What Does It Mean to Be Human? A Biblical Response
Here at Rooted, we spend a lot of time talking about the issues that are most pressing for younger millennials and Gen Z. We ask: what seem to be the most troubling trends among youth? Is there a common denominator tying those issues together? What does God’s word and the gospel have to say about these matters?
If your mind went to issues pertaining to social media, sexuality, racism, and mental health, you’re right on the money. These are the most concerning issues for parents and youth workers. With the current trajectory of our culture, the need for conversation and biblical understanding only grows.
While countless resources strike at the symptoms of our cultural malaise, we need to be better equipped at understanding the theological root of these symptoms.
At the bottom of each of these issues lies a foundational question we as a culture struggle to answer: What does it mean to be a human being? This question plays out symptomatically:
In the realm of social media: what does it mean to reflect on who I am, what I do, where I am, and who I’m with?
In the realm of sexuality and gender: Do I define my sexuality or does my sexuality define me? Do I define my gender or does my gender define me?
In the realm of race and ethnicity: How does my race and ethnicity define me? How do I relate to the race and ethnicity of others?
In the realm of mental health: Do I define happiness and satisfaction for myself, or are those things defined for me?
What we’re seeing in the last decade or so is a radical re-forming of our concept of what it means to be a human being. Whereas previous generations would have searched for these answers through various religious texts, experts in certain fields, and even trusted members of the family, there has been a pervasive shift in our culture to answer these questions solely from within ourselves. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it isn’t working. Our students and children are increasingly suffering from depression, anxiety, gender confusion, and frustration. While parents and youth workers need to be on top of how to deal with these issues on a case-by-case basis, we can’t truly address the needs of our students without a better understanding of how God makes sense of our broken humanity. We’re running from brushfire to brushfire without addressing the greater needs of the forest on fire.
For our students and our children, we must promote a biblical understanding of humanity because it is what they sorely need. In her book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, Abigail Shirer writes about the alarming trend of “gender identity disorder” affecting middle school-aged girls:
Gender dysphoria—formerly known as “gender identity disorder”—is characterized by a severe and persistent discomfort in one’s biological sex. It typically begins in early childhood—ages two to four—though it may grow more severe in adolescence. But in most cases—nearly 70 percent—childhood gender dysphoria resolves. Historically, it afflicted a tiny sliver of the population (roughly .01 percent) and almost exclusively boys. Before 2012, in fact, there was no scientific literature on girls ages eleven to twenty-one ever having developed gender dysphoria at all. In the last decade that has changed, and dramatically. The Western world has seen a sudden surge of adolescents claiming to have gender dysphoria and self-identifying as “transgender.” For the first time in medical history, natal girls are not only present among those so identifying—they constitute the majority.
She proceeds to dive into why she thinks this is happening in our culture right now, and has some very compelling explanations that we must pay attention to. However, the root of this issue lies in our culture’s confusion with regards to our human anthropology: what does it mean to be a human being? Fortunately, as Christians, we not only have a response to this question that is clear, good, and truthful; better yet, we have a biblical anthropology that is deeply beautiful and adorns us with dignity.
In order to answer the question of what it means to be a human being, we must look to our Creator. A good place to start is in Genesis 1:27, where a single verse gives us the biblical foundation for our anthropology: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Thus, the simple answer to the question would be: To be a human being is to be made in the image of God, and to be a human being is to be male or female. This truth graciously gives us enormous value, dignity, and unity. Together, male and female, we are made in the image of God. Our current cultural narrative declares that to be human is to define ourselves however we please. A biblical concept of humanity comes directly from God: our answers cannot be found from within us, but they can only come from our Creator. This is great news for a few different reasons:
First, answers can be found. We are not in a hopeless situation when it comes to knowing who we are. It is so important to affirm our teenagers and ourselves in this certainty. While they may be going through an identity crisis over the course of these volatile teen years, God is not confused about who they are.
Second, because the Lord is the source of our identity, we can ask him for help. In fact, he invites us to discover who we are in him. Psalm 139 is an entire song devoted to David wrestling with his own humanity, pleading and asking the Lord to help him to know and understand the depths of his own heart. We do not worship in a deistic framework where God creates humanity and then leaves us to figure out who we are on our own. If we meditate on Psalm 139, we see a God who actively invites us into relationship. Through knowing him, we are better able to understand the One whose image we have been made in, and to understand ourselves in relation to him.
Third, we should not be surprised that the image of God is broken in us. After the fall in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve covered and hid themselves from God because they became ashamed. This is still our default mode when it comes to our brokenness. For example, when our students are confused about a homework assignment, they know that they can ask their teacher, another student, or their parents for help. But if our students start to question their sexuality or their gender, where do they go to untangle this? Sadly, for many of them, coming to the Lord with these questions seems unthinkable. They’re far more likely to search Google or YouTube for the answers to what they’re beginning to feel. This kneejerk reaction to hide from our Creator when we’re experiencing this kind of brokenness is why it’s so crucial for us to get ahead of these kinds of questions, and to affirm the God who cares about our whole humanity.
Lastly, as gendered beings, we have a responsibility to steward our humanity as men and women. Being made in the image of God means that our ultimate mission to glorify God cannot be achieved without some kind of purposeful unity. In other words, we need each other to fulfill all that humanity was created for. Whereas our cultural climate is trying to erase gender differences to the point of insignificance, the Bible affirms and celebrates our gender distinctions as crucial to the grand storyline of humanity.
In subsequent articles, I will discuss a few crucial questions.
#1 – How should we relate to one another as gendered beings and how can we teach this to our students in a way that is accessible and practical?
#2 – What is at the root of rapid onset gender dysphoria, and how does our biblical anthropology give us the tools to discuss this issue with grace and truth?
#3 – What does it look like for youth ministries to encourage students to think more biblically about their own humanity? How can we disciple youth students and our children to faithfully steward the image of God in themselves and in others?
It’s crucial that we offer our students and children a more holistic perspective on what it means to be human. I’m hoping that this series will give us a baseline for thinking about our own humanity more truthfully as we seek to unburden our youth and ourselves from the shackles of our culture. Jesus says,“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). Discipleship in the 21st century needs to address this crucial element of our identity if we are to help our students and children follow Jesus well.