A well-known politician received some press earlier this week for seeming to have looked at pornography, though he denies it. I am bothered by this story, but probably not in the way I am supposed to be bothered by it.
When I was an undergraduate, there was a weekly men’s (boy’s?) group on campus. It wasn’t really a Bible study or prayer group but more like a support group for men striving to live “righteously”, some might say. I did not attend, mainly because I did not fit the athlete-heavy makeup of the group.
I do not fully know what occurred in these meetings, but I do remember how other non-participating (jealous?) students around me caricatured the men’s group with an exaggerated but probably not wholly untruthful version of what took place: young men weeping together, confessing to one another things like “I had sex with my girlfriend AGAIN…and I really want to stop” (since sex is naughty, obviously). But then these repentant men remembered that sex feels nice (not that I had any clue) and so continued to do it. Which worked well for the perpetuity of the group, because then they had something of which to repent at the next week’s gathering. A common enemy over which to connect.
Camaraderie is important. But there are more worthy adversaries for Christian men than unclothed or yoga-pants-wearing women alone, right?
I think it’s important to talk about sin. But my perception, certainly too oversimplified to capture the nuances and diversity of actual Christians, is that conservative Christian men’s groups talk about what they deem sexual sin more than anything else and that liberal Christian men’s groups don’t talk much about personal sin at all, perhaps finding sin language oppressive and irrelevant, other than as a way of identifying systemic evils. If this is actually the case, I think it’s a shame, in both instances.
Most Christian men’s groups probably do not actually confess sin in the way that this college group did at my alma mater. I assume most such groups discuss matters more safely, maybe discussing Scripture or a book, or talking about their shortcomings in a more abstract kind of way, confessing that they are “the worst of sinners” but avoiding the kind of specificity that could facilitate more substantial growth. Or maybe men in these groups admit some weakness with comments like “I’ve got a lot on my plate at work,” sharing a legitimate burden (though in some cases verging on braggadocio) but not necessarily a personal flaw.
I would like to be in a group that is truly vulnerable, beyond superficial admissions or safe, sub-culturally acceptable topics (like “lust” in a young Christian men’s group). A group that is probably mixed-gender, to remind the male participants that sin runs deeper than sexual oopsies and that women should not be patronizingly deemed “the enemy.” A group that is willing to be specific, believing that specificity is a more fruitful path to real transformation, even if it takes guts.
There are other sins that deserve our attention, several examples of which come to mind. Christian men, do you see any of these in yourself?
- Cowardice. Are you too much of a coward to talk to the person who upset you and so you just talk about them with others, seeking to convince yourself of your superiority to this person and rally others to your cause?
- Chauvinism. Do you demean the women in your life by interrupting them more than you interrupt men, criticizing women for being angry while excusing men for their anger, excluding women from certain activities or possibilities simply because of their gender?
- Hubris. When exposed for a gap in your thinking, are you unwilling to say “thanks for helping me see things in a new or clearer way,” preferring instead to feign knowledge, either acting like you knew the whole time, or fighting off outside points of view because they threaten your belief in your self-sufficiency and the goodness of your current perspective?
- Indifference. Are you thoughtless about your wastefulness and unwilling to learn more about how your buying habits affect the earth because you are not willing to make the necessary changes to your lifestyle that may not be optional but crucial for our survival and which often most harm the most vulnerable in our world?
- Prejudice. Are you prejudiced toward other races and nationalities or do you benefit, if you are white, simply from being white, but scared to really examine yourself to root out such prejudices, because you believe yourself to a be nice guy and the possibility of your complicit racism does not mesh well with your current self-perception?
- Anxiety-ridden bullying. Do you bully people because you think you are invincible and that it is a sign of strength to push people around, behavior which might actually be masking some deeper anxieties within you?
- Jealousy. Are you terrified that other people’s successes indicate that you might be a failure, and so you resent others when they succeed at something, coming even to wish for their downfall so that you can feel better about yourself?
- Control. Do you get angry when you cannot successfully control and manipulate others and so react strongly—either with loud exclamations or silent brooding—when you feel you are losing such control?
- Neediness. Despite your image of rugged manliness, are you actually quite needy in a way that turns a healthy instinct—your desire for companionship and connection—into an anxious and oppressive one, where you lash out at others in overt and subtle ways when you feel ignored by them?
- Armchair criticism. Are you bothered by the problems you see around you but unwilling to actually do anything constructive to be a part of the solution, preferring self-righteous critique of the problem or of the “flawed” ways others are actively trying to be a part of the solution?
We risk shame and humiliation in exposing our secret vices, yes. We risk viciousness and mistreatment of others in pretending they do not exist.
Christian men, there are many more subtle and insidious forces at work within us, beyond our sexual urges, that harm us and the people with whom our lives intersect. Forces that keep all of us from flourishing, from wholeness, from freedom. Let’s muster the courage to name those, too, since our flaws do not just hurt us or our relationship with God. They also hurt other people.