which no one ever has—and your child would still be experiencing the ravages of the fall, because we live in the fallen world. I’ve got to say the doctrine of total depravity, I think, is a comfort to parents; because it means your child is going to experience fallen-ness in every area of life, however good a parent you are or are not.
So it’s not something simply to sort of swoop in and try to correct; but to come in and understand, and sit alongside, and try and/you know, we are to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. We can, over time, try to help someone to learn what it might mean to think biblically about a given struggle and a given pain; but the bit that precedes that is someone feeling heard, and understood, and sympathized with. And we have a great example of that in our Savior Himself. He’s not unable to sympathize with us, and we can learn from His example and make sure we sympathize well with one another.
I think those would be some of the key things to try to do what we can to understand and not try to go into fix-it mode.
Ann: We often say to parents, and we have said it to ourselves, in the first response: “Do not freak out.
Ann: “If you are freaking out, hold it inside.”
I think that that’s super-helpful Sam, of we’re offering empathy, sympathy, understanding, like: “Oh, that’s got to be really hard for you, and confusing…”
Ann: To love them, to hold them, to hug them. Then you can go into your room, and you can get on your knees. This is what I would say: “Jesus, are You hearing this?! I don’t even know what to do.” But to go to the Father, who loves us, and wants to hear us, and longs to help us with whatever situation we’re going through for ourselves or our kids.
Dave: And how beautiful would it be if the non-believing world felt like, “The safest place to go with any struggle I have is to a Christ-follower—
Dave: —“to a community of Christ-followers,” —“to my parents, who are Christ-followers. It’s safe there; I will be understood there. I can bring my full self there—my spiritual issues, my body issues—you name it. That’s where I’m going to run rather than running away. I’m running to that community, because there I find compassion.”
Dave: That’s the picture that the church and we, as parents, should be.
Sam: Absolutely; amen to that. “A bruised reed He will not break”; we can trust Jesus with our most tender bruises. He’s not going to stomp all over us; He’s not going to scold us; He’s not going to crush us. So that—again, to what a parent can do—is to show the child: “I will do everything I can to be with you,” and “As long as you’re wrestling with this, I’m going to be with you in it,” “But Jesus can understand you in a way that none of the rest of us will be able to do. He’s not unable to sympathize; He gets it more than we do! And He’s going to be tender with you.”
We can keep showing our precious kids that, whatever they’re going through, they will never find anyone better than Jesus to bring those problems to. And to say, as a parent—I’m sure it’s liberating for parents to say—“I can help you a certain amount; He can help you so much more. He is the Good Shepherd.”
Shelby: You’ve been listening to FamilyLife Today. If you know of anyone who could benefit from today’s conversation with Sam Allberry, go ahead and tell them about this station; or you can share today’s episode from wherever you get your podcasts as well. And while you’re there, it would really help us out if you would rate and review us.
Now, speaking of the body, if you’ve got a preteen who might be starting to have questions about their body, you should really check out FamilyLife’s Passport2Purity®. It’s a chance for you and your preteen to get away, just the two of you, and listen to solid teaching on how a young person can navigate the changes they’re experiencing as they become a young adult. You can find out more at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Now, what do we do when we resonate a little too much with what Jesus said about the spirit being willing, but the flesh—or our bodies—being weak?—just give up and down a pint of ice cream in your PJs? Well, probably not. At least, not too often. Well, Sam Allberry will be back tomorrow to talk about what God has to say about our bodies.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We’ll see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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