I have been asked to share with my fellow Christian men something that God has taught me. As a man speaking to other men, the most important thing I can offer is this:
God made you a man. Accept it and get over yourself.
That is, don’t spend time trying to prove it to yourself or to others. “Trying to prove it” means that you haven’t yet figured out a good enough answer to the question, “How do I know that I’m (really) a man?”
You’ve probably never confronted the question head-on, but much of what you say and do might be (subconsciously) directed at answering it. At some point, someone gave you the idea that “real men do X” or “real men have/own Y,” and it can’t be otherwise. And that has real consequences. In order to prove that he belongs to the club, a guy becomes obsessed with doing X, and he just needs to have Y, even if he’s not interested in those things.
But what if he didn’t need to prove it? What if the question of his manhood had already been settled? Could that bring more freedom into his life?
What I want to tell you, is this: Nothing other than the simple fact of your creation as a man will give you assurance that you are, indeed, a man.
Looking to the triune God who made us is the only appropriate starting point to form a Christian viewpoint of what it means to be a man. A creature can’t be known apart from its Creator, so we can’t start by looking at ourselves, our inclinations, and our desires. Whatever a culture defines as truly masculine (whether that culture is reactionary, conservative, progressive, or liberal) cannot be a sure foundation for knowing oneself to be a man. A social scientist might tell us that each culture has generally accepted standards of male/female activity and behavior, but for our purposes here, those judgments are irrelevant.
God created you as a man, so you’re a man. Period. The only thing that has the right to decide your manhood is something your Creator has already done. “Proving it” is not a right that you’ve been granted. God’s sovereign choice nixed that from the get-go.
This means that being a man is something categorical, not a matter of degrees. You are either a man, or you’re not. There is no “more” or “less.”
Let’s take a look at this from the first angle: Being a man is not decided by your “extracurricular activities.” As I mentioned earlier, some men think that in order to be a man, one must do X, or must have Y. But is that true?
On our culture’s terms, I’ve done enough to “earn my man card.” For a long time, I had a nice beard. I had a big truck. I have multiple tattoos. I played football in high school and college. In both settings, I was voted in as co-captain, voted as Most Inspirational, and also earned All-Academic Team honors. I was a valedictorian at my high school and a top student at my university. During the summers of my college years, I ran a stump and tree removal company and also worked as a strength coach for a local high school football team. After college, I moved overseas, alone, to a place where I didn’t know the language, fought to learn it, and then had a great year and a half of preaching and teaching in multiple congregations in the region. Then I came home to spend a summer working on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska, which I’ll do again this year. (And yes, commercial fishing is America’s deadliest occupation, second only to the logging industry!) Now, I’m in graduate school, back in the academic game.
Does all of that truly prove that I belong in the club?
Is there something else I ought to do to convince someone of my manliness? Should I grow my beard back? Should I go get another big truck and give up the tiny ’89 Cadillac that I inherited from my grandma? (Really, my current car is an old-lady car!) Should I only wear Wrangler jeans and dink around on cars in my free time? Start building up my gun collection? Build my own house? Go hunting and fishing?
I could definitely do all those things, if I wanted. But the truth is that those things don’t excite me. I enjoy good literature, German poetry, artistic films, and going to art museums. Sure, I enjoyed my time living in a little village in the German countryside, but I also enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city and the cultural opportunities it has to offer. I’d much rather watch a good political satire than watch Bear Grylls. And I love hearing my friends play concerts with their indie-rock bands or read slam poetry. I feel comfortable doing those things because none of them change the fact that I’m a man. In the same way, none of the things I mentioned three paragraphs ago made me more of a man at the end than I was at the start. They have no meaning when it comes to answering the question, “How do I know that I’m a man?”
Let’s see it from a second angle: What you have and your proficiency at what you do (e.g., how legit your beard is, or how athletic you are) doesn’t decide whether you are more or less of a man. Let’s be honest, guys. If someone gives us activities that “define us” as men, it doesn’t take long for us to start sizing each other up. Whoever is better at an activity, or whoever possesses a “manly trait” in stronger fashion becomes “more” of a man, and the others become “less” than truly masculine. What you end up with is a never-ending competition and men who constantly despair of their manhood if they’re not “winning.” This mentality is a house of cards.
What’s ironic is that the thing which unsettles men in their masculinity and seems to “rob them” of it is not something like the radical feminist movement (as some might suppose), but the very mindset I’ve described. It’s when men try to establish themselves as men in the sight of other men that things go south. Those who lose at this game either get depressed and give up or they become neurotic in their drive to win. And those who win enjoy their success and devote their passions and energies to staying on top. Or, some men just change the terms of the argument. Perhaps a man doesn’t have an athletic bone in his body, so he takes refuge in the fact that he’s a “Field & Stream” kind of guy, and “everyone knows” that those guys are the “real men.” So, instead of death by outside forces, this system eats itself alive, from the inside.
Here’s a concrete example: I knew some football players in college who had been studs in high school. At the college level, though, they were second and third-stringers. Somehow, some of them began to doubt their manhood. I watched confident men deteriorate as their self-image crumbled. To these few players, only the first-stringers were real men. The reason why this way of thinking is neither realistic nor practical is that your vantage point continually changes your conclusion as to who the “real men” are. Among the first-stringers, the “true studs” were the all-conference players. We were a D-3 school, by the way. How would D-1 players look at our “studs”? They would probably dismiss them, and in this way of thinking, rightfully so. But now tell me, how many D-1 players make it into the NFL? Who are the “true men” at the end of the day? This whole way of analyzing manhood is simply nonsense. It broke my heart to see these otherwise fine gentlemen subject themselves to low self-esteem and to be denigrated by the higher-ups on our squad.
To take it a step further: A significant number of the best men I knew in college were not athletes, yet were looked down upon by some of the athletes as being something other than “real men.” It didn’t take me long to figure out that something didn’t add up.
Manhood can’t be defined by our activities, hobbies, and material traits or possessions.
How many grown men worry incessantly and waste their time in their pursuit to prove that they are truly manly men? Pursuing the purchase of a bigger truck? A faster motorcycle? Showing off your beer, wine, and cocktail acumen at parties? Chasing better proficiency in hunting or gaining more athletic prowess? Bagging a trophy wife? Getting a bigger house?
When does it stop?
My hope for Christian men is that they set aside their silly games which reveal them to be boys rather than sensible adults. What if you could just accept the fact that you’re a man and stop trying to prove it to yourself and others?
The more time you invest in your personal advancement, the less time you have for what’s truly important. My hope is that Christian men set their sights on their task as Christians to seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and to do what they can to bring the Gospel to a world who is desperately in need of it, instead of focusing on themselves. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Don’t be a Martha!
The practical payoff is that this truth sets you free. Because you know God created you as a man, you can freely, confidently, and joyfully pursue the things you want to pursue without having to worry about what other men might think. Perhaps it’s just that kind of free, joyous person that God can use for his purposes.