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What Is Jesus' Definition of Manhood? — An Excerpt from “Malestrom” by Carolyn Custis James

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Malestrom by Carolyn Custis JamesIn her new book Malestrom, Carolyn Custis James has spotlighted a painful reality: "Men have lost sight of who God created them to be as human beings and as men." (21)

How do men regain their God-created identity? By embracing Jesus’s definition of what it means to be a man:

Jesus’ definition of manhood is every man’s true identity and calling—his birthright. It encompasses everything about who he is and every second of his life. (182)

What does image bearing look like in the life of Jesus? It includes several important markers:

  • Attention to relationship with God;
  • Acting in step with his Father;
  • Opposing pride and self-importance;
  • Inversion of the malestrom social structures

James calls Jesus’ definition of manhood a “staggering proposition.” (187) Read the excerpt below to understand why. Then engage her book to recapture Jesus’ definition of manhood for the men you shepherd. As well as for yourself.

When Jesus calls a man to follow him, he’s actually repeating the Creator’s high calling to represent God and to rule and subdue creation on his behalf. Cultural criteria of masculinity may get a lot of hype in discussions of manhood, but they fall woefully short of what God has in mind for his sons and often prove unattainable or unsustainable for a lot of men and boys. In contrast, Jesus’ definition of manhood is every man’s true identity and calling — his birthright. It encompasses everything about who he is and every second of his life.

The middle part of Jesus’ story is rich with wisdom for how it looks when a man or boy actively pursues his calling to image God. So what does image bearing look like in the life of Jesus? Here are just a few observations that are especially significant.

First and foremost, Jesus devotes enormous attention to his own relationship with God. He is a man of prayer. That alone makes praying a man job. Jesus frequently breaks away from the crowds and his disciples to some isolated place to pray and commune with his Father. These were not perfunctory acts intended merely to set an example for his disciples. Jesus needed to pray. The few recorded prayers of Jesus that we have are not flowery soliloquies for the public to overhear or a to-do list for God, but signs of a real, open, honest, deeply personal, and at times desperate relationship. Jesus’ prayers are earnest, even agonizing. They are filled with heartfelt outpourings for God’s purposes in the world, expressions of utter dependence, realistic awareness of the threat of the Enemy, and honest, tortured wrestlings with his Father over the path that lay ahead. Something truly reorienting and utterly centering happens when a man falls to his knees to pray and align himself with God. Jesus leads men to that place.

But Jesus does more than pray.

Second, as one might expect, Jesus as imago dei moves from prayer to action — a self-conscious open awareness that he lives under the gaze of God. There is an intentionality about his words, his relationships, and his actions that comes from that mindset. “I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me . . . for I always do what pleases him.” Jesus lives out the Lord’s Prayer.23 The overarching goal of his life is to “hallow” his Father’s name. “I honor my Father . . . I obey his word.” In the middle part of his story, Jesus preaches the twin themes of the kingdom of heaven and the call for repentance (the need for a U-turn). “Jesus was announcing that a whole new world was being born and he was ‘teaching’ people how to live within that whole new world.” Manhood according to Jesus means a man lives knowing he’s being watched, and nothing matters more than to be in step with his Father in heaven. That should completely revolutionize how a man lives.

Third, the manhood Jesus embodies inevitably means taking an oppositional stance against those malestrom forces that appeal to a man’s pride and self-importance. Jesus endured a prolonged forty-day frontal assault from the evil one in the desert. Already weak from fasting, Jesus faced three temptations. This was not a practice drill or some charade Jesus conducted for our benefit. He endured a real full-on attack that, seen from the perspective of image bearing, reenacts the Enemy’s successful assault in the garden of Eden. This was another attempt of the Enemy to drive a wedge between God and his image bearer by once again proposing enticing but illegitimate means (a shortcut) to legitimate ends, namely, God’s purposes.

As God’s image bearers, Adam and Eve were created to “be like God.” But this was to be accomplished by means of a long-term relationship with God, not by eating forbidden fruit. Likewise, Jesus as the true Son of God was destined to reign over “all the kingdoms of the world,” but not by gaining power through spectacular self-serving displays of his own powers or by bowing in worship to the Enemy. One can only imagine how potent the temptation was for Jesus to sidestep the painful, costly path of obedience to his Father. But Jesus’ commitment to his Father holds firm. “The goal of obedience to the Father is accomplished, not by triumphant self-assertion, not by the exercise of power and authority, but paradoxically by the way of humility, service, and suffering.” This is the radical path of God’s true sons — the path Adam abandoned but Jesus, the new Adam, pursues.

Jesus’ habit of confronting and disturbing the peace of the powerful and prosperous — the religious and political rulers of the day — was not merely his rejection of the established power pyramid of his day, but a sober warning of the serious hazards of power and privilege in any place and at any level. “As one of Jesus’ most popular one-liners says very clearly, ‘the last will be first and the first last.’ It is not good to be on the ‘top.’"

Jesus’ inversion of the social pyramid — a malestrom social structure — is never more uncomfortably subversive than his rebuke of his disciples as they jockeyed for power and authority over each other (men over men!) in his coming kingdom. He doesn’t simply rebuke them for fighting among themselves; he condemns how they are thinking. The prizing of power and authority over others may characterize the kingdoms of this world both large and minuscule. “Not so with you,” he tells his disciples. “Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.” It is an astonishing inversion. A view of manhood that insists the top spot belongs to a male, in any context, is difficult to reconcile with Jesus’ words. That’s how hard it is to be the kind of man who follows Jesus. (pgs. 182–185)


Malestrom by Carolyn Custis James


By Carolyn Custis James

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