In the ongoing societal debate over authentic masculinity, we're typically asked to choose between two polarized archetypes: There's the hyper-sensitive, sobbing, modern mess of a man in the one corner and the tough as nails, apathetic cowboy, who knows how to “man up” and get things done in the other. The first man, who is introspective to a fault and tragically indecisive (He'd rather passively “Netflix and chill,” for example, than clearly declare his intentions), has his origins in the notion that masculinity and patriarchy are at the root of the world's woes (i.e. He's not impotent by accident). The second man has been around since the dawn of time. He's mostly the product of broken masculinity and a misguided fantasy of ideal manhood (something like James Bond or Dirty Harry). He's made more noise as of late, though, in lashing back against the societal forces that are aggressively seeking to silence or eradicate him. He's brash, bold, a man of action, eager to throw his weight around, and unencumbered by empathy or compassion (as these “feminine weaknesses” are seen as liabilities). He speaks his mind and takes what he wants. He's center stage in the recent rise of pseudo-masculine politics, a movement that is more enthralled with breaking eggs than actually making an omelet, as a direct rebuke to what is seen as a neutered or feminized approach to important societal issues (i.e. an approach that is viewed as overly concerned with political correctness, emotionality, endless deliberation, and passivity). Men who embody this brand of “masculine strength” are viewed by many (both men and women) as what society now “desperately needs.” But neither of these stereotypical men accurately describe the only truly perfect man to ever walk the earth. And as such they are a distortion and a distraction from God's actual intentions for authentic masculinity.
In my last post, I referred to C.S. Lewis' observation that it's the things which initially have the highest potential for good that, when corrupted, can cause the greatest harm. The feminist critics are unfortunately correct in noting the havoc broken masculinity has wreaked on the earth. The vast majority of sexual assaults and other heinous violent crimes, for example, are overwhelmingly carried out by men. Not to mention the numerous instances of oppression, exploitation, and endless bloody wars that have been fought through the ages in an effort to satisfy some misguided masculine ambition, appetite, or false sense of honor. Too often men find their identity in their status, net worth, profession, ability to “avenge” themselves or others, sexual prowess, and emotional detachment. Things have certainly gone wrong, but let's not be so quick to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. It's only because God's divine plan for men is so lofty—our potential so remarkable—that our perverted, post-Eden masculinity is now causing such devastation. Our understanding of true manhood is broken, to be sure, but it's not beyond the reach of Jesus' redemptive kingdom ministry.
1. A New Way to View Status/Position:
James and John infamously had their mom (that's right, their mom) ask Jesus for two ridiculously prestigious positions in his kingdom. This example of self-serving ambition from guys who were already within Jesus' inner circle just goes to show how we can easily seek this stereotypical source of masculine identity even within a “spiritual” context. There's nothing wrong with titles, status, and positions of honor, per se, but these things shouldn't become our identity. Jesus explains, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28).
Becoming the least, the last, and the lowliest isn't just a kingdom-hack for actually—wink, wink—fast tracking to the front of the line (and if we're looking for ways to fast track to the front of the line, then we're still not thinking like the Son of Man). This is simply the way his backwards and upside down kingdom works. Jesus wasn't putting on an act. He wasn't pretending to be humble and more concerned with the needs of others in an effort to demonstrate servant leadership, etc. He was being himself. He was revealing the Father to us.
Fortunately, John seemed to get it later in life. I love how he humbly penned his gospel: He's not “John the Apostle,” “Bishop of Ephesus,” “Son of Thunder,” and the only male disciple to be at the foot of the cross. He didn't waste a lot of time making sure we all know what a big deal he is. He instead brought us his extraordinary eyewitness biography of the God-man (almost anonymously) as simply a disciple “whom Jesus loved.” And this seemed to be more than enough for him.
2. A New Way to Utilize Money/Resources:
Society often weighs a man’s worth by his bank account. Many of our current President’s advocates and admirers, for example, point solely to his net worth as definitive proof that he's qualified to lead. Accumulation of wealth, then, becomes a deep seated source of masculine identity.
Matthew, before becoming one of Jesus’ Twelve, was initially diverted from his divine vocation by his thirst for money. If “Levi” was his given name, as Mark and Luke’s gospels seem to indicate, then he was probably born into the priestly tribe that was charged with tending to the Temple (meaning he was set apart by God for full-time vocational ministry). In becoming a tax collector, he effectively rejected his birthright, turned his back on God, and sold out his family and community. Jesus walked right up to this greedy collaborator (while he was at work, no less) and offered him something more valuable than what he was currently chasing (There’s tremendous poetic beauty in how Jesus, the true Temple, reclaimed Levi for what he was originally intended).
Matthew’s outlook on his earthly assets was instantly transformed. After meeting Jesus, he hosted a massive party in his home so all his greedy friends could meet Jesus, too, and hear about his better kingdom (and I imagine he didn’t skimp on the caterer or the party favors). He’d found the “pearl of great value” (mentioned exclusively in his gospel), the unmatched treasure buried in a field, and he was ready to sell everything he had to pursue it (no matter how financially reckless or insane he appeared to onlookers).
3. A New Perspective of Profession:
I thought about working this point into the section on status/position (There's certainly a lot of crossover). But I think finding our masculine identity in our profession (i.e. “I'm a firefighter, lawyer, teacher, mechanic,” etc.) is a bit different than finding our identity in our status or position (i.e. “I'm the Senior Branch Manager, Shift Supervisor, Lead Elder, or Head Pastor”), and, as such, it seems to warrant separate consideration.
“What do you do?” is usually the first thing men ask each other upon meeting. Our job often defines us (for better or worse), and potentially gives us a deep sense of masculine worth. It's no accident that men put such emphasis on their work. We were meant to be workers, to labor alongside our Father (Genesis 2:5, John 5:17). God has implemented healthy rhythms of both work and rest. Paul even condemns a lazy man who refuses to provide for his family as “worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). But we're not meant to find our identity solely in our work, and we're not meant exclusively for the sort of work we tend to give ourselves over to.
I love how Jesus transitioned Peter from viewing himself as a fisherman to a “fisher of men.” He exchanged simple profession for kingdom vocation. We have examples of Peter fishing during and after Jesus' public ministry. Paul and Aquila made tents to pay the bills, Simon was a tanner, and Cornelius was a career officer. But after meeting Jesus, these men no longer sought identity in these professions. Their professions became the means by which they could pursue their true vocations as disciple makers and Gospel declarers and demonstrators.
If we have likewise succumbed to the all-encompassing good news of God's better kingdom then we should now also view ourselves in light of our true identity and vocation in Christ: We're now “ministers of reconciliation” who drive buses, “priests” who teach high school math, “ambassadors” who appraise property, and “evangelists” who make blended frappuccinos with extra whipped cream.
4. A New Way to Pursue Justice:
The 1st Century Roman occupiers of Jesus’ day were at times brutal, emasculating, and unjust. Roman soldiers were legally allowed to grab a random Jew off the street and force them to carry their gear for up to a mile (hence Jesus’ controversial command for his followers to joyfully go an “extra mile”). They were also known to flippantly crucify innocent people of occupied territories as a show of raw force or to make a political point.
Simon (not Peter or the tanner—turns out there were a lot of guys named “Simon”... and “James”... and “Judas”), who was apparently a Zealot, may have initially belonged to a group of Hebrew nationalists who couldn't sit idly by in the face of such injustice. Simon likely hated his Roman oppressors with every fiber of his being. He was probably willing to die—to kill—to actively resist them. A man’s strong sense of justice and subsequent need to “do something about it” is undoubtedly from God (we’re made in his image, after all, and originally meant to be caretakers of creation). However, it’s easy to see (easy to see in others anyway) that our sense of justice is often skewed (and most frequently awakened by personal injury to our pride, more so than from a genuine zeal for God’s perspective of things).
Jesus gives Simon new purpose as a reconciler, a new way to pursue justice, and a willingness to leave vengeance to God. We don’t know much about Simon’s life, but tradition has most of the Apostles being martyred in far off lands as they faithfully carried out the Great Commission. This means that Simon, who had at this point bought into another kingdom, would’ve missed the epic Jewish-Roman wars of the early second half of the 1st Century (in which a violent Zionist uprising visited upon the Romans their own brand of brutality and temporarily restored political sovereignty over Judea to the Jewish people). Before meeting Jesus, this once in a lifetime opportunity to finally strike back at the invincible Roman Empire would’ve probably been the unreachable height of Simon’s youthful aspirations. After meeting Jesus, however, Simon simply had better things to do.
5. A New Way to View Women:
Jesus' masculinity wasn't threatened by women. He didn't exploit or exclude them (two common, polarized male responses to femininity that ironically result from the same fears and insecurities). He received them as “sisters,” fellow image-bearers, and partners in his kingdom ministry. He didn't condescend to them with sermons laced with lighthearted, yet demeaning, gender stereotypes that subtly let them know they should leave the spiritual heavy lifting to the men (a stark contrast to many of our modern well-intentioned but at times patronizing “women's ministries” that often consist of little more than tea parties, crafting, and bake sales). There were many women who traveled with Jesus and were even among his inner circle (Luke 8:1-3). Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, was said to have “sat at Jesus' feet” (Luke 10:39). This was a Hebrew idiom describing a disciple and rabbi relationship. He equipped and commissioned these women to be world-changers. Jesus' scandalous practice of including and elevating women in his ministry was unprecedented in Jewish culture (It would've even been foreign to Roman and Greek culture in the 1st Century).
Jesus' straightforward confidence in his interaction with women was offensive to some and startling to most. After his one-on-one conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, for example, his male disciples seemed to be quietly on edge at Jesus' social impropriety (John chapter 4). “What could he possibly want with this woman,” was their burning unspoken question? They must have projected their own broken masculinity onto Jesus, as the Pharisees did, wrongly assuming his perspective of women was the same as theirs (in which case, his motives couldn't possibly be perceived as pure). It certainly didn't help Jesus' shaky standing with his conservative critics when ex-prostitutes interrupted swanky V.I.P. dinner parties to weep over and kiss his feet. But he didn't seem to lose any sleep over his critics' conjectures. His conscience was clear (John 8:46), and his identity was secure (John 8:14).
No doubt God has unique roles for men and women (both within families and within his church, which is to operate as a family), but this biblical truth has too often been used to excuse subtle injustices (women being under utilized, excluded, or marginalized within the family of God—given less honor and compensation while being asked to fulfill similar roles as their male counterparts, etc.) and even outright misogyny. Authentic masculinity, the kind Jesus displayed, doesn't objectify women by viewing them as merely a pleasure to be exploited, a conquest to achieve, or a danger to be ostracized or contained. True masculinity sees women as equal image-bearers (Genesis 1:27), the other half of a whole, and co-heirs to the kingdom.
6. A New Way to Exercise Power/Authority:
Power and authority also play heavily into status and position. I wanted to deal with these separately, however, in order to discuss status/position purely as a source of masculine identity and then handle the way men typically exercise physical and authoritative force—the mechanics of power—as its own topic.
God is not, as the serpent would have our first parents believe, a megalomaniac. His comfort with the delegation of his authority is remarkably humble. He doesn't need assistance of any kind. Yet he creates angelic beings that do his bidding and physical creatures made in his image who he generously entrusts with overseeing his world. He's not lazy or incapable. He engineered the whole universe from scratch and brought it into existence with a Word. His multi-tiered system of power (which includes rebellious angels, broken human leaders, and corrupt governments) coupled with his reluctance to micro-manage, then, can only be seen as a quiet and abiding confidence in his own sovereignty. It's those who are insecure about what little power they have, in fact, who are most likely to obsess over it and to hoard it from others.
Jesus, at one point, expressed his zeal for God's “house” by flipping over tables and driving out the money changers with his homemade whip. And, of course, there's an Egyptian army entombed at the bottom of the Red Sea that made the fatal mistake of crossing Israel's patient-yet-powerful Avenger. Physical force and violence are clearly in God's toolkit (just ask Ananias and Sapphira). But if we read his redemptive story from Genesis to Revelation and walk away seeing the “Slain Lamb” as some sort of macho, kick-ass, Rambo character then we've completely missed the heart of God and the grandeur of the narrative. God's greatness, his strength, is seen most clearly in his inexplicable restraint. He can and does at times destroy his enemies, but he also goes to great lengths as he demonstrates unfathomable grace and humility in painstakingly transforming them into friends. It's his mercy and power of persuasion that sets him apart from us. Violence we understand. An expression of infinite power in fragile flesh, however, is baffling and disarming. And a servant King who is paradoxically “lifted up” as he lays his life down for his rebel subjects is world changing.
7. A New Way to Approach Emotional Vulnerability:
Boys from a young age are often taught that emotional attachments are “unmanly.” They're teased when they kiss their mothers goodbye, for example, and soon learn to stop if they want to be taken seriously by their peers. Men are chided by each other when they publicly express affection to their girlfriends and wives, as well. Many parents won't even let their young boys model what are seen as “feminine” nurturing behaviors at play (like tending to baby dolls). They may be encouraged to “man up” if they express too much empathy or sadness. The societal message is clear: Emotional vulnerability is a “weakness” that strong men cannot afford. We must learn to be distant, detached, and apathetic if we're to align with popular notions of masculinity (with an emotionally disengaged character like James Bond, who proudly never gives his heart to any of the numerous women he beds, being considered the ideal man among men).
God is the most powerful Being in existence, and he humbly wears his heart on his sleeve. His willingness to become emotionally vulnerable (and physically vulnerable—even mortal—in the incarnation) is at the heart of the Gospel. He's strong enough to engage, to open himself up to the hurt that comes from caring for others, to risk the pain of clearly declaring his affection for fickle creatures who often reject him. And his Son is no different.
Jesus allows himself to feel things deeply (regularly moved by “compassion,” intensely “angered” over hypocrisy and injustice, and mourns over human suffering), but he's not overrun or crippled by his emotions. He weeps, anguishes, and pleads with his Father in Gethsemane for hours, allowing all of the terror and despair to wash over him, and then courageously stands up to meet his tormentors with a fixed resolve (looking forward to the joy that waits for him in the outcome).
That historic night was full of the typical sort of men (Annas, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, Herod, Pilate, Judas, and Peter), who leap into action, who set aside compassion to do “what needs to be done,” to bring about the “greater good,” by exerting force and leveraging power (there were also, of course, the cowardly kind who were paralyzed by fear). For all their best intentions, all their “manly” effort, they once again came up empty (just as all the men who came before them have, who’ve striven in the same way since the dawn of time). But Jesus accomplished more in his deliberate act of passive resistance (refusing to defend himself, refusing to fight back, willingly being brutalized, bravely embracing vulnerability)—by becoming a lightning rod for humanity’s evil, absorbing all of it into himself, and allowing it to crush him—than any man who came before or after him. He wasn't the sort of manly messiah they wanted (or even the manly messiah we still want, judging from the popularity of those who preach a macho Jesus who conforms to typical one dimensional notions of masculinity), not like the militant “messiahs” who came before and after (like John of Gischala or Simon bar Giora, who led armed uprisings during the Jewish-Roman wars that ended in the obliteration of Jerusalem, a tragic outcome that Jesus had previously foreseen and wept over).
Time to Man Up
It’s not that Jesus was “effeminate,” cowardly, or passive—that he wasn’t/isn’t a fighter (He's the manliest man to ever walk the earth); It’s that he redefines the fight and how we’re to effectively engage (not being overcome by evil but, instead, overcoming evil with good). Jesus redefined what it is to be human and, more specifically, what it is to be a man. We must reject the two archetypal hollow men (the “impotent” and the “apathetic”) that society is eager to spoon feed to us. Jesus is the third option. As the prototype, he demonstrated a better way to view our masculine identity and purpose, and, by way of his life, death, and resurrection, he's graciously made this revolutionary “new man” accessible to us.
Only one question remains: Are we man enough to follow him?