Men, Temptation, and the Gospel

Harvey Mansfield, Harvard professor of politics and 2011 Bradley Prize winner, just wrote a provocative piece on the distinctive characteristics and faults of men for The Weekly Standard.  It’s entitled “Manliness and Morality” and I commend it to you.

Several years ago, Mansfield penned the highly controversial book Manliness (Yale, 2006), also worth reading, though the professor operates from a non-evangelical framework and sometimes writes in a swashbuckling style.  Enjoying the freedom only tenure can bring, Mansfield has questioned gender absolutes in the academy and suggested that men and women are different.  These are fighting words in many circles today.  I have benefited from his insights and applaud his courage, even if I have some essential disagreements with him.

In “Manliness and Morality,” Mansfield notes that “Men are more adventurous and aggressive than women. This is true for good as well as ill.”  He goes on to say that “Many think that admitting such differences will hurt the chances of women to gain for themselves formerly male occupations that require initiative and drive. It certainly seems strange that being capable of rape can make a person better qualified for greatness, but it’s probably true. Yet it’s not surely true; some women do have these manly qualities and do succeed.”

He also calls attention to the potential vulnerability of women, suggesting that “Being mothers, they are closer to their children, and usually suffer more from divorce.”  He goes on to say that “The enforcement of law and morality is done mainly by men or by women with the strength of men. Martial arts! But it’s better usually to call the police. Women need men to save them from men.”

Read the whole piece.  You could also read the book, noting as you do that Mansfield presents his argument in a style that is sometimes bombastic.  His points at times require more fleshing out, more substantiation, than he grants them.  Mansfield’s insights are based in his observations, not in Scripture.  They resonate, however, with certain tenets of the Christian worldview.  From start to finish in the Bible, men are appointed as leaders of God’s church and their homes (with 1 and 2 Timothy providing the essential New Testament data on the matter).  As they go, so go their families, churches and societies.  When men excel in righteousness, others flourish (see, in a general sense, Israel under David’s reign–1 and 2 Samuel).  When men fall into gross sin, others suffer (see the book of Judges).  The sins and strengths of men have an outsize impact on others.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, father of a “love child,” and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, long-time seducer and brutalizer of a hotel maid, join a long list of prominent modern men who have failed terribly as family men and leaders.  If we started a list of such men, we would have a hard time stopping.  Mansfield is right.  Men are aggressive.  Men are adventurous.  Men find monogamy more challenging than women.  When men act on their base instincts, channeling their aggression into fornication and marital affairs, they set women up for heartbreak and pain.  As Kay Hymowitz has shown in her recent Manning Up (Basic, 2011), in the new sexual economy, men are loosed from traditional cultural bonds, which only increases the risks for women, children, and society.

All of which leads Christian men, men captured by the gospel of Jesus Christ, to realize that this is an age of tremendous opportunity.  Godly men have a remarkable chance in this day to show how the Holy Spirit transforms a man.  When God gets a hold of a man, he doesn’t merely tinker with him, making him cuss less and smile more.  When God saves a man, he looses him to destroy sin and bless his family, church, and society.  Christian men are not normal men who sleep less on Sunday and wear Dockers with no creases.  Christian men are transformed men, other-worldly men, residents of a new kingdom, servants of a great king, as Randy Stinson and Dan Dumas make clear in their insightful and challenging A Guide to Biblical Manhood (Southern Seminary, 2011).

Not every unsaved man will stray, and indeed, the media can make it seem as if every man is out to destroy the traditional family.  These ideas are plainly not true.  Many men, Christian or not, will not ruin their families.  The point stands nonetheless.  Godly men have a fantastic opportunity in a society rightly jaded by the failures of so-called “great men”–actors, athletes, politicians, celebrities–to demonstrate the transformative power of the gospel in a man’s life.

We face all the same temptations as lost men.  Our flesh pulls at us to compromise our marriages, to take our sacrificial wives lightly, to ignore our children in order to play golf or get more successful or have more fun, to flirt with the cute girl when traveling, to speak ill of marriage, to generally not live sacrificially in the image of Jesus Christ and spend ourselves for the betterment of those God has entrusted us (Ephesians 5).  Our flesh encourages us to allow small temptations to grow into strong desires, then to usher those desires into daring actions, then to allow those actions to blossom into patterns of sin that will, when discovered, blow our families and churches apart.

But the gospel, praise God, is stronger.  The power of God is inside us, enabling men to exchange the role of pleasure-driven narcissist for that of self-sacrificing pillar of strength.  The power of God is at work in his local church, where sinful men find fellowship in the company of brothers who bear the same weaknesses but through the power of the Spirit stand as oaks of righteousness.  Instead of comparing black book conquests and planning the next hedonistic plunge, these men link arms to kill sin, love their families, and propel the church’s witness.  Whether in a massive church or a tiny one, this band of brothers provides an awesome witness to a fallen world of the mysterious power of the gospel.  Men who genuinely find pleasure in their families, in service of the church, and in their vocations show the world that it is not a secular lifestyle for which we were made, but the far more pleasurable way of life sketched out for us in Scripture.

This very day, every man–whether a global leader or an unknown tradesman–has an opportunity to show the world that the gospel does not kill pleasure or aggressiveness.  Rather, as Edwards has shown, it frees Christians to experience true pleasure and to act in manly for a far greater cause than ourselves.  We grieve the trajectory of modern men, and we feel special pain for the wives and children who are, through no fault of their own, deeply damaged by the sins of men.  In a broken world, we pray to God to show the world a better way, a greater joy, and a magnificent Savior, who delights in taking sinful men and turning them into agents of his glory.

This is cross-posted from The Gospel Coalition.

(Image: Boston Globe/Pat Greenhouse)

  • http://www.eofe.ca Christian Politics

    “Being mothers, they are closer to their children, and usually suffer more from divorce.” I love generalisations like this. They make me realise that I am different, and glad to be.

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  • owenstrachan

    Christian Politics–that’s quite a first and last name–would you argue the other way? I’d like to hear that played out. Sociological research bears out that women do spend more time with their children, more time doing housework, etc. Psychological research indicates that women do experience more emotional fallout from divorce. Some quick research will show both ideas to be true.

    That’s not to attach a value judgment to them. But we shouldn’t ignore data.

    Thanks for commenting.

  • Lucia

    I encounter young women looking for a husband and small children desperate to see godly men. For some reason they are hard to see, perhaps a little shy to stand out. But may more and more be encouraged to band together to reach for that higher calling…not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by God’s word!!!

  • owenstrachan

    Amen, Lucia. I think you’re right. I see what you see. May many young men hear the call to maturity, and gospel maturity at that.


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