Paul Coughlin Christian Blog and Commentary

Masculinity: Unwanted

I thoroughly enjoy my dog Haggis’s companionship while hiking, snowshoeing, and fishing, even though his fur only protects against so much—if we’re in nature’s raw winter elements long enough, he needs extra covering so he won’t freeze to death.  Have you tried lately to buy a jacket for a dog?  It’s a real education.  Try it, and you’ll see how we’re even trying to drive the manliness right out of canines.


When we were going fly-fishing on the Klamath River for winter steelhead, I went to Petco and asked the clerk for directions to the dog jackets.  She took me to an assortment that mostly were either fake leopard skin or (I kid you not) adorned with colored boas.  “Do you have any jackets for dogs that are heterosexual?” I asked.  Good night, I’d rather eat my own hair mixed with mayonnaise than put one of those things on Haggis.


And Haggis is a dog.  We’ve gone mad, mad, mad at expecting little boys to behave like little girls.  Boys are being gunned down by manliness gone bad and by those who do not accept or appreciate it.  Our culture tells young boys that traditional masculinity is bad, that men are stupid and deserve to be the object of disdain, contempt, and ridicule.  Then we expect them to grow up and exemplify honor, integrity, and valor.


Boys are vulnerable, and gutting a boy’s manly courage is easy.  Put him in the care of men or women who don’t understand what creates a courageous soul, the kind of people who mistake manners for morals.  Give him a Sunday school teacher or pastor who indoctrinates him into worshiping a false god, a gentle Jesus meek and mild.


 Give him a mother who was beaten by her father.  She’ll do the best she can to attack burgeoning manhood in her boys.  She’ll look at powerful men with contempt and then use her verbal acumen to castrate young male souls.  Thereby she condemns a boy’s manhood: When she criticizes his father, the boy will struggle with the belief that he’s the fruit of defective seed.


Or give him an overprotective parent who fights all his meaningful battles for him.


Give him coaches and teachers who refuse to push him further than he wants to go, or who don’t get a kick out of irrepressible and sometimes irresponsible little-guy energy.


We strain our necks to get a glimpse of dogs that exhibit noble masculinity, whether in the Iditarod or in the backseat of a police car.  Conversely, masculine-lite dogs lie on laps and shun uncomfortable weather.  They cause no man to offer them his respect.  Manly, courageous dogs are determined to pack multiple lifetimes into one, very much like manly men.


This same dogged attribute exists in you as well, and it will emerge and thrive if you will go against wrong-headed spiritual training to nurture and grow it.


When Haggis ran away and got lost, he took with him a trait that I could sense I needed as much as I need air.  I couldn’t name it then.  I can name it now.


This name, this container, answers a riddle that plagued me for a long time.  Here’s an example.  A seminary professor’s mind can ponder wisdom, order, and justice.  His brain can help him to discern the weightier matters of theology and assist him with understanding sacred text in its original language.  His heart can affirm what is valuable and beautiful and stir a desire within him to love God, his wife, his children, and his neighbor.  It can inspire him to lift his hands toward heaven as he praises God in corporate worship.


But if he has no animating urge, no motivating courage or gumption compelling him to take the risks that are required to create and establish justice, he becomes a paper lion, a punch line, a cautionary tale.  If he has no fire burning in his belly, no tenacity to inflate his chest and lungs, he won’t be able to withstand, genuinely and authentically, the turmoil that accompanies the realities of loving people on earth or God in heaven.


What good is such a person who earnestly studies God with his mind, sincerely praises him from his heart, but fails to actualize either his thoughts or his emotions?  Where is his fiery faith put into being—which, by the way, is something God expects from us?  What if a man does not labor to put feet on the good desires born in his head and heart?  Doesn’t that make him the noisy gong that the apostle Paul denounces?  Isn’t he what James would call a talker but not a doer?


Maybe I just described your father.  Or a sibling.  Or a friend.  Or you.  I know this much: I just described the life I lived for far too long.


For years and years I was not connecting with or activating a special region within me, a dimension that my spiritual training didn’t even address or, when it briefly touched on the matter, told me was off limits and sinful.  It’s a God-designed area, within me and within you, where courage and its fruits—unsentimental love and a martial spirit (to name just two)—are forged and stored.


This is a soul region that the ancient Greeks studied, praised, and placed warning signs around.  It’s a place that is a gift tot hose we love—if we’ll do the soul-work required to grow it and unleash it.  It’s also a curse if it isn’t seasoned and disciplined.  At times it appears elusive.  It’s a lost piece in our spiritual puzzle.  For many of us, it’s our absent ingredient, the missing link in our spiritual journey.


The Greeks called it thumos (sometimes spelled thymos).  This powerful word bulges with meaning, and it doesn’t translate into English without some hitches.  God created men and women with thumos, a “fight drive,” a courageous and animating spirit, without which we don’t grow in spiritual breadth and depth, are unable to deeply love, consistently fail to lead or surmount the sins of our flesh.


Think of thumos as a Thermos container of spiritual heat and spiritual juice.  It’s a pugnacious yet playful drive, an attribute that separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls.


Thumos, wrote the ancient Greeks, is one of three main parts of our soul, along with logos (head and logic) and eros (heart and emotions).  It’s found—or at least should be found—more in men than in women, making a man’s spirituality and his earthly responsibilities similar but also different.  It is largely due to this difference that men have become a cultural target of bigotry, resentment, even hatred.  Thumos is a mighty gift and, like many giftings, can also be a burden.


Thumos is the reason two preachers will talk about God’s requirement for social justice and mercy, yet only one will commit the deeds required to usher them in.  It’s why some men think that their men’s ministry group at church should do more than flip pancakes every fourth Saturday morning.  It’s why one guy stands and denounces brutality while others pretend to have lost their vision and their speech.


Most Christians leave far more than their sin at the cross: We are admonished by the church and, in a different sense, by our culture to forsake our thumos and its fruit, courage—which is essential to deep and abiding love—as if they were a scarlet T covering our genitals.  The church doesn’t give us spiritual swords and other martial weapons for battle when we become Christ-followers.  It gives us acoustic guitars and open-toed sandals, and then shows us how to become pacifist folk singers.  “Jesus is our Savior,” we’re told in Sunday school.  “Now let’s make some rainbows!”  No wonder leadership is so rare and elusive.


Your thumos is not a subset of your feelings or emotions.  An awakened heart is invaluable for our spiritual life, but when overemphasized, it actually can lead us away from a rounded-out understanding of our God-created design.  Hearts alone do not lead us into worthy battle.  And hearts sometimes lead us astray.  Rudolph Hess, swearing in the Nazi party in 1934, exhorted his hearers in a manner that should make all of us carefully evaluate our fickle home of emotion: “Do not seek Adolph Hitler with your brains; all of you will find him with the strength of your hearts.”


Thumos is where our head and heart converge, quarrel, and then put feet underneath our courageous intentions.  This is an integral part of our fulfilling the good works that God has prepared for us in advance—if we have the guts (a blue-collar definition of thumos) to play our part by being obedient to transcendent causes larger than our own ego and appetites.  It’s the place where we talk to ourselves in the age-old effort to “screw on our courage.”  Men talk to themselves more than women, and again, this is not a coincidence.


Just as our heart alone isn’t adequate to enliven our spiritual growth, reason (thoughts, mind) provides clarity but doesn’t provide strength and impetus.  Our lives are only strong, purposeful, and meaningful when we do something loving, beautiful, freedom-giving, redemptive, and worthy of respect.  Or as J.D. Salinger’s troubled Franny puts it,


Everything everybody does is so—I don’t know—not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily.  But just so tiny and meaningless and—sad-making.  And the worst of it is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you’re conforming just as much as everybody else, only in a different way.

Go and do, the prophets and other malcontents tell us—don’t just think and feel.


Yet thumos-courage is not only part of the physical life, it also can have a moral dimension.  When Boris Pasternak refused the Nobel Prize and with it the opportunity to deliver a speech to expose the lies of the former Soviet Union, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was mortified by Pasternak’s lack of thumotic energy.


Solzhenitsyn’s response, much like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” shows us the elegant strength of thumos—the prophet-like justice it demands, the sacrifice it often requires from those who flex it, and the need for us, when necessary, to overrule our heat, because though love can flow from that region, so can life-stopping, love-freezing fear.


All the more vividly did I see [the Nobel Prize], all the more eagerly did I brood on it, demand it from the future!  I had to have that prize!  As a position to be won, a vantage point on the battlefield!...I should resolutely accept the prize, resolutely go to Stockholm, make a very resolute speech….[I would] touch off the explosive charge…[and] speak for all those who had been stifled, shot, starved or frozen to death!  Drag it all to the platform of the Nobel Prize ceremony and hurl it like a thunderbolt.


Those are passionate, heart-drenched words, but they are more than passion.  They drip with courage as well, born from the thumos-place within the man that binds emotion and intellect together.  The place where a man stands and says what he stands for is right, and that those who stand against him are wrong.  It’s the place form which Jesus was able to say, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.”  Minus an appreciation for thumos, these are the ravings of a lunatic.


Gentler virtues, tougher virtues—we need them both—but they are found and forged in different places and through different practices and disciplines.  The church, and some para-church organizations like Ransomed Heart, Promise Keepers, Iron Sharpens Iron, and Women of Faith currently are helping the Tin Men: those who need to find their hearts.  This is a remarkable and noble accomplishment of immeasurable impact.  But we also need to help the many, many Cowardly Lions find their courage as well.  And note the three—not two—main characters who need to rediscover their essence: more than just brain (Scarecrow) and heart (Tin Man)!  We’re so familiar with this third facet of being that often we don’t even notice or consider it.


These three soulish “parts” of us have been hiding for a long time.  And, as the song by the band America goes, Oz never gave them nothing that they didn’t already have.  It’s there, in you, simmering but elusive, like your last moment of déjà vu.  We need each other to find it, grow it, and honor it, so that someday we can say, like the Cowardly Lion, “What makes a king out of a slave? Courage!”


This force inside us is one that’s shrouded in mystery like a mighty wind.  Wind is an ancient symbol for thumos, and it’s one of the ways the Holy Spirit is revealed in Scripture.  This is where our heroic instinct is grown and where it’s housed; this is where our innate longing to act nobly is found.  We desperately need to tap it—this power that’s missing in our culture and mostly missing in the church—but we don’t know how.  And, truthfully, we aren’t even sure that we should.  Our spiritual training has us believing it’s a kind of Pandora’s box, maybe best left untouched.


Listening to the well-meaning but naïve and spiritually negligent voices of mildness will lead to our demise.  If you treat thumos as if it’s just another flavor at the ice-cream counter of ministry, you will forgo love and the protection of what is good, right, and honorable.  You will miss out on much growth and adventure, and the ability to subdue the cravings of your flesh.  You will not have the skills you need to be the leader you want to be.  You will remain fragmented and unstable in your nature.


All of us—and especially men—must lay claim to thumos so that God’s grace in us can construct a new and dynamic person.  Most of us will never fight a physical battle against an enemy; we will use our thumos, or not, for moral courage against both the evil spirit of the age that erodes human dignity and also against our own tendency to take the easy way through life, which halts spiritual growth.  We must harness thumos to rise above the mediocre, trivial, social-club Christianity in which we too often find ourselves, shaking off the fearful and uninformed critics who worship comfort instead of truth.  Because a shift is taking place: God is calling his people to fight for justice, and more and more of them are answering the call.


We have flexed compassion the world over to combat poverty and disease.  But one of the most underreported reasons people’s lives are so desperate isn’t that they don’t have the ability to feed and educate themselves—it’s that others oppress them, rob them, maim them, and enslave them.  Many don’t need more bags of rice—not ultimately.  They, like the estimated twenty-seven million people in actual slavery, like the 160,000 kids who stay home daily from American schools for fear of being bullied, need justice to rain down upon them from the hands of righteous people who will fight on their behalf.  That’s right, fight—one of evangelicalism’s most feared words and even more feared actions.  We need the men to move first—that’s almost always how it works.

Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous FaithNo More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying. 

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