Rooting our identities in deeper truths than societal ideas or stereotypes

Written by Stephanie Massicotte

In 2012, a study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence explored how gay men in the UK, who were targeted by violent hate crimes, coped with feeling victimized. Some of the men accepted the fact they had been a victim for a period but recovered over time. But other men believed being a victim was so deeply incompatible with their identity as men that they no longer saw themselves as real men. This second group fell into deep depression; their sense of self was shattered.

These men’s experiences suggest we cannot explore the topic of gender without wrestling with the deeper issue of identity. One common pitfall in our culture today is building our identity based on shaky and temporary things.

For example, trying to live up to societal ideas, images, or stereotypes of what it looks like to be a man or a woman is both shaky and temporary since those ideas and stereotypes can change over time, across cultures, or in different life stages.

Our culture has a lot to say about what being a woman, man, or non-binary person should look like—what clothes to wear or behaviours or traits to adopt or avoid. But our identity and sense of self need to be built on a foundation stronger than these flimsy ideals. Our gender is simply a subcategory of our identity.

In contrast, what the Bible says about gender identity can be very freeing, once it sinks in. In Genesis 1:27 we read: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

Let’s look at two details in this verse. First, both women and men are made in God’s image; they are both made to reflect God. Both genders have God as a starting point—their DNA originates with God. That is mind-blowing!

Second, after creating humans with genders, God didn’t give Adam and Eve a rulebook on gender traits or roles. In other words, we don’t find a narrow picture of what masculinity and femininity should look like. We are free to express our genders uniquely. Where culture or traditions might box people in to fit very specific gender ideals, God sets us free to be the unique image bearers God has always meant us to be.

God sets us free to be the unique image bearers God has always meant us to be.

Unfortunately, we live in a broken world that twists and complicates gender identity into something God never meant it to be. The Bible tells us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are his ways our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).

God invites us to trust him enough to build our sense of self and our understanding of gender identity on his Word. God asks us to seek to imitate and reflect God’s character. That focus will bring us closer to being our best selves than trying to measure up to shifting cultural trends about gender expression.

The UK men who were targeted by hate crimes struggled to see themselves as real men after being victimized. Many of us have also experienced hard circumstances that strain or even break our sense of self.

Often, we don’t live up to what we or others expect a man or a woman should be. So many of us carry pain and shame based on how our families or communities expect us to express our maleness or femaleness.

We might struggle with our sexual orientation or with gender dysphoria. We might feel discomfort or dissociation with our bodies or insecurity about our sexuality. Or we might regret decisions or actions we no longer think were honouring to God.

Fortunately, we serve a God of new beginnings. The Lord is the Potter, and we are the clay (Isaiah 64:8). The good news is that God redeems, restores, and gives us a fresh start. We can bring our struggles, confusions, brokenness, and hurts to God—the One who gives us beauty in place of ashes.

God heals our identities, our whole selves, and brings us clarity as to who we are called to be. In fact, Jesus invites us to come to Him if we carry a heavy burden, promising to give us rest. He says: “I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:28-30, MSG).

Stephanie Massicotte is a registered psychotherapist in Ottawa, Ont. who currently trains new crisis counsellors. She also teaches a course at the Lifecentre School of the Bible on the Books of Wisdom.