One has to know the Christian paradigms of human identity and love in order to understand the Christian view of sexuality.
If you admit ignorance or uncertainty on either of those issues you’re actually in better shape than most Christians, who don’t realize they’re woefully uninformed about their own system of belief.
There is no dominant secular definition of human identity as far as I know, which is not to say there aren’t many excellent theories. The Christian concept of identity is fairly straightforward (though by no means simple), but Christians often lose sight of it and pick up Western language while implicitly co-opting its varied meanings.
A Christian’s identity is found as a child of God, created in His image to be stewards of His creation. And that is the only place in which identity is found.
The trouble is, no one perfectly practices that. From birth we tend to internalize the emotional wounds we receive from others and act as if they are assaults on our identity.
As legitimately hurtful as many comments have been, none of my characteristics actually defines my identity. This is something that has to be learned, and it is something not many people do learn.
As a Christian, identity is solely defined as God’s intent for my life, which is that I understand I am His child, called into relationship with the Trinity and entrusted to care for His creation in His name according to His purposes.
My level of intelligence, my skin color, my gender, my nationality, my sexuality, my age, my birthplace, my family, my career, my hobbies, my personality: none of these things influence my proper identity. They are certainly secondary characteristics that inform how I act, what I believe, and the person I will choose to become, but they are not part of my actual identity.
These particular traits, in light of the impact the Fall has had on the entire created order, are to be understood as potentially altered by the Fall. That does not make gender, sexuality, et al irrelevant (far from it), but it means much of what we experience in our lives and in our bodies is not what God intended.
Thus we should all recognize our characteristics not as fundamental to our core but as in need of redemption.
It is heart-breaking and tragic that many of us are not emotionally able to do this because of the pain and persecution we have faced, which results in a bunker mentality regarding our attacked traits. It is horrible, and defensive responses in said situations are completely understandable.
But we should seek emotional and spiritual healing as we grow older, if not for us, then for our loved ones so we don’t subconsciously take our wounds out on them. We should be trying to get to the place where we can recognize that our identities are not tied up in the things we have been abused for so we can let our walls down.
I’m not suggesting that is easy, nor is it fair, but if we’re to truly love other people (and ourselves!), it is something that our health dictates.
Which brings us to this thing called “love.”
Love is catastrophically misunderstood in society and most of the Church. Nearly any person you ask will agree that the world surely needs more love, but in reality most of us have no idea what that actually means.
The proper way to understand love from a Christian perspective is well-put by Dallas Willard in his lecture, “Getting Love Right.”
“Love, as Paul and the New Testament presents it, is not action – not even action with a special intention – but a source of action…[it] is an overall condition of the embodied, social self poised to promote the goods of human life that are within its range of influence. It is, then, a disposition or character…a readiness to act in a certain way under certain conditions. It is not an action, nor a feeling or emotion, nor, indeed, an intention, as ‘intention’ is ordinarily understood.”
Willard quotes and explains selections of scripture to support his thesis. For brevity’s sake I will stick to quotes of Willard here but recommend the entire lecture to the reader.
“It cannot be said too often that agape love is not desire, and not delight. Desire and feelings generally have a different nature than love, and if we don’t understand this clearly we will remain helpless to enter into love and to receive it into ourselves. Desire and feelings fall into the domain of impulse, not that of choice. They aim at their satisfaction, not at what is better and possibly best. Choice considers alternatives and weighs what is best. If its vision is broad enough, it will find what is good and right. If it is surrendered to God, united with his will, it will be able to do what is best. That of course is the nature of love. It seeks what is best.”
Willard locates the ultimate barrier to love in the human will, and it is precisely the human will demanding what it perceives as its own rights and wants that one sees at play so often across every spectrum of Western life.
“We can undertake actions that remove the barriers to love that reside in the various dimensions of the self. They may reside in the will itself, ultimately the root of all the resistance to love: the will as a stubborn resolve to have one’s own way, to control others, and to be exalted. Such a person will be governed by the desires of the eyes and of the flesh and the pride of life (1 John 2:16)…To escape such a life they have to surrender self-will as their governing principle, a hardened resolve to have one’s own way. They will have to yield their will to good and to God, and learn to seek what is good for others as well as one’s self.”
How this impacts perception and thus action in the individual life is key:
“The will to have one’s own way embeds itself in the other dimensions of the personality and becomes largely ‘unconscious’ to the one governed by it: in habits of feeling, in ‘automatic’ bodily responses, and in thoughtless patterns of social interaction. Self will thus moves outside conscious thought and action and presents itself as simple reality. That objectifies it and presents it as ‘how the world is.’ Love and Jesus’ teachings of love thus seem ‘unrealistic’ or even impossible.”
This implicit glorification of the self is so pervasive in our Western minds as to be entirely unrecognized by most.
It’s insidious because a person can say and intend the opposite of what they truly (but unknowingly) believe deep within themselves. A Christian can do good works and live an exemplary life from the outside, seemingly in service to God, but in reality truly in service to the self.
To clarify and briefly recap, identity and love are relevant when regarding the Christian approach to sexuality because one must properly recognize that sexuality (be it hetero-, homo-, bi-, or a-) is not supposed to be associated with one’s identity but with the many number of human characteristics that can be influenced by the Fall, and that love is not the feelings, desires or impulses that arouse within us (whatever they may be; St. Augustine described them as “passions”), but is a source of action to promote what is truly good for others.
One can go so far to suggest that there are two “selves” in each of us that are often in conflict with each other. Paul states exactly that in his Epistle to the Romans. The first “self” with which we are most familiar is that which is comprised of what Augustine called the passions: our uninhibited feelings and desires [it is a mistake to believe that every feeling we experience or thought we have necessarily originates within us – there are several outside influences (not least of which are the spiritual) that compel us].
The second “self” consists of our true identity as discussed above. The Christian belief is that this true self becomes more fully alive when redeemed in and through Christ, and living through this self is ultimately more rewarding and joyful as it aligns with the purposes for our existence and begins to properly Integrate the good aspects of the false self.
It is through the submission of the false self to God that the true self emerges.
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