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Newsletter #82: A Handyman's Guide to Masculinity
A practical guide towards becoming a holy man
Welcome back to my monthly longform newsletter. This is always free, but you can get access to additional exclusive content, podcast and interview transcripts, and commenting privileges by becoming a paid subscriber today.
This month, Dr. John Seel, whom I recently interviewed on my podcast, contributes an essay on masculinity and being a “holy man” for the newsletter. He is a Presbyterian cultural renewal entrepreneur and social impact consultant. Views expressed are those of the author. - Aaron.
Most men do not have the time or patience for theory and abstractions. We are by nature a hands-on practical lot. It is for this reason that much of the religious discussions about masculinity, when they occur, leave us cold. Their pious sentiments provide few practical steps. It is not surprising then that men are turning to secular podcasts for their advice on masculinity.
In the past months, there has been a growing awareness of the crisis of masculinity. Much of this awareness can be attributed to the excellent work of Richard Reeves in his book, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Man is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It. Yet even here his solutions to the crisis, framed primarily as public policy suggestions, provides few actionable guidance for the average man. Such is the case with most social science analysis of the crisis, they are long on analysis and short on solutions. In some cases, this rises to level of academic malpractice. If the crisis is real, as they suggest, if the felt needs are deep, as they indicate, then achievable and aspirational guidance needs to be provided. Such is the aim of this essay.
The church is culpable in some aspects of this crisis; by piling on to it, creating distractions from the real issues, and being silent on topics that need frank open discussion.
In the formative decades of young men who are entering adulthood, evangelical youth groups adopted the purity culture movement. It damaged men and women alike. Its analysis is that boys and men are inherently sexual predators, best described as “toxic.” Zachary Wagner writes in Non-Toxic Masculinity: Recovering Healthy Male Sexuality that “the teaching that hyperactive and out-of-control sexual desire is an unavoidable part of being male is one of the most damaging messages of purity culture.” Here the church under the guise of discipleship is promoting a disparaging view of masculinity and a distorted view of sexuality. Needed within these circles, Wagner argues is a “program of re-humanization” of masculinity along with the advocacy of the life-long learning of the virtue of chastity. This is a tall order because the evangelical church has a hard time dealing with physical embodiment without spiritual Gnosticism and sexuality without fundamentalist moralism. Neither serve the crisis of masculinity well and the history of the purity culture emphasis in youth groups makes many men naturally look to other sources of guidance other than the church.
Casual re-assertions of traditionalism are not going to be sufficient to the complex crisis now facing men in terms of their vocations, relationships, and worldview. For them the very idea of masculinity itself is under assault.
When the church talks of "men's issues" too often it is limited to debates on complementarianism versus egalitarianism in marriage and church leadership. Major public debates on masculinity have rocked evangelical denominations meanwhile the issues regarding men's identity go largely undiscussed and ignored. Casual re-assertions of traditionalism are not going to be sufficient to the complex crisis now facing men in terms of their vocations, relationships, and worldview. For them the very idea of masculinity itself is under assault. They need a deeper analysis and more practical guidance. Moreover, increasingly evangelical megachurches and denominations are dealing with their own crises of expressive toxic masculinity seen in sexual abuse, infidelity, and coverup. It is not as if meaningful leadership is going to come from here.
There is some evidence that believing men in search of an alternative to what is being provided in evangelical churches are turning to Eastern Orthodoxy. Alt-right traditionalists are finding this a potential spiritual home. Such is the finding of journalist Colleen Carroll Campbell in her book The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy. Why might this be the case? Young people are looking for re-enchantment, mysticism, and altruism and are finding it in the liturgy and ancient practices of Orthodoxy.
Perhaps an even deeper explanation than a desire to convert to Orthodoxy is a desire for a holistic worship experience that is embodied, grounded in premodern tradition, and shrouded in mystery and beauty. Many want something more from their worship than a black box theater with a rock band and giant plasma TV screen. Entwined in the crisis of masculinity is a premodern critique of advanced modernity. Young people, and especially young men, are seeking for something more than a suburban consumerist Christianity lite offered by evangelical megachurches. They seek a spirituality that is experiential, practical, and enchanted. Liturgical and sacramental forms of worship are now attracting a new generation in search of a personal spiritual encounter with God. The dominant themes in their search are embodiment, experience, re-enchantment, and mystery. These are the same themes that are also having resonance with those seeking to become holy men.
Too often the analysis of the men's crisis resorts to a shallow and superficial traditionalism that focus on men's traditional functions within the family and society. Traditional roles of men as protector, provider, and procreator are emphasized. One wonders in keeping with the “P"s, where is “presence." America is faced with three times the number of absent fathers than any other country in the world—25% versus 7%.
But more significant than what men do is who men are—or aspire to be. More important than men's function, which can vary in time and place and has no definitive social role, are the characteristics of a holy man that touch on the character of the person and are timeless and universal. It is to these characteristics that we now turn. In addition, in the spirit of the handyman ethos, we will also discuss ways each can begin to be realized in your person.
We acknowledge that these characteristics are deeper than the social functions mentioned above and much more difficult to realize. They are also the aspirational goals that give the quest for masculinity its ongoing dynamic. In this sense, one never becomes fully male as it is a verb not a noun, a state of being, an ongoing relationally and spiritually derived process. The desire to become a holy man is a lifelong commitment to a direction, dependence, and development. While it is inherently aspirational, it is also achievable. We can become the best version of our masculine self. We can become more like Jesus. It requires a change in our perspective, the embodiment of virtues, and the practice of rituals. Rather than unpacking what these three steps demand abstractly, we will return to them as we look at concrete characteristics of a holy man.
The holy man is a certain kind of person.
The holy man uses certain kinds of tools.
The holy man creates a certain kind of product from the fruit of his labors.
Person, tools, and production are the three groupings by which we will examine the characteristics of becoming a holy man. As an aside, these are the characteristics that also make you marriageable in a world where women are wondering where are all the "good" men. A man being a "Christian" or “spiritually open” is not an adequate criteria for a discerning godly woman. Is this man serious about becoming a holy man? Is there evidence of a serious commitment and intention in his behavior and lifestyle? In this relational light, it is less important what you do as a man compared to who you are—the consistent nature of your person over time in the varied dynamics of life in the complexities of a real relationship. The aim here is a life direction committed to the total ongoing transformation of a person from the inside out. This is not a small thing. Neither is becoming a holy man.
This is an ongoing process best developed in community because we are not dealing here with a private consumer choice or a subjective expression of personal authenticity but rather an objective alignment with our created and now re-created identity as seen in the life and person of Jesus. It is his person—Jesus Christ—that is being spiritually recreated in each of our lives. C.S. Lewis write, "Every person is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.” Lest we think of this in abstract spiritual terms, Lewis unpacks exactly what this means,
And let me make it quite clear that when Christians say the Christ-life is in them, they do not simply mean something mental or moral. When they speak of being "in Christ" or of Christ being "in them," this is not simply a way of saying that they are thinking about Christ or copying Him. They mean that Christ is actually operating through them; that the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts—that we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body.
This is the repeated message of the Bible, "We can all draw close to him with the veil removed from our faces. And with no veil we all become like mirrors who brightly reflect the glory of the Lord Jesus" and elsewhere "Be supernaturally infused with strength through your union with the Lord Jesus. Stand victorious with the force of his explosive power flowing in and through you.” Our emerging identity and person is the fruit or outgrowth of the indwelling Christ within us. "God became man to turn creatures into sons; not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but turning a horse into a winged creature.” A holy man is a new kind of creature, not merely a nice male. Lewis adds, "Even the best Christian that ever lived is not acting on his own steam—he is only nourishing or protecting a life he could never have acquired by his own efforts.” If we abide in Christ, depend on him in all things, our lives will begin to look like Christ. We grow out of our own nature to the point where we are turned into "gods"—that is little Christs. It is only then that we discover our real identity and become a holy man. Lewis concludes, "Our real selves are all waiting for us in Him.... Until you have given up yourself to Him you will not have a real self.” You cannot always tell whether a person is a “Christian"—some are moving away from Christ, others moving toward him unaware, and still others are consciously moving toward him. Again, Lewis writes, "There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so.” And yet there are some men who are markedly distinctive—not what we might expect of a "religious person" but whose voices and faces are stronger, quieter, happier, more radiant. Their lives emanate from a different and larger spiritual reality. They have the shared features of a holy man.
The Holy Man Is a Certain Kind of Person
1. A holy man possesses wild eyes. He has seen something that has changed him at his core. He has hit rock bottom and is thoroughly converted. His life is marked by an about face. There is consequently an aliveness, a compelling nature to life and reality. The real is more real. His dead eyes are gone, the scales have fallen off. Life is now lived with purpose, promise, and passion. It can all be seen in his eyes. The cynical attitude of "whatever" is gone replaced with a confident "onward." Up from the couch, he is an enlisted warrior. A holy man has wild eyes.
To fuel passion, you need to find an ennobling mentor or short of that you should read biographies of great men—men such as Augustine, Ulysses S. Grant, Hudson Taylor, and Eugene H. Peterson.
Many men do not come from families where the father was present in the family or where the father had an ennobling role within the family. Men need ennobling exemplars, other men who serve as inspirational examples—heroes that they can follow and aspire to be like. We must do better than Marvel or DC comic book superheroes. To fuel passion, you need to find an ennobling mentor or short of that you should read biographies of great men—men such as Augustine, Ulysses S. Grant, Hudson Taylor, and Eugene H. Peterson. We need to be inspired to become the best version of ourselves for the sake of Christ and others. The Apostle Paul says that "I run with passion into his abundance so that I may reach the purpose for what Christ Jesus laid hold of me to make me his own.” The same must be said of you and me.
2. A holy man moves mysteriously. There is something about his life that is clearly from beyond this world. He counts on more than what the eye can see, and this is off-putting because of its pervasive supernatural dependence and orientation. It was said of Dallas Willard that "he lived in another time zone." Such is the life of a practical mystic.
This characteristic has two dimensions. First, your life must be framed by goals that are larger than ones that you can achieve in your own power. This is not AAA ball or the grapefruit league, but the majors. Your life needs to be framed by goals that stretch well outside of your comfort zone and outside of your natural competence.
Moses when he was called by God was acutely aware of his own inability to speak in public. He asked for a different assignment. Moses's question, "Who am I?" was an admission of a nagging insecurity. God's answer was simply, "I will be with you.” So it must be in our lives. Our lives should be inexplicable to others apart from the reality of God's presence with us. As William Carey, the great English missionary to India decreed, "Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God."
Your life needs to be framed by goals that stretch well outside of your comfort zone and outside of your natural competence.
Second, your life must be characterized by a deep dependence on God. It is not about playing it safe but counting on the ongoing loving reality of God's presence with us in every dimension of our lives. It is only in this manner that we can experience the overflowing power of his resurrection life working in us as we demonstrate "on earth as it is in heaven." Like Paul, we don't depend on our own strength to accomplish this, but we press on in Christ power working in and through our lives. This points to a life that is framed and bathed in prayer and characterized by faith and trust. This is a life that is a Wi-Fi hotspot for the kingdom of God. While it is true that God is a mystery, so too should be our lives because his mystery informs our reality.
3. A holy man reveres the sacred everywhere. He is an everyday mystic. For him all of life is a spiritual adventure, every aspect of life sacred. Rather than living a fragmented and compartmentalized life, his life is holistically centered on what in the spirit of Soren Kierkegaard called “the purity of heart to will one thing.” A holy man sees the sacred everywhere and makes everything sacred. There is integrity in a holy man's life, but even more than a holistic integration of life, it is a life centered on living in and living out of the kingdom of heaven. This is a life framed by the lordship of Christ in every sphere of his life. This is not just a pious trope but an active life agenda. Theologian J. Gresham Machen charged aspiring pastors in 1913,
The Christian cannot be satisfied so long as any human activity is either opposed to Christianity or out of all connection with Christianity. Christianity must pervade not merely all nations, but also all of human thought. The Christian, therefore, cannot be indifferent to any branch of earnest human endeavor. It must all be brought into some relation to the gospel. It must be studied either in order to be demonstrated as false, or else in order to be made useful in advancing the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom must be advanced not merely extensively, but also intensively. The Church must seek to conquer not merely every man for Christ, but also the whole of man.
There are many ways this sense of holistic focus can be animated in a person's life. It has resonance with Abraham Kuyper's decree, "There is not a square inch in the whole of creation over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’ There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'" It has resonance with kingdom-oriented charismatics who call us to remember that "Through prayer, 'on earth as it is in heaven’ is to become an increasing reality.” It has resonance with a thorough-going sacramentalism where God's presence is found in all things: "The entire cosmos is meant to serve as a sacrament: a material gift from God in and through which we enter into the joy of his heavenly presence.” From whatever tradition you build your spiritual life, the emphasis here is that every aspect of your natural life is to be touched, infused, and connected to the larger spiritual reality of the kingdom of heaven. Your life comes into focus at this point—"so that in everything he might have supremacy."
Every aspect of your natural life is to be touched, infused, and connected to the larger spiritual reality of the kingdom of heaven.
To realize this in your life is to make a basic life decision about your life direction and then consciously renewing that decision and direction on a daily basis. Jesus's admonition to those who would be his apprentices to learn from him to love like him was "Whoever wants to be my disciples must deny themselves [live radically dependent lives] and take up their cross daily [reaffirming daily this life decision and direction].” A holy man reveres the sacred everywhere.
4. A holy man fosters emotional intelligence. He learns the skills needed to work effectively with others through self-awareness, empathy, and interpersonal sensitivity. There is little effective leadership that does not highlight what are often described as the "soft skills." It is here where many men are particularly boorish. Holiness is ultimately the reflection of a relational dynamic both with God and others. Every effort must be made to strengthen your awareness of and practice of emotional intelligence. A holy man connects well with others by listening well and caring deeply. A holy man can connect intellectually, relationally, and spiritually with others. A key to this is the willingness to be vulnerable, to lead with weakness, and to walk with a limp. The primary competence of a holy man is his ability to connect person to person with another.
At this point many men are particularly vulnerable and weak. It is not what is celebrated culturally in "being a man." Tough, withdrawn, silent, and domineering are what we typically see modeled in a "man's man." Yet this is not what is effective in corporate leadership, successful marriages, or vibrant family life. Leadership expert Sigval Berg writes, "IQ and the other reductive measures of school achievement do not predict success in life or leadership. In fact, when compared side by side, high IQ predicts on average 6 percent of success whereas emotional intelligence or EQ is directly responsible for between 27 and 45 percent of job success. Overall effective leadership demands proficiency in three things: technical skills, cognitive abilities, and emotional intelligence. Of these three categories, emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others for performance success.” What is most encouraging is that EQ can be learned, best in teams and ideally with a mentor. Over time what makes relationships work well is a person with high emotional intelligence. Ironically, this is addressed in therapist's offices and in HR seminars but is rarely made a dynamic feature of godliness and the aspiration of a holy man in church settings. Here the domineering, emotionally bottled-up, silent Baby Boomer ethos continues to prevail. This is not the dynamic we see in the life of Jesus.
5. A holy man takes his body seriously. There is a long history of spirituality that places the spiritual over the physical. To do so, however pious it might initially sound, is to marginalize the influence of the spiritual in all aspects of lived life. Fragmentation, dualism, and marginalization are not what we are aiming for here. Ours is a deep spirituality that touches everything, indeed, redeems everything. The first contact with the wider world for the holy man is with his own body. This is obviously where his spirituality must start with the rejection of a dehumanizing mind-body dualism. He appreciates his body and is comfortable in his own skin—in fact, proudly affirming his biological masculinity. Two aspects of this focus on the body touch on spirituality: health and sexuality.
It is not common for evangelical Christians to focus on good health. Obesity and poor diet are common among conservative Christians in ways that you would never see among adherents of an Eastern religion or New Age. Here too there is a difference in emphasis among younger believers and their parents—many of whom are vegetarian and outspoken critics of the standard American diet. To minimize our health is to significantly dehumanize our holistic identity. The tendency in both progressive and conservative circles is to minimize the body, though for different reasons. The results are the same.
The first contact with the wider world for the holy man is with his own body.
Neglecting our body’s health will hinder every other aspect of our lives. As an overall lifestyle, health involves three major aspects of embodiment: diet, movement, and rest. We need to be in supportive relationships that reinforce constructive personal choices in each.
Few fully appreciate how degraded is the American diet, which is based on factory farming, processed food, and lifestyle convenience. No amount of exercise or medical intervention can compensate for poor eating habits. An ancient proverb states, “When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is correct, medicine is of no need.” A holy life begins at the dinner table and good diet is reflective of a host of small choices made daily that reflect an attentiveness to being the best one can be.
Closely related to eating is drinking. Sugary beverages increase the likeliness of obesity, heart failure, and emotional imbalance. Both coffee and alcohol need to be monitored as they are stimulants and depressants with real emotional impacts.
Fitness goals are also something that must be given close attention. This is easier to maintain when young, but becomes increasingly important and difficult when time decreases and age increases. We need to develop interests and skills in physical activities that we can incorporate across our entire life. You will use it or you will loose it. In regards to all of these embodied activities, we need to have set goals, regular monitoring, and relational support. Otherwise, it is too easy to let incremental changes become a regular pattern in ways that are harder and harder to overcome. Negative embodied changes are those that happen incrementally over time, and so that regular monitoring and accountability are an important aspect of creating a healthy lifestyle.
Finally, we are designed to need rest both a good night sleep and a day off from the regular routine on a weekly basis. Modern life has a way of undermining these required dynamics. Sleep is a nonnegotiable biological necessity for life. We stay up too late, work too many hours, and avoid periodic retreats or sabbaticals. Coupled with a bad diet, a lack of exercise, add a lack rest: our entire body suffers. All of these factors are within our control if we attend to them as a conscious commitment to living a holy life. A holy life is a fully embodied life.
Equally central to an embodied holy life is a constructive embrace of our sexuality. Our sexuality is to be celebrated not denied. But this assumes that men have a correct frame for their understanding of sex. This is cannot be assumed. There is in American society two distinct moral frameworks for the understanding of sex. One assumes that sexuality is rooted in the design of the cosmos. It has something to do with and something to say about the nature of reality. It has a vertical design dimension. Others assume that sexuality has no cosmic connection, but is simply a choice between two consenting adults. In this understanding, sexuality says nothing about the cosmos and everything about a relationship. There is nothing intrinsically sacred about sex. It is horizontally framed.
Every choice or ethical consideration about sexuality depends on which frame is your starting point. Too often, the church jumps into practical ethical considerations without first winning the frame. This is a failed approach.
If embodiment is discounted, gender distinctions denied, and sexual design abandoned, the Christian approach to sexuality has no point of intellectual or personal traction in a person’s life.
We can assume that most men do not know how to think about sex and as such do not know how to think about their identity as it is connected to their gender and sexuality. If embodiment is discounted, gender distinctions denied, and sexual design abandoned, the Christian approach to sexuality has no point of intellectual or personal traction in a person’s life. The church needs to back up the conversation and initially address the meaning of sex. What we find is that sexual desire is designed to bring us face to face with an encounter with God. It is intrinsically pre-evangelistic. In this regard, Christopher West’s Our Bodies Tell God’s Story or Fill These Hearts are a useful starting point. Questions about chastity, dating, and marriage only make sense once these more foundational questions of framing and meaning are first addressed. Many men do not have a biblical understanding of embodiment and sexuality. In this sense, mere moral prohibitions without this larger frame of understanding will be useless or totally alienating. Sexual morals first need a sexual metaphysics, the answer to the why questions: why do we exist? why do we have a body? why two genders? why permanent, monogamous heterosexual marriage? why sex?
Answers to these questions are precursors to being a holy man who has a clear understanding of sexuality and is consciously developing the virtue of chastity. He can comfortably treat women without objectification. He takes care of his body in a manner that maximizes its performance for the kingdom of God as the temple of the Holy Spirit. A holy man welcomes embodiment just as Jesus embraced the incarnation.
6. As a person, a holy man seeks first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. This means that God’s purposes supersede all else—including marriage. The common assumption that you won’t be a real man until you are a married man is false and decidedly unbiblical. If there is a biblical priority it is on singleness over marriage and not the other way round. The higher calling, the “special grace,” the example of Jesus, the heavenly reality is singleness. This is because the purpose of marriage is the same as singleness—more effective service to the kingdom of God. Romance is not the purpose of marriage, God and his kingdom are. Spiritual director Richard Foster reminds us that,
The basis for getting married that conforms to the way of Christ is a regard for the well-being of others and ourselves and a regard for the advancement of the kingdom of God upon the earth…. Christian marriage is far more than a private undertaking or a way to personal fulfillment. Christians contemplating marriage must consider the larger question of vocation and calling, the good of others, and the wellbeing of the community of faith, and most of all, how their marriage would advance or hinder the work of the kingdom of God.
Until people have a clear sense of their gifts and calling as a single person, how will they be able to determine the person God would have them partner with in kingdom service? Romantic love and sexual attraction are elements to consider, but they never can serve as the basis for this decision. Marriage is a partnership in kingdom purpose, a melding together of complementary gifts and personalities in order to serve God’s kingdom as husband and wife in ways that cannot be as fully served individually. Without a doubt, this is easier for a single person to do. Rather than make single believers feel like they are second class citizens, we need to hold them up as the exemplars of faithful godliness. Some singles wish they were married. Some singles despite their wish for marriage may remain single. In both cases, the church needs to do a better job at presenting a robust theology of singleness and a better relational spiritual celebration of this calling. For these are those who most demonstrate the resurrection life of unmarried singleness on earth as it will be in heaven. These can be the church’s spiritual heroes—the exemplars of holiness. They have the time and freedom to be present to others to demonstrate the master class in connection. A holy man is not a holy couple in waiting, but genuinely a holy man as a single man just like Jesus. Marriage in this light falls under the category of “less important things.” Holiness calls us to keeping first things as first things. Singleness is an embodied reminder of this relational fact.
The Tools of the Holy Man
Much of our being as persons is shaped by the tools we use and companions we surround ourselves. There are tools that a holy man uses to further his formation.
“In working-class France,” Annie Dillard writes, “when an apprentice got hurt, or when he got tired, the experienced workers said, ‘It’s the trade entering his body.’” So too, holiness—it must be embodied through the habits, practices, and tools we use on a daily basis. A holy man establishes rituals, disciplines, and traditions. He is self-conscious about the routines and habits of his life. He recognizes that it is in the little things done daily that gives life its shape and character. Dillard continues, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” If you want to know what you will be like in twenty years, take a good look at your life patterns and rituals today. Your life is the sum of your days, the consequence of a thousand small choices. Tomorrow never comes. A holy man is self-aware of his habits and routines. There is a decided purposefulness to the details of his life.
One of these routines is consciously embarking on a spiritual pilgrimage. Even less important than the direction, is the conscious choice to be engaged in a personal spiritual search or pilgrimage. A holy man is not one who arrives and therefore has it all figured out. No, a holy man is an explorer, a spiritual adventurer, a person who sees life as a growing relational process. He doesn’t see his life in static snap shots, or as an arrival after which he rests. Rather his life is an ongoing developing film in which he is in the middle of an unfolding plot. In this he truly believes that his life has become God’s poetry, he is the poem that God is writing. He is simply a re-created person that will fulfill the destiny that God has given him to do through him. Life for him is a spiritual adventure of God’s sovereign unfolding of his destiny. A holy man keeps his gaze forward and keeps moving in pilgrimage.
A holy man is an explorer, a spiritual adventurer, a person who sees life as a growing relational process.
The underlying assumption here is that your life is not a self-management project, one over which you have control, but is rather a dependent unfolding of a life lived in adventurous dependence. Also assumed here is that a holy man is moving incrementally in a studied direction toward a deeper relationship with God. Ours is simply to step into the small circle of light at our feet daily and then take the next step. We don’t have it all figured out at the outset, we may not even see the destination, but we are faithful to move in a steady direction toward Jesus with the light we are given on a daily basis. Ours is to take the step of pilgrimage. It is God’s to direct our spiritual light along the path.
In such a posture of pilgrimage, a holy man seeks a spiritual father. He knows that in such a dependence-driven, faith-laden pilgrimage he needs a spiritual guide. The Christian Celtic spiritual tradition called such a guide an anam cara or “soul friend.” Patron Irish saint Brigid said, “A person without a soul friend is like a body without a head.” This is a direct challenge to the individualistic DIY spirituality that characterizes the typical spiritual-but-not-religious spiritual seeker. A holy man lives a life framed by dependence on God’s presence and this dependent attitude is mediated through the reliance on a spiritual father, mentor, and soul friend. This was Paul’s admonition to the Philippians, “My beloved friends, imitate my walk with God and follow all those who walk according to the way of life we modeled before you.” A holy man has one special friend to whom the secrets of his life are open so that he can live his life without a mask or pretension. A holy man lives a life in relational dependence on a spiritual director. He is always under someone, never assumes he has arrived, and is always in the posture of learning. In short, he is open to correction. A holy man acts as a faithful son before a loving father.
This means that a holy man is a perpetual student. He is committed to a life of reading and study, not only of the Bible, but also of old books set in the past that can help shape his perception of the present. A life of holiness is a literary and academic adventure that is constantly expanding the mind and heart. To this end, many men need to be reminded to read fiction and poetry, not just self-help business books or tomes of systematic theology. It is also a helpful corrective for a holy man to spend time in nature, to engage in long walks in the woods, to become a student of the patterns of God’s creation.
A holy man is thus committed to a process, a lifestyle of growth, formation, and development, being consciously set apart for God as a poet, warrior, and monk. He has a vision of becoming like Jesus by being an apprentice of Jesus so to be able to do what he did and love as he loves. A holy man is set apart to God in a lifelong process of spiritual exploration. He longs to see realized in his life “heaven on earth.” He affirms that “We are a colony of heaven on earth as we cling tightly to our life-giver, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our humble bodies and transfigure us into the identical likeness of his glorified body.”
The Product of a Holy Man
There is evident fruit seen in becoming such a person and in using such tools. A holy man’s life creates a visible production. There are consequences among others for having such a life.
A holy man fulfills a life assignment. His life is not his own as he is committed to answering his spiritual assignment: a calling or vocation. His life is an answering to God’s call, direction, and authority. Such a call is not limited to typical spiritual tasks such as becoming a pastor or missionary, but is rather the kingdom-lens through which every aspect life in every domain and sphere of work is given a spiritual purpose. A holy man makes it his life mission to uncover the mystical sense of God’s calling and faithfully walk in it. “A vocation or calling,” Puritan William Perkins writes, “is a certain kind of life ordained and imposed on man by God for the common good.” There are no exceptions to this kind of life. “Every person of every degree, state, sex, or condition, without exception, must have some personal and particular calling to walk in,” continues Perkins. A holy man’s life is disciplined and directed by his calling as the externalization of his identity in service to others empowered by God that makes all forms of work a sacred task.
A holy man makes it his life mission to uncover the mystical sense of God’s calling and faithfully walk in it.
Directly stemming from this, a holy man leaves a legacy, namely his lives a life for a cause that is larger than himself. This means that he is living his life in such a manner that it serves others. He invests his time, talent, and treasure for the benefit of others. This means that a holy man has a sense of history and is prepared to place his life within his history to further advance it for the kingdom of God. A holy man adds enduring value to his world and relationships. He is a producer not just a consumer. His life is not self-directed or aimlessly muddling. His life is about giving back, paying it forward. He is a giver not a taker.
As a holy man is centered on relationships, he seeks kindred spirits. He seeks to find those who share in the burden, responsibility, and opportunity poised by his calling. He seeks to surround himself with those who will collectively call him up to be his best self. The measure of a man is the measure of his closest friends. As goes your friends, so goes your life. A holy man surrounds himself with those who are better and different to make him better and different. He does not live his life in an echo chamber of “yes men” but among those who elevate and challenge him personally. Simply, a holy man seeks other holy men.
A holy man surrounds himself with those who are better and different to make him better and different. He does not live his life in an echo chamber of “yes men” but among those who elevate and challenge him personally.
An evident expression of this relational legacy is the tribe that a holy man catalyzes. Because he his seeking to make a difference with his life, he does not assume that he can do it alone, and therefore seeks to create a dense network of friends and acquaintances who share in the causes that animate his life and calling. A holy man has a posse. He gathers a following out of the force field of his life and influence. A holy man makes a relational difference.
To lead a team or an effective dense network, requires a holy man who is a savage servant. He exerts leadership over others in a manner that puts others first and returns authority to others. A holy man is deeply committed to the team concept of leadership, organization, and mission. Too many of our contemporary spiritual models of male leadership demonstrate a celebrity-oriented, click-bait-centric, hierarchical structure, accountability-free, hot-headed leadership. Christian media, politics, and publishing tend to reinforce these characteristics. It is not surprising that such a pattern has led to a litany of scandals, abuse, and cover-ups. A holy man is consciously different from these contemporary models of male spiritual leadership. He puts the aims and reputation of others before himself. This is not a posture of passivity but of other-centered purpose.
This is easier to achieve when the person is consciously aware of his own weaknesses. A holy man burns with the fire of a poet and walks with a limp. This means that he must be capable of leading with intuition, be consciously self-aware of failings, and have empathy toward others. A holy man is the kind of person you might easily find in an A.A. meeting. Greek Orthodox saint Elder Porphyrios wrote provocatively, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet. That’s what it is! You must suffer. You must love and suffer—suffer for the one you love.” A holy man has the sensibility of a poet because he has lived a life that knows suffering personally and has not run from it. A holy man speaks poetically and lives with vulnerability. My wife affirms, “Never trust anyone who doesn’t walk with a limp.” A holy man limps.
A holy man burns with the fire of a poet and walks with a limp…A holy man has the sensibility of a poet because he has lived a life that knows suffering personally and has not run from it.
It should be now abundantly apparent that these collective characteristics of a holy man are radically counter-cultural. They are not natural, easy, or common. But intuitively we know that if we ever met such a man, we would see him as a “holy man.” This is also what noble women long for in a spouse, which is well beyond the handsome chiseled stereotypes of Hallmark Christmas movies. A holy man is willing to be different, even weird in this holy-man manner. And yet this holiness does not place him above or separate from the messy brokenness of normal life. He not only appreciates God’s good creation but is also aware of how sin has distorted it. He is not afraid to examine the patterns of sin and idolatry so the he can be sensitive to avoiding them in his own life and have greater empathy toward those who remain victims to these realities. He has the strength of character not to follow the crowd but to assume that in many instance of life he will have to take a lonely courageous stand for truth, goodness, and beauty. A holy man knows how to stand alone for the sake of the broken often in the midst of their brokenness.
He has the strength of character not to follow the crowd but to assume that in many instance of life he will have to take a lonely courageous stand for truth, goodness, and beauty.
These characteristics of being a holy man are not easy, nor is this a comprehensive list. Nor are they uniformly or consistently evident in my own life. But if we are not given a goal to which to aspire, we will often settle for something less. Jesus’ great commission calls us to something more, namely “to faithfully follow all that I have commanded you.” It is to this end that we press on. By maintaining a daily focus on Jesus, a holy man gets out of the way to let God do the transforming. If you focus on being humble, you will never be humble. So too, being a holy man. The key is keeping your gaze on Christ and then and only then will all else come into focus. Lewis concludes Mere Christianity with this sentence, “Look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.” There is a mysterious indirection to live out of the resources of Jesus in the school of life, a self-forgetfulness is required, to better emulate in our life character and love of Jesus Christ.
Men are in trouble. it is a problem that can no longer be ignored. It is also a huge opportunity to meet a deeply felt societal need to counter the lies, reframe the narrative, and to give hope and direction once again to the hopeless and lost. What we see in the life of Jesus is an exciting exemplar of a holy man. It is a life not only that he calls us to, but it is also one that he walks with us. His final reminder to his male crew of disciples was this, “And never forget that I am with you every day, even to the completion of the age.” This is a spiritual adventure worth joining.
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 Colleen Carroll Campbell, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola Press, 2002).
 Jack Brewer, "Fatherlessness and the Effects on American Society," American First Policy Institute, May 15, 2023.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Macmillan, 1952), p. 153.
 Ibid., p. 64-65.
 2 Corinthians 3:14 and Ephesians 6:10 (The Passion Translation).
 Lewis, p. 182.
 Ibid., p. 64.
 Ibid., p. 189, 190.
 Ibid., p. 176.
 James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts (Brazos Press, 2023); Josiah Bunting III, Ulysses S. Grant (Times Books, 2004); Howard Taylor, Hudson Taylor's Spiritual Secret (Moody Publishers, 2009); Winn Collier, A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene Peterson (Random House, 2021). See also Eric Metaxas, Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness (Thomas Nelson, 2015).
 Philippians 3:12 (The Passion Translation).
 Exodus 3:12.
 James D. Bratt, editor. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Eerdmans, 1998), p. 448.
 Bill Johnson, The Way of Life: Experiencing the Culture of Heaven on Earth (Destiny Image Publishers, 2019), p. 16.
 Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Eerdmans, 2011), p. 9.
 Luke 9: 23.
 Sigval M. Berg, Swing: Elite Leadership for High Performance Teams (Whithorn Press, 2022), p. 64.
 See David Brooks, How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen (Random House, 2023) and Steven J. Stein and Howard E. Book, Emotional Intelligence and Your Success (Jossey-Bass,2011).
 Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality (Baker, 2019).
 Matthew 6:33 (The Passion Translation).
 Richard Foster. The Challenge of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex, and Power. Harpers San Francisco, 1989) p. 135.
 Philippians 3:17 (The Passion Translation).
 Philippians 3:20 (The Passion Translation).
 William Perkins, “A Treatise of the Vocations or Callings of Men, with the Sorts and Kinds of Time, and the Right Use Thereof,” The Works of William Perkins (Abington, 1970), p. 446, 455. See also Os Guinness, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (W Publishing Group, 2003).
 Proverbs 13:22, “The benevolent man leaves an inheritance that endures to his children’s children, but the wealth of the wicked is treasured up for the righteous” (The Passion Translation).
 Sigval Berg, The Virtue Proposition
 Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios (Denise Harvey, 2005), p. 107.
 Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 190.
 Matthew 28:20b (The Passion Translation).