Whatever else gender is, it is always this: a shadow on the ultrasound. “There, do you see it?” The technician is excited. Mom and Dad scratch their heads and feign understanding. Some mystery has transpired under the smooth bowling ball of a young woman’s belly, and deep in this secret place, a person is taking shape, the em-body-ment of soul into tiny fingers and toes, banging heart and steady marrow. A person, engendered.
Whatever else gender is, it is always this: part of our story, wished for or not. It’s the gawky blossoming of unselfconscious child to lovestruck teen, angsty and afraid. It’s shy glances at the little redheaded boy across the room, helpless blushing, admiration of the unattainable. It lurks in the mirror; it’s there in the locked diary. It’s part of us.
From birth to senior prom, our loftiest dreams are always anchored in flesh and blood. Whatever else we are, our identity dwells inside a body.
Whatever else gender is, it has always been. It was part of our story there in the beginning, God’s good design. Good, because it has been blessed, is offered to us as a blessing. From skunk to rhinoceros, gecko to robin red breast, the animals lined up in pairs, halves of a whole. And after they were all named (noticed, known, and celebrated), the humans, too, were paired. Male and female He created; in His image, male, in His image, female.
This is a story that resists flattening into sameness; the Bible is a wildly intricate pop-up book. We are not blandly androgynous, but gloriously distinct. Somehow our endless differences reflect endlessly creative divinity, a trinity co-equal but willingly interdependent, sometimes submissive, always love.
Do you remember the horror of Madeleine L’Engle’s Camazotz, where even the houses were “all exactly alike, small square boxes painted gray”? Here was a darkened planet, ruled not by compassion, but by a disembodied brain. L’Engle painted for us the terrifying end of a heartless intellect seeking equality. Love is not tit for tat, but messy, and beautiful. Where uniformity is the goal, we are diminished.
I have been thinking a lot about gender—gender roles in marriage, gender roles in ministry, gender confusion and pain in the greater world abroad. Scroll today’s news feed and you’ll be confronted with it, too, all of the stories freighted with outrage and anguish. Logic is insufficient to answer the howl. For every traditionalist who makes an open and shut case of it, there are a thousand souls hanging in the balance, grieving. But glib appeals to our freedom of choice cannot satisfy the why of the thing. Trading our sorrows for unresolvable anger is a pretty poor trade. When we are quick to say “do whatever you want,” a thousand souls snap shut, bitter hearts closed to their Creator.
Perhaps if we had a more cerebral religion—less messy, less complex… Perhaps if Christmas began and ended at the pristine annunciation of hovering angels (above, beyond, ethereal), and didn’t involve goopy delivery on a straw-covered floor… Maybe if a factory god made cookie-cutter people, every strand of hair and shade of skin the same… But no. We grapple with the Christ of incarnation, the Word made flesh. No neat and tidy God for us. Who is He?
Our identity begs questions: why am I the way I am; what characteristics are fundamentally me? If I bear the stamp of a designer, what purpose is woven into my personality, my strengths, my weakness? What sort of God daydreamed us up, permits our stormy emotions, unconditionally cares for us, yet lets us struggle with the most basic definition of our being?
What sort of God?
All of our quirks—our pain, our desire, our abilities, and even our unrequited love is purposeful if there is design behind the universe. There is a crack here in the mystery. Press your face up and catch a glimpse of God.
God, who is love, who is only one but always three. The Father, who gives glory to the Son, who gives glory back to the Father. The Son, who willingly sacrificed His life for His beloved, the besotted bridegroom of a somewhat reluctant bride. Spirit, who binds us all together in perfect unity, distinct as we are in temperament and skillset but equally adored. Father, Son, Spirit—unique in their roles, but equal in worth, always kind, always humble.
Gender was designed to tell this story, to reenact it daily for all time. It is not a problem to be solved. Whatever else it is, it bears the stamp of love.
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