Paul Coughlin Christian Blog and Commentary

MIA--A Martial Spirit

Jerry Seinfeld:  “What is this?  What are we doing?  What in God’s name are we doing?”

George Costanza:  “What?”

Jerry:  “Our lives!  What kind of lives are these?  We’re like children.  We’re not men.”

George: “No, we’re not.  We’re not men.”


From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.  (Jesus)


What has been deemed the ideal man throughout history, what sociologists and others have called the male archetype, has been a combination of three potent forces: (1) what a given society deemed valuable; (2) what religion said a man should be and do; and (3) what the military said a man should be and do.  This third facet is related to what we call a martial spirit, and it’s also described as a part of the warrior ethos.


But the Sensitive Male, the new “man” that gradually was being forged in the smithy of the gender-confusing social upheaval of the ‘60s and ‘70s, culminated in the neutered archetype of the ‘80s and ‘90s that’s still with us today.  That process jettisoned the spiritual and military components of the ideal man.  From a historical perspective, man left two-thirds of himself in the closet (next to his roach clip, argyle sweaters, Culture Club tapes, and pastel dress shirts).


Today’s Sensitive Male ideal is a foreign and cruel creation: foreign because he’s out of historical context, and cruel because society has compelled him to go against his created nature.  One could say that he now is a male by anatomy but not by behavior and composition.  The only attribute allowing him to cling to any semblance of a lineage is that he carries what society currently wants most: sensitivity.


In a way this is a beneficial development, because without sensitivity we can’t really love.  For love, though, more is required of a man than his often fickle, deceptive, and unreliable emotions.  He also needs his soul to be vitalized, and he needs an internal fighting urge (martial spirit) to help him fulfill his roles of provider, protector, and guide.  His thumos causes him to muster the inner heat—I describe this as “The Jalapeno Factor”—to undergo the criticism, suffering, and labor required to become a real leader, to fulfill his duty, and to reach the highest level of true masculinity: love bolstered by courage.


Why does a martial spirit matter?  Because, wrote Thomas Hughes, in The Manliness of Christ (more than one hundred twenty-five years ago—it’s harder to envision a book by that title today),


[we are] born into a state of war; with falsehood and disease and wrong and misery, in a thousand forms, lying all around us…and the voice within us is calling on us to take our stand as men in the eternal battle against these. 


This voice is real, but presently it’s crying out as one alone in the wilderness: repressed, stigmatized, and neglected.  It seems that only oddballs hear it, and it’s the oddballs who inspire others to heed it as well.


Why don’t we honor this voice?  Primarily, we church foil are not wave-making people.  Mels Carbonell has given personality tests to thousands of churchgoers throughout the past twenty years.  His findings show that while around 62 percent of Americans have developed passive personalities, a whopping 85 percent of Christians fall into the passive category.


David Murrow says of this finding:


Any institution so heavily tilted toward passive personalities will itself become passive.  It will tend to value tradition and stability over innovation and growth….You might say that today’s church is full of passivity activists whose greatest energies are devoted to fighting change.


Passive people discard their strength and excommunicate their thumos as ungodly and wicked.  Their spiritual growth is limited, and they flee from life’s inevitable (and faith-building) hardships.  The church has compelled overly passive people to become even more passive, and in doing so it has robbed them of the opportunity to forge life-blessing courage.  This is like giving cough syrup to a diabetic: It’s the wrong spiritual prescription.


Pastors’ sons tend to be first in line at men’s conferences after I’m done speaking.  Their faces are an odd blend of mourning and the enthusiasm that comes from an insight that’s real and useful but also frightening.  Sometimes I can’t tell whether they want to shake my hand or punch me.


“My father would let the congregation walk all over our family,” one balding thirty-something man told me.  He had a hard time keeping his hands still.  “He would apologize for things that my siblings and I didn’t even do.  I hated him for it.”  His eyes were turning red; he drew deep breaths while shaking his head.  “My dad lied, and I grew up just like him, a coward.  I let people run roughshod over me too.  I wasn’t allowed to push back in my life.  I was bullied in school, and he kept telling me to ‘Just ignore them’ and to ‘Turn the other cheek.’”


“You’re divorced, aren’t you,” I said.


“How did you know?” he asked, amazed.


“I hear your story almost every time I speak.  You let your wife walk all over you, and she didn’t respect you.  My guess is, she was testing you when she pushed you.”  (I said this with compassion, not judgment.  This was once true for me as well.)


He nodded a resigned yes.


“A woman doesn’t want a yes-man,” I went on.  “She wants a good man.  Your spiritual training has betrayed you.  Don’t blame God.  It’s not his fault—blame the Official Script.  Today we have a false sense of what it means to be pastoral, and it needs to change.”


Not like I usually need to spell this out to the sons of pastors.  They know it deep in the marrow of their rage-filled thumos, even more so than most other men.  In providing individual instruction to men across the nation who need help getting their thumos going, I work with pastors’ sons more than any other group.  Let that fact sink in.  Consider the ramifications.


These men are taught to go with the flow so much that they end up going down the drain of most anyone else’s will.  This is what happens when people are taught from the pulpit to become doormats, to over-yes and under-no others.  What’s one of the heaviest insults you can drop on a guy?  That he’s a tool, a yes-man.


Think about it.  We don’t criticize people for their ability to say no.  We actually are critical, even contemptuous, of people who are incapable of no.  Something deep within us respects no.  It shows backbone.  When others throughout history wrongly said yes, or worse, said nothing, the greatest people of all time, when it mattered most, said no!


These pastors’ sons are almost always separated, divorced, or on the verge of divorce.  Their wives or ex-wives complain that they just don’t possess the fire they want from a husband.  They sometimes say that their husbands drain them of energy instead of invigorating them.  These are hard words to hear from other men because I know the shame it creates in them, a shame they can rarely name and one they’re hard-pressed to overcome.


These men often have no definable self, a fact their wives sometimes point out with disgust when walking out the door.  We’re encouraged to have self-control, but these men don’t have a self to control in the first place because their self isn’t yet defined—it’s still runny in the middle.  They don’t know who they are, and this is what happens when churches don’t allow them to be individuals.  They’re often anchorless, easily influenced by others.


Because they’ve been trained to be unfailingly pleasant, they usually say yes to everything.  Many think it’s simply wrong to say no.  And when they do, they lose sleep at night.  Being human, having boundaries, sequestering themselves (the way Jesus did), and not always providing an answer when questioned (the way Jesus refused to answer many inquiries posed to him) feels unnatural and sinful to them.


They’re resentful of how people have treated them and their families, and because they don’t think they should experience or own negative feelings, they don’t know what to do with their frustration and bitterness.  They tend to denounce the emotions as unchristian instead of being honest and working through them.  As a result of being treated poorly, they don’t trust others very much, including their wives.


They are known by many, but they’re not knowable, in part because they possess personas, assumed identities, but not discernable personalities.  They feel they’ve been forced to play roles, to wear masks.  (“Mask” is one of the original meanings of persona.  The word Jesus used for hypocrite while denouncing the Pharisees literally means “wearer of masks,” as an actor would do.)  This has exhausted them and depleted their authenticity and confidence.


They know the right words to use in marriage—they know how to perform—but they don’t know how to deeply love another person.  This is what personas do: they’re like holograms, which by nature are all surface, no substance.  They know how to be really nice but not really good.


They think that always remaining gentle and pleasant, never showing indignation or other forms of healthy anger toward anything or anyone, is among the highest forms of spiritual maturity.  More so, their upbringing has them believing that it’s wrong not to be 24/7 gentle.  (If this is true, then Jesus was wrong—Jesus sinned.)


Many ministers’ sons had workaholic fathers who weren’t there for them.  Many also have slaved in never-ending, futile attempts to please a flock that in many ways cannot be pleased.  A pastor friend told me that one of the most liberating moments in his career came when his church brought in a consultant; the man told him that if he did not guard himself against the mentally unstable people in his congregation, “they will chew you and your family up, then spit you all out.”


There’s also the weighty implication of appearances.  If his son or daughter seems to be getting out of hand, the pastor fears losing his status, his home, his job.  In most men, when money’s involved, the flames of thumos shrink down to a nonthreatening pilot light.  Most of them have learned to throw the martial spirit overboard so as to never rock the boat, even when a given boat would be better off at the bottom of the ocean.


What we often don’t recognize or admit is that passive Christians tend to flee into the arms of Jesus not for strength to steer the ship but to avoid the waves of life—for sanctuary, which is what we call the room where we gather.  But, not making any waves is the state that immediately precedes drowning.

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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