The letters come in now two or three a month. They’re all similar. In a moment of honesty an adult child has just informed their parents that they are transgendered or gay. Their question is always the same.
“What do we do now?”
Most parents are not prepared for this. Few have even thought about the possibility, especially if they raised their children in a Christian environment. This is something that happens to someone else’s children and now they have no idea how to respond, caught between the contempt they were taught to have for such claims, and the affection they have for the child they’ve loved heart and soul since birth.
It’s not an easy question to answer and I know many people will disagree with what I write here, but here is how I help parents respond to their child. I’ll admit I’m still sorting through all this in my own heart because it seems a tight-wire act to be sure. I assume people write me, however, because I embrace Biblical views of doctrine and morality. I also believe that the only hope of human transformation is through God’s kind of loving. In my view that’s what the Incarnation was all about: God winning by love and affection what fear and obedience could never untangle.
The question for us is whether we can love deeply someone who is embracing an identity or morality with which we don’t agree or approve. I used to think not. Love is the reward for conformity. If you don’t approve of what people are doing, you hold them at arm’s length hoping that shame will inspire them to repent. I never saw that work, however. Instead I kept reading about Jesus who could love people though they had not yet embraced God’s view of things. He saw the loving as opening a door to them, and the Pharisees derided him for it. But love is not about approving or rejecting, it’s about caring for people even at their most broken.
However you think of transgendered or gay issues, I hope we can agree that God’s love is the only thing that can work deeply enough in the human heart to change people. If that’s true, they have to taste of it before transformation is possible and often that love is first reflected in the actions of another who is learning to love as he loves. We all need to learn how love finds its way into relationships that view identity and morality differently than we do?
And to be honest, I’m not sure what the moral issues are with a transgendered person. Scripture doesn’t seem to address it except in one passage from Deuteronomy about clothing, but that really isn’t the same thing. What is really going on when someone feels their anatomy is at odds with their psychological make-up? Is it a twist of darkness, or something else? Could it result from how the very distorted views we have of masculinity and femininity by the world and by religion?
My heart goes out to anyone caught in this struggle and I prefer to commend them to God to sort it out in the best way he can in each life. Most transgendered people don’t talk about it as a personal preference realizing how much it will impact others around them. For them it is a quest for survival itself. Most have contemplated suicide and too many have followed through with it rather than risk exposing their struggle to others. Is that what we want? I don’t. I have no doubt that God wants to be inside their honesty and struggle inviting them into his life and I want to be there with him.
So however these issues make you uncomfortable, it is worth sorting through them and learn how to support people in this struggle and what their parents are going through, rather than making them feel ashamed. If you don’t love someone who is transgendered, you’ve never dealt with the issue. You may think you have in Facebook postings and comments about your moral claims and the contempt you hold for those who see these things differently. That’s where political battles are fought and where judgment knows no bounds. Many would rather put these issues back in a closet never stopping to realize how oppressive that is for those who don’t fit into their preferred norms.
But when your child or a good friend lets you know that they have never felt comfortable in the body or the role society has put on them, what are you going to do? The parents writing me are often embarrassed that it’s happening to their child, worried about what family and friends might say, and scared of what the future may bring. They are also grieving the loss of long-held dreams and hopes they had for their child, and themselves. As one parent told me after their daughter announced she was transitioning to male, “I know my head was spinning for the first days… just totally spinning and bewildered.” And it’s normal to look for someone to blame for the crisis—their friends, the media, or even past discipline issues.
Fair enough. This is usually a shock to the parents and it’s not uncommon to seek a quick fix they hope will stuff it all back in the bottle. Just remember your son and daughter has been tortured with this struggle for a long time. None of this is easy for them. Before they come out to you, especially because they know how hard it would be for you, they already tried to stop it. They’ve repented and tried to pray the thoughts away, but their feelings haven’t changed.
As your head stops spinning, you’ll have a choice to make. Is your child someone you love deeply? If they are, then nothing has truly changed in your relationship with them. They are the same person they were an hour before they told you, it’s just that now you know more about what is really going on inside them. Can you imagine the courage it took for them to invite you to look deeply into their soul, especially when they know you’re not going to be blessed with the news? If you think this is coming from a broken place in their heart, wouldn’t you want all the more to be inside it with them, rather than abandoning them at so vulnerable a time?
Of course they are looking for your approval. They want nothing more than for you to embrace their newly announced identity and celebrate it with them. They too have tied love to approval. Some will even determine if you love them or not by whether you give them your blessing and may reject you if you don’t.
But most will know that they’ve just dropped a bombshell on the family and will hope that you’ll simply love them enough to work through this newfound information with them, whether you can approve or not. They will know you’ll need time to find a new footing in your relationship with them. Few people know how to love what they don’t approve. But God knows. He does it every day, with every one of us. Maybe it’s time we learn, too.
Let them know this isn’t going to be easy for you, but you want to learn how to respond in ways that are helpful to them. It will take some time for you both to learn. “You can’t expect me not to miss my little girl. I will. But I also realize you are the same person no matter how you present yourself on the outside and I want to love you no matter what, down whatever road you travel and I want to be a champion for you to find real joy and peace as you sort all this out.”
Let them know their decision will not change your love for them and your desire for them to find a life of joy and fulfillment. Even though you know that will only come in a transforming relationship with God’s love, you don’t have to push that on them.
Perhaps this is the hardest part of parenting, even in lesser ways when our children make decisions we don’t agree with in their careers or continuing to date someone we don’t like. Hopefully you’ll choose to discover the deepest realities of love and learn that being alongside your son or daughter even when they are making what you consider to be the wrong choices. Only there will you have the opportunity to share your love and your thoughts with them when they are ready for it.
If you want to be with them, put your love for them above everything else. Their choices are not your responsibility. Love doesn’t demand agreement and it doesn’t force its way on others. It will make them feel secure not threatened. Be with them and offer your thoughts only when they ask. When you learn not to manipulate their choices to do what you think best, they will want your input even if they don’t follow it right away. Remember this is all a journey and neither of you knows where it will lead in the next year, much less the next decade or two.
This is where you’ll learn each day how to listen to God and follow his lead. You cannot do this alone, but with him you’ll learn something about loving at the deepest level, when it sacrifices your hopes and dreams to support another person on their journey. You don’t have to forsake your convictions to do it. All you have to do is love like Father has loved you.
Can you love wholeheartedly in spite of the fact that someone is doing something with which we don’t approve? If so, you’ll offer a great gift to the world that will go well past your child or friend. It will be a lifeline to anyone around you lost in sin, bad theology, or hurtful behavior.
Every time you love like that you put God’s presence in the world, where he is able to do what is best to lead people to the light and to true freedom he has for them.