Crossing the T

Life at the intersection of Church and Trans with Rev. Allyson Robinson

The problem of (transgender) pain


Someone once said, “If you preach about pain, you’ll never lack an audience.”  My own experience, both in the pew and in the pulpit, confirms the truism.  The reason is intuitively obvious:  the current of suffering passes through every life, leaving among the ruins in its wake the Great Question, “Why?”  The whole human race, it seems, is seeking an answer.

Our credibility as ministers of the gospel–and, by extension, the credibility of our gospel as a body of teaching and as God’s message to the cosmos–hangs on the answers we offer to this universal question of suffering.  If people find our answers to this question unsatisfactory, they will (rightly, I think) reject off hand the answers we might offer to any other questions they ask.  In his new book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer, Bart Ehrman (Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) describes how his own search for an answer led him away from evangelical Christianity and, ultimately, to agnosticism.  (Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air interviewedDr. Ehrman this week; you can listen to the interview and read an excerpt from Ehrman’s book here.)

I can relate to Ehrman’s journey.  My own questions formed in the fire of the pain brought about by feeling like a woman in a world and a church that required me to be a man.  Why would God do such a thing to me?  As I wrote in the “coming out” letter I sent to some of my dearest and most respected Christian friends,

For most of my life, I believed that this deep impulse I felt to live as a woman was sin or sickness, and I prayed fervently for God to heal me.  The fact that God did not heal me, in spite of all my pleading, led two years ago to the most profound crisis of faith I have ever experienced.  There seemed to be three possible explanations.  My prayers had gone unanswered because (1) God did not actually exist, (2) God felt no compassion for my suffering, or (3) my feelings were neither sick nor sinful, and I was free to seek a way to integrate them into my life. 

As one of my friends who received my letter was quick to remind me, there is another possible explanation.  Perhaps my being transgender was something akin to the burden the apostle Paul refered to as his “thorn in the flesh.”

In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Cor 12:7b-11)

Reading these words over the years, I wondered if perhaps feeling myself to be a woman, feeling discomfort at being forced to exist in the world as a man, was my thorn in the flesh.  Was it simply my cross to bearFor most of the three decades I lived “in the closet,” I accepted this as the only possible explanation for my suffering.  For some reason, unknown and perhaps unknowable to me, God had decreed that I should suffer in this way, and that I should do so indefinitely, unless and until God should decide to relent.  I accepted this explanation for years without question, and did the best I could to bear up under the pain.

I chose to live this way because I believed it was what God required of me.  I hated being the way I was.  I wanted to change, desperately.  I believed God could change me, but should God choose not to do so, I was prepared to live a tortured life according to God’s will, trusting in his sufficient grace to make it through.  Or so I thought. 

And then, one day, the mental discomfort became more than I could bear, and the grace I thought had been carrying me along was no longer sufficient.  And as the wave of suffering rolled over my life with a greater magnitude than I had ever experienced, the ancient question rose once again to the surface.  “Why?”

Why would a benevolent and omniscient God choose to inflict such suffering on me, or on anyone?  If God was responsible for my pain, and understood my pain, and felt compassion for me, then why hadn’t he delivered me?  To allow me to go on suffering for no good reason amounted to torture.  To do so to keep me humble, to keep me in my place as Paul implied in 2 Corinthians, seemed more the behavior of a tyrant than of a loving parent.  Like Dr. Ehrman, I came to believe that none of the traditional answers to the question of my own pain held up.  The God I had come to know, the God my faithful teachers had taught and modeled to me, was neither a torturer nor a despot.

And that was when I realized the truth.  God was not doing this to me, causing me to suffer like this.  I was doing it to myself.  I had chosen to do so, and I could choose to stop.  Finally, after thirty years, the truth had set me free.

The cross we are called to take up is not some individualized cross, custom designed to produce the maximum amount of pain in us for God’s “good” pleasure.  The self we are called to deny is not the unique and beautiful creation God knitted together in the secret place, as if we should cast it aside like a filthy rag.  We are each of us called to take up Christ’s cross, embracing the world’s symbol of shame, oppression, and death in faith that it will be turned upside down by the divine power of new life.  And we are each of us called to deny our selfish sense of personal entitlement and embrace a life of service to the world in the name of the one who is saving us all. 

And Paul’s thorn?  I don’t know.  Perhaps, as tradition suggests, it was some incurable physical ailment (which begs the question, “Had a cure become available, would Paul have accepted it?”  Should he have?  Would his theology allow for it?)  Maybe it was the seemingly unending series of persecutions he suffered for preaching the gospel.  Maybe “thorn in the flesh” was a euphemism for sexual desire and the way it clashed with Paul’s vow of celibacy.  We can only speculate.  But regardless, one thing seems clear.  It was not God’s strength that allowed Paul to live with his thorn, to conquer it or rise above it.  It was God’s grace, the favor God bestowed on Paul unconditionally and without reference to his moral standing, that got him through.  “I know you’re weak,” God told Paul.  “That’s okay.  I can’t take away your weakness, for to do so would be to take away that which makes you human.  I value your weakness so much that I took it on myself, and let myself be buffetted by Satan’s messengers just like you are being buffetted right now.  Let it be enough for you simply to know that I love you anyway.”  In this same grace we can each decide how best to deal with the pain we encounter without fear. 



  pam ferguson wrote @

This is powerful. Thank you for blessing me.
and much love to you!

  Callan wrote @

It’s lovely to see you moving from the dark side of religion — the belief that your humanity is the problem, and to be a good follower of Christ you have to deny your Eros — to the light side — the belief that Christ’s divinity and humanity were inseparable, that our own human desire is part of the gift we were given by our creator, and to be a good follower of Christ we need to enter our own humanity rather than work to deny it.

What parts of your humanity do you think are connected to the divine, are a pathway to being more Christlike in this finite world of blood & pain, of joy & ecstasy?

It has been said that once we change the cry “Why Me?” from a plaint to a question, then we can start going about honoring and respecting the gifts our God have us rather than denying them.

It’s my sense that the challenge of the human life is to act for connection between all things in a society that so often wants to honor separation, to act for love in a world that wants to honor fear. How does engaging humanity let us follow Christ and his messages?

You are a path to the light side, the Christianity that sees honoring God and honoring the divine in humans as the same thing, rather than demanding that humans deny their hearts and follow the demands of the group, the church, to be holy, How can we not delight in humanity when the lord savior came to us as human, and when they crucified him, came to life again as human?

Humanity is the gift we have now. Do we honor that gift or deny it? Do we celebrate that gift or try to swallow it?

Enjoy the light side, where you can share your beauty with the world. Heaven knows that we need it.


  stellewriter wrote @

How simply can it be said? How difficult is it to understand? Christ expresses His love in pure terms, but we are not so easily able to accept. In our Transsexual haze we have to die, losing everything we love, and all that we have. Our old selves have to pass; for many that passing is final and life is not found. The few who are willing to let go, are reborn anew, and those who transition and are in Christ find love again. We are told that to accept salvation we must die to self and lay all before the Lord. How interesting that as Transsexuals, we are given the opportunity to do just that. Unlike others, we are placed in a position where everything is in the balance and to transition usually means loss of family, career, income, friends, and even church community. For us it is all or nothing! So many of our sisters and brothers who are transsexual get caught in the darkness of despair and are claimed by suicide. Others are eaten by social bigots and die on the streets. The few of us who survive are presented with a true blessing. We surrender all that we are to be who we are, and in so doing find what Jesus has always wanted us to have. His love! And in the love we find blessings that before we could not see. In our pain, dying for love, we could not fully love, but after we discover true love and are fully able to love. It is a blessing; a true blessing because in that ability to fully love, we also can suffer the pain, and the pain of others. We can see what no on else can see; we can see from both sides of life. We lived, passed through a death to life again, if but in a metaphor a passing. We can love the Lord freely, and love others, and love especially, because we are living a dream not only for ourselves, but for those who we loved and missed the blessing.

One day, some very lovely gals and guys are going to gather before the Lord. All of us!

  JoeBum wrote @

very helpful post. i think i’ve always struggled with the theological idea of embracing our uniqueness, created personality while picking up our crosses. somewhere in there i felt like to deny ourselves meant to self loathe or wash away identity in some sense.

but, could you explicate more what it means to deny ourselves …
“And we are each of us called to deny our selfish sense of personal entitlement and embrace a life of service to the world in the name of the one who is saving us all. ” do you think this may involve denying our uniqueness, creativity, or whatever that may be harmful or a hindrance?

btw, your comments are wacky, the cursor does not follow normally, weird.

  PennyAnn wrote @

Dear Ally,
My own journey from the futile attempt to deny who it is God has mad me, to the acceptance and love of myself, and those around me, Began with my own “epiphany ”, That indeed God doesn’t make mistakes… She makes challenges. Non of us gets to heaven with out proving we are loving creatures, willing to “Love one another as I have loved you.” Jn 13:34 God gives each of us a “cross to bear”, and no two are alike. So each of us is at odds with the next, and told that we are unworthy… because the next person is worthy. But just the opposite is the truth. Despite all the Fred Phelps’ and their messages of hatred, God loves each of us as we are… Imperfect and challenged. For any of us to hide in a closet and learn to hate ourselves, is to reject even god’s love. She no more hates a lesbian or woman in a man’s body than she hates a child born with a bad heart valve.
And she accepts each of us that learns Jesus’ lesson of love, and returns it to those around us. Even the Fred Phelps’.
Learning to love the man that preaches hate is not an easy challenge Ally… Learning to love yourself when others preach hate is even harder. But in that lesion lays some real acceptance of why She makes us imperfect.

  Vanessa wrote @

Very well written and thought through. I think there are two dangers that lurk for us. The first of which, is that we do not accept who we are. Then rather than let our light shine, we hide it under a bowl, trying to constrain our spirit. You very eloquently addressed this danger.

The second of which, is that we may believe our purpose is to be transsexual. In doing this we create a god our of our difference, and spend our days worshipping the desire to fully become woman.

I believe our challenge is to fully embrace who we are, while at the same time living for God. The transition is not an end unto itself, but a means to more fully fulfill God’s purpose in our lives.

Hugs, Vanessa

  Allyson wrote @

Thanks so much for your comments, everyone.

Joe, the question of self-denial is an incredibly complex one, isn’t it? It’s certainly more complex than I’ve often heard preached and taught. If taken to the logical extreme, what does it require? Suicide, perhaps? No one’s preaching that, thankfully.

So then, is Jesus calling for the repudiation of personality, or of certain aspects of personality? (Is it even possible to “deny” one’s personality?) Or is he calling for the repudiation of personal desire, or of certain desires?

Given the context, it seems to me he’s calling for us to set aside our right to determine our own destiny and accept the role God assigns to us in the establishment of the kingdom. Check out Matthew 16:13-28 and tell me what you think, would you?

  JoeBum wrote @

I certainly agree that this issue is much more complex than we often paint it in sunday school. i do think there is a possibility of denying one’s personality. I’ve heard of stories of 40, 50 year old men joining the emergent movement because they’ve loved to paint and the arts, but have suppressed that for years because they thought there was no place for it or not allowed in church.

even the reality of giving up our wills to determine our life gets really complex. why do we really follow Jesus? or what happens when a person’s personality is mean spirited or bigoted? There is certainly a call for the denial of personality there.

the verses in the sermon on the mount are the most obvious in this theological discussion, but i’m not sure if they are helpful in talking about the complexities of self-denial.

that said, i do affirm that God calls us often to fulfill our personalities and in so doing we can bring greater glory to him. yet, maybe there are instances when we are called to deny something about ourselves, even personality. If we’re not willing to give it up, then we may find that we don’t have one.

  JoeBum wrote @

oh wait, that’s not the sermon on the mount AT ALL. not sure what i was thinking.

and yeah, i’m pretty excited about my blog’s new look. can i get your email

  Thorny Pain « TransLate wrote @

[…] it, I would like to point you to an intelligent and meaningful articulation of these feelings over on Allyson’s blog, Crossing The T. […]

[…] Again Allyson has provided some insight for us. […]

  Samantha wrote @

You know, I love Matthew 7. I’m a Buddhist, but there is so much in scripture of many cultures to enjoy and learn from. Plus Buddha himself points out that he is not God, he is but a man, walking the path of loving kindness on his way to enlightenment.

Anyway, back to Matthew. In Matthew 7:1-8 specifically, we are taught the lessons of judgment. How important, even vital it is that we not judge others. Only our Lord God has the authority, Jesus himself admitted he could not, and would not judge others, for it was a power vested only in his fathers glory.

So many people forget or ignore this.

Worse yet, quite often we are give to flights of self judgment that can often be as cruel and horrific as anything someone else could do to us. My gender issues my cross to bear? I’d be lying if I’d said I never, ever thought that. But at this point in my life I’ve found it a gift of healing, compassion and empathy. My heart, mind and spirit have been raised up, nearer the light, the glory, for want of a cure. What I’ve found is this wasn’t a curse, wasn’t God telling me I was good only for suffering, this was a gift of humility and grace, passion and perspective, and empath and compassion for all of God’s children.

There are none so blind as they who would not see. I don’t look to God much anymore and say God, why have you cursed me to suffer so, but instead see with eyes and heart that transcends words and dogma. The message of love, as well as loving kindness for all, is most important.

This is not my first life, will not be my last, and I’ve learned and grown so much in this life time alone that it still kind of amazes me. God has blessed me with his light, his touch, and challenges to help me see and feel his love more. I am but a Buddha, walking a path that has no beginning, and knows no end, but is one of growth and love for all God’s children great and small.

Myself included.



  Meagain wrote @

Thank you for this. It really touched me. Only recently have I discovered that God is not the one torturing me. This post reminded me of my feeling God loving me in my female essence, and how beautiful I think that is. Sometimes I think I’m the biggest mess ever- and God loves me. Thats power. Thats love that sears right through the anguish and pain. Thats true power and true beauty.

  nirobi wrote @

thank you life can be hard its good to know im not alone

  realboye wrote @

Thank you all for your comments ! Ive found it hard to feel loved and accepted in this world. As a child people were presented to me two ways male or female.For the longest i felt i was here on earth without a purpose.I have never felt female eventhough my sexual organs are. I am a male born physically female.Now at 26 years old i have finally stopped being sad and angry.GOD loves Everything GOD created including women that are men and men that are women. So therefore i feel one should live in GODS love and acceptance rather than that of the world. LOVE YOURSELF THE WAY YOU WOULD LIKED TO BE LOVED BY SOMEBODY ELSE.

  Adrian wrote @

I am crying as i read this. I too am a Christian who is a F-T-M transsexual. I thought I was completely alone…that there were no others out there like myself.

Please pray for me.

Your Brother in Christ,

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