7 Important Lessons about Masculinity

Act Like Men

Masculinity is the glad assumption of sacrificial responsibility. It’s our response to God’s calling. I hope to provide a window into masculinity by referring to its most natural and practical reminder in my life, how to teach my two young sons to act like men. To do this, I’ll describe seven desires I have for my boys as they grow into mature manhood.

1. I want my sons to grow up to be true men of God—first in, last out, laughing loudest.

Around my house, this is our way of expressing the glad assumption of sacrificial responsibility. It’s a summary of King Lune of Archenland’s words about kingship in The Horse and His Boy:

For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.1

Kingship (and by extension true masculinity) means being the first into the battle. If there’s a danger to be faced, a true man will face it first. If there’s a burden to be borne, a man will bear it first. A man will see to it that pain and hardship fall in his lap before they ever fall upon those under his care. Too many men think that male headship means making demands, getting their way, and riding around on a high horse. But godly leadership doesn’t give us the right to lord our authority over others; it means, as my friend Toby Sumpter says, that it is our glory to die first.

Designed for Joy

Owen Strachan, Jonathan Parnell

This book explores what the Bible’s teaching on men and women looks like in practice and helps readers embrace God’s good design as a path to true joy and lasting fulfillment.

While many of us will never be called upon to fight in a physical battle to protect our families, all of us are called to look for opportunities to be first in, last out, laughing loudest. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). Therefore, a man of God comes home not to be served, but to serve. After a hard day’s work, a godly man enters his home, not with a list of demands, but with an eagerness to give. He comes to relieve the burdens of his wife, not add to them. He comes to play with his kids, not shunt them off to their rooms while he puts his feet up.

I want my sons to aspire to be men who give until it hurts, and whistle the while. I want them to lean into sacrifice with unconquerable laughter in their hearts. “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls,” Paul says to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 12:15). Godly masculinity ought to be the happiest thing you ever saw. A twinkle in the eyes, a brightness in the smile, a laughter in the bones—these are the qualities of a man who has planted his feet upon a Rock and will not be shaken when the earth gives way and the waters foam (Ps. 46:1–3).

2. I want my sons to embrace their calling as protectors of the weak.

One of my central responsibilities as a father to my sons is to train their hands for war. At our house, swordplay is practice for life. When we don our plastic armor and foam swords, we are getting ready for real sacrifices. I want them to see that the primary burden of defense—whether of home, family, church, or country—lies with them. The world is filled with gardens, and, as one pastor says, gardens always attract serpents. Therefore, my prayer is that they put on their armor, keep their swords sharp, and play the man.

What’s more, part of their training is learning to fall down and get up again. I want my boys to fall down. I want them to get skinned knees, bumped heads, and bruised arms. I want them to experience pain (in small doses) so that they learn to laugh it off. “What do we do when we fall down?” I ask. “Laugh and keep playing,” they answer.

Masculinity is about taking responsibility for the physical, emotional, and spiritual safety of those in our care. For me, this means, among other things, locking the doors at night, giving hugs and kisses away as if fatherly affection were snow in a Minnesota winter, and praying for mighty angels with swords of flame to guard the bedrooms while we sleep. It means identifying threats and enemies of whatever kind and taking steps to guard and keep those entrusted to me. Most importantly, it means killing the dragon that lurks in my own heart. The greatest threat to those in my care is my own sin and rebellion. Therefore, protecting others demands a single-minded and glad-hearted pursuit of holiness.

3. I want my sons to gladly submit to lawful authority.

The prerequisite for being in authority is recognizing that one is always under authority. Many men think that leadership is about being “the boss,” when in fact it’s first and fundamentally about recognizing that God is the Boss (Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1). Masculinity welcomes accountability, authority, and oversight. The foundation of godly manhood is cheerful obedience to lawful authority. A man is in no position to expect obedience from others if he is not first eager to render it to those over him in the Lord. I want my boys to grow up with a deep awareness that their father is a man under authority. I want to model for them glad submission to God in his Word, to the elders of our church, to my boss at work. God is calling them to honor, respect, and obey me; therefore, I want to show them how.

The flip side of submission to lawful authority is resistance to unlawful authority. Part of teaching my sons godly obedience is helping them to grasp the differences between authority that is established by God and that which is usurped by ungodly men. And I want them to defy the latter precisely because they desire to obey the former. This means celebrating the examples of men like the apostle Peter (“We must obey God rather than men”—Acts 5:29), Martin Luther King Jr. (“An unjust law is no law at all”—quoting St. Augustine), and Robin Hood (“If an outlaw is the last available occupation for an honest man in England, then I will be an outlaw”).2

4. I want my sons to practice self-control for the joy in it.

Paul singles out self-control as one of the fundamental callings for young men (Titus 2:6) and old (2:2). This self-control is the result of the grace of God in the gospel (Titus 2:11–12). It is grace that trains us to renounce ungodliness and live self-controlled lives in this present age. Paul identifies self-control as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23), which means that it is more than mere willpower. One of the fundamental aims of the Spirit of God is to restore control of me to me, so that I work out what God is working in (Phil. 2:12–13).

The Bible teaches that the glory of young men is their strength. But inactive strength is idleness and passivity, and therefore strength must be directed to some end. On the other hand, unbridled strength is reckless and dangerous, and soon causes harm and destruction. Strength governed by wisdom, strength guided by the Spirit of God, strength aimed at the good of others—this is what God is after.

For my sons, this means controlling their angers and outbursts, not collapsing into whining and fussing when they don’t get their way, and learning the time and place to be silly, loud, and crazy. As they grow, self-control will be necessary in getting out of bed for school, completing homework before playing outside, and resisting the pull of sexual temptation.

Chesterton once remarked that the reason that order and structure exist in God’s world is to make room for good things to run wild. God erects walls around the city so that life can happen inside. God establishes boundaries so that joy can be unleashed. A godly man respects and delights in the fences built by God, and then rides bareback across the bounded plain, wind whipping in his hair.

Masculinity is about taking responsibility for the physical, emotional, and spiritual safety of those in our care.

5. I want my sons to celebrate the wonders of femininity.

Too often magnifying the virtues of one sex leads to the denigration of the other. But God designed masculinity and femininity to complement one another. Men and women were made to dance. And the whole point of men leading in the dance is to showcase the beauty of women.

Therefore, there can be no godly masculinity where feminine virtue is not celebrated. Godly men love the glory of women, because the woman’s glory is his glory (1 Cor. 11:7). This means that in general we can measure the faithfulness of men by the flourishing of women. In a Christian family, the fruitfulness of the wife and children is the evidence of God’s blessing on the husband. If you want to see whether biblical masculinity is present in a congregation, look to the women and children. Are they thriving? Are they cared for? Are they holy and happy and hopeful?

I want my sons to be awed by the bright strength and life-giving wisdom of women. I want them to hear their mother’s praises sung by their father, in season and out of season. When I bless them at night, I want them to eagerly hope that my prayers for them come true: “May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace, and some day a wife like your mommy.” I want there to be no hint of male superiority or dominance, but only gratitude to God for the tremendous blessing of women.

6. I want my sons to put to death any vestige of false masculinity.

My boys were born as sons of Adam, which is “honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.”3 Adam was called to keep and guard the garden (just as the Levites kept and guarded the tabernacle), but instead, when the dragon approached his wife with his lying words, Adam stood there in passivity and silence. He was commanded not to eat from the forbidden tree, but when his wife offered it to him, he chose to defy his Father, to listen to her voice, and to worship the creature rather than the Creator. He was expected to take responsibility for her protection and provision, but when God called him to account for his sin, he blamed his wife, effectively demanding that God put her to death for their sin.

Passivity, idolatry, abuse. These are the hallmarks of Adamic masculinity. It is the opposite of the glad assumption of sacrificial responsibility. Instead of first in, last out, laughing loudest, we find last in, first out, and sulking all the way. I want to train my boys to recognize the old man who lives in their hearts and to take up their cross and put him to death daily.

I’m under no illusions that Adamic masculinity will be utterly destroyed in this life. But there can be progress, and we must begin where the first Adam last failed: with responsibility and repentance. When I counsel newly married men, I remind them that in a marriage of sinners, conflict is inevitable. Some say that love means never having to say that you’re sorry. For a godly husband, love means that you have the privilege of saying you’re sorry first.

7. I want my sons to see Jesus Christ as the ground and goal of their masculinity.

Christ is the ground of our masculinity. He took Adamic humanity into the grave with him and emerged with a new way to be human and a renewed way of being a man. Unlike Adam, Christ killed the dragon to get the girl. And he killed the dragon by dying himself. When he saw his bride heading down the broad road to destruction, what did he do? He didn’t blame, he bled. He didn’t damn, he died. He didn’t gripe and grumble and groan. Instead he gladly and graciously gave himself up for her, that he might purify and beautify his bride.

Christ died for the sins of Adam and all the sons who follow in his steps, that he might make a way for us to return to our Father and recover our royal calling. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only hope for failed and fallen men, and it is a living and abiding hope.

My prayer for my boys (and for myself and the men who read this) is that we would embrace this gospel and answer Christ’s call to be his little brothers, following him into the breach, laying down our lives for others, and doing so for the joy set before us. First in, last out, laughing loudest.

1. C. S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy, The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: HarperCollins, 1954), 223.
2. Jim Veiss, A Storyteller’s Version of The Three Musketeers—Robin Hood, audio CD (Charlottesville, VA: Greathall Productions, 1999).
3. C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia, The Chronicles of Narnia (n.p.: HarperCollins, n.d.), Kindle edition, locations 2270–71.

This article is adapted from Designed for Joy: How the Gospel Impacts Men and Women, Identity and Practice edited by Jonathan Parnell and Owen Strachan.

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