On occasion, I’ll come across an article bemoaning the modern state of masculinity. Some claim men have become too feminized while one recent article blamed the rise of the alt-right on our culture’s marginalization of men. The problem with such articles is that when they prescribe a return to “manliness,” what they have in mind is more along the lines of the manliness of action heroes than of actual manhood.

Being male is simpler than most people make it out to be, but that simplicity is far more profound for individuals and society than many male leaders propose. In its simplest definition, being male means nothing more than having the male XY chromosomes and the requisite male body parts. This definition may be too simple for those who would add more traits to the manhood litmus test, or for those who argue that male-ness is more than biology, but that’s really all it takes to be a man.

My sincere hope is that my more conservative friends will listen to me on this matter. Their teaching on manliness is having the opposite effect of what they desire. They want to inspire men to act manly, but for them, that means living for adventure, going around doing deeds of derring-do, and swashbuckling as such. However, many men do not desire that sort of adventure. They do not like the rough and tumble. When my conservative friends insist that is part of the essence of manliness, they (unintentionally) alienate those men who simply do not have the same personal preferences as the stereotypical John Wayne type of man.

Christian men are weeping over a form of masculinity that Jesus never called us to pursue.

Instead of talking about whether something is manly or not, we should spend more time talking about how to be a good man. Defining what a man is, is easy. Helping someone be a good man is many degrees more difficult, and where things truly get complicated.

Culture Has Messed up Our Sense of Masculinity

According to Plutarch, Julius Caesar burst into tears after reading about Alexander the Great. “‘Do you not think,’ said [Caesar], ‘it is matter for sorrow that while Alexander, at my age, was already king of so many peoples, I have as yet achieved no brilliant success?’” Caesar was sad because he was basing his man cred on those rough-and-tumble standards I mentioned above. Don’t be like Caesar. If you think being a good man means giving into baser desires to dominate others and accumulate wealth and fame for yourself, you will forever find yourself weeping at the feet of Alexander and Caesar. But they are not worthy of your emulation if you wish to be a good man.

Gender cues run through our culture like a catchy song. Many of us have caught ourselves humming a tune that we were not even aware we’d been listening to. Our ideas of masculinity (and femininity, for that matter) often work like that. As a pastor, I’ve had the opportunity to befriend all kinds of different people and I’ve watched their children grow up. I’ve seen boys who loved to play sports and excelled at athletic endeavors. Parents watched them play and made comments like, “He’s all boy.” But what about the boy who doesn’t like sports or isn’t a good athlete? Is he less of a male because he enjoys music or books instead of playing football? We can send signals to those boys, like that song we don’t realize we’re humming, that they’re less masculine than athletic boys. Young men pick up on these things as children, and when they feel they don’t measure up to type, it can cause all sorts of problems for them.

Culture tells us that certain things are “manly” and certain things are “unmanly.” But we must take that with a grain of salt. Most of the time, those around us in the culture have no idea who or what they are — so taking our cues from them doesn’t make any sense. Down deep, many people are quite insecure about themselves, and so they stick to silly things like “pink is for girls” because they have no better way to define what it is to be masculine. As a good man, you must take note of these things. Such markers might be alright for immature boys, but a good man will feel some grief for adults who continue to define themselves so narrowly.

Back in 2001, John Eldredge wrote a book titled Wild at Heart. In it, he argued that every man’s desire is for “a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue.” This does sound very romantic perhaps, but that’s all it is. After all, many women have these same desires — and some men may hardly desire such things at all.

A good man does not have, in his heart, a grand desire for conquest. A good man’s heart desires only peace. A good man doesn’t desire war with his neighbor in order to take what isn’t his. The prophet Micah, when teaching of the day when God’s Kingdom would finally come to Earth, wrote, “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). A good man loves the peace of his own vineyard. He desires a time when there’s nothing out there to make anyone afraid. This doesn’t mean he’ll always live in peace because seeking peace can still lead to conflict, but peace should always be the end goal. Your dream of peace may lead you to a different place of contentment than a vineyard or a fig tree, but Micah’s verse reveals that a man’s proper goal is desiring the opposite of fighting battles.

Jesus Is Our Model of Masculinity

I get my understanding of what it means to be a good man from how I understand Jesus Christ. Jesus, as I read about him in the Bible and the Gospels, exhibits several qualities that, as a man, I strive to emulate in my own life.

Peace. Jesus concentrated on peace. He came to make peace between God and humanity. He died to make that peace, and he has promised to bring peace to Earth one day. I want to be like that, and I hope you make it your ambition as well. Unlike Caesar, Jesus Christ did not weep because he had not beaten the nations through force of arms. Rather, he stooped to conquer them through sacrificial love.

Justice. A good man seeks justice for others. Jesus himself fed the hungry and treated the outcasts of his day (like prostitutes and lepers) as human beings worthy of his attention. He also broke with social norms and gave attention to Gentiles and women. A good man takes responsibility, so far as he is able, to see that justice is done by treating others with dignity.

Sacrificial Love. Christ never married but he does have a bride that he loves sacrificially. Paul teaches in Ephesians 5:25 that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” In marriage, we practice putting the desires, the good, and the needs of our spouse before our own. If you marry, you will be responsible to see to it that you and your wife have food to eat, a shelter to sleep in, and clothing to wear. You will also be responsible for loving only her. This sort of responsibility is rarely ever portrayed well in our culture, and even more rarely is it ever made to look joyful. I assure you that it can be very joyful indeed.

I’ve been married now to the same woman for fourteen years. She’s the only lover I’ve ever known. Together, we’ve faced sickness, surgery, dirty diapers, pride, selfishness, poverty, regret, and boredom. We’ve even yelled mean things at one another, things so terrible we’d be ashamed if you’d heard them. But I say this to you without hesitation: I have never loved anyone so thoroughly in all my life. She has, in every way, made me a better man. If I were to paint a picture of what being a man means to me, it would be a picture of me, my wife, and my two children. There is no way that hopping from bed to bed could ever bring the kind of joy I have experienced in marriage. Perhaps you’ll have better sex than a married person if you do that, but you’ll never match their joy. You’ll never know their peace.

The goal isn’t to become a man; we’re already men, thanks to biology. But pursuing that goal has led to confusion. Let’s keep it simple: If you have the parts, congratulations! You’re already a man. Reject those ideas that add to or subtract from the essence of masculinity. Those ideas ultimately define masculinity in a narrow way that’s all about a packaged male-ness that appeals to pre-existing cultural ideals.

Our goal ought to be becoming Christ-like men. Being a Christ-like man means rejecting the notions that our culture, and sometimes even other Christian men, herald as the masculine ideal. Instead, we should focus our attention on loving peace, seeking justice, and sacrificing ourselves for others. In this way, Jesus Christ becomes our role model for what it means to be a good man.

Just as Caesar wept over his inability to be the sort of man Alexander the Great was, Christian men are weeping over a form of masculinity that Jesus never called us to pursue. My hope and prayer is that men everywhere will come instead to the cross of Christ, pick it up, and follow Him.


3 Comments

  1. At age eight, I passed up continuing piano lessons and devoted myself to becoming a tough softball pitcher after I heard an older girl on the school bus comment to my sisters, “He’s going to be a sissy if you let him continue with piano.” I regret it to this day.

    But, after brief successes in early kid’s sports, I did go on to become a bookworm, a teaching-style preacher, a devoted father, a lifelong Bible student, and a person who has no regrets at turning down the manly adventures recommended by John Eldredge. I found his book offensive. While I don’t doubt that we need many models of Christian discipleship including some that demand typically masculine skills, there are far better ways to follow Jesus than in daredevilry.

  2. Thanks for this reflection, Brian. I, too, have been suspicious of the “Wild at Heart” ethos.

    When I was young, I started collecting antique knives. (I would have collected guns if I could afford it.) Why? Because I was a young man, and fantasies of adventure and aggression came naturally. After I married, however, I found that I needed to build things. I started buying tools and learning how to use them. I made a couple bookshelves, a storage box or two, and then a side table. I now have a lot of tools, and I can use them with some skill to make things I need.

    After some years of learning to build things, I suddenly looked back at those knives I had carefully collected, preserved, and displayed, and I realized something. I had never used them. They had never done me any good. And I didn’t even desire them anymore. I was holding onto the knives for nostalgia’s sake, I suppose, but I wouldn’t miss them if they were gone. I no longer wanted to fight, but to build.

    I recalled Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 13: when I became a man, I put away childish things. Obviously Paul doesn’t mean he suddenly gained a Y-chromosome. It means that he grew up. I think that for us today, one of the marks of maturity for Christian men is that we put away fantasies of violence (whether in video games or in real life) and replace them with the slow, steady work of building a home, and taking responsibility for the everyday well-being of those who dwell with us in it.

    Which brings us right back to Brian’s excellent observation about seeking peace. Every man under his own vine and under his own fig tree sounds to me like a life worth living.

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