I recently asked a group of college-aged men to tell me what their favorite manly movie was. I received a variety of different responses such as Braveheart, 300, Die Hard, and The Patriot. The movie cited as a favorite the most often was Gladiator, which made me smile as it happens to be my favorite manly movie, too. Against all odds Maximus, once a proud general, now a slave fighting in gladiatorial arenas, avenges the murder of his family and overthrows a dictator by killing the tyrant Emperor Commodus.
Men are inspired by stories of other men who take action, who don’t let anything get in their way. It’s why men are drawn to these types of movies, even more so than because of the violence and explosions that typically accompany them. Each man wants to do something great — to be something great — when it really counts.
I asked this question about movies at a workshop I was teaching at a men’s retreat about being a man of action. Mine was one of five workshop choices these men had, and I wasn’t surprised by the large turnout. You see, I think a lot of young men who are trying to be more like Christ hope that there’s more to their spiritual journey than being obedient to a set of rules. They want to know they can live a meaningful life, that they can do and be something great when it really counts. What’s more, I think they want to know that they can live that meaningful life on purpose.
The way you and I encounter stories the most isn’t through movies or TV or books; it’s through people in the real world. You are living a story right now. A simple definition of a story is this: a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. Think about some of the things you want in life. Now think about the things that stand between you and those goals. That’s the story you’re living. Your story could be mundane, tragic, or even beautiful. Keep these thoughts in mind — the things you want and the obstacles you face — as we continue on.
Before we can talk about action, we have to know who the character in the story is. We need to have a clear understanding of our identity as it is in Christ and how that relates to the actions we take.
You have been designed by God so that someone outside of yourself tells you who you are. In Genesis 1:27 mankind is given its identity; we are created in the image of God. In the very next verse we are blessed before ever having done anything. Then we are given our first mission, to fill the earth and subdue it. Adam and Eve felt so secure and affirmed by God in their identity that they were naked and felt no shame. Some translations say they were naked and didn’t know it. It’s as if they were hardly even self-aware. I don’t know about you, but when I’m naked I know it. I’m acutely aware of it. It’s not like I show up at checkout at Publix and say to myself, “Whoops, I think I left my wallet in my oth– whoa, I forget everything!”
God intended for us to receive our identity from Him, to find our identity in Him, from the very beginning. Finding our identity in Christ, therefore, is a redemptive work. Satan has been attacking our sense of identity from the beginning as well. Check out Genesis 3:5. He tells Adam and Eve that if they’d only eat the fruit of the tree which God commanded them not to eat they’d be like God. Do you catch how he’s twisting God’s design? God’s design is that our identity is given, not earned. Everything we’re told to do is a response to who we are. Satan’s lie is that our identity is earned through our actions and that our God-given identity is inadequate.
Adam and Eve didn’t catch on to what Satan was doing (and neither do we, most of the time). Sin disrupted their relationship with God as it does ours. God had been the one affirming them, telling them who they were. Remember what I said about us being designed to be told who we are by someone outside ourselves? We’re all looking for someone to be that voice. For some of us that voice is again God’s thanks to the work of Christ on the cross. But for many others, even many Christians when they’re not thinking straight, we’re looking for other people to tell us we’re okay. Intuitively we all know there are consequences for not being okay.
Much of what we want and do, the stories we tell with our lives, have been hijacked by this need to find our identity. This is where the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes in. Christ restored our relationship with God, taking away our guilt and shame. Ephesians 1:20-21 tells us that Christ was raised from the dead and seated above all other authority. Picture Jesus seated. He’s not still battling Satan or anyone else. The work is finished. He’s reigning victoriously. Now check out Ephesians 2:6. It says that those who are in Christ were raised up with Him and seated with Him above those same authorities. Those in Christ share Christ’s position. Elsewhere in Scripture we’re told that those in Christ were united with Him in His crucifixion (Galatians 2:20) and His resurrection (Romans 6:5), so it would make sense that we’d be united with Him in glory as well. We share in this position in which there’s no work left to be done.
At this point you might be confused, even frustrated. You want to be a man of action, and I’ve just told you there’s nothing left to be done! Where does the work come into play?
I can’t stress this enough: do not confuse your position with your mission. The apostle Paul, the author of Ephesians, wants to separate the two so drastically that he tells us, in 4:1, that we are to walk in a manner worthy of the calling we’ve received. So our position is to sit and our mission is to walk. They are two separate, yet coexisting, activities.
A person in Christ has been given an extreme amount of freedom! Life in Christ is not walking a tightrope; it’s driving down a six-lane highway. So what do you do with it? How do you live a meaningful life?
Paul gives us an outline of specifics throughout Ephesians 4:1-6:9 of how we ought to live as men and women of God. I encourage you to examine those chapters closely. The only part I want to discuss here is 4:17-19. Paul warns us how not to live. Verse 19 is especially timely for our culture today. “Having lost all sensitivity, they [the Gentiles] have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.” Here’s what happens when we cease to desire to live a meaningful life, or when we simply can’t find the meaning in the circumstances we’re experiencing in our life. Whenever we can’t find meaning we numb ourselves with pleasure. Sometimes these things are sinful in any context — porn is probably the best example for men (and, sadly, a growing number of women). But sometimes it’s not so insidious, maybe something like an addiction to comfort food or letting the cable TV wash over you after work each night.
Remember our definition of story? We’re all characters who want something who are trying to overcome conflict in order to get it. Who’s inviting you to live their story? And is it a meaningful one? We see roughly 3000 commercial messages every day. They’re inviting you to live a story about buying a product. They make you believe your life is incomplete without this thing. These stories are about the pursuit of comfort. Notice, there’s nothing wrong with buying things, but there is something wrong with turning the narrative of our lives into about buying things. All these commercial messages have led us to believe there shouldn’t be any conflict in our lives and that purchasing their wares will complete us.
This message robs us of a meaningful life. Great stories will always include conflict. God intends for there to be conflict in your life. He allows conflict in your life because He loves you. Check out James 1:2-4. We’re told to consider it pure joy when we encounter trials, that through them we’ll develop perseverance, and through that perseverance we’ll be made mature and complete. God wants to make us mature and complete, and so He allows us to encounter conflict.
There was even conflict before the fall of man! Don’t get it twisted; there wasn’t sin before the fall. When I say “conflict” I mean it in the way I’ve been using it: the thing that stands between a character and what that character wants.
Take a look at Genesis 2:18-23. In verse 18 we see God recognize that Adam is in a bad situation. Adam is alone, probably lonely, without a suitable helpmate. God has never been without community — as a triune God He’s a community unto Himself — but Adam has never had community of a like kind. Adam, our protagonist, wants something. God knows it. So what does God do? He gives Adam Eve, right? No, He doesn’t.
Look at the text. This is what you would call a ‘negative turn’ in the narrative arc. Instead of the conflict being resolved God gives Adam a task: naming the animals. This is brutal! First, just imagine how long that must have taken. (I don’t mean to tread on anyone’s toes here, as I know there are various theological camps out there regarding how long Adam and Eve were actually in the Garden of Eden.) Second, there’s no indication that God had to pull a rib out of every male creature to make a corresponding female. It would stand to reason, then, that Adam is naming animals who have found mates.
But notice how Adam reacts. He doesn’t cry out to God in anguish. Remember, he still has that perfect, totally affirming, hardly self-aware relationship with God. Adam trusts God. Adam is yielding to God’s will. It’s not too often we think of Adam as a guy who did something right, but I think this passage shows him reacting to conflict in a godly manner.
Viewing this story with this perspective makes its eventual resolution, when Adam first sees Eve, that much more beautiful. Moses even employs a form of Hebrew poetry called parallelism to properly capture the moment. Stories can’t be beautiful without conflict. If a character doesn’t overcome anything in order to get what he or she wants, if there was no personal sacrifice involved, who’s going to be moved to tears at the end of that story?
I know I’ve done a good job of romanticizing conflict up to this point, but I realize that sin has turned conflict ugly in many cases. And while I do believe God intentionally allows us to experience conflict because He loves us, I’m not making the case that God enjoys the pain we experience due to sin.
Conflict will always exist in your life. We’ve been tricked into thinking it might not be by nearly all the other stories we’ve encountered in fiction (and even in the way most non-fiction stories are told). In most of them there’s something called the act three climax, a scene or moment in which all the conflict reaches its end. Advertisements play on this idea too, that if you buy this product not only will your need in this area (likely invented to begin with) vanish, but your overall quality of life will improve, too.
But there is no act three climax in this life. There is an act three climax; it’s the wedding feast of The Lamb, Christ’s second coming in glory. This is an important point, because if we think there’s a climactic moment coming before then we might not finish the race. Every person who ever became a Christian had their share of bad days afterward. But so many people think that Jesus will fix everything, end all of their conflict. Then, when that doesn’t happen, many walk away from the faith, thinking the rest of the lot are totally out of touch with reality. The fact is Jesus never promised to end all our conflict in this life. Actually, He promised exactly the opposite in John 16:33. He promises us that in this world we will have trouble. The good news isn’t that we will overcome the world, but that He already has!
If we are to be men of action, we must learn how to appropriately pursue the things for which God has given us a passion and respond to the conflict we will inevitably face. Every man has power. Not some men, every man. Every man has the power to build and the power to destroy. Men face two major pitfalls when it comes to exercising their power appropriately. Men lose their power when they think too much of themselves, and they also lose their power when they think too little of Christ.
With regard to thinking too highly of ourselves Romans 12:1-3 gives us a great starting point. A person in Christ is a living sacrifice, their life an act of worship. Our minds are not to be conformed to the pattern of this world, which is commonly to have an inflated view of one’s self. Verse 3 is especially challenging. “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” One of the best ways I’ve found to help me think of myself with sober judgment is to have other men in my life willing to tell me the truth. My council to you is to specifically go to certain men of God you trust and give them the authority to speak into your life (even though they really have it already, handing over that authority personally helps ensure it will be exercised). We need people in our lives who are willing to tell us the truth, even if it’s uncomfortable or awkward. One important note on this. You can speak into someone’s life only if you want them to succeed. The minute you delight in another’s failure you’re unfit for the task.
I hardly even need to mention what it looks like to think too little of Christ since we do it all the time. I believe passivity to be its primary manifestation in men. Men’s passivity hurts people often without those men even knowing it. This passivity could be because they aren’t physically present. Or maybe they’re there but emotionally detached or disinterested, communicated through their body language or lack of attention. So many men have been wounded by a father or father figure in their life in this manner. Women receive wounds from passivity not just from their fathers but from their husbands and boyfriends. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. That’s the story men of my generation have been all too willing to tell with their lives.
I’m not about to tell you that any man is equipped to face what he’s likely to come across. And that’s the point. We think far too little of Jesus in the face of these struggles. Let’s recap. If we’re in Christ we’ve been united with Him in His death and His resurrection, and now He’s living in us. The Spirit we’ve been given is not one of fear but of power, strength, and self-discipline (1 Timothy 1:7). Moreover, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). I could go on. So why do we run? The dominant command in the Bible, found over 200 times, is “do not fear.” The cowardice of man destroys people, and the really tragic part is the God of the universe is eager to equip us to face those tough times.
That verse from Romans 8 is a big one. Any notion you have that you can’t make an impact or be used by God is condemnation from Satan. We do not stand condemned; we stand justified by grace through faith. We’ve already seen Ephesians tell us to sit with regard to our position in Christ, then to walk with regard to our mission for Christ. Now, when it comes to how we face spiritual opposition, Ephesians 6:10-20 instructs us to stand. We stand our ground. I won’t go through all the pieces that make up the full armor of God, but you should note that there isn’t any armor for our back. Retreat is not part of the plan when facing a defeated enemy.
Once again, this is an area in which having men willing to be honest with you is crucial. So often we need to be reminded of who Christ is and who we are in Christ. Often times the difference between me running away and me moving forward has been a timely word from a brother.
As a man of God, seated in Christ, you have been set free. My exhortation to you is not to fear. Don’t run from conflict; move into it. It’s what will bring beauty and meaning to your story. Don’t live for something small or temporary. Be shrewd in which stories you choose to join. Find others who will speak honestly and wisely into your life, whether they need to bring you down or bring Jesus up. I can’t promise you success in life. I can’t promise you’ll find meaning in a hurry, or that you’ll find it consistently. Sometimes we’re led to green pastures; other times we’re led into the valley of the shadow of death. Regardless, our Shepherd is right there.
About this essay: This is the content I presented at a Navigators men’s retreat on October 23, 2010. Most of it is derived from two primary sources: lectures five and six from Donald Miller’s Your Story Series and Sit Walk Stand by Watchman Nee.