This past weekend I attended a Men’s Retreat with the members of my new church. We played fun games, ate quality food, fellowshipped, and, of course, made abundant jokes about manliness and manhood. On our respective car rides to the retreat we were asked by the facilitators to discuss a common question: “What is the most manly thing you have done?” I suppose the kinds of stories the facilitators were looking for were things like, “I once wrestled a bear,” or, “I once caught a shark.” When we were all assembled we shared the best stories of manliness from each vehicle. It was a great icebreaker.
I confess, for my part, that I found the question deeply troubling. What qualifies as a ‘manly’ act? As a consequence, in our car we tried to reframe the question in light of a few standards of manliness which we could identify. For example, we reasoned that courage was a manly virtue and asked ourselves, “What is the most courageous thing you have done?” The question is more manageable, but not less troubling. Why? Because courage is not the absence of fear but the persistence to keep going despite the presence of fear. In other words, my most courageous moment is not the moment when I felt the most courageous, but the moment when I felt the most fear but chose to keep going forward. It’s difficult to brag about the times when you felt fearful.
But I think my concerns tap a deeper issue—what, after all, is the idea of ‘manhood’ to which we are appealing? Who determines what is and is not ‘manly’? Is manhood comprised of blustering displays of strength, of silly pride and competitions? Is Hollywood the standard bearer of manliness and manhood? Is James Bond the prime specimen? Invulnerable, successful, independent, and always getting the girl(s)? Is it the character who beats all the odds? The one who gets the bad guys? At the retreat we discussed this very question—that of society’s expectations for manhood—and came to a list of numerous characteristics that we felt identified men and manhood, among them provision, leadership, success, confidence, dominance, and expertise. All of these characteristics can be good; they can also be individualistic, utilitarian, and are profoundly external. What about a man’s inner life? Notably, character is conspicuously absent from the list.
It would be simple to say we should look to the bible for a solution, but the questions we ask today about manhood are largely unanswered by the scriptures. What is more, it’s no good appealing to Christ as an example of manhood because, quite frankly, none of the categories of ‘manhood,’ other than Christ’s humanity in se, are in view in the New Testament. Nowhere is Christ presented as a masculine or ‘manly’ man. He is presented as the perfect human being—as such he is the example for both men and women. His particular ‘masculinity’ in the scriptures is eclipsed by the revelation of his full and startling humanity. Asking Jesus to be an example of manliness is like looking to Socrates for fashion advice—the question is next to useless in view of the evidence.
But I think that the image of Christ in his full humanity brings us closer to a solution. Men and women, if you remember your Genesis account, are both made in the image of God. We both reflect God’s likeness, His character, His relationality. But within our respective reflections of the Divine Image, we each manifest a uniquely feminine and a uniquely masculine vision of God’s image. Perhaps this will provide us with another clue—perhaps considering how women exhibit God’s image in their uniquely feminine way will reveal something of how men exhibit His image in a masculine way. And it seems clear to me that women most uniquely image God in childbirth. It is a creative act (like our Creator God), where the woman suffers personally (as Christ suffered) in order to bring new life into the world. A mother spends her life for the sake of her child. It is a uniquely feminine manifestation of God’s image in humankind.
How, then, do men uniquely image God after the pattern of their masculinity? The principle ought to be the same as that of our female counterparts, but the application will differ. We must ask ourselves, “Where am I suffering in order to give life to others?” Or, put differently, the question of when I am most manly is really the question of “Where am I most self-sacrificial?” And that turns all our standards of masculinity on their heads. We were looking for something that would make us feel masculine, but the Christian standard of masculinity is not revealed in how we feel, but in how others are affected by our actions. Ironically, the only feeling we should experience if we are being manly after the image of our God is pain.
This, naturally, brings us back to Christ, but not to Christ as a standard of masculinity, but to the example of sacrifice par excellence. In an ironic moment in John’s Gospel, right before Jesus is going to be crucified, Pilate presents him to the crowd who are crying for his death. Pilate says, “Behold, the Man!” (in Latin, Ecce homo); the crowd cries, “Crucify him.” Here we should pause and gaze. Here in tableau is presented to us is the image of Man as he was meant to be—a man prepared to offer his whole lifeblood for the sake of people who only wish his death. The lesson is unmistakable and painful: to what degree are we really men if we are not radically sacrificing ourselves for others?
Maybe now we can revisit the criteria of manliness discussed above—of providence, dominance, leadership, success, and the like. Framed in light of the question that identifies Godly men, it should be clear that while Godly men do these things, they do not do these things to become Godly men. It is a matter of priority. Godly men sacrifice themselves after the pattern of Christ, and in the process of this radical self-sacrifice they become leaders, successful, provide for their families, and gain a kind of sacred dominion over their lives. The men who pursue dominion and success apart from such self-sacrifice are not real men—they use the world to gain their advance. Godly men suffer personally to bless the world.
While I rode in the car this past weekend I hadn’t figured all this out yet. Instead, I sat puzzling over the question of what determines manliness. Now, I think I have some perspective—but I’m not sure I have an answer to the question. Where am I sacrificing myself for the sake of others? Where am I spending my life for the sake of my family, for my wife, for my children? Where am I spending my own life so that others in my church can grow to know Christ more? And can I ever dare to brag about those sacrifices? By my own criteria, I have silenced myself. It is not my place to determine my manliness—it is my wife’s, my children’s, those under my care in the Church, and to all who watch my life.