I write a newspaper column entitled Patching Cracks for the local paper. Every January, I write a column on New Year’s Resolutions exploring the concept behind the practice, the reason most resolutions fail to enact lasting change, and how to improve the odds of a successful resolution. This year, I had a crazy realization. I haven’t ever made a resolution. I’ve written about the practice for years without actually trying it on for size. This year, I resolved to make severalresolutions and to try out my own advice. One of my goals for the year was to read more. However, “more” is pretty nebulous and failing to set a target to hit is the first step to failing altogether. So, I set a high, but attainable goal: I will read 52 books in 2016. Teddy Roosevelt read 2 to 3 books a day, so I figure I can manage to read one a week. Mind you, these are not just any books. I am reading 52 books that will expand me in some way. I love novels, but I don’t want to come to the end without becoming a better man. All of the my reading choices are non-fiction and focused on a topic that relates to me growing as a person. Nearly 6 months into the year, I’ve read nearly 30 books, mostly theology, Bible, counseling, manhood, marriage, or parenting focused. Beyond what I have learned from reading more in general, the effort of reading toward a goal has taught me a few things about reading that are worth sharing.
The goal of reading more started out as a way to test my own advice. However, six months into the experiment, I am finding that expanding myself through reading has been more than worth the effort. It has helped me advance my larger aspiration in life: becoming a better man.
I am a magnet for bad habits and addictions. I know I am not alone in this. I have spoken to scores of men who have developed unwanted patterns in their work, relationships, stress management, and leisure. Part of what puzzled me about my habits over the years is that many of them are things I don’t really want to do, but it seemed like my mind would shift into automatic pilot time and again, allowing me to live out some impulse that I’d just as soon avoid. The following is a newspaper column I wrote looking at brain functions and why they make habitual behaviors so difficult to break.
This article was originally published in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 9/9/15.
There was a large wooded park with a lake behind the house my family lived in while I was attending high school. During the four years we lived in that home, my siblings and I frequently spent hours wandering through the woods around that lake. When we did, we usually walked along the trails and paths, because it was easier. Occasionally, I remember straying from the well-worn paths and crashing through the brush. This usually took longer and resulted in scratches, scrapes, and swearing to yourself that you’d stick to the path next time. The reason is obvious: well-worn pathways are easier to travel. There is a similar phenomena that takes place within the human brain. We all have a portion of our brain that controls motor functions and handles our actions/reactions during times of stress, often referred to as fight-or-flight moments. In moments when thinking isn’t possible and the body needs to act quickly, our actions will tend to follow the “well-worn paths” that exist within our brains. This is why athletes and soldiers practice the same movements over and over in training, to prepare them to act without thinking. It sometimes leads to strange behaviors under pressure. I recently read about soldiers collecting spent cartridges in combat, mimicking their repeated behavior on the shooting range. It’s a terrible decision to collect brass while being shot at, but the point is that it isn’t a decision. It’s rehearsed behavior. This is an extraordinary example, but there are far more common ones, like when a person reaches for a cigarette or drink without thinking – especially during times of stress. There’s a part of the brain that knows that a drink or a smoke helps manage stress, which makes this an easy pathway to develop in our brains.
A far more common example of this is seen in bad habits, particularly communication and coping habits that folks develop in their relationships. We learn to fight certain ways, and breaking those habits is difficult because it’s what we’ve memorized through repeated practice. We know our arguing strategies or our escape plans and go to them almost instinctively. Married couples often find themselves having arguments that follow the same course as every previous argument they’ve had over the last several years. Husbands sometimes respond to arguing by shutting down and running for the safety of the tv, late work days, or just hanging out in the garage. Wives learn to argue as effectively as possible or to hide out by focusing on the kids or some other part of life other than their spouse. The pattern repeats and repeats, even when it doesn’t make sense anymore or when both parties realize and acknowledge that it’s making them miserable. This is largely because they have found a pathway in their brains that works, even if it doesn’t. This easy path becomes the “go to” rut that they get stuck in, largely because it is practiced and repeated so often. Changing these trained behaviors can be terribly difficult, as anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit knows. Success can frequently be short-circuited by new stress or frustration, which sends the individual running back to the old behavior. The last few installments of this column have looked at poor communication habits that develop in marriage. Part of what makes these habits so very difficult to break is that developed pathway. We learn them and they stay learned until we unlearn them. Unlearning involves an intentional effort to change our attitude and that couples work as a team in changing the relationship patterns. Only by intentional working together, sometimes with the assistance of a counselor, (or by an act of God) are most of well-worn pathways replaced with new healthier ones. The first step is always to acknowledge the problem and choose to work toward overcoming the habit.
I came across this quote from Arthur Pink today and thought it was worth sharing, particularly in light of the alarmist things I encounter in my social media feeds on a daily basis lately. It’s easy to find folks to blame for the problems in our nation. Folks post their outrage on social media, flock to politicians peddling easy answers, demand laws that will straighten up the world we live in, and pine for God to set things right. The problem with these solutions is that they are top-down fixes to a bottom-up problem. Decline and decay start in our own homes and churches. We must address our own messes before looking to those of others. In the 2 millennia since its birth, Christianity has changed the world, not through legislation and power, but through discipleship and devotion to the cause of Jesus. Fathers, follow Jesus and grow spiritually. Then, spend time with your families, loving and teaching them who Jesus is and how to follow Him. Devote yourself to your God, your marriage, your family, and your church (in that order). If you want this country to change, start with yourselves. Through prayer and discipleship, Jesus’ following grew to fill the world. It will only happen again through the same efforts.
I love my wife. I want her to love me and think I am a great husband. Heck, I want to be the kind of husband that makes my wife feel loved, appreciated, and treasured. Further, I want her to look to me as a source of comfort, assurance, and joy. Achieving this means courting her throughout our marriage. Sitting around and wanting our marriage to grow stronger without putting forth effort is unrealistic. I also want to be faithful to God’s command that I love my wife like Jesus loved the church. This means serving her. Over and over Jesus taught that love is demonstrated through service. Over the course of 18 years of marriage, I have learned through trial and error (lots and lots of error) that simply doing things for her is a start, but it is not everything. There are all sorts of things I, and lots of husbands, do to mess up the good things we do for them. We men can be thick-headed in regards to relationships and often act stupidly in ways that mess up what we are trying to achieve. Figuring out the big pitfalls and avoiding them is a huge part of courting our wives. Here are a few I have done or have observed in others.
For around 7 years before coming to Montana, I was a vegetarian. I did not eat meat. When I moved to Montana, into a cattle ranching community, it just made a lot less sense to be a vegetarian. So, I now eat meat. If I were to tell people that I am still a vegetarian, it wouldn’t be accurate. I cannot truthfully say: “I am a vegetarian that eats meat with almost every meal.” The fact that I now eat meat makes me not vegetarian. The label implies certain things about my personal practices. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is important to understand that if I am going to accurately make statements about myself or my beliefs, they must reflect my reality.
“I love my wife and children.” When I say this, it can mean several things. The most basic meaning of the word “love” in this context is associated with an emotional affinity. I feel emotionally connected to my wife and children. The larger meaning of the word refers to selfless service and care. It is larger than a simple feeling. It is important to note something about the difference between the two. Love that is simply a feeling carries with it a degree of selfishness. The feeling of infatuation that is commonly associated with the simple emotion of love is pleasant. People enjoy feeling it. “You make me feel good.” The greek word for this type of love is eros. It is not a bad thing, it is just different from the deeper definition of love I referred to earlier.
Selfless love, which in greek is agape, refers to love that is primarily concerned about the object of love. The New Testament depicts agape love as an action type word. It is exemplified in Jesus’ death on the cross. According to the Bible, this act of self-sacrifice was Jesus’ taking punishment for the sins we commit. It goes so far as to say that we are God’s enemies before He redeems us through the cross. This means that agape love is so selfless that it would willingly give up everything for the object of that love, even if the object of love doesn’t return the affection at the moment. Agape love is selfless giving. It is more than feelings, though feelings can and do accompany agape love. They just don’t define it. Ultimately, this is the love that God intended to exist between spouses and for parents to have toward their children. Unfortunately, this also often goes against the dominant cultural attitude of “I should be happy no matter what” and “if it feels good, I should do it.”
When I say that I love my wife, I mean more than simply that I feel a certain way. I mean that I am committed to selflessly serve and care for her. It means that I am committed to a lifestyle that God intended for spouses to assume as a part of marriage. I am not perfect in this effort, but I strive to live that way. This is what God calls all spouses to strive for. If I claim I love my family, but pursue my own interests first and foremost, I am like the guy who claims to be a vegetarian, but eats meat every meal.
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
In 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.
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.
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?
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?
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:
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.