Does nice equal good? Does strong equal toxic? Commiseration is a drink that intoxicates quickly, yet we must weep with those who weep. Am I a man? Am I strong? What am I, and where is my place? What is the nature of masculine strength?
It can’t be of muscles; my arms are twigs. It can’t be of sports; what an old wound that is. It can’t be of humor, marriage, children, or church leadership, because I have seen weak men with all these things, in all these places.
So, then, where have I seen masculine strength?
I see masculine strength in the icy sharp, childlike eyes of my brother when he decided to climb down that concave cliff of jagged rocks, forsaking reason and comfort, something this quiet and subdued man never would have done. But in that moment his eyes lit up, and he was dangerous.
I feel masculine strength in my brother as he held me and repeated “I love you” while I sobbed in misery over hurtful words I had said to him, knowing his spirit had been wrenched in two by me — yet he chose to hold me.
I see masculine strength in my coworker: a kind, older man who plays a church bell over the intercom every morning to signal everyone to take five prayer-laps around the workspace, stopping people, and praying with them as they pass him.
I see masculine strength in the glittering eyes of my young cousin who has grown up out of place, adopted, yet exuding a furious joy as he awkwardly dances in the children’s choir or excitedly holds up a crustacean he found wading in the creek.
I see masculine strength in my brother as he leans in while I talk to him, seeing the heaviness of my heart. And I see it also when he tells me he has to go and can’t talk right now, but that he loves me.
I am starting to see masculine strength in myself again, after a long and arduous journey. I saw it when I led that worship song at the wedding. An old friend with whom I’ve just recently and finally reconciled after three years of bitter fighting had said whenever that song played, he always thought of me.
As he watched me sing it, I was reminded of the strength it took to sit down with him and our mutual friend for six hours and finally untangle the convoluted mess that had become our relationship, the strength it took to make a group chat with those two so we’d be held accountable to honesty without spite.
The song is “The Blessing,” and I sang it with my music stand unintentionally directly facing another brother with whom I haven’t spoken in three years, the first man who truly saw me, now a stranger in the third row. I sang a blessing over him while my other brother spoke his wedding vows, tears of joy and mourning streaming down my face in worship.
In that moment I felt strong. I felt strong at the reception as I danced wildly on the nearly empty dance floor, dancing so hard I broke the heel off my shoe (no joke).
When I look back at the past year, filled with more dashed hopes than I could have dreamed up, I am beginning to see strength where I thought there was only weakness, but the strength is not mine.
I only began to see such strength when I did something very specific: I fasted.
I fell on the ground, the bread and wine before me, and took communion, the bitter wine stinging my throat, the salty flatbread parching it further. After communion I went to work, my stomach growling, a throbbing headache clouding me.
I was bitter, furious at the community around me. I had reached out the day prior, as many others had done, and asked for prayer, outlining many of my current woes. I was losing my job, and my father’s health was failing, along with the health of both my grandfathers.
I was also recovering from a terrible case of coronavirus, my body left weaker than ever, my lungs struggling to take full breaths, the news that I’d be losing my job coming while I was quarantined at home, barely able to move without severe joint and muscle pain. I had the worst earache ever, like a knife in my drum, causing me to cry with pain, something I’d not done since childhood.
I was being forced to move from the community of whom I’d been a part for the past five years, filled with a complete lack of sleep due to the pain and several unspoken prayers.
I told my community all these things, and the next day when I had to go home early because of the pain, I discovered the Christian men who surround me, many of whom are my elders and in positions of leadership over me, made fun of me as soon as I left. They said I’d gone home because it was too loud. They started yelling across the room at each other to quiet down, mocking something I’d never even said. I just took more ibuprofen and stayed quiet, wincing every time someone shouted.
This was masculine weakness. These were not men; these were children. And though I’d asked only a few hours before, I would find no comfort in them. They did not know how to give such comfort; my sorrow made them uncomfortable. All these men knew to do was complain, belittle, jab, and on rare occasions “pick up the slack” begrudgingly, saying nice Jesus-filled words to everyone in front of the whole department, a smile on their faces and a tear in their eye.
Did management know that besides those nice words, nothing kind ever crossed their lips? Why was I being let go and not them?
I took my five laps around the workplace, praying. A bitter hatred bubbled up in me. My mind raced. Soon, I found my close brother beside me.
“I feel like I’m a tornado,” I told him. “A big, crazy, stormy wind, and everyone around me is carrying these fragile idols. They’re clinging to them tightly because the winds that come with me will shatter them. So, they’re afraid of me and hate me because I’ll break what’s precious to them, and so they cling tighter to their idols.”
My brother nodded. Hours passed, and I found myself on a balcony. I opened my Bible to a random page and read these words:
“When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you! The wind will carry them all off, a breath will take them away. But he who takes refuge in me shall possess the land and shall inherit my holy mountain.”
Isaiah 57:13 (ESV)
I was completely floored, my mouth open, tears forming in my eyes. The Lord of the universe had affirmed me verbally, saying to me what I had just spoken to my brother nearly word for word, telling me I had been correct and had not spoken out of arrogance and pride (the instant thoughts in my mind when I spoke positive words about myself).
The next chapter is Isaiah 58, which I know well. It’s about true and false fasting. It condemns those who fast while oppressing their workers, and I thought of my friend who I had lashed out against earlier. Isaiah 58 says to bring the homeless into your home, cover the naked, and share your bread with the hungry.
I knew the rules for fasting. I was to comb my hair and wash my face, and not let my fasting be seen by others.
A small fire of excitement sparked in my chest. This was a challenge, a challenge I knew would be tested, and like a fierce game of Mario Kart I would need to stay focused. I went back to my workstation and apologized to my friend, explaining that I held nothing against him and my anger should not have been put on him.
The rest of my fast I felt filled with an unbreakable joy. I looked at my eyes in the mirror and finally saw light returning to them. I felt like myself again.
That Saturday night I found myself praying over a frail old Asian man in a wheelchair, surrounded by his family. He was hooked up to an oxygen tank, gasping for breath after every labored word, but I saw strength in his eyes — the masculine strength I longed to see in the men around me.
As I tried to think about what to say, my voice caught in my throat as I thought about my fast. “Lord, this man is fasting,” I prayed. “His body is worn from his own fast. He is fasting from his very physical health, his wellbeing, comfort, and rest. But I see his love for you and I feel it in the depths of his soul. I am inspired by him. My soul is rejoicing, and I honor my elder in whom I see such unwavering strength. He is in complete faith, and in spite of his weakness, he has never loved you more.”
I spoke this of myself and the old man. The man raised his hands and nodded fervently, a raspy “Yes, Lord!” breaking his lips as tears rolled down his face and mine. After I said amen this man lifted his hands again and began praying for me and my workplace, gasping for air between each breath.
A pillar of masculine strength in a wheelchair, tears in his eyes.
This moment changed my life. I began to see suffering differently — not as a hinderance, but a fast, and I know the rules for fasting. The rules also command lamenting, mourning, and weeping.
My suffering, my fast, currently, is one from strong men, older men who see me, a supportive community, and people who understand me. These are the things I must go without for now.
When my perspective changed I expected to feel desolate and alone; instead I felt El Roi — the God who sees me, named so first by Hagar as she wandered alone, cast out in the barren wilderness.
In my hurt and longing, I have two responses. One is weak, toxic; the other is strong. One response is to complain, to bitterly replay my wounds and hold tightly to them, because it is those people who have hurt me, and I deserve justice. This is what I have seen many around me doing, and this is what I had been doing.
I always find company when I commiserate. But the lonelier road is the second response: thankfulness. If I feel a longing, a hurt, a wrong done unto me, then it proves an objective goodness in the world; otherwise, I have no right to feel hurt.
I remember then, through my hurt, that I know the name of that objective goodness: I Am, El Roi.
And so my heart begins to overflow, because He is is not what so many others have been, and in Him is everything for which I am longing; in fact, it has been Him I have been longing for the whole time. No good thing I seek comes from anywhere else. He is the source of it all.
This doesn’t make the pain go away, but it funnels the pain, directs it upward.
“Oh, Abba, I mourn because your spirit has been cut off here. It is an offense against you, not me. May your goodness root in me and overflow, overcome these evils. I release my bitterness toward these people, seeing that their anger, their vile deeds are also a longing for you, as all creation groans for you. Come quickly.”
I get up, dust myself off, and go about my day, dancing, looking people in the eyes, and looking for options to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and break the yoke of wickedness. All the same frustrations are there, but now I am releasing them upward instead of holding them within myself and letting them fester.
And in case you have misheard me, I am not saying just to do kind things instead of remain sad. I’m saying do both, and in secret, without complaining to others.
My brothers, this is what I believe masculine strength looks like. It is not fighting to be and do and succeed, or tearing others down to take power from them. Masculine strength is surrendering, body, mind, and spirit to God. Recognizing His power.
It is weeping, questioning Him (Lord knows I’ve yelled at Him a lot the past month), and looking everywhere for His response, because He answers when we ask with all of our hearts. This is the only way I have come to think of myself not as a weak man, but a strong one. This has begun to show me the difference between toxic masculinity and true masculinity.
Lord, I pray my brothers and I would come to know how to turn our gaze upward. Show us how to stop harboring what we have been harboring for so long; it is poisoning us. Help us release it to you.
Give me and my brothers people to weep alongside, but also push us not to get lost in commiseration. I pray we process the pain with a plan, and then lay it at your feet. Thank you for tearing the veil so we can actually do this. Thank you for hearing me as I type this, and hearing my brother as he reads this.
Where two or more are gathered, you are there. You are here in this instant speaking to me and my brother. You are repeating, “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you.”
May we learn how to receive your love gratefully. May we open ourselves up. May we have grace on those who have hurt us. Thank you, Abba. Thank you for teaching me and not leaving me alone. Thank you for my brothers.
When have you witnessed or experienced masculine strength? And how have you responded to masculine weakness?