Am I Repressing Who I Truly Am?
A few months ago, back when it was still normal to have parties and meet people in real life, I found myself at a party chatting with a few other gay folk from very different walks of life. It’s always fascinating meeting other gay people with different worldviews and feeling that bizarre mix of deep solidarity and also radically different experiences of sexuality. Even the questions other people might ask as a typical conversation starter might be questions I’ve never had to answer before.
For example, one of these guys walked over to our group, sat down, and within seconds had turned to ask, “So what’s your body count?” He hadn’t even told us his name yet. It took me a moment to process what he was asking and to realise that ‘body count’ meant how many people someone has slept with. I can’t say anyone had ever asked me that question so bluntly before, let alone as an opening ‘get-to-know-you’ question.
What followed was a fascinating and unusual conversation about our very different experiences of being gay. After this guy picked his jaw up off the floor upon hearing that I’d never even dated a guy, he hit me with the inevitable follow-up question: “WHY?”
I’ve written before about my response to people asking why I’ve chosen singleness. Often those conversations feel like a jarring contrast to the experience of the person I’m speaking to, where celibacy and chosen singleness are such foreign concepts, especially to LGBTIQ+ folk who have spent generations fighting for the freedom to openly love whom they want to. If you’ve read my last post, you might recognise this as an application of the “differentiation” part of the “differentiation-solidarity framework” I wrote about, where I would highlight the distinctiveness of my Christian worldview. That’s normally what happens when I compare experiences with other queer people; we might find each other’s perspectives foreign and a bit strange and as we listen we start to understand each other better. But the conversation at the party that night took a refreshingly different angle, working the “solidarity” approach a bit more as we related our shared experiences of sexuality across our various worldviews.
So how did we get from a stranger at a party asking an awkward celibate Christian dude “What’s your body count?” to finding solidarity and connection?
We talked about a shared value we both held, and the different ways that value was expressed in our worldview.
We agreed that one of the most important values shaping our decisions is the need to live consistently with who we truly are. I’ll describe more about how that particular conversation played out in another post, but right now I want to unpack a bit more about this concept of being who you are.
One of the most defining mantras of our time is, “Be who you are” or its popular variants, “Be true to yourself,” and “You do you.” I don’t have to convince you it’s everywhere because I know your media is saturated with this message in pop songs like Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” books like the Divergent series, and hit TV shows and movies like Glee and The Greatest Showman. Everywhere we turn there are narratives telling us that true fulfillment is found in being who you really are.
Now, most evangelical Christians seem to feel uncomfortable speaking this way, and perhaps with good reason. We believe in a God who says that anyone who wants to follow him must deny themselves and be prepared to suffer for following him (Matthew 16:24). But I think in critiquing the world’s ‘Be who you are’ narrative, we discard a valuable seed of truth. A seed that has the potential to be nurtured and grown into a bigger, fruitful biblical philosophy.
Here’s what Kevin DeYoung has to say about it:
“If I had to summarize New Testament ethics in one sentence, here’s how I would put it: be who you are. That may sound strange, almost heretical, given our culture’s emphasis on being true to yourself. But like so many of the worst errors in the world, this one represents a truth powerfully perverted. When people say, “Relax, you were born that way,” or “Quit trying to be something you’re not and just be the real you,” they are stumbling upon something very biblical. God does want you to be the real you. He does want you to be true to yourself. But the “you” he’s talking about is the “you” that you are by grace, not by nature.”Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in our Holiness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 100.
He goes on to describe who we truly are as Christians is people united to Jesus, transformed by his grace, and undergoing continual transformation through his spirit living in us. At our core, at the heart of who we truly are, we are children of God reborn with a renewed personhood and nature. This is why the Apostle Paul insists that it makes no sense to keep living our old way of life (Colossians 3). We have been spiritually reborn, and that gives us a new identity and a new nature that must not be repressed and denied!
I love speaking to other gay people about this, because they ‘get it’ more than anyone that living a life of repression just doesn’t work. When we repress who we are at our core or live in a way that contradicts our nature, the life is slowly drained from us. This is why how we behave really matters: because no one can flourish while they are living a contradiction. In Colossian 3, Paul reminds believers that their union with Jesus means they have died with him and been raised to new life with him in a profoundly real, spiritual sense, and with this new life comes new identity and a new nature. This is why he exhorts them to put off the ‘earthly nature’ which is not who they truly are anymore: things like “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” (Colossians 3:5). Do Christians still struggle with those things? Absolutely. That’s why Paul had to plead with his readers to give up those patterns. We can still do them, but they will ruin us; that’s not who we are anymore.
Instead, the new nature longs for us to be filled with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” as well as forgiveness, and above all, love (Colossians 3:12-14). If you have experienced this rebirth, then THIS is who you truly are now. It might still be a battle, but if this is our new nature, we can only ever be fulfilled when this is how we live.
So as a celibate, gay Christian, am I repressing who I really am? Sometimes.
I repress who I really am when I give in to temptation and look at porn.
I repress who I really am when I see a cute guy at the beach and allow myself to mentally undress him and imagine touching him in places that are only appropriate for the marriage bed.
I repress who I really am when I inflate sinful pride in my own self-control and arrogantly ignore my utter dependence on God’s grace.
I repress who I really am when I do anything that isn’t fueled by a deep love for Jesus and humble dependence on his transformation.
My new friend at that party and I had very different ideas of who we truly were. For my friend, to be true to himself meant exploring the delights of dating and hooking up with guys. For me, being myself means giving in to my deepest desires to follow Jesus and cultivate a loving relationship with him.
Notice I didn’t say “giving in to my only desire.” Being true to who I am isn’t as simple as working out what I want and then just doing that, because I have a plethora of different desires, and many of them are at odds with each other. Sometimes being who I am will actually mean denying myself certain desires in order to be faithful to who I am.
Let me put it another way. Someone who desires to improve their fitness will have to deny themselves all sorts of other desires in order to achieve that. They have to deny the urge to sleep in, and drag themselves to the gym for that early morning workout. They have to deny the cravings to binge junk food. They have to push past the physical pain of exerting their body while they continually exercise. Only by denying themselves those other desires are they able to be true to the deeper desire to become fit. We even have sayings like, “No pain, no gain” that acknowledge the necessity of temporary suffering for a greater cause. Denying ourselves certain desires can be an admirable thing when it is part of a deeper devotion to something else. People with these kind of fitness goals would be described as disciplined and conscientious, not repressed.
A celibate gay Christian might be easily misunderstood as a repressed, self-hating homophobe. But what if instead we lauded them as showing exemplary devotion to truly being themselves? It takes real depth of conviction to willingly deny oneself the desire for sexual intimacy out of devotion to an even bigger love. Every single one of us is denying ourselves something, because all of us have desires in conflict. The real question is, who are you really at your core?
I want to be very upfront about the fact that I do have strong and lasting desires to have a male partner in a way that is at odds with my core convictions. But choosing singleness doesn’t feel like a repression of those desires so much as a wholehearted embracing of who I truly am in Jesus. When you really know who you are, you ought to do whatever it takes to be faithful to that, no matter the cost.
This is why I have no interest in coercing people into “moral lifestyles” (I hate that term). Empty rule-following achieves nothing if it isn’t driven by a renewed nature: renewal that can only happen by personally encountering God’s grace through his spirit. This is why, if you’re one of my many treasured LGBTQ+ friends and you don’t share my worldview, I will do everything I can to affirm my love for you; I want to get to know your partners and hopefully make them my own friends; I want to be a safe person you can confide in, free from the judgement and stigma you’re probably sick of receiving from other religious people. I won’t try to change your choices.
But I will share the joy of new life in knowing Jesus with you; I will pray for you to experience this same joy; and if you’re lucky and I really love you enough to take a risk, I might even ask you to read some of Bible together so you can see for yourself that this new life is worth it. If you decide that it is, then after a mad celebration, we might have some conversations about what this new life looks like and how to be true to your new self; how to joyfully follow Jesus even when it means denying your old self. But to me it makes no sense to start with the conversation about obeying Jesus’ teaching before people have even encountered the person Jesus for themselves. Real renewal comes from deep inside, starting with a new identity, a new you.
The way I see it, the most loving thing I can do is to show people Jesus and help them experience his loving grace that transforms their entire person into someone new. That’s where I believe we can find real fulfillment in being true to who we are. At least, I believe that enough to stake my life on it.
4 thoughts on “Be Who You Are”
Well-written and compelling; I have definitely seen how by rejecting the “be who you are” narrative outright, Christians have really missed out on an opportunity for making connections to the gospel! Thanks for writing this!
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Thanks for your thoughts, Grant! I’m really excited to explore more ways to engage the culture around us in conversations like this, and it’s been really helpful to hear some of your own work on queer culture as well.
I totally relate to the life-draining effects of trying to live in a way that aligns with dominant cultural narratives – so exhausting!! Instead, paying attention to the identity I have in Jesus has helped to let go (slowly) of unhelpful cultural and religious baggage. Love the re-frame on the age-old question of repression, to the idea of looking ahead to the fulfilment of our truest identity that we’ve so graciously been given in Jesus. Thanks for your ministry through this blog Matt, it’s so needed.
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Thanks for your encouraging words, Phil! So heartening to connect with someone who can relate, and I’ve been enjoying hearing more of your story too.