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When I was in grad school for English literature, I took a course on science fiction. Only after registration had closed did I discover that the seminar was on a specific type of science fiction: lesbian science fiction. I hadn’t even known that there was such a thing. But I spent the next sixteen weeks trying to listen honestly, dodge certain portions of the reading, and agonize over how to contribute anything helpful. In class discussion, I took the strategy of the wise man—I shut up most of the time. When the conversation inevitably went to the evils of the Christian Bible, I would venture a defense of Scripture’s vision of women, sexuality, or relationships.

I don’t know how convincing I was. But I do know that almost every conversation in that seminar was essentially about two things: desire and identity. These two ideas were so closely related that they were often referred to synonymously. Desire is identity, and identity is desire. To be fair, I don’t know whether anyone ever said this explicitly. But it was the orbit of the conversations. This conflation of desire and identity has only become more apparent in popular culture in the twenty-plus years since I was in grad school.

sexual desire and personal identity in our culture

I don’t think graduate seminars and academic papers are too influential on the public, at least not directly. Culture is most widely shaped by our video shorts and Netflix series, our media posts and linked articles, our young-adult novels and long-form podcasts. In a word, it’s in the way that our culture tells its story. Stories are how young people are being catechized to think about themselves. Stories of what we long to be, the bad things that oppose it, and our courage to overcome those bad things. And one of the main plotlines that our culture follows is this dual theme of identity and desire.

My intention is not to explore the competing LGBTQ narratives of identity, which get pretty complex with their distinctions between biological sex, gender identity, and gender roles. Then comes the accumulating list of possible gender identities and sexual attractions. Some focus on sexual desire, others on gender perception. Some insist on the male/female binary; others insist on gender fluidity. My intention is not to delineate those stories. Rather, my intention is to show a single theme that is consistently displayed in the contemporary social imagination: Personal desires indicate identity. Affirming one’s identity, then, means living consistently with those desires.

This is the main story, told in countless ways. The hero triumphs in living out her true identity by first recognizing and then following her desires. But there are bad guys who oppose such heroes. The two main sources of opposition in this story are an internal nonaffirming sense of shame and an external nonaffirming collection of voices in society. The hero must overcome these bad guys to live authentically. This is a process of learning how to silence the internal and the external nonaffirming voices.

Such a story usually has a few “canon events.” It often begins with a sense of estrangement from oneself—that inner sense that something is wrong with her because of these desires. If she carries around this shame too long, she becomes depressed and even suicidal. Eventually, she learns that instead of continuing the pain of denying these desires, she could embrace them. To embrace her desires is actually to embrace her true identity. She is discovering her true self. Thus, the hero overcomes the first bad guy—the internal nonaffirming voice.

This prepares the hero to take on the second oppositional force: other people who would deny her identity. These are the external nonaffirming voices. So she does the next act of courage: the coming-out event. This is where she publicly affirms her identity to others. This is the pathway to living in a way that is authentic to her desires and finally enjoying peace with herself (or whatever prefix is chosen to go before self).

This story arc is powerful. And it is precious to the people who map this arc onto their own experience. This is why disagreements on sexual issues are often so heated—they are seen as disagreements about personal identity, which is sacred territory in our culture. This is why any nonaffirming word is seen as violence against personal identity. This is why you see so many misgendering meltdown videos online and so many school boards making policies that encourage children to express themselves sexually without the “danger” of parental nonaffirmation. This story is precious to people.

Adam’s identity as God’s image bearer expressed itself in his ability to find desirable what God had made him to desire.

We need to keep this in mind as we invite people to a better story. Under the influence of the present culture, people are hyperaware of the link between desire and identity. But they believe that the heroic challenge is to embrace those desires and oppose anything that doesn’t, internal or external. Scripture’s story puts the heroic challenge on a different battlefield. God calls each person to be the protagonist in a different conflict. The bad guys aren’t the nonaffirming voices inside us and outside us. The real bad guys are the wrong kinds of desires. This is the real conflict of the human soul—deceitful desires versus truthful desires. True human identity corresponds with true desires.

desire and identity in the biblical story

Scripture acknowledges the link between desire and identity. From the beginning, people were made to be like God with desires that displayed this reality. They were made to delight in what He finds delightful. The language of creation in Genesis is one of being and of delight. It’s sort of an existential dance between “it was so” (Gen. 1:7, 9, 11, 15, 24) and “it was good” (vv. 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). God gave everything in creation a particular identity assigned with a particular value.

God delighted in what He made and built this same capacity for delight into humanity. In fact, as soon as He breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life and “man became a living creature,” the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, where He placed man among “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (2:7–9), where “the gold of that land is good” (v. 12), and where the Lord made a woman and brought her to the man for him to delight in (vv. 22–25). Adam’s identity as God’s image bearer expressed itself in his ability to find desirable what God had made him to desire.

This design of identity and desire was the very thing that Satan targets in his strategy to undermine the relationship between God and people. He calls into question God’s words about what is good, instead calling the forbidden fruit good. He denied what God had said about life and death, compelling Eve to trust his words about both. Satan told her that an object that God had said was undesirable was in fact the opposite. And Eve bought Satan’s story:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (3:6)

Immediately, what Adam and Eve found desirable was reversed—instead of delighting in God, they dreaded Him (vv. 8–10). Instead of finding joy in one another, they accused one another of being the problem (vv. 11–13). And even about their own selves, their nakedness was a source not of freedom and delight but of shame and fear (v. 7). As the fall narrative continues to the next generation, God warns Cain that the desires within him are not good and must be mastered (4:6–7). But because he does not master his desires, he kills his brother. Because humans refused to trust what God had said about what’s good, their own estimation of good changed. And so did their identity. They were now separated from God, corrupted in their hearts.

In fact, the language of desire is tied to identity all over Scripture. Those identified as fools are those whose desires are for things outside God’s character and design (Rom. 1:18–32). Those who carry out the “desires of the body and the mind” are identified as “following the prince of the power of the air,” as “sons of disobedience,” and as “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:2–3). Those who love the world with all its desires are identified not as children of God but as children of the devil (1 John 2:15–17; 3:10). Those who carry out “the desires of the flesh” are outside the kingdom (Gal. 5:17, 21).

Scripture’s story contradicts the world’s hero quest. The world says that a person must find the courage to live in a way that is consistent with his desires despite all opposition, and that only in this way will he find his true identity. Scripture says that a person’s fallen identity means that he will also have fallen desires. And if he lives consistently with those desires, those very desires will destroy him (Rom. 1:18–32). Deceitful desires end up fragmenting and diminishing personal identity. The Bible says that a person was made to be so much more.

not the heroes of our own story

Christianity blows up the world’s hero quest in two ways. The first we’ve already covered—it denies that we find our true identity by living consistently with all our desires. Instead, Christianity says that our desires are corrupted by sin and therefore not a reliable guide by themselves.

The second way is even more offensive. The way that Scripture tells its story, not a single person is able to resist the evil desires within him. Everyone fails. People desire darkness because they are identified with darkness (John 3:19–20). None of us are heroes. This is the double offense of Scripture’s storyline mapping onto each of ours: Our fallen desires show our fallen identity. We cannot change either one. We cannot be everything we were created to be.

Human identity must be restored for human desire to be restored. This is why the story of Christianity follows the unheard-of plotline that God became a human. For human identity to be restored, a human had to fulfill what God intended for humanity when He made us—that is, to delight in what He calls good. To trust His words about what is life and deny all counterproposals. To delight in His will over our own. Jesus came in the likeness of sinful flesh, but without sin—not only in action but also in desire (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 4:14–16). The heroic challenge of God to man was executed perfectly. But instead of receiving the reward of His victory, the hero receives the curse of those who fail the quest (Isa. 53:1–10). The only One with unfallen desires flowing from an unfallen identity was killed. And yet it was the death of this ideal hero that satisfied the curse for those who failed to be what God called them to be (Isa. 53:11–12; Rom. 5:18–21).

the larger story of identity and desire

Our cultural narrative is not so different from any other culture’s epic. They all tell a story about what is desirable for life and what identifies the ideal person. Every culture has some collective ideal of what you should want and what you should be. But all of them end up getting something essential wrong. This is why God has to reveal from outside every culture the nature of our identity and the purpose of our desires. Scripture has this bothersome tendency to insist not only on a different hero quest but on a different hero.

But what we at first find bothersome we may later find life-giving. A person who follows the world’s story and seeks to be whole by silencing the nonaffirming voices inside and outside herself will exhaust herself. She will never be whole that way. This might eventually dawn on her. The voices around her who insist on this story might eventually lose credibility.

This might prepare her to trust better voices. One in particular. She may learn to trust God’s story in Scripture over the enculturated story that she’s heard a million times. And if she does, she will be given a new identity that shapes new desires in her. Such faith means that she is identified as a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) who will find in herself new desires to combat the old. The new ones are called “the desires of the Spirit” and are now the permanent resident in her heart, pushing out “the desires of the flesh,” which have become nothing but stubborn squatters (Gal. 5:16–17).

She is invited to a very different battle from the one that her old story invited her to. This battle feels different from the other one. It feels winnable, because it is based on the strength of Jesus Christ, who has already won. Jesus won the right to give both His Spirit and His Word to help Christians fight from strength, not from defeat. The Spirit and the Word help Christians discern what is pleasing to God and to orient their lives toward what is delightful to Him (Rom. 12:1–2).

In other words, a Christian is not alone in this battle, trying to establish her identity in herself. No, she has gladly tied her identity to another. She has trusted Jesus to be what she could not be. By identifying with Christ her Master, she is given mastery over her desires. This mastery will be challenged all her life, but sinful desires will no longer rule her (Rom. 6:12–14; Titus 2:11–14).

a better story

In one of our class discussions, my professor of lesbian science fiction was lecturing on how traditional marriage is a patriarchal institution arranged for male dominance over women, constraining female sexual desire while failing to constrain that of males. Then she stopped suddenly and asked whether anyone in the room was a Christian. I raised my hand. The professor asked whether I was married. I told her that I was. She then asked a very specific question about how sexual desire in a Christian marriage works. So I told her this story. The story of the God who made males and females to delight in Him and in one another. The story of marriage as the place for sexual desire to be used not to serve oneself but to build up another. The story of identity and desire fallen and redeemed. I still remember the look on my professor’s face as she looked away from me as I spoke. When I finished, she said distantly, “That’s beautiful.” A brief pause, and then she moved the conversation abruptly in a different direction. But it was an instructive moment for me. Maybe Christians speak into our culture best not by denying the link between desire and identity but by telling a better story.

But there must be some common theme that binds them together in a self-identified group. The average Christian may not need to be up to speed on all the particularities of every corner, but being familiar with a common plotline can help us engage folks in our culture with compassion and faithfulness to a better story. The Bible’s story is far more satisfying in explaining what is wrong with us and how it is made right.

Desire is baked into our identity. It is part of who we are. God designed people to desire as part of who they are. Even more, He designed them to desire what He finds desirable. This is the epic journey that every person was made for, whether he knows it or not: to be like God in His character, and thus to delight in what delights Him.

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