Updated: Jul 5
“It’s easier to bleed than to sweat.” - Flannery O’Connor
I was reminded last night that boys don't become men on their own. Not that I didn’t know this already; but I think we often just assume that it happens naturally, organically—boys grow into men—and we don’t think too much more about it.
Boys do grow naturally; their bodies change; their jaws square up, and they start to look more and more masculine; their facial hair comes in and their voices change…but there are plenty of overgrown boys walking around with square jaws, facial hair, full-time jobs, and kids of their own.
But just because a boy grows older doesn’t mean he becomes a man. He may gain stature and skill; he may grow physically strong, and look intimidating. He may look masculine, bare a thick beard, and have a large muscular build, but that doesn’t mean he's become a man of character. A male may give off the physical traits of masculinity while lacking the internal foundation of manly character. Real men of character have to cultivate true masculinity, personal virtue, and sturdy character.
As O’Connor said, “It is easier to bleed than to sweat.” Cut any male and blood comes out; but, fewer men bleed character. Character demands work and intentionality; and that type of work is demands endurance, consistency, humility, injury, and discipline. Becoming a man of character demands sweat.
What the world needs most is not men who possess certain worldly skills, nor men who are just strong brutes. What the world needs most is men who possess a strong, virtuous character. C.S. Lewis called these ”men with chests” and talked of how a virtuous man is one who has “tidied up and harmonized the things inside him.”
Chase Replogle notes, “The best sailor is not the man with the best ship; it's the man who understands his ship best and the tactics necessary to get the ship safely to its proper destination.”
In other words, being manly is not about being the strongest, the hairiest, the burliest, or the best looking. Being manly is about having a good command of yourself; being manly is about being a man of sturdy character.
Are We Turning Boys into Men?
When we assume that boys naturally become men, we set ourselves up for failure because we allows ourselves to step out to the process. But not only do boys not become men on their own, when we leave them to themselves they turn inward or they turn to one another. Boys without men to shape and guide them rarely become men themselves. Boys grow, but boys rarely mature alone.
Boys need strong, masculine, godly men — they need men of strong character. In fact, boys need a community of such men to watch, learn from, and imitate. They need men who will encourage, guide, correct, and rebuke them.
“When we fail to teach men how to grow in character, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover they lack it.” - Replogle.
Being a man of character is not age related. Growing boys certainly cannot be expected to possess a fully formed masculine character and must be given grace and time to develop it. But, just because a man is old and gray, and carries with him a lifetimes of experiences, does not mean he is certainly a man of character. Masculine character is about learning to balance instinct and drive, it is about taming the inner man, and striving toward true virtue. Character is about strength and power under control. As Lewis said, it is about harmonizing all that is inside.
In his book, “The Abolition of Man,” Lewis makes the case plain, “The great tragi-comedy of our day is that we continue to clamor for the very [manly] qualities that we are rendering impossible. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
When Lewis says, "We make men without chests," he's referring to men without the moral organs for right action and strong character. Men who lack the knowledge of right and wrong, men who fail to love what is good and oppose what is bad.
Lewis was arguing that we have lost the very thing that makes men manly; that causes boys to grow into men of character.
In many ways, this is what we're doing to an entire generation of boys. We're destroying the foundations of true manhood while expecting our boys to become virtuous men.
Boys become men of character as they are formed and forged into such men. Boys need strong men of godly virtue and sturdy character to mold them and shape them. They need men with chests to help them develop their own.
Boys feel all sorts of things; they have all manner of emotions and feelings; they have testosterone pumping through their bodies and they grow, test the limits, and find their place in the world. And "while the nature of emotional responses is partly visceral and automatic, a man’s sentiments also have to be intentionally educated in order to be congruent with nature and the world."
"St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. . . . Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting and hateful."
Boys must be made into men. They must be taught what is truly pleasing, worthy of affection, what truly repulses, and what they ought to hate.
A Lesson from the Old World
Replogle takes a lesson from the Jewish Bar-mitzvah. The phrase itself means, “Son of the commandment.” When a Jewish boy reaches his thirteenth birthday, the family celebrates with a Bar-mitzvah where the boy becomes a man. He does this by submitting himself to the Law of God; literally becoming a son of the commandment.
We might think 13 is a bit young for a boy to transition to manhood, but such thinking misses the heart of the ceremony. The 13-year-old Jewish boy does not become a man because of his Bar-Mitzvah. Rather, the ceremony is about the boy recognizing his calling to manhood and submitting himself to the moral work of being and becoming a man.
The Bar-mitzvah, while a day of celebration, is also a day of great weightiness for the boy. His transition into manhood is “one of accountability and submission to God. He takes on the work of self-awareness and personal attentiveness.”
The world needs strong chested men. Not men who can bench-press lots of weight, but men who have the moral fortitude and godly virtue to harmonize their inner selves; men who live upright, self-controlled, morally stable, godly, and unwavering lives. Men who love what is good, stand for what is right, oppose what is wrong, and who teach boys how to do the same.
Boys need men to do this.
Women need men to do this.
Little girls need men to do this.
Men need men to do this.
“This is the great irony…in our current day. We have lost the ancient ways by which we taught men to like and dislike what they ought—not a question of hobbies and recreation, but of morality and purpose. We have lost the path by which we lead men to become better. We have demanded proper behavior while laughing at the idea of morality. We have become experts at deconstructing moral responsibility. We roll our eyes when others talk of virtue, character, and honor. 'How naive. How old fashioned.' Yet, we expect men to possess those very traits we now call out-of-date. We teach [men] to indulge what they feel and expect them to somehow rise above it.” - Replogle.
The ancient Romans defined manliness as “living a life of virtue.” For the Greeks, manliness meant living a life of human flourishing, and seeing to it that others flourished as well.
Brett McKay combines these ideas defining manliness as, “striving for excellence and virtue in all areas of your life, fulfilling your potential as a man, and being the absolute best son, brother, friend, husband, father and citizen you can be. This mission is fulfilled by the cultivation of manly virtues like:
These, he says, are the virtues of manliness. And he’s right.
We should add to these qualities of manliness those we see in Scripture:
Strength under control
True manliness is not only a good and virtuous thing, it is a compelling way of life.
Boys need a compelling vision of manhood to inspire and challenge them. Boys need men to make them into men. Manliness is a biblical truth and a gift from God. And given the state of our world, and the state of our men, we need more men of character.
We need strong-chested men.