Christian Masculinity Means Vulnerable Love

In one week, Elizabeth and I will have been married for twelve years. She has had cancer for three of them. Getting thirteen, while any certainty is hidden in the Lord's invisible counsel, looks increasingly unlikely. As I continue to sort through what marriage looks like here, on the precipice of loss, I have been realizing some things about myself, about masculinity, and about the call to love.

While I am hesitant to make generalizations about gender, one that seems somewhat common is the temptation for men to withdraw. Some combination of cultural forces and sin's brokenness and the raw realities of reproductive biology encourages men to pull back from the most meaningful but costly relationships life gives them. They often become distant from wife and children and friends.

Such a withdrawal can take many forms. Certainly, abandonment is one. The baby daddy who is never around and the successful businessman absconding with the secretary are all-too-familiar characters in our world. Then there are the subtler shades of pulling away that form a spectrum with those at the far end. The man for whom marriage is a mere business arrangement. The emotionally distant father. The secret retreats of many into isolating hobbies or pornography or sports or simply a life spent using one's smartphone to never engage. In every case, the movement is one of closing off and pulling away.

An especially acute form of this temptation arises in the face of terminal illness. Here is this woman, still beautiful and full of grace, in many ways growing even more remarkable as death sharpens the faithfulness of her spirit. On the one hand, I am called to love her, and there are enormous blessings in such a calling. On the other, if I do, I know it will also bring more pain. It would be easier both in the present and for the future to pull back. To go through the motions of marriage while quietly untangling our hearts and toughening myself against the inevitable wounds to come.

Years ago, a prominent politician was mired in scandal when it emerged he had an affair while his wife was dying of cancer. At the time, my attitude was like that of the rest of the public - the context makes the adultery more despicable. Which it does. However, I now realize it also makes it more understandable. While my temptations aren't nearly as grandiose, the realization that it would be easier to stop loving Elizabeth is real. It creates an invitation I have to refuse every day.

What I have begun to realize in this struggle is that it is really just a more pronounced species of a temptation that has always been there. Men often step away from the duty of love for their own protection. From Adam standing silently by while the serpent spun his lies to Abram forcing his wife to sleep with kings in an attempt to save his skin to David's own adultery, which was at root a symptom of his failure to faithfully be committed to his first wife (or his second or his eighth), the great failing of men in Scripture is to choose the easy path of withdrawal.

To love is of necessity to be vulnerable. True love is a willful opening up of oneself, including an opening to pain. Women, while not free from such temptation to forsake love, have a certain level of vulnerability forced on them by the sins of society and the mechanics of human sexuality, physicality, and procreation. I suspect that makes them stronger in resisting it. Men do not. As such, while both genders can fall into this sin, it is men who are especially in danger of pulling back from the vulnerability of love. 

I am convinced this is why so many fathers are distant. They intuitively recognize that to get close to a child or lover will involve opening their hearts. Far safer to keep everyone behind a wall where their own failures and others' sins and the risks of a broken world cannot penetrate.

Recognizing this failing is part of why I am so uncomfortable with much of the rhetoric of modern Christian masculinity. It is true that, in instructing wives, Scripture uses the language of respect for their husbands. Discussing what that means and why it matters would take another post, and it is one I am not as equipped to write. When it comes to addressing husbands, though, much of evangelical Christianity focuses on "leadership" and "having authority." That is nowhere what Scripture commands. Instead, its instruction to husbands is always to love, to cherish, and to provide - the third one finding its place as an outworking of the first two, not somehow justifying an unloving posture simply because one is busy winning bread. Judging by the Bible's admonitions, the chief sin of men is not a failure to lead; it is a failure to love.

Thus, to be male in God's economy means committing ourselves to this calling to such open-hearted, vulnerable love. In this we are given as our great example Jesus, as Paul reminds his male readers in Ephesians 5. The implications he draws there are striking - a husband's love entails "giving himself up" for his wife (i.e. surrendering his safety and opening himself up to being wounded) and "loving his wife as his own body" (i.e. inviting their spouse within the circle of safety and thus being vulnerable to them).

This is my calling, each day, with Elizabeth. It is a calling I fulfill imperfectly. However, the thing that has kept me pursuing it is the realization that it isn't a unique calling only for an unusual season but simply another manifestatiuon of the job God has always given me: love this woman and cherish her rather than looking out for yourself. Do not draw back. Be open to her, even though it will break your heart.