Key Steps for Men to Develop a Masculine Identity
I think about the Bible’s story of creation from time to time and wonder how some of Adam and Eve’s choices affect us now. Understanding the differences between men and women in our origins has also been of interest to me.
As a new believer in my 20’s, I was confused by why God pronounced in Genesis 3:16-19 (NIV) that Eve would suffer in child bearing and desire her husband. Adam in turn would have to toil and suffer to produce crops.
My immature faith told me that God was just being harsh and punishing. I didn’t really understand the complete saga portrayed in the Bible of a frustrated creation (Romans 8:21) that God was trying to bring back to “freedom and glory.”
Was there an original plan for men prior to the fall that we need to consider? If there was a certain order that God created relationships, how were they supposed to work prior to the tragic eating of the fruit in Genesis?
Whether the story in Genesis is metaphor or an actual portrayal of what happened is not the focus of this article. I believe that we can learn something about our created intent and the nature of male and female relationship from this story.
We live in a time where the concept of complementary but different roles can’t possibly be equal. The concept of “manhood” is a difficult thing to define in today’s world. Hopefully, the reader will walk away with a new perspective by considering the concepts along with some developmental concepts borrowed from psychology.
Put God before Eve
Going back to Genesis 3, I see two central problems where Adam and Eve went astray. Instead of wanting to be a part of the relational unit of God, Adam, and herself, Eve was tempted to separate herself and be equal to God.
Adam, on the other hand, had one commandment he was responsible for upholding. Instead of taking responsibility for it, he went along with Eve and then later shifted responsibility for his decision.
I now look at God’s curses as a remedy solution to help restore Adam and Eve to their created intent. Eve wanted to be separate, so God bound her over to being relational.
We all understand that going through something hard builds incredible commitment in all kinds of situations ranging from things like joining a fraternity to going through boot camp. None so much as a mother’s commitment to her child after carrying and giving birth. Eve was also given an intense relational desire for her husband. She would become the glue that keeps the family together through these two curses.
Adam, who didn’t want to take responsibility, would now be bound over to responsibility (even to have a meal). He would learn to fulfil his role and that he must put God first before Eve. In other words, Adam was not created to primarily depend on Eve for strength. He was to depend on God first for direction and identity. By following Eve, he abdicated both his responsibility and identity. It caused problems back then, and as we will see in this article, it causes problems now in the establishment of masculine identity.
In his book, Shame and Attachment Loss, psychologist Joseph Nicolosi views masculine identity as something that is acquired from a developmental jump that starts very early in childhood. Nicolosi differentiates the difference between being genetically male versus psychologically feeling masculine.
To feel masculine on the inside, he argued that boys go through a different developmental process than girls. Both boys and girls start their lives being bonded to their mother, but around 6-18 months of age their needs are different.
As boys become mobile and venture out under their own power, they need their mother to both let them go and also receive them back warmly. They also need a male attachment figure that they can be received by and learn about the world of all things male. This process of the mother securely letting the boy go and the father warmly receiving the boy is thought to become the foundation for secure masculinity.
When a young boy is not able to make the developmental jump described above, he experiences shame and learns to detach from his masculine strivings. If there is no male acceptance and mom can’t securely let him separate, it becomes more comfortable to return to the mother bond.
In the Bible, I have always thought the childhood of Jacob fits this model well. In Genesis 26:27-28 (NIV) it reads, “the boys grew up and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” In other words, Jacob was rejected by his father and clung to his mother.
As the story proceeded, Jacob in his striving for identity stole both his brother’s birthright and blessing as firstborn. Like many of us, Jacob attempted to seize his identity without reliance on God. He sought an outward solution for an inward problem. Through his later trials God taught him to seek Him first. He ultimately wrestled with an angel and sought God’s blessing directly (Genesis 32;26, NIV).
This is the first step all men need to take (minus the angel wrestling) to establish an inner sense of masculinity. God being the source of acceptance and blessings is the anchor for the masculine soul. This was the lesson that was lost on Adam.
Men don’t learn how to be men in a vacuum. Boys need teachers and mentors who ultimately point them toward a relationship with God. By around age three, little boys will often follow their fathers around to see what they do. I remember one of my sons putting shaving cream all over his face and shaving with a toothbrush because he wanted to be like me. He was learning about being a man.
This was probably easier in preindustrial societies where little boys literally would go off to work with their fathers and learn about manhood. If dad was a farmer, they would go learn farming with him. In modern societies, where people moved to cities, fathers would go work in factories. The young boy would stay at home with his mother and he would have no idea what dad did all day.
I remember my father often being too tired to interact with me when he got home from work. While I did get some acceptance and training through coaches and teachers growing up, I was largely left to my own devices to figure out manhood. Heroes portrayed in movies or comic books are what I fantasized being because I couldn’t figure it out in reality.
In his ground-breaking book about the masculine soul, Wild at Heart, John Eldridge says the central questions that linger in the heart of masculine identity are: “Am I strong enough and do I have what it takes?”
Interestingly, answers to both of these questions trace back to the original task of Adam taking responsibility. Men need affirmation and encouragement that they have the “salt” to achieve life tasks, such as building a career, managing a marriage, sacrificing for a family, and contributing to the world.
Hebrews 12:7 (NIV) reads, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father.” This passage refers to the father template. Paul is directing the readers to use their experience from their earthly father to help make sense of how God works in their life.
It may be easier to make this jump if a man had a present, loving father in his life when he was a boy. When he doesn’t, he has many more gaps to fill in as an adult. Years ago, I remember counseling a father and son with their relationship problems. I asked the father, “Do you think your relationship with your father has bearing on difficulties with your son?”
The father immediately answered, “No, I never knew my father, I was raised by my grandmother.” The challenge this father had was he had been passively “disciplined” by his father. There were things he needed from a father relationship that he never knew he needed. It wasn’t until things were brought to a head with his own son that he learned to recognize the wound.
Learning to cultivate peer and mentor relationships with other men is often the beginning of creating the capacity for a “fathering” relationship with God. Masculine needs that were not supplied early in life can be recaptured as an adult if the man is in search of it. Proverbs 27:17 reads, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens the countenance of his friend” (AMP).
Woman as a Mystery
Proverbs 30:18-19 reads, “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the seas, and the way of a man with a young woman” (NIV).
Our attraction to the opposite sex is a mystery. Intuitively, the drive to bond with the opposite sex seems so much more that reproduction. In Ephesians 5:31-32, Paul describes the “one flesh” relationship between a husband and wife as emulating Christ’s relationship with the church. A reciprocal pattern of sacrifice and submission to each other is the model God sets for marriage. I suspect it is also a tool that God uses to teach us about oneness with Him.
It is important that a boy leaves childhood with a secure sense of masculinity because at puberty our sex drive is turned on. We are sexually attracted to what is mysterious to us. It is as if our sex drive seeks out a complementary opposite to bond. A secure man knows who he is and feels comfortable in his masculinity and can safely pursue his opposite.
Men that have trouble with commitment in relationships often had trouble in their developmental jump. They feel an unstable sense of masculinity and fear being re-engulfed in their “mother” relationship by attaching to a woman.
I have seen many marriage relationships where the husband avoids masculine traits, which leaves his wife with the burden of supplying both. Frequently, the woman in this situation is insecure and angry that she has to “carry” the relationship and home life.
Considering man and woman’s origin as described in the Bible can provide a sense of God’s created intent for man and woman’s identity. Learning to embrace masculine traits and how to balance them against female traits is a process that starts in childhood.
Feeling stuck or uncertain on how to embrace one’s gendered sense of self could be worth talking about with a professional Christian counselor. Signs of masculine insecurity may include: failure to achieve goals, unable to commit to a relationship, lack of confidence, self-centeredness, addictions and a other narcissist personality traits.
It is okay to be separate and different from a woman in your masculinity. Learning to put God first, make the developmental jump, and fill in the wounds can make a huge difference in what you have to offer the opposite sex.
“Conquer,” courtesy of Joseph Pearson, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Take a sip,” courtesy of Tanja Heffner, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Rugby time,” courtesy of Quino Al, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Rhythms in Blue,” courtesy of Stephen Cook, unsplash.com, CC0 License