What does it mean to be a real man?

Q: What does it mean to be a real man?

A: It sure seems like there’s a checklist of things that make a man—from athletic achievements to how far you’ve gone sexually. And it might leave you feeling like, “You’re really a man when you’ve ______.” I know I’ve felt that way at different times in the past.

In high school, some of my coaches and fellow athletes implied or said outright that sexual prowess and accomplishments on the playing field were crucial aspects of manhood. In college, an evening hook-up which didn’t, shall we say, come to fruition, ended with me doubting everything, from my potential as a relationship partner to my manhood itself. I was also mentoring a teen and was disappointed that I didn’t seem to be making any progress with him at all. Not only was I failing at being a man in the most common ways people think of manhood, but I also couldn’t even express the qualities of a deeper or more spiritual concept of manhood by being an effective mentor and model for this teen.

I really started to doubt my worth as a person, let alone as a man. This all came to a head one evening after another frustrating meeting with my mentee, whose boastful stories of sexual conquest tore the lid off all the repressed anger and frustration within me. Driving home alone, with no one else on the road, I hit the accelerator and headed straight for a massive tree.

And just like that, a hymn I’d learned in the Christian Science Sunday School flooded my thoughts. It’s by the Founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, and it begins: 

Brood o’er us with Thy shelt’ring wing,
’Neath which our spirits blend
Like brother birds, that soar and sing,
And on the same branch bend. 
(Christian Science Hymnal, No. 30

I can still see the scene in my mind’s eye: the tree ahead glowing in the headlights, and then, as that hymn poured into my thoughts like a heavenly chorus, me hitting the brakes and coming to a gentle stop on the grass. That hymn hadn’t ever really stood out to me before, but now I sat there by the side of the road, sobbing as it ran through my head. Could God really be sheltering me, and naming me as one of His precious brood? He must be, since He’d saved me from self-destruction. I gathered my wits enough to continue my drive, and returned to campus safely.

I really started to doubt my worth as a person, let alone as a man.

What I haven’t mentioned up until now are all the wonderful examples of manhood that I did have in my life at that point: my father, some truly excellent coaches, dear friends, and my brother—all of whom, by giving me consistent, thoughtful examples of the goodness of real manhood, were like bright lights in the desert on a moonless night, showing me the way home. The problem was, I kept thinking that I had a whole expanse of self-doubt, failure, and negative models of manhood to battle through first before I could truly find my own satisfaction and self-worth. 

But the saving words of that hymn made me realize that my “brother birds”­—and what they were teaching me about what it really means to be a man—were right with me. And I suddenly got it that manhood wasn’t a destination to be reached through certain experiences. The qualities of real manhood, which have nothing to do with conquests or achievements, were already within me, because they are God-given; they are spiritual qualities such as integrity, unselfishness, and purity. My brother and father and coaches had them, and I had them, because God is also my loving Father, supplying me, His son, with everything I need.

The next few months were a watershed for me in terms of learning to be single-minded about where I looked for definitions of manhood. Mrs. Eddy wrote something really helpful about this in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures: “Do you not hear from all mankind of the imperfect model? The world is holding it before your gaze continually.... 

“To remedy this, we must first turn our gaze in the right direction, and then walk that way. We must form perfect models in thought and look at them continually, or we shall never carve them out in grand and noble lives” (p. 248). I needed to see man as reflecting God’s goodness—as His image and likeness.

The more I kept my gaze on a God-defined model of manhood and excellence, the more I found I just wasn’t interested in other models or expectations.

The more I kept my gaze on a God-defined model of manhood and excellence, the more I found I just wasn’t interested in other models or expectations. I became more humble—not a quality some might associate with manhood, but which I found indispensable in relating to others and in loving myself. I also gained confidence in making new friends, and my focus shifted from what I could get out of relationships and experiences to what I could give. 

I still had some lessons to learn about looking only to God for satisfaction and worthiness, but with this foundation, I felt effectively equipped to approach each day with a spiritualized, unfluctuating sense of manhood—and to bring the qualities of strength, morality, and love into everything I did. I also found that the more I put these qualities into practice, the more they took on new depth and enabled me to be a bigger blessing in all my activities and relationships.

Far from being a checklist of things to attain, manhood is the active honoring of the excellence that God has already created in us as His children. I’m so grateful to have discovered this spiritual sense of manhood as an innate quality to be revealed and honored.

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