Not Safe, But Good: The Men We Desperately Need Today
I can still remember being startled by the thought: Jesus doesn’t seem very nice.
Unquestionably compassionate, gracious, and patient, Jesus also said and did things that, as I read through Mark, surprised me. The kind of things that today would get him trolled on Twitter and flagged on Facebook.
It was then that I began to think that if Jesus was not “nice,” if he — the one to whom all Christian women also look (2 Corinthians 3:18), and yet, the epitome of a godly man — did not fit within my vision for manhood, then it, not he, needed to change. The more I considered him — the more I considered the long lineage of godly men in the Scriptures — the more I stood confronted: Could these fit within my current conceptions of masculinity?
What about your conception? When you consider a good Christian husband, an upstanding churchman, a godly man, what qualities come to mind?
Traits such as generous, thoughtful, agreeable? Is this man slow to impose, quick to listen, ready to sympathize? Does he speak gently and serve graciously? Does he routinely defer to others’ preferences? Something about this ideal seems unquestionably right — but if this tender side is all, it also should strike us as uncomfortably wrong.
Godly men will indeed emanate compassion, humility, service, and love. This is true. But is this the whole truth? Has the ideal of manhood in the modern church become just a gentle shadow of what God made it to be?
Not Safe, but Good
When we teach about masculinity, do qualities like strength, initiative, zeal, and courage make our list? When we assess men for church office, and when we look for small group leaders and godly mentors, do we commend men who would make good shepherds — industrious, passionate, resilient men, able to corral sheep and willing to combat wolves?
Do we celebrate male strength, courage, zeal, and initiative because we know these are required in order to guard, protect, subdue, and lead? Such men of God who are gentle exactly because they are first strong? Men like Gandalf, who, after exuding his strength of presence, could then softly say to Bilbo, “I am not trying to rob you. I am trying to help you.” A tiger, not a kitten, can exhibit gentleness because he is first strong.
Endangered is that species of lionhearted masculinity that bears Aslan’s description: “not safe, but good.” Our present ideals, like the ones I once held, do not require goodness to make men safe, because they ensure that men are safe regardless of goodness. The man reborn in this image says nothing uncomfortable, rallies no charge, and shows little, if any, initiative. He is goaded to be convictionless, passionless, perhaps even Christless, if but subdued.
But such is not the vision of he who made man. Instead of blunting his sharp edges, God has a different solution for creating good men: rebirth, looking to Christ, and training in righteousness. Godliness must balance his natural perils. He achieves mature manhood through adding the fruit of the Spirit, not subtracting his God-designed nature. Kindness, self-control, compassion flavor his strength, courage, determination — not eclipse them.
Where Have the Men Gone?
Such men — gentle and strong — present a paradox to the world. His hands build up his household, wrestle with his boys, sip tea with his daughters, and grip the hilt of his Sword against the agents of darkness (Ephesians 6:10–20). He is a godly warrior who sleeps in his armor — fierce and meek and good wherever he finds himself. The description can, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, be redeemed: “Thou wert the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest” (Le Morte D’Arthur).
We err when we divide the two: brutal on the one hand, soft on the other. While our society increasingly chooses the latter, some wonder: Where have all the men gone?
We can read, as of an alien species, about men who “through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (Hebrews 11:33–34). Men who actively sought for glory, honor, and immortality. Men of faith who hoped for a better country than the one they had. Men who risked much, lost much, and gained more. Men who lived by faith in the living God.
Lukewarm religion, let’s never forget, makes for lukewarm masculinity. And lukewarm masculinity allows too many men to pass by church doors in favor of Islam, Jordan Peterson, or simply ESPN on the road to destruction.
Dying Flame of Masculinity
As I surveyed the lineage of godly men, I honestly wondered how many saints of old would feel discomfort with the feminization, not only of our society, but also in some of our churches.
Would we emasculate men of old? Would we not chide Abraham for wandering, Jacob for wrestling, Joshua for fighting, Elijah for mocking, Noah for madness, Job for arrogance, Daniel for incivility, Nehemiah for violence, Nathan for high-handedness, John the Baptist for name-calling, Paul for divisiveness, and the Son of God for brandishing a whip and turning over tables in the temple?
Have we chosen the conveniences of niceness over the discomforts of godliness? I fear someday lying comfortably beneath the inscription, “Here lies a father, husband, churchgoer — just a really nice guy.”
“Nice” says nothing of spine, of edge, of valor, and thus it can say little of righteousness or purpose. Nice requires no courage, no conviction, and no willingness to make enemies with the wicked. Jesus warns against such palatability: “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).
Now, we may be tempted, where we have swerved off the road, to overcorrect the error. This would lead us into the other ditch of parasitic strength. Such abominations endure in our day, in all their cruelty, abuse, and cowardice. We must not exchange “good, but not strong” for “strong, but not good.” We cannot charge forth in the flesh instead of being led by the Spirit. We must not settle with feeling like men in our own strength; we must become better men through divine power and self-sacrifice.
Men Set Ablaze
One step on the road to recovery is to reemphasize that unnerving trait of many men of old: godly jealousy. We must reclaim the pulse and convictions of a godly man, not just his actions.
Our God is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5). He will not share his glory, or bride, with another. And he fashions men who increasingly burn with his own righteous jealousy. These men, ablaze with zeal for the glory of God, for the health of the church, and for the souls of the lost, will, in certain circumstances, erupt to shatter the status quo. Zeal for the glory of God — not cultural civility or secular sensitivity — is the proper harness for biblical manhood. Godly jealousy makes good men dangerous — to the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Consider Moses, the meekest man on the earth (Numbers 12:3). Enraged by his people’s idolatry to break God’s tablets, he melted their golden calf, and made them drink it (Exodus 32:20). His love for his people and God’s glory acted resolutely against their idolatry.
Consider David, the poetry-writing shepherd-boy who could not simply stand by and watch an uncircumcised Philistine defy the armies of the living God — no matter how menacing he stood (1 Samuel 17:26). He could not listen quietly while his God’s name was defamed.
Consider Phinehas, an African whose name meant “the Negro.” Jealous with God’s jealousy, he turned away God’s wrath by impaling two high-handed sinners in the climax of their romance (Numbers 25:6–13).
Consider Elijah, a man tormented by the unbelief of Israel. He called a public showdown with the prophets of Baal and mocked them for hours (1 Kings 18:20–40). He longed for the people to know the true God and follow him alone.
Consider Paul, a former persecutor of the church who sat provoked as he saw the city full of idol-worship instead of Jesus-worship, and publicly lifted up his voice to challenge the great philosophers and rulers of Athens (Acts 17:16). He lived for kingdom business while many laughed at, opposed, and beat him.
All the King’s Men
Consider Jesus Christ, who grabbed whips, named names, and promised to return with weapons drawn. He is the Lion of Judah who knelt down and played with children (Mark 10:14). And the Lamb from whom men shall run, unsuccessfully begging mountains to crush them rather than face his wrath (Revelation 6:16).
He destroyed “arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5), crushed the dragon’s skull, and yet did not break a bruised reed (Isaiah 42:3). And he went to Calvary, not because niceness led him outside the camp to die among thieves and garbage, but because he burned with a passion for his bride, his Father’s name, and his own glory (John 17:4; Romans 3:25–26; 1 Peter 3:18).
Spurgeon’s last words in the pulpit portray the proper ideal:
[Jesus] is the most magnanimous of captains. There never was his like among the choicest of princes. He is always to be found in the thickest part of the battle. When the wind blows cold he always takes the bleak side of the hill. The heaviest end of the cross lies ever on his shoulders. If he bids us carry a burden, he carries it also. If there is anything that is gracious, generous, kind, and tender, yes lavish and super abundant in love, you always find it in him. (Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers, 288)
The King’s men will be found, with Christ, in the thickest parts of the battle. They will eschew wasting their lives venturing nothing, growing warm for nothing, exercising no initiative, taking no stands, building no fortitude of faith, engaging in no spiritual battle, carrying no burdens, planting no flags on unconquered hilltops. The men of this King, for the very reason that they despise playing with foam swords against the forces of evil, create the safest culture for their women and children. Dangerous men under God, holding one another accountable, will not stand idly by as the bears maul those they should rather protect and nourish.
Meek and fierce. Tough and tender. Leaders and servants. Not safe, but good.
Men like Jesus.