A great deal has been written about the decline of men and masculinity: falling marriage rates, falling birthrates, falling testosterone levels, combined with staggering numbers of suicides, substance abuse, crime, and incarceration – the destruction of manhood would seem to be almost complete.
We can point to many causes, and the causes are almost certainly in many cases mutually reinforcing. Lack of physical labor or activity leads to falling testosterone levels, and falling testosterone levels leads to depression, anxiety, and lack of activity. Lack of moral and spiritual formation, standards, and goals leads to spiritual and moral apathy, lethargy, and intemperance, which reinforces lack of physical activity and anxiety. Lack of role models, fathers in the home, ubiquitous porn, and a constant barrage of lies in every form of entertainment discourages moral formation, encourages depression, and lack of activity. And the cycles go on and on.
While this situation surely effects both young men and women, the particular damage being done to young men seems disastrous. While a young woman may face this world as a single mom or navigating unhealthy relationships, many women manage to carve out a space of relative stability in society, even if less than ideal. But the societal destruction that results from the mass decline of stable and productive men has been catastrophic.
Coming of Age Crisis
Many people have noted that a woman comes to maturity biologically. While this certainly doesn’t guarantee moral, spiritual, or intellectual maturity, a woman’s body signals maturity through her menstrual cycle. This recurring reality reminds a woman that she is a woman, and that her body was created to bear children, that she was made for motherhood. This complex biological, hormonal, and emotional cocktail reinforces maternal instincts, desires to make a home, to marry, to conceive and nurture children. This is central to her crisis, her uniquely feminine struggle, her great battle. Whatever else may be going on, a woman’s biology has a way of grounding her to some extent in the world and toward a purpose, however distorted or tenuous that reality may be on the ground.
But no such clear physiological threshold occurs in men. Sure, adolescence brings its own biological cocktail to bear in men, but not with such unmistakable signs, not with such pain or trauma or crisis. This is why many ancient societies (and some modern cultures) planned to give young men some kind of coming-of-age ceremony or trial. Ranging from the grotesque and sexual in some pagan cultures to liturgical, adventurous, or comedic, there’s often been a recognition that it is helpful and healthy for young men to be told that now they are men, accompanied by some kind of public, objective signs or symbols, or sometimes a difficult or painful ritual.
Jews have their Bar Mitzvahs, and modern evangelical Christians have sometimes invented their own rites of passage with camping trips, testimonies, and spiritual blessings, sometimes accompanied by particular gifts, maybe an heirloom Bible or a gun or both. In some traditional Protestant denominations, coming of age is marked publicly in church for both sexes with decisions to be baptized or begin taking communion (or both). But arguably these rites have the greatest benefit for young men, given the lack of clear demarcation between boyhood and manhood. And this confusion has been well documented and referenced in modern culture with clichés like “failure to launch” or “man-boys.”
Therefore Shall a Man Leave
But the Bible actually indicates that God already has a plan for young men to enter maturity as men. In the beginning, when God created the first woman, Genesis says that the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took of his ribs, and closed up the flesh; and the rib, which the Lord God had taken from the man, he made a woman, and brought her unto the man” (Gen. 2:21-22). Adam sees the woman and exclaims that she is his great glory, and then either he or the narrator explains: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).
While we ordinarily rush to the wedding scene, we would do well to consider the first statement alone: “Therefore, shall a man leave his father and mother…” And we should stop and ask: Why? Why should a man leave his father and mother? And the answer is because God took out Adam’s rib and fashioned a woman for him. And that might understandably seem like a strange answer. Young men should leave their parents because God made the first woman from Adam’s rib? And the answer is yes. Adam was wounded by God, God fashioned the woman and brought her to him, and Adam breaks out into poetry or song. And the texts say, and that’s why a man must leave his father and mother, cleave to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.
My thesis is that while God has given a woman a biological marker of maturity, he has given men an experiential marker of maturity, through the “blood” of crisis and survival, wounding and healing from the wound. While the first man was cut and broken open, and a rib was taken out to form the first woman, all men thereafter must have a similar experience. They must be cut open and experience the pain and loss of leaving home and then healing, stronger for it. This is the primal wound of manhood. A man must leave and learn to take care of himself. A man must leave and take responsibility for himself, for his choices, for his needs, and for the consequences of his choices and actions. A man must endure the crisis of isolation, loneliness, roommates, bills, work, bosses, classes, sins, mistakes, and wake up to the glory of blessing on the other side.
This is why young boys must be taught from an early age to be tough, to endure the hardship of hunger, the hardship of pain, the hardship of fatigue. They must be taught to embrace danger and risks and to suffer and endure. And they must be taught to see that obedient suffering results in glory on the other side. The pain goes away; the wound heals. Patient and joyful endurance in obedience results in general in success, in measures of gratification and joy. Boys must be taught that all of these trials are short missions, short adventures, short exiles and returns, healing, restoration, and glory.
A Short Primer for Boyhood
When a little boy falls down and scrapes his knee, and the pain is excruciating, and his mom wisely requires him to blow it out or growl and show her tough, instead of shrieking or bawling, the boy is being challenged to go on that mission, that adventure – to use his strength for good, endure the hardship for a moment, and then see the glory on the other side: the pain goes away and the praise of his mother, greater self-discipline and self-confidence is a greater glory. When a boy must wait patiently for dinner, he is being challenged to go into that exile of hunger, into that wilderness, learning to trust God, learning to govern his feelings and appetites, and then when the dinner bell rings, he learns that he can endure the agony of hunger and then enjoy the glory of deep gratitude in God’s provision (as well as his mom’s). The same thing goes for emotional self-control: requiring a young boy to be joyful when he feels sad is requiring him to emotionally leave those sad circumstances behind and go in search of that great treasure called “joy.” And finding it, he wakes up from the “wound,” healing up just fine.
Of course there are plenty of ways that young women need these same lessons, and there is plenty of overlap in the early years, but there really are different goals, long term. You are raising your boys to leave. You are raising your boys to be prepared for that primal wound: for leaving and enduring, for leaving and embracing the adventure of finding their mission, their purpose, their calling, their wife, and finding that joy in what God has made them for.
Faithful fathers also embody this pattern. Godly husbands and fathers continuously picture this leaving and returning, this exile and glory. A man ordinarily goes out into the world, leaving his family behind in order to work, in order to struggle, in order to fight back the curses of the Fall, in order to bring the world a little more under the dominion of Christ, and then ordinarily the man returns in the evening to his family for respite, for encouragement, to bring with him stories of the battle and of course, provision and protection. This is also pictured in leaving to go hunting or fishing or a workout, or leaving for work trips or deployments, but the point is to provide a stable picture for boys of leaving and surviving, leaving and facing crisis and the healing and restoration and glory on the other side.
As young men grow up, they will begin to imitate that pattern by accompanying their fathers in some things, going to school, by participating in sports and other activities, with a million little battles and scars and adventures within each one, embracing the adventure of obedience, until one day they will leave for good to start their own families, to begin their own missions, their own adventures. But by then, they should know that feeling, those nerves, and remember all the other missions and be hungry for an even greater glory.
Conclusion: Blessing, Abandonment, and Restoration
When this leaving is under the blessing of God, it includes ongoing fellowship with family, plenty of counsel, feedback, encouragement, and care packages, and many calls or texts or trips back home for holidays, weekends, etc. And that blessed launch ordinarily leads to marriage, vocational direction, and a newly established, thriving household. While there is still pain involved, it resembles something more like what happened in that first garden, with the addition of sin and the application of much grace.
But when this leaving is cursed, it looks more like abandonment, aimlessness, apathy, anger, and what we are seeing all around us. It produces plenty of wounds, but virtually no healing, no restoration, just infections festering, bitterness, and pain. We live in a culture that is facing the increasing results of young men abandoned, particularly by their fathers, so they are growing up failing to see that pattern of leaving, suffering, healing, and glory, lacking the practice of preparing for that crisis. Fatherlessness creates homes where young men don’t have a role model, and many mothers left to their own instincts will coddle and over protect their sons, to the point of resentment on the part of the sons (who know they were made for danger and adventure) or else to the point of effeminacy and softness, and attempts to embrace a “safe” life, failing to launch, failing to marry, failing to become productive, since they cannot actually become mothers and frustrations and dysfunction all around. In many of these homes, boys are being killed softly.
But all of this is why the message of the gospel is still very much for our culture: Christ, the perfect Son, came and endured this particular curse, the curse of abandonment and fatherlessness. He came to endure that specific God-forsaken Hell, and when He did, His side was cut open just like the first Adam’s and from that side flows the blood and water of the New Covenant, the birth of the Christian Church, the new Eve, the Bride of Christ. And it is by that wound that all other wounds are healed. It is by that wound, that the curse of abandonment is undone. Christ, the perfect Son, was abandoned by His perfect Father, in order to receive that curse, in order to restore all the lost and estranged and abandoned boys back to their Good Heavenly Father. And in that restoration, they are assured of their Heavenly Father’s love and protection and provision and then sent back out into the world to become men.
The Son left the Father and endured the cross and rose from the dead so that all men who trust in Him might know that it is safe to leave home, safe to go out into the world, safe to fight for what is good and right and true, safe to endure hardships and suffering, safe to pursue a woman, love her and her children until your dying day (Ok, not really “safe,” but definitely good), and they can be completely assured that there is nothing but glory on the other side.