‘You’re denying who you really are!’ That’s what many people think about my choice to remain celibate and single rather than enter into a gay relationship. My sexuality is just who I am, they say, and therefore I should accept, embrace and express it to live my best life.
The view that our sexual orientation is our identity is a common one. You can often hear it in the background of celebrity coming out stories; people speak of being honest about who they really are and letting the world see the real them. Stonewall says that the main reason people come out is that they ‘just want to be honest about who they are’. 1 For them, it’s an identity issue. Many Christians who support the acceptability of same-sex relationships also believe that sexual orientation is part of our identity. They argue that God wouldn’t ask us to deny part of who we are, and therefore gay relationships must be acceptable for those who are attracted to people of the same sex.
Finding our identity
But before we can ask who we are, we first have to ask how we find our identity. The view that our sexuality is our identity is an example of internal identity formation, the idea that who we are is based on what we find inside ourselves, our feelings and desires. In internal identity formation, nothing external (such as our bodies or our communities) can dictate who we are; all that matters is what we find inside. So, if we look inside and find romantic and sexual desires for those of the same sex, that is who we are, we’re gay. It is this understanding which makes sexuality labels (such as gay, straight, lesbian, and bisexual) so important in modern culture. They’re important because we believe they’re about who we are.
Feelings and desires can’t be a stable basis for identity.
But is internal identity formation a good way to find our identity? I’m not sure it is. To be life-giving, an identity needs to be solid and stable so that it can give us a good sense of worth and purpose at all times. But internal identity can’t do that. Internal identity is inherently unstable. It’s based on feelings and desires, but these can change. Even sexual orientation can change and is not necessarily static. 2 Feelings and desires can’t be a stable basis for identity. Internal identity is also ambiguous. Our feelings and desires can conflict and compete. If we have two irreconcilable desires, which do we embrace to find the true us? And internal identity is inconsistent. We all recognise that we might experience some feelings and desires, even sexual desires, which we wouldn’t embrace as our identity. What if we look inside and find a desire to kill lots of people or a desire to have sex with someone who is married? The reality is, none of us really believes in internal identity; rather we pick and choose from our feelings and desires, claiming as identity those which fit what our culture tells us should be our identity.
If internal identity doesn’t work, is there a better alternative? Some people would go for external identity, rooting their sense of self and worth in what others think of them. (Or more often what they think others think of them!) Identities rooted in our job or marital status or abilities are all ultimately just forms of external identity—we care about them because of how they make people view us. But external identity isn’t much good either. What if others think badly of you? What if the thing you think makes you look good changes? What if they change their mind? There’s no stability for our sense of worth and purpose in an external identity.
The better alternative
But there is a better alternative. The better alternative is divine identity. Divine identity isn’t discovered within, and it’s not dependent on the changing opinion of others; it’s given to us by God, and it’s static, stable and life-giving. For every human, this identity is as someone created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Bearing the image of God speaks of our worth, our value, and the fact that our lives are worthy of preservation and protection (see Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). And for every Christian, there’s an even better identity: identity as a child of God, adopted by him, and eternally loved by him (John 1:12; Romans 8:14-17). This isn’t an identity we have to earn by living a certain way, and it isn’t something we have to discover inside ourselves; it’s an identity given to us by God, and because it’s based on how God has created us (for all humans) and what God has done in us in Christ (for Christians) it is solid, stable, and unchanging.
Bearing the image of God speaks of our worth, our value, and the fact that our lives are worthy of preservation and protection.
So how does this all apply to sexuality? It means my sexuality isn’t my identity. There’s no doubt it’s a real part of my life experience, but it isn’t who I am; it isn’t the real me. The real me is one who bears God’s image and one who has been adopted as his son. This means that the way to live my best life isn’t to accept, embrace, and express my sexuality; the way to live my best life is to accept, embrace, and express my God-given identity, to live as one who is loved by God, and who gets to follow the Creator’s plan for human-flourishing. As a follower of Jesus, I don’t have to deny who I really am; in following Jesus, I get to find out who I really am, and I get to enjoy my best life by living that out.
- ‘Coming Out As a Young Person’, Stonewall. Accessed 2 April 2020.
- ‘What Do We Actually Know about Sexual Orientation? Part 2’, The Centre for Faith Sexuality and Gender.