Tag Archives: dad

Becoming a Better Man: How to Learn a New Skill


The first car I bought in college cost me $250. It was a ’77 Lincoln Continental. I knew almost nothing about cars, or I probably wouldn’t have bought it. It was rusty, barely ran, and blew such a large cloud of smoke when it started that a friend commented to me that she could see it from across campus. The first time it broke down was about 15 minutes after I paid for it. It was not the last time. Keeping the Continental running soon became a full-time hobby. The biggest problem with this hobby was that I had no idea what I was doing. I had spent almost no time using tools; I didn’t know that my Lincoln had a V-8 engine, and when I looked under the hood of my rusty old car, all I saw was a scary mess. However, my budget (or lack thereof) and my jalopy forced me to take action. I started out by tuning up the car. This meant buying a Haynes manual (a car fixing book) and borrowing some tools. Over the next several years, I read every repair book I could find and I asked questions of anyone who I could find who knew anything I didn’t. My uncles, other students, my philosophy professor, and the guy at the auto parts store all reached a point where they rolled their eyes at the words: “I have a quick question about cars…” Within a year, I was making extra money doing minor repairs to other students’ vehicles. In the 20 years since, this skill has served me more times than I can count. Now, it is a relative rarity for me to pay a mechanic. 

This is one of several skills I’ve acquired over the years, which are purely a product of deciding I want to do it and then applying myself to learning. These skills range from mechanical to computer related talents to relationship skills, and many others. We live in an era where knowledge is easily acquired and is often free. Very little is more fulfilling to a man than learning to take on a problem themselves and then doing it. Solving problems yourself is satisfying and confidence building. I can think of very little in life that feels better than saying: “I got this” and it actually being true. A basic part of becoming a better man is incremental growth through ongoing study and effort. Along the way, I’ve figured out a handful of basic tips that can be applied to the process of acquiring a new skill:

  • Read and ask questions. The great thing about knowledge is that it’s easily acquired by reading books. Libraries, the internet, and bookstores are easily accessible and serve as a wellspring for almost every area of learning. I learned more about how cars work by reading the diagnostic pages of the repair manual than from anyone I have ever asked. This truth isn’t limited to fixing cars. I learned to BBQ ribs, build a campfire, clean fish, aim a rifle, and a dozen other skills by reading books. Further, most folks who have knowledge are happy to share it. Asking questions of folks who know what they are talking about is a great shortcut. The great thing about the time we live in is that the Internet can connect you to experts all over the world, who gather on discussion boards. Further, YouTube offers all sorts of instructional videos on subjects ranging from plumbing to cars to cooking to anything else you can think up. 
  • Don’t be intimidated or work through it when you are. Cars scared the heck out of me when I started. Taking things apart was even worse. I found that diving in was the best way attack the problem. The problem I’ve seen in myself and other novices is the fear of just getting started. Self doubt and worry blocks the path. However, most of those fears are baseless. In 20 years, I can think of only a handful of instances in which I wrecked something because I took it apart when I shouldn’t have. 
  • Be patient. The biggest issues I’ve encountered in learning a new skill is when I get ahead of myself. You can’t expect to be an expert immediately and attacking a project without understanding everything involved can create a lot of headaches. Before starting anything new I make it a point to read and study everything I can find. Reading all the steps first is a great way to avoid those sorts of “uh-oh” moments. Practice is the pathway to expertise.
  • Take notes. My first tune up taught me not to take things apart without making note of how to put it back together again. Since then, I’ve labeled everything, drawn diagrams, taken notes, and photographed everything. A picture makes it much easier to remember which wires go where. Relying on your memory when working in unfamiliar territory is a bad idea. This is especially easy with large projects. It’s easy to forget little details in the middle of a complicated task. 
  • Don’t limit yourself. It’s easy to limit this process to purely mechanical skills. This is simply not the case. A few years ago I decided to needed to step up my game as a husband and father. A couple dozen books on the subject have made me a better man in these areas. Most of my graduate school experience was done through distance learning. Essentially, this means I learned almost everything through reading books and asking questions. You can learn anything through reading and study. I often have folks ask me how they can understand the Bible better, I invariably tell them to read it. Sometimes I give them a couple of guidebooks to move them on their way. 
  • Reading the RIGHT books is essential. Setting out to learn theology by picking up an advanced textbook written for doctoral level theologians might not help, largely because you won’t understand it. Reading a motorcycle repair manual to fix your Honda Civic will likely be of little aid. Find the right material before you start. I have found that most folks will willingly point you in the right direction if you ask. In addition, Amazon searches and book reviews will give you some great hints regarding what level of student a book is meant to help. Finally, if you start on a book that’s too advanced for you, put it down and read a different one. It’s easy to get frustrated and quit, but you’ll gain nothing by doing this. 

The biggest thing to remember is that all education is an incremental journey. We learn to read over the course of several years as children. We learn to walk, only after mastering sitting up and crawling. Anything can be learned if you are willing to put in the work needed to learn it. Any skill you have is a skill you can teach to someone else. 

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Men With Stone Hearts: Becoming an Emotionally Mature Man

We may give our human loves the unconditional allegiance which we owe only to God. Then they become gods: then they become demons. Then they will destroy us, and also destroy themselves. For natural loves that are allowed to become gods do not remain loves. They are still called so, but can become in fact complicated forms of hatred.

C.S. Lewis — the Four Loves

doodle_pro_2016-05-23t15_44_17zIn general, emotions are a difficult topic for men. This difficulty spans a broad spectrum, from emotionless stoicism on one end, to the uncontrolled passions of aggression, anger, lust, and ambition that have earned the male gender a reputation for acting as the bull in the china shop of their relationships. One of the hallmarks of a mature man is his ability to manage his emotions. This is not full repression of feeling and passionless existence. The stoic philosophers succeeded in producing incomplete men by attempting to avoid one of the fundamental strengths of man. God designed passion into men, that we might reflect his character. You cannot read the scriptures and miss God’s love, joy, sorrow, rage, and jealousy. In short, we were made in the image of a passionate God. Jesus was often angry.  He loved folks passionately.  He wept at the death of Lazarus, and he mourned over Jerusalem’s ongoing rebellion. It is important to understand that God’s passions are restrained by His will and holiness. Further, it is important to understand that these are qualities of God, they are not God himself.

C.S. Lewis explains this idea well by pointing out that “God is love”, but “love is not God.” Men can find it tempting to turn their passions into gods. It’s easy to do because in its finest state, love can resemble God. This is appropriate, being that God’s perfect love is one of His major attributes. However, when love, or any of our passions, is elevated to the level of a god to be worshipped, it quickly also becomes a demon. Lewis’ book exploring this topic focuses exclusively on love, and he is correct in asserting that love, apart from any of our passions, most tempts us to worship it as a god. However, I would argue that all of emotions and passions can quickly take control of our lives. A man who pretends that he experiences no lust is no more honest and right than a man who worships romantic love and connection, being led by the nose from romantic infatuation to infatuation. A man who follows his heart and his secretary’s short skirt away from his wife and children is not magically virtuous if he justifies it saying: “The heart wants what it wants” with the reverence of a man righteously worshipping romantic infatuation.

0ffdb0d33713b446a2323b461cf423ee8857a47a2f4d44f0190d0a854871f761.jpg

We joke about men being emotionless, but it’s not really true. Watch a man jump up and down cheering on his sports team for proof of this idea.

Lewis classifies love into four categories: affection, charity, friendship, and Eros (romance). A man does well to exhibit each with zeal where appropriate; along with other emotional states, like anger, pride, sorrow, etc. The mark of a mature man is that he is not controlled by these emotions. A mature man doesn’t drop into fits of rage like a petulant child, flinging hurtful words at those around him in retribution for not getting his way. Rather, godly men control anger, using it judiciously to improve the world around them, imitating Christ in passionate pursuit of what is right and good in the creation. A righteous man strives to love his wife faithfully, devoting his romantic energies to her and investing in the relationship so as to strengthen the marriage, enjoy his wife, and model Christlike marriage to his children. This precludes his chasing after romantic trysts, allowing a momentary infatuation to ruin his family, or submitting to his lust by indulging in pornography. Maturity sees romantic love as a component of long term committed relationships. Love for life’s mission and goals is another area where passion can quickly overrule good sense and wreck a man’s good judgement and direction. This is often seen with ministers who sacrifice their marriage and family on the altar of ministry success. This is a passion that neglects the weightier things of mature, Godly manhood. A man’s pride will drive him to work tirelessly to provide for his family, but the same pride can lead him to abandon his family in favor of his work. Desire to win drives athletes to training and living lives dedicated to success, though the same desire to win can lead a man to cheat or compete dishonorably. These are only a few examples of powerful passions that can drive a man to accomplish great things or break him.

This is no easy task. It requires maturity, accountability, prayer, and learning to imitate Christ. Jesus repeatedly proclaimed that his actions were a reflection of the Father’s will and in pursuit of his earthly mission. Mature men learn to bring their passions into submission, not ruled by them. But rather harnessing them in the pursuit of life mission.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Defining Manhood: Office, Man-Cave, or Study?

doodle_pro_2016-05-22t19_59_56z

Where I spend my time defines much of who I am.

A few months ago, my 2 year old boy got his own bedroom. The room change cost my wife her home office. She telecommutes, so her office is an indispensable commodity. She moved into my space and I moved my office to the back porch. As I was moving into my new space, I had a realization. For years I’ve been calling my space “my office.” This seems sensible to me, because I often work in it. Pastoring is seldom a 9-5 gig and work gets done when and where it needs to get done. However, I found myself settling into my office to work because it was there. Instead of walking down the road to my actual office, I would settle into my space to work whenever I felt like it. The down side of having a home office is that you actually use it. The line between home and work blurs more and more as time goes by. This is less than ideal, especially in a career that, by nature, doesn’t divide cleanly. My friends go to the church, my spiritual life is heavily attached to work, and my family life is connected to my job. Further, I realized that by calling it “my office,” I was defining myself heavily by my job. We use words to define things. Our labels for things will forever shape how we see them. My office is where I work. I don’t want to be defined by my employment in my own eyes or in the eyes of my children and wife. This makes it necessary to change the label. The challenge begins there. If I don’t want to be defined by my job, what do I want my space to be?

img_1477

In all honesty, my home office could easily be called “the giant mess where I hang out.” 

It’s popular for men to define their space by calling it a “man cave.” The idea behind the man cave originated with Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. The premise is that men tend to need alone time to recharge their batteries. The man cave has become a bit of a status symbol, with guys building elaborate rooms dedicated to “manly things,” like cars, video games, drinking, etc. The problem I have with this is that it plays the same game as the “home office” by defining men. Instead of defining men by their work, they are defined by their lowest, least evolved state. “Cave man” may be a part of our past, but it is not something to aspire to. I used to wear diapers and I may one day be forced to do so again, but I do not aspire to return to that stage. People will typically only jump as high as the bar that is set for them. If you tell me, my son, or any other man that a caveman is what they are, aspiring to greater is a bit muted. I don’t want a cave and I don’t want my “alone time” to be a de-evolution. Labels ought to inspire men to aspire to greater things.

This prompted me to start calling it my “study.” I don’t take tests and probably will not be in school ever again. However, I want to get better. I read and research to improve myself because my wife and kids deserve the best me I can give them. I feed my curiosity and entertain myself with things that interest me and prompt me to grow. Rest and recharge can be accomplished by aspiring for better, rather than merely escaping to work or mindlessness. There is a secondary consideration here, beyond my own aspirations. My children learn what men ought to look like and how they ought to behave by watching me. Their first lessons in this subject matter will be learned from me. The words I use to define myself and how I model manhood will teach them much. How do I want my son to see his own manhood? Make no mistake, he will learn his values by imitating me. Will he be defined by his employment or his basest drives? Or will he learn to be something more by watching me?

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Masculinity That’s More Than Just An Image

  

  
While reading an article on masculine identity recently, I was treated to a fascinating comparison of two presidents: Theadore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge. President Theadore Roosevelt was a genuine cowboy. He was a Rough Rider that charged up San Juan Hill and a rancher in the Dakotas. Through and through, he embodied a sort of genuine masculinity in everything from his hobbies, relationships, parenting style, intellectual pursuits, and approach to leadership. He lived during a time when the nation was wild and untamed, and the masculine ideal in western civilization was also still largely wild and untamed. 3 decades after Teddy’s years in office, Calvin Coolidge was president during a time when the culture yearned for a return to the masculinity of yesteryear, which led to a nostalgic revival of cowboys and western lore. The problem was that it wasn’t real. Attached is a picture of Teddy the cowboy and Calvin the cowboy. One of these things is not like the other. The image of masculinity is not actual manliness. Regardless of how well-dressed Calvin was, he wasn’t a cowboy. Similar phenomena can be seen today as men try to look the part, talk the part, and act the part – without ever actually fitting the part. The ideal of manliness has grown indistinct and young men carry with them a sort of insecurity about their identity as men. This is the crisis of modern man.

   
 

The Bible offers a clear picture of what God intended men to look, act, and be like. Paul tells us that Jesus is the full stature of mature masculinity. He was selfless, quick to action, principled, wise, a servant, loving, and courageous. In Christ, men are given an objective to aim for. The biggest problem we encounter with this definition is that it’s too big. I recently read a series of articles on how the ideal women of Proverbs 31 is terrible and demoralizing because it is perfection beyond attaining, sorta like trying to match the airbrushed beauty of a Cosmo cover girl. The same can be true for men. We are called to aspire to be like the son of God, the perfect man. The task seems almost too great, like attempting to swallow the sea in one gulp. However, we are given a few things that help us in that process. First, in Christ’s atoning sacrifice, we can find new life, freely given, that makes us new. We are new men if we are in Christ. Beyond being new creations, we are given the Holy Spirit who reshapes us. We are in the constant process of being remade as we follow Jesus. God helps us become new. A final major gift that God gives us in the process of becoming men like Jesus is in His word. Jesus not only offers us his perfect example, he also gives us his teachings through the scriptures. God’s word gives us simple, easy teachings and directions. I don’t care for reading the instructions when taking on new things, but this is worth the effort. 

The first simple list I think is worth considering as a man pursuing a life like Jesus’ is found at the end of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Paul spends most of the letter answering questions that he had received in a letter from the church. He ends the letter with a set of instructions on various issues. Sandwiched between two paragraphs regarding mutual friends is 2 verses of instruction: 

Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. 1 Corinthians 16:13-14

This short list reflects the basic task of Christian men in the basic work of being men like Jesus. Though the list is short, it takes place at the end of a long letter and is a reflection of the larger content of the letter. In the coming days, I’ll unpack each of these simple directions:

  1. Be watchful
  2. Stand firm in the faith
  3. Act like men
  4. Be strong
  5. Let all that you do be done in love.

This is by no means the only set of instructions given in the scriptures. However, it is a good place to start because it is all encompassing. 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Acting Like Men, Dreaming Like Boys

The following is my newspaper column from this week. I do not normally post material I have published in other media (at least not without significant rewriting!). This seems like it was worth sharing. Let me know what you think. It appeared in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 9/30/15.

IMG_8051My 2-year old boy has a cold and was very cranky this morning. My wife and I tried all sorts of things to soothe him with little success until I pulled out a box of Star Wars toys and settled on the kitchen floor to play with him.

He wasn’t content to play with me in any other setting or with any other toys, but the Star Wars toys captured his attention. Within a few minutes my fussy toddler was flying his space ship around the kitchen, making laser noises and and giggling. He sort of knows which toys are the “good guys” and which are the “bad guys.” I generally pick the villains to play with, because that’s what my dad did, and he always wants to play with the heroes. I won’t pretend to know why my boy decided that would cheer him up, but there is something worth paying attention to in the pattern, which I’d argue is largely true of males in general.

Boys usually crave adventure toys, action, excitement, and they idolize heroic figures. Some of this is likely cultural, but I’d argue that in the hearts of men there tends to be a desire for action, an inclination to aim toward greatness, and a tendency to be inspired by noble things. These tendencies certainly shift and change as they age and develop their own values and interests. However, regardless of what form these desires take in the long run, they begin with a desire to be the hero, to be the best at whatever it is that they are pursuing, and an inclination to dream big dreams. As they age, boys tend to put these inclinations away in favor of more practical and realistic goals. This is natural and normal phenomena. Few men go to work everyday dreaming of being a hero. However, whether or not it is natural and normal, there is a sense in which it isn’t ideal. It is far better when a man realizes that their inclinations ought to be adopted to fit the lives in which they live. As the father of small children, I get to play the part of the hero. This often wears off as time goes by and children grow up. However, there are men I have known who dedicate their lives to being great fathers. Those men often raise children who see them as heroes. The same can be said of a man who dedicates himself to being a great husband. It’s important to note that this is more than just being a friend or a good provider. It is being an example, defender, caretaker, leader, fixer, teacher, and all manner of other things. Further, men who pursue depth of character, integrity, and righteousness grow to a stature that causes folks to see them as heroes and great in their own right. I would argue that this is essentially what Christians refer to when they speak of following Christ’s example. Some of the most impressive men I know are those who try to live like Jesus. Their families, friends and neighbors recognize that they are different. Paul once wrote that when he became a man he put away childish things. The things that make men great are too easily deemed childish. Having a desire to pursue greatness in family and community life, then acting on that desire, is the beginning of achieving distinction.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Real Men Treasure Their Mothers, Wives, Daughters, and All Women

IMG_7507-0This blog post started out as a brief comment on an article from Mental Floss that I was sharing on my Facebook page. It slowly evolved into a rant. I decided it was an important enough idea to share publicly. The link is a collection of advertisements from 70 plus years ago that use overt shaming of women in order to convince them to buy products. The gist of most of these ads is simple: you are not pretty or hygienic enough for a man to love you. The article points out how ridiculous and offensive this approach to advertising is. Click the link to read it in depth. It’s an interesting read and Mental Floss is a pretty awesome website.

selling-shame-40-outrageous-vintage-ads-any-woman-would-find-offensive

In particular, the novelty of the ads featured in the article is interesting, but the most fascinating part is the explanation about how advertising set out to make women feel inferior in order to sell them products. Advertising has changed a great deal in the sense that it has gotten more subtle and sophisticated, but it hasn’t changed that much in how it devalues women in order to convince them to consume products. It seems like most television and advertising has geared itself toward a select few messages, most of which can be boiled down to: “You’re not happy” or “you’re not adequate.” There are variations of these messages, including: “your family isn’t happy, but they could be if you use our product.” The vintage ads in the article are offensive, but they sell with the same message as most Cosmo covers and weight loss products. “You aren’t as good as our model, but you could be.” There’s a terrible trick built into the whole scheme as well. Which is that it’s a shell game. You chase the elusive prize, but even when you find it, you don’t. If you reach the “ideal” standard, the ads will keep telling you “you’re not happy” or “not good enough.” These advertisements and messages are everywhere, telling our wives and daughters to question themselves and telling young men that these are the standards of beauty that they should lust after.

The truth is that physical attractiveness is far from the most important quality for a woman to possess. Proverbs tells us: Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Beauty is important in some ways and men tend to be very visual by nature looking for beauty and attractiveness as a part of who they are. These are a part of reality, that we shouldn’t shame or decry, but to worship a standard of physical attractiveness that is unattainable and manufactured is wrong. It is even more wrong to shame women for not perfectly emulating it. God designed us for better than this. Men, in particular, need to lead the way in telling their wives, sisters, and daughters the truth about their value and worth as God’s creatures. Sometimes, my 4-year old daughter gushes about how she will be prettier and everyone will like her if she wears the right dress or has the right hairstyle. I do my best to correct this every time, telling her that I love her because she is herself and because God made her wonderful. The women in our lives are not to be cherished because of their beauty, though my wife and daughter are beautiful. They are worth cherishing because God blessed me with funny, clever, caring, awesome women that make my life better. I learn to love God more and be more like Jesus because of my wife and daughter. It’s hard to love my wife like Christ loved the church. It’s easy to forget that Eve was created as a perfect counterpart to Adam, to be cherished and valued as a gift. We need to do the same. It drives me crazy to think that my wife and/or daughter would ever think they are anything less than a treasure. I am amazed at how my wife becomes more beautiful every day and my daughter looks more like her all the time. I am even more amazed that them being so pretty is the least of their great attributes. Loving, respecting, honoring, and cherishing women is a blessing and a responsibility that all Godly men ought to embrace.

***Edited after posting to clarify a few ideas and fix a few awkwardly phrased sentences.***

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What Does It Mean to Be A Real Man?

IMG_7389“Next week, if you guys would like, we will start a teaching series on ‘what does it mean to be a man?’” I was pretty surprised by the response this statement garnered amongst the young men in the room. I was teaching Bible to a group of clients at a drug treatment program. The boys were largely placed by the local jail, most were from bad neighborhoods and broken homes. There were lots of kids with gang affiliations and long criminal histories. The biggest challenge in teaching them anything was finding things they would engage with at all. In this case, the young men who were present responded enthusiastically. Many of them approached me later, individually, to express their excitement about learning how to be a real man. I was initially perplexed by the response, largely because the young men routinely and loudly proclaimed their manliness. It was common to hear them yell and carry on about how tough they were. I often joked that it was like watching an episode of wild kingdom, with the young male lions strutting and posing in an effort to intimidate each other. The crazy secret behind the whole display was that most of the young men had no idea at all about what it meant to be a real man. They just figured that if they faked it loudly enough everyone would buy their act. Boys learn how to be men by watching their dads. This is the way God designed the world. If fathers are flawed, their children learn to be flawed men. This is one of the reasons why alcoholic men tend to raise alcoholic men and why the Bible says that sons are punished for their father’s sins for generations to follow. In the case of the boys in the program, because none of them had a dad to watch and emulate, they were left with what they could piece together from pop culture and their peers. The challenge with that is that boys compete with each other naturally. This meant that the fatherless boys tried to be men by being tougher than the other guy. The end result was emptiness. If a man tries to find his manhood in violence, sex, work, wealth, or anything else in the world that is temporary and fleeting, they will simply end up emptier. Solomon said that wealth, sex, work, and everything else is just a vapor. It passes and disappears as though it was never there in the first place.

atlasThe topic of manhood is complicated and will take more than one post to properly explore. In the short term, it’s important to establish a basic concept of manhood from which to work. I’d suggest that the place to start is with the source of manhood identity that is built into our world: Boys learn to be men by watching their fathers. This is because parents stand in God’s place in the lives of their children for the first several years of their lives. They provide life, food, shelter, moral guidance, correction, etc. Children’s conception of God is often shaped by their perception of their dads. Genesis tells us that when God created man, He created them in His own image. Fathers (and all men for that matter) are supposed to be copies of God in many respects. We are to share His heart, passions, loves, understanding of family, and work. When dads fail to model this lifestyle and teach their boys to do the same, they create problems. Fortunately, God provides us a more clarified example of manhood in the person of Jesus, who is God made flesh. A boy without a good fatherly model to follow can see ideal manhood in Jesus. When we choose to follow Jesus, our job is to learn to be like him through a lifetime of training, which is discipleship. This is why Christ’s self-sacrificing love and attitude of humble service is the example for husbands. He demonstrates the ideal manner of intimate relationship through his relationship with the church.

overly-manly-man-ansd-steakIt’s easy to picture Jesus as a pollyanna-type figure or as the feathered haired guy in a bathrobe that we all encountered on flannel graphs in Sunday School as kids. Fortunately, the tame version of the Son of God is far from accurate. C.S. Lewis captured Jesus’ identity best when he wrote: “He’s not safe! But, he’s good.” Jesus’ integrity, passion, penchant for action, grace, wisdom, willingness to speak openly (even offensively if necessary), self-sacrificing service, and lifetime focus on making the world better are just a few of the qualities that make Jesus is the ideal standard of manhood. He is the ideal mold from which men were meant to be cast. It is from Him that we learn how God desires us to be. Once we know, our job is to enter training to become like him.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

W. Frank Scott on Jesus in Marriage

This is a longer quote from Scott’s preaching commentary on the gospel of John. There’s enough good stuff here that it’s worth doing the whole quote… though you don’t get the fortune cookie effect that comes with a shorter quote. inviting Jesus to the wedding

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Where in the World is the Proverbs 31 Woman: Part 2 Picking the Right Approach

Recipre-for-a-perfect-wife-v3This is my second blog post on the Proverbs 31 woman and I haven’t started to really dig into the passage. I usually try to write shorter essays because most folks won’t read thousands of words just to get an answer. Easy answers are nice, but they are often incomplete. There’s always a temptation for pastors to shortcut and assign meaning to scripture rather than digging for the author’s intent. Understanding what the author meant to tell the reader means looking at it from their cultural perspective/historic perspective.

Interpretive Decisions: Allegory, Literal, or Something Else
There is a final matter that needs to be considered when deciding how to interpret the text properly, that is selecting the right interpretive approach. This basically means that we need to decide if the author intended the reader to see the passage as referring to something other than is being presented, if the reader is supposed to understand it in a word-for-word sense, or if it’s a combination of the two.

Proponents of taking an allegorical approach argue that the wife in the passage is symbolic of wisdom. Thus, the advice being offered is that young men keep wisdom as though it is their wife. This position has the benefit of being consistent with some of the rest of the book. Wisdom is repeatedly referred to as a woman. The advantage of this approach is that it can easily end the argument with folks who misuse this passage by making it about something else entirely. There are several problems with selecting the allegorical approach. For starters, the book of Proverbs does speak of women without doing so allegorically. Chapter 5 is a great example of this. The adulterous woman discussed in the passage isn’t indicated as a symbol for sexual behavior. Rather, the advice seems to be to avoid loose women, which is in harmony with the direction in 2:16-19, which advises the young man to avoid getting trapped in sexual sin, with no indication that is is an allegory. Later in chapter 5, advice is given about “drinking water from your own cistern” and the value of not spreading your streams of water into the street. These warnings about not being sexually loose are paired with an instruction to “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth.” The wife in the passage is clearly a reference to an actual wife, who young men ought to confine their sexual behaviors to. There is no indication that she is anything but a wife. Further, it would be extremely weird to approach this passage allegorically, trying to make the talk of sex fit somehow with wisdom personified as a woman. It makes far more sense that the instruction is to enjoy sex with your wife, and only your wife. Beyond just being awkward, the text offers no hints that the passage ought to be read that way. Contrast this with passages like 7:4: “Say to wisdom, ‘You are my sister,’ and call insight your intimate friend…” The author tips his hand that he is speaking allegorically. The same practice is repeated in 8:1: “Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice?” The author tells you that he has shifted into allegory. The same can be said of 1:20 and 9:1. The text tends to telegraph these ideas. The author tells the young man when he is instructing through allegory. The problem with ignoring this tendency is that it results in a book of advice for young men that in no way addresses their interaction with women in any capacity. It cripples the text by applying a template automatically without regard for contextual prompts.

Regarding the allegorical approach and Proverbs 31, there is no indicator that the wife mentioned is wisdom personified. Nowhere does the author telegraph his intent to shift into allegory. Further, if we are going to read it as an allegory then we have to ignore a rather awkward idea presented in 26, that she (Wisdom) opens her mouth with wisdom.  It’s a bit of a circular concept.

There is one other matter to consider when looking at whether or not the passage is allegorical: the context for the passage in terms of the surrounding verses and who is speaking. In this case, the mother of the king is speaking. She offers advice on how to rule wisely, specifically instructing her son: “Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings.” She then goes on to direct him to avoid strong drink. It seems clear that the women described are actual women, because there is no indication of allegorical intent. Further,  the advice about women is paired with a direction about liquor. If one is figurative, then the next line would be as well. It makes very little sense for allegory to be inserted randomly in this manner. For this woman to advise her son to avoid women that are destructive and to follow it up a few lines later with advice on how to properly select a wife makes sense. It fits the context. She is giving whole life advice.

prov 31Part of the temptation to read the wife in Proverbs 31 as wisdom personified is rooted in the fact that she is living out many of the tenets of wisdom presented in the book. She is demonstrating wise behaviors. They are the same types of behaviors that the young men are instructed to try to live out. It seems reasonable that a man ought to seek out a wife who is strong, intelligent, hard-working, independent, and compassionate. Really, as far as ideal wives go, this seems to be a very positive message regarding what is important to seek out in a wife.

The other extreme position sometimes taken when interpreting the passage is to read it with a strict literal understanding. This would be unusual in wisdom literature and poetry, which tend to describe concepts. Lines in poems ofter reflect qualities or ideas. Further, reading the text in a strictly literal manner makes finding the ideal wife nearly impossible because meeting all of the behavioral requirements is nearly impossible, particularly since many of them require that the couple already be married. If the son is seeking a wife who takes care of their kids, they have to be married. Further, the list is lofty and towering to the point of being impossible to meet. For example, if we summarize only some of the qualities we find that the ideal wife makes clothing from scratch, buys property, plants vineyards, she is strong enough to work the fields, and sells some of the clothing she produces. As a checklist for wives, it’d be silly to expect that every woman ought to be making her own thread or even sewing. In addition, not every family has need of a vineyard. Not every family has the financial wherewithal to purchase land, nor is land available for every family to purchase. I don’t even need to comment on bartering. If we are to read these lines from literal perspective, we have to force every 21st century woman into a wealthy family from 900 BC and the middle east. I am taking this to an extreme, but the point is that the list of behaviors is not reasonable for anyone to take on in our context. Even in the day the text was written, only a small percentage of families would have the servants necessary to fulfill verse 15. It’s easy to talk of taking the text literally without engaging the reality of the position properly. The premise falls apart quickly when we look more closely.

One might suggest that we should back off of the literal reading a little. I’ve read several essays that argue that we ought to interpret the text as pointing to a super housewife, that is subjected to her husband’s beck and call. She sews, cooks, plants a garden, stays up all night doing housework, and then gets up before dawn to make breakfast. The problem with this perspective is that the wife in the chapter takes on a number of tasks that are overtly masculine according to ancient standards. Beyond masculine, they are downright liberated, particularly when considering the standard social expectations for women in the ancient world. She makes financial decisions, is physically strong and demonstrates it through her participation in what would otherwise be seen as “man’s work.” She also produces income through her own work. Many of these activities were off-limits to women in the ancient world, particularly women of social stature. The “super housewife” perspective fails when the passage is considered according to the historical context. Though she takes on domestic responsibilities, this woman works outside the home and clothes herself with strength.

Good-Wives-01How then are we to properly interpret the text? The answer is a mixture of the literal and the figurative. It is typical of Hebrew poetry to offer examples that represent virtues. This is most easily seen in verses like 20: “She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy.” Verse 20 can easily be read literally, but it represents more than a behavior. The wife described in verse 20 is compassionate to the needs of others. This is an attainable quality and is in harmony with the depiction of wise behavior discussed in the rest of the text. Apply the same approach to verse 16: “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” I’ve already dealt with the problem with handling this literally. If instead we see it as representing a particular type of behavior, we quickly recognize that the passage describes a common sense business decision that she willingly follows up with hard work. Boil it down further and we have: She makes wise decisions and works hard. Neither of these is as unattainable as purchasing real estate and hand-planting a vineyard.

Much of the difficulty I have heard expressed in terms of this passage is connected directly with reading the passage overly literally, and ignoring the literary genre. This is often done in the name of forcing an interpretation on the text that is outside of the author’s intent. It is also done without viewing the additional meaning given to the text by the coming of Jesus and the new Covenant. If the poem is a to do list, it easily becomes law for a wife to obey. Paul tells us repeatedly that the law is impossible for us to attain. It is a crushing weight on us because of our imperfection through sin. In the next installment we will look at how understanding this passage is altered by the gospel.
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Where In the World is the Proverbs 31 Woman: Part 1 Understanding the Background

goodwifeguide-331x268Over the past few years, I’ve read several articles arguing varying perspectives on the ideal wife portrayed in Proverbs 31. Most of these articles have argued the matter in terms of whether or not this woman is a standard model for wives and women everywhere to aspire to be the best housewife possible in serving her 1950s family or an allegory for wisdom so as to remove the unattainable ideal that just serves to discourage women into standardized gender roles. I’ll admit that these characterizations are hyperbole, but I am exaggerating the extreme sides of this debate for a reason: because this text has become a bit of a tug-o-war passage for folks in the battle over the role of women in the church. Each side pulling for a gender political stance and taking pride in their position, sometimes without bothering to ask whether or not they are glorifying Christ in their stance. My intent in this post is not to engage either of these positions, but rather to offer an analysis of the text with an eye on shedding a little light as to what believers are actually supposed to do with these passages.

Preliminary Issues: Genre, Audience, and Context
In advance of the discussion, there are a few important concepts that need to be understood as a lens through which we must look in interpreting the passage. The first is the genre of literature being discussed. Wisdom literature, and more specifically the proverb, is a specific genre that needs to be understood on its own terms. Reading Proverbs isn’t like reading the instruction manual for your toaster. It’s a highly defined style of writing, featuring multiple sub-genres. In this case, it’s important to recognize that the text is presenting an idealized truth. It is the same throughout the book. This idealized truth must be understood as such. It’s easy to recognize this when comparing the book to other wisdom texts. For example, read Proverbs straight through, then read Ecclesiastes or Job. All three are wisdom literature, but the three texts offer very different perspectives on the world. In Job, the righteous man loses everything and suffers despite being blameless. In fact, Job’s friends seem to reflect a position that might be supported by the book of Proverbs: If bad things are happening to you, you must have acted wickedly. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon declares some hard realities that seem to stand at odds with the more idealized book of Proverbs. There seems to be a contradiction between the books. However, this contradiction is pressing only if we rigidly look at the proverbs as absolute statements of truth or rules for the universe, instead of recognizing that ideals are being presented. To this end, it is important to recognize that this is an idealized version of women, a target to aspire to. It is not a list of hard and fast rules for wives. Rather, it is an ideal.

Further, the passage itself is Hebrew poem, written with a structure that gives hints as to what the main point is. For starters, each line of the text begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which points to the completeness of the truth being presented. Acrostics could also be used to aid in memorization. This is important because the book is intended to be instructional material for young men. Easy memorization would be a desirable feature. In addition, the poem itself has a Chiastic structure. This is when the first and last line parallel each other, the second and second to last line parallel each other, and so forth. The middle line of the poem, which has no parallel, is the major point being made. In this case verse 23 is the center of the poem:Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land. Essentially, the poem culminates in the instruction that a man with a good wife will be lauded publicly. A modern equivalent would be: “Behind every successful man stands a strong woman.” This may seem like a back-handed treatment of women, saying that their only purpose is to make their husbands successful, but this isn’t the case because wives aren’t the target audience of this text.

When interpreting scripture, understanding the target audience intended by the author is valuable for understanding the message being presented. In the case of the book of Proverbs, the target audience is young men. Throughout the book, young men are addressed in the instructions. In fact, chapter 31 is advice given to King Lemuel by his mother. In this context, the advice being given to sons in the chapter is essentially that picking a good wife will aid in you becoming the kind of man that folks esteem highly. This is hardly unique in the text. 25:24 warns: Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife. What sort of wife should you seek? One that you don’t fight with constantly, or you’ll hit a point where you’d rather sleep on the roof than with her. Chapter 5 is loaded with advice for young men regarding loose sexual morals. Young men are instructed to avoid such behavior and keep their sexuality confined to the relationship with their wives. In this light, the passage fits the larger context of the book’s tendency to offer advice to young men about ideal truths. This is most evident in verse 30: Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Young men tend to gravitate to a pretty face when selecting a wife, while ignoring more important qualities, like character. The advice being offered is heavily oriented toward young men’s inclinations. Again, the audience is important because it reveals a truth that is often ignored by those who attempt to interpret the text in terms of gender roles: chapter 31 is never intended to be used as an instruction manual for wives. It is not a checklist for being the ideal wife. Rather, it is advice for sons to look for certain qualities in their wives if they want to be successful and well thought of. That having been said, there are truths that can be gleaned and applied for wives, but more on that later.

1f63a8228ad74caec641eaecef106871Understanding the historic context is also important for getting a solid grip on the meaning of the passage. The advice being offered isn’t being given in a culture where people typically married for love. Marriage was generally a very utilitarian institution. Wives were selected based on all sorts of considerations, most of them pragmatic. The poem is literally about choosing a wife according to high character standards. This choosing was more akin to shopping than our culture tends to immediately recognize.

In the next installment, we’ll look at the most important background issue: How to interpret what King Lemuel’s mom was saying. Is it symbolic of something else? Is it a guide for being a perfect housewife? Is it a call to return to the 50s? Or is it something better that all believers can take hold of with joy?
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Advertisements