Across the left-right spectrum today, we find commentators chattering away about the crisis of
manhood—a quest for significance and identity among men who seem lost and lonely in our strange new world. In Of Boys and Men, cultural observer Richard Reeves calls out the negative views often associated with masculinity. “The problem with men,” he writes, “is typically framed as a problem of men. . . . It is men who must be fixed, one man or boy at a time.”
Many today seem to view masculinity as a problem rather than a gift. Masculinity is a word now synonymous with descriptors like “toxic” and “problematic” instead of a glorious and courageous calling—leadership that comes from an inner sense of security and steadfastness.
Questions for Our Time
What happens in a society where markers of manhood, the passing from adolescence into adulthood, become obscured, where men stagger forward without mentors or friends?
What happens to a society that pathologizes competition, achievement, roughness, and the aggression required to protect the weak or pursue what’s good?
How does it make sense to push back against toxic expressions of masculinity without a clear picture of actual manliness, a positive vision that shatters the caricatures?
Role of the Church
In the third episode of season 2 of my podcast Reconstructing Faith, “Boys to Men, for Mission,” I point out how some churches seem to have fallen for a self-centered script of manhood, dressing up all sorts of wrongheaded, worldly notions of masculinity with Christian wrapping paper so as to make the church more attractive to men.
Meanwhile, other churches can rail so much against wrongheaded notions that they fail to offer a better vision, leaving men with the impression they’ve got to sacrifice something of their true, God-given masculinity at the door to be a faithful Christian. As if imitating Jesus makes you somehow less of a man.
The church could take a different path, giving our ailing culture a vision of a positive, glorious, biblical masculinity that's in harmony with man’s nature. Yes, masculinity gets twisted and distorted by sin, but there’s a real and enduring good there—an aim to pursue. If the church is going to respond wisely to the challenges facing men today, we’ll need to get a better picture of what masculinity is aiming for.
Characteristics of a Holy Man
John Seel and I have sparred on different topics over the years, yet even amid disagreement, I always come away from our discussions sharpened. John has been pondering the crisis of masculinity in our society, and I found his recent article with Jeremy Schurke compelling. They're doing constructive work as they think out loud about what it means to be a holy man.
Not everything in their list of 18 characteristics applies only to men, of course, but I appreciate their tentative proposal—their desire to paint a picture of a consecrated man of God on a mission. We're going to need more imagination, not less, as we seek to offer a compelling vision for Christian men in the future. I've summed up the characteristics below.
- A Holy Man possesses wild eyes. As a citizen of another world, he takes initiative as a difference maker—unsettled, yet with an entrepreneurial drive that sees beyond what is to what can be.
- A Holy Man moves mysteriously. His pervasive dependence on God and his otherworldly orientation demonstrates he’s “set apart,” or as was said of Dallas Willard, “he lives in another time zone.”
- A Holy Man reveres the sacred everywhere. Life is an adventure of holistic not compartmentalized discipleship, with the purity of heart to “will one thing” (as Kierkegaard said).
- A Holy Man establishes rituals, disciplines, and traditions. He gives attention to daily routines and details, recognizing how habits shape his life and character.
- A Holy Man walks a spiritual pilgrimage. He trusts that his destiny as a man, joined to Jesus his King, is a story unfolding by the sovereign hand of God.
- A Holy Man abides in God. He seeks a consistent and transformative friendship with God, who provides power for the Christian life.
- A Holy Man seeks a spiritual father. He deliberately chooses close friends and a mentor—all of whom speak into his priorities and direction.
- A Holy Man fulfills a life mission. His life is an ongoing answering to God's call, direction, and authority over him. His life mission is to uncover God's calling and faithfully walk in it, exercising godly authority in the spheres where he has influence.
- A Holy Man leaves a legacy. He invests time, talent, and treasure in and for others, seeing his life within the larger story of God's kingdom advancing.
- A Holy Man seeks kindred spirits. He draws close to others who call him up to his best self and spur him on as he experiences the burden and responsibility of his calling.
- A Holy Man catalyzes a tribe. He relies on others by creating a dense network of people who share in the causes that animate his life.
- A Holy Man is a savage servant. He leads by serving, putting others first, sacrificing himself, and committing his best to a team.
- A Holy Man fosters emotional intelligence. He works effectively with others through increased self-awareness, empathy, and interpersonal sensitivity.
- A Holy Man burns with the fire of a poet and walks with a limp. He ignites the imaginations of others, casting vision while being honest about his failings, leading from a place of love and suffering.
- A Holy Man is a perpetual student. He embarks on a quest for knowledge and wisdom that expand the mind and heart.
- A Holy Man takes his body seriously. He’s comfortable in his own skin—committed to taking care of his body, in pursuit of the virtue of chastity, determined to treat others with honor in a world where people are too often objectified.
- A Holy Man is consciously countercultural. He appreciates the goodness of creation and mourns the distortion of sin, and he's willing to take a lonely, courageous stand for truth, goodness, and beauty.
- A Holy Man becomes a saint. He’s committed to a lifelong process of growth, formation, and development, being consciously set apart for God as a poet, warrior, and monk. He has a vision of becoming like Jesus by being an apprentice of Jesus—to walk in his ways and love as he loves.
This is a good start in painting a portrait of a man committed to Jesus Christ. We do well to imagine a positive vision of manhood; to appreciate and encourage men in the silent yet heavy burdens they carry; to paint a picture of fatherhood, both physically and spiritually; and to help men step into their inheritance as sons of God who carry the mantle and high calling to serve the world that Jesus gave his life for.
Men must aim at this vision: to love our neighbors and fight for their good, to love our wives self-sacrificially and without restraint, to instruct our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, to set aside the sins that entangle us and run the race with endurance, trusting that the Lord will help us leave a legacy for those who come behind us.
By Trevin Wax is vice president of research and resource development at the North American Mission Board and a visiting professor at Cedarville University. A former missionary to Romania, Trevin is a regular columnist at The Gospel Coalition and has contributed to The Washington Post, Religion News Service, World, and Christianity Today, which named him one of 33 millennials shaping the next generation of evangelicals.