How Men Behave in Combat
In 1947 S.L.A. ‘Slam’ Marshall published a book called Men against Fire that jarred military leadership. Marshall was a veteran of WWI and a military historian who, during WWII, interviewed thousands of men regarding their experience of combat. His basic conclusion was that the average man’s experience of battle was strikingly different from what he had expected. Men knew that combat would be frightening and that it would test the full resources of their mental, emotional, and physical energy. But battle, they thought, would be a kind of amped up version of a high school football game. Adrenalin would surge, a spirit of camaraderie would prevail, and a sense of duty would make up for a deficit of strength and courage. That was, at least, how Hollywood had presented war.
What men actually experienced was nothing like this. At the first sound of enemy fire all soldiers immediately dropped to the ground losing sight and communication with fellow comrades. Suddenly, the individual soldier felt horrifyingly alone and uncontrollably afraid. Whereas he had expected the enemy to be a plain target, in fact, the enemy was equally scared and therefore equally hidden. The most controversial aspect of Marshall’s book was his claim that, on average, only one in four soldiers ended up firing his weapon. The rest were too shocked, afraid, and alone to be of much tactical use.
From Martial Combat to Spiritual Combat
Regardless of the merit of Marshall’s research, his description of men on the battlefield is a useful image for understanding the experience of Christian men as they seek to honor Christ in the real world. A lot of men expect the work of the devil to be obvious. They think that their inner resolve will be sufficient to keep them on the right track in the face of difficulties. They assume that their relationships with other Christians are strong enough to support them through suffering and temptation. They are like the first wave of British soldiers at the Somme who happily climbed out of their trenches thinking that the battle was under control. A lot of guys never foresee the degree to which weakness, fear, anxiety, and loneliness will grip them in the midst of affliction and leave them paralyzed or desiring to flee the frontline.
This naivety is why a lot of men do not invest in spiritual friendship. During comfortable phases of life, friendship feels like a luxury. ‘I can manage on my own’ is the unspoken conviction of men when skies are fair. But like the North Sea the conditions of life can change rapidly. A crisis strikes and suddenly men discover that no one knows them well enough to be of help. Or, just as pernicious, a more subtle drift occurs so that a man follows the deceitfulness of sin without there being anyone close enough to deliver a much needed rebuke. The consequences of this isolation can be devastating. Like people climbing out of the rubble after an earthquake, a lot of men wake up in their late 40s to the realization that that their wife is gone, their kids hate them, and that the BMW in the garage doesn’t fill the void. They are like drivers who have driven through the night not realizing a wrong turn was taken 500 miles back. If they had had someone in the passenger seat, the error might have been detected.
The Root of the Problem
The question is worth asking why spiritual isolation is such a widespread problem for men in the church. A part of the answer is poor leadership. While there are endless programs and events organized for men via churches and parachurch ministries, there is very little direct teaching on the topic of spiritual friendship. For some reason pastors and other Christian leaders assume that men know (1) what Christian friendship is and (2) that Christian friendship is not an amenity but a necessity to discipleship. The old lesson from Aristotle is forgotten that there are multiple forms of friendship and that not every form is of equal worth. Thus churches continue to provide men with book studies and breakfasts unaware that an underlying need for spiritual camaraderie persists unacknowledged and therefore unmet.
But there is a further assumption made by pastors and church leaders that is equally dangerous. This is that community groups satisfy the needs of Christians for intimacy, accountability, and encouragement. The truth is that they do not and cannot. There are temptations and sins that can only be confessed in a narrow and tightly secured circle of trust. There is accountability and support that can only be provided by relationships that have weathered years, even decades. Do men need small groups for fellowship and support? Yes, they do. But the diet of large group worship balanced by small group fellowship is insufficient to produce strong and healthy men. In addition to these, men need a spiritual band of brothers who will provide support and accountability as outlined in Ecclesiastes 4:
Two are better than one,
Because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
One can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
And has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
Two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
Questions for Small Groups/Self-Reflection
Why do you think that men in general often lack deep and meaningful friendships?
What do churches do well to promote friendship among Christian men? What do churches do poorly to promote friendship among men?
A lot of men lean entirely on their wives for spiritual friendship. Why is this dangerous? Why do men need spiritual friendship with other men even if they are blessed with a Christian spouse?
Read the verses quoted from Ecclesiastes. What do we learn from this passage about the benefits of having close, Christian friends?