This morning I overslept. I wasn’t late for an obligation or anything, rather I didn’t get up as early as I wanted to in order to achieve my morning goals. I went to the gym and felt tired. I don’t know whether it was because I was unmotivated, dehydrated, or something else. I finished my workout, but I didn’t go as hard as I wanted to. I got less done for work in the morning than I wanted, though I did get some things done. I just sorta fell short of my goal. While taking my son to swim lessons, I read an essay on pushing yourself to create the type of person you want to be and I felt convicted. Still, my physical state was dragging. My spirit was willing, but my flesh was weak. This often seems like the case when I set lofty goals: I eventually lack the time, energy, or will to achieve them. I am not great at being perfect.
My morning devotions dealt with Paul being the chief of sinners. It struck me that Paul worked harder than anyone else around him to achieve righteousness under his own steam. Yet he still failed. He later said that all his efforts were a pile of trash next to knowing Christ. In Romans 7 he acknowledged his daily struggles to overcome sin. Still he pushed hard and confessed that it was only Christ in him that made him good and righteous.
Now my morning focus turned to the manhood movement within evangelicalism and the larger point of my essay. Scrolling twitter, I came across a post from a pastor trying to shame guys into overcoming any softness in their lives. It was obvious he wants men to reach a lofty state of manliness that he has decided is the target of all believers. It was condescending, self-righteous, and unbiblical. He tried to coat it with a religious veneer, but it was a thin veil. He basically told men: Do not be soft, dependent on others, or effeminate in any way. To do so is to fail as a Christian man. It had the feel of a Christianized 300 speech. Part of what troubled me is that the type of manliness the pastor was describing is not unheard of in Christian circles. Lots of male focused Christian literature and influencers push this narrative that men should rule their homes with an iron fist, never feel emotions, shed weakness, and fight the world. The problem is that for anyone to try to live that way is purely playacting. There is no authenticity to it. If manliness is all about eschewing “softness” or any kind of personal weakness, it is a form of farce. It eliminates wide swaths of men from the contention of manliness and rewards virtues that don’t really make a man.King David wouldn’t even qualify, because although he was a fierce warrior he was also a poet. He danced before the Ark. He wept. He had close friends who he loved. He wore his dependance on God as a badge of honor. He was a man of steel and velvet. He was also sinful.
If my manliness is derived from my ability to get up early, bring it at the gym harder than anyone else, achieve more at work, or whatever, I will always be reaching for a ring that is unattainable. My flesh and the reality of my physical limitations are always going to get in the way. I am a cracked clay pot. I can push forever, but never be “good enough” because good enough is a shifting goal post. There’s always something more. My righteousness, toughness, and discipline will always be insufficient. Or worse, they will become a point of pride that will serve as a stumbling block to myself or those around me. Paul realized that. He worked to be like Jesus, acknowledged his struggles to hit the mark, and owned his shortfalls. I think that is what I want to be. I want to be a man, doing his best to be like Jesus. I want to love my wife like Christ loved the church. Teach my son to be like Jesus. Preach the Gospel and faithful explain the scriptures to the best of my ability. Still, I am going to be unfocused and soft sometimes. I’m going to act like a selfish child when my flesh overcomes me. If I fall short but I am a tool in the hands of my master I will consider it a win. If I’m not manly enough or disciplined enough or holy enough, then the good things I do are despite my weakness and point to the fact that Christ can still work through a broken tool. When I tried to be the best and to never deal with my weaknesses, it drove me to drink and wreck everyone around me. I will try hard and Christ will do the rest. If I am weak, he is strong. If I am boasting in anything, it won’t be my manliness or toughness or anything else. It’ll be in Christ alone.
I find it heartbreaking that this branch of Christianity thinks that is all men are worth. By focusing on only a few specific traits, which may or may not be definitely “masculine”, they reject everything else men could offer – those men who don’t fit their stereotypes. And you’re right: it forces guys to be fake, and to be constantly on guard to make sure they’re maintaining their “man card”. The farce has to be exhausting. We are emotional and relational beings, and that is why each one of us is unique and amazing. When you try and force people into molds, and shame them because they don’t meet your standard, we are actually spitting in God’s face. Each person is a different and unique representation of God; we all (after salvation) carry the Holy Spirit in a special way. We bring our individual gifts and talents together, as a Body, and we show the world God. To say that someone isn’t worthy of being considered a “manly Christian” based upon man made rules is absolutely asinine. God cherishes us, and He works within our humanity to change us from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18), to renew our minds, and to perfect our salvation. He’d much rather we’d be about being Jesus to a broken and dying world than wondering if we have perfected phantom score on a “Christian Male Testosterone Scoring” card.
It’s a different kind of shallow, works based salvation. I kind of also suspect there’s a marketing ploy involved. I think there’s this feeling that men would come to church if it is “manlier” or something. You’re right though, it’s sad.
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The “gospel” of manliness is something that I find deeply saddening in some branches of contemporary Christianity, as well as deeply unsatisfying. It seems like for some in the Christian manliness movement, Jesus has been sidelined in favour of Rambo or G.I. Joe. If all there is for Christian men is this sort of shallow, over-testosterated hard-as-nails facade, how on earth are we supposed to raise the next generation? True Christian manhood ought to be found in the imitation of Christ, who was humble and gentle, who wept at the death of a friend, who comforted his mother in his dying hours, who ultimately sacrificed himself for us. It sometimes seems like if some of these manliness advocates are to be believed, he ought to have strapped on a sword and taken on the Roman empire.
I’ll grant that we need better answers for what manhood is really about, but these guys seem like part of the problem to me.