Remember Whose You Are: Some Thoughts for Men and Young Men

“Remember whose you are,” my mother would say as I ran out the door. This was regularly the last thing I heard as I left our house to pursue my plans with neighborhood friends or when I was dropped off at school or later, when I would drive off to an athletic practice. As a little boy, I thought that my parents wanted to remind me that I belonged to the Travers family; to make them proud of me. Later, I came to understand that they meant to remind me of a more vital relationship. They were trying to instill in me a recognition that, as a child of God, I am not my own; I have been “bought with a price;” I belong to my heavenly Father.

There is a lot of discussion today about male identity. There are many books, conferences, seminars, even men’s “movements.” Men are being told that they need to be “Promise Keepers” and that they are “Wild at Heart.” Christian sports personalities seek to motivate men with titles like: “The Home Field Advantage,” “4th and Goal,” and “Through the Eyes of a Champion.” In a similar motivational effort, men are likened to soldiers, but told that they are to be “Tender Warrior(s).”

Men are provided with all these great and well-intentioned resources seeking to help them figure out who they are as men. But recently, I have been considering that the daily counsel of my parents might contain a better strategy: “Remember Whose You Are.”

Perhaps we ought not to be seeking to understand and define ourselves first in terms of our gender traits, characteristics, personality, male roles, or ideas about manhood and manliness. Perhaps the most significant way in which to understand ourselves and to be defined as men is in the context of our core relationships. In other words, not “Who am I?” but “Whose am I?”

“Man of God”

I have a friend named Jeff Young who has been greeting me for twenty years with the same phrase. Every time Jeff sees me he says, “Man of God” and shakes my hand. Perhaps without knowing it, his appellation for me is a constant reminder and affirmation of this truth of whose I am. And without exaggerating, I can testify that I have seen Jeff give this same encouragement to hundreds of other boys and men. He has contributed greatly to teaching us all the important truth of Christian manhood. He has reminded us of Whose we are.

Peter Pan Syndrome: Boys Don’t Want to Become Men

In our culture, I think that boys don’t want to become men anymore. When I say that they don’t want to become men, I mean that they don’t desire to be men as God designed them to be. For the most part, they don’t even know what that is. Of course, there is the developmental drive within us to “grow up.” But that is shaped, or should I say, misshapen by the sinful nature and other corrupt and corrupting influences. This results in an incorrect, un-Biblical view of maturity, of manhood and manliness.

In American culture, boys wrongly equate manhood with athletic prowess; sexual conquest; the ability to provide materially (at best) or the accumulation of “toys” (at worst); emotional distance and detachment; self-reliance and self-sufficiency; independence from family obligations; drinking age; the approval/affirmation of others; getting finished with formal education; and career progress/success, to name a few things.

I don’t think that boys alone are to be blamed for these wrong notions. Our culture teaches them these things, and purposely or unwittingly, we also teach them these things. Our educational system sets the stage for it; our sports fixation feeds it; our culture of amusement/entertainment drives it; a society which provides more and more resources that satisfy the desire for instant gratification propels it. And even the culture of the church can contribute to it.

In Family-Based Youth Ministry, Mark DeVries writes, “It might be hoped that churches would stand in the gap and provide an environment in which children and youth could dialogue and collaborate with adults. But sadly enough, for many teenagers, the place they are most segregated from the world of adults is their church. And churches with the more ‘successful’ youth programs seem to particularly exacerbate this problem.” He continues, “Most ‘successful’ youth ministries have their own youth Sunday school, youth missions, youth small groups, youth evangelism teams, youth worship, youth budget, youth interns, youth committees, youth offering, youth Bible studies, youth ‘elders’ (never did understand that one), youth centers, youth choir, youth rooms, youth discipleship programs, youth conferences, youth retreats, youth fundraisers and (my personal favorite) youth ministers.” Looking at it from this point of view, one must consider whether our well-meaning efforts in children’s and youth ministry have sometimes unintentionally served to perpetuate a youth culture within the church rather than providing avenues for young people to develop into mature members of the Body of Christ. If Peter Pan can remain in Neverland, he doesn’t ever have to grow up.

God Designed Us to be Like Himself; God Designed Men to be Fathers and Sons

Is a boy’s/man’s identity to be understood first and foremost as a promise-keeper? As one who is “wild at heart”? As a warrior? Are sports metaphors the best pathway to developing a Biblical understanding of what it means to be a man? I am not saying that these other analogies cannot be meaningful or beneficial. Sports and soldier analogies are even used to some degree by the apostle Paul. What I am suggesting is that there can be potential danger in beginning with man and how we perceive ourselves, as opposed to Biblical revelation that begins with how God has designed us.

As I mentioned before, when I say that boys don’t want to become men, I mean that they don’t want to become men as God designed them to be. God designed us to be like Himself. He said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…” (Gen. 1:26a). Like Himself, God designed humanity to be relational (Gen. 2:18). Made in the image of God, men are designed by God to be fathers and sons (Jn. 17:5). The creation mandate – the first command (Gen. 1:28) – makes this very clear. There can be no fruitfulness or multiplication without men being fathers and sons.

God designed that a man’s identity would be shaped within the context of his relationship to his earthly father and to his heavenly Father.

A boy gains his first insights into manhood – good or bad – in relationship to his father. This has been a healthy part of many cultures historically, and is currently. In most cultures, men are identified by their father’s name. Many surnames still give evidence of the ancient tradition of deriving a surname from the given name of the father: Simon Bar-jonah (Bar- “son of”); McDonald (Mc – “son of”); Johnson (“John’s son”); Ben-Hur (“Son of Hur”). Many cultures have had, and some still maintain, traditional rites of manhood. Gordon Dalbey gives the example of the Nigerian Ibo tribe in which fathers, in a special ritual along with the rest of the tribal men, call their sons out of the hut of their mothers to live in the dwellings of their father as a “son of our people.” This ritual usually takes place during puberty. Jewish boys are welcomed into the community of men at thirteen years of age in the “barmitzva,” meaning “son of the law.” Often boys were expected to “follow in the footsteps” of their fathers in their careers and were apprenticed in their father’s trade. Jesus Himself was known as “the carpenter’s son” and also as “the carpenter."

Of course, in a world that operates under the law of sin and death, this too can be corrupted. Take American culture for example. In his nationally-syndicated column several years ago, George Will cited the statistic that 33% of all children born in the United States are born outside the bonds of marriage. He went on to reveal that the number rises to 69% in the African-American community. Will also stated that “family disintegration, meaning absent fathers, is recognized as the most powerful predictor of most social pathologies” (i.e. criminal activity, addiction, abusive behavior, sexual perversity and abuse, delinquency, etc.). The U.S. boasts the highest divorce rate in the world, according to most accounts, nearing sixty percent. What’s more, George Barna’s research indicates that the divorce rate among “evangelical Christians” is now several percent higher than the surrounding culture.

“Fatherhood Must Be at the Core of the Universe”

In the preface to his anthology of readings from George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis writes, “We have learned from Freud and others about those distortions in character and errors in thought which result from a man’s early conflicts with his father. Far the most important thing we can know about George MacDonald is that his whole life illustrates the opposite process. An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of Father and Son is of all relations the most central.”

I have asserted that God designed us to be like Himself, and that He designed men to be fathers and sons. But because of sin, the image of God is marred in mankind, and that corruption negatively affects our relationships and our concept of ourselves as fathers and sons. As a result, all too often in our culture, boys don’t revere their fathers; boys don’t appreciate being sons; boys don’t aspire to be fathers.

Yet, it is within the context of the relationship between God the Father and God the Son that God reveals and fulfills His plan to redeem fallen man (John 14:6, 7a). God has promised to redeem and restore His creation and has begun that work through His Son in His righteous life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection. In Christ, God has undertaken the restoration of broken relationships – men’s broken relationships with Himself and with each other – through His redeemed people. This plan is revealed in some strikingly important verses of Scripture where, once again, the relationship between father and child has a central place.

Verses 4 and 5 of Malachi chapter 4 contain the final message from God in the Old Testament: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” After four hundred years of silence, the first message from God in the New Testament is found in Luke chapter 1. In this message of God to the future father of John the Baptist, the priest Zechariah, we read: “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Clearly the angel Gabriel was quoting the prophecy of Malachi. Here we see that the turning of fathers and children’s hearts toward one another is a key element in “making ready a people prepared for the Lord” – prepared in anticipation of “that great and dreadful day of the Lord” – a good description of the preparation of the Church for the day when Christ returns as our Judge.

When Lewis said that George MacDonald had learned that “Fatherhood is at the core of the universe,” he meant the Fatherhood of God. But from these important passages of Scripture, we can see the parallel importance of earthly fatherhood in the plans of our heavenly Father. God made us for relationship with Himself and with each other. His design for that “society” begins with the family. The roles within the family for which men are designed are the roles of fathers and sons. In addition to this fundamental design, God has revealed that the familial relationship of fathers (parents) and children has a critical role in His “kingdom” purposes. It is in these foundational relationships and in these foundational purposes that our identity is grounded. The dynamic relationship between God’s design for the earthly family and God’s purposes for the spiritual family of God affirms that the key to “who we are” is “Whose We Are.

Some Summarizing Thoughts for Consideration

It is in relationship to his earthly father that a boy first gains insight into his identity as a man.

It is in relationship to God the Father through God the Son that men come to understand themselves as sons of God.

It is in the turning of the fathers’ hearts to their children and the turning of children’s hearts to their fathers that God makes ready a people prepared for Himself.

A Christian father is a key to establishing the identity of his son as a man and as a child of God.

For a Christian young man, his identity as a man must be grounded in his identity as a son (at least spiritual sonship) and his admiration of fatherhood (at least the Fatherhood of God).