Three reasons why guys are stuck
1 – Men Don’t Know What Spiritual Fitness Is
The average man has a better working knowledge of string theory than spiritual fitness. To prove the point, consider the following:
Imagine you are sent out to do a survey, clipboard in hand. You pick out 100 men randomly from a crowded street and ask them questions, first about physical fitness, then about spiritual fitness. Some of these guys are straight out of a CrossFit gym and look as if they could star in the next Captain America film. Others are poster boys for Dunkin Donuts. You begin by asking them basic questions about physical fitness such as the following: what constitutes physical fitness, how is it improved, and what are the benefits of maintaining it. A lot of guys, perhaps the majority, would be able to give simple answers to all of these questions. Both the doppelganger of Michael Phelps and the fraternal twin of the Marshmallow Man would be able to say something about how physical fitness requires regular exercise and a balanced diet. They could comment on methods of improving cardio and muscle tone, as well as outline the importance of physical fitness for reducing risks of heart disease and diabetes. Filling out the questionnaire, you would conclude that when it comes to physical fitness, for most guys, ignorance is not the problem. Self-control is.
Now imagine that you ask the same guys similar questions about spiritual fitness: what is it, how do you improve it, and what are the benefits of maintaining it? How would they respond? Most men would look at you with the mental clarity of an armadillo in the headlights. They could better describe their wives’ feelings about the latest Hugh Grant film than the nature and purpose of spiritual fitness. If you were speaking to Christian men, they might be able to mumble out a few words about the importance of going to church, prayer, or having a quiet time. However, the conversation would last no longer than a lit match. If the guys were non-Christians, the best you could hope for would be words like meditation, life-purpose, and mindfulness slung together with the care of condiments on a Macdonald’s hamburger.
Here is the point: guys don’t know what spiritual fitness is. The degree of ignorance on this topic is startling. You can talk to guys about financial planning, about mental health, about how to refurbish a kitchen or purchase a home, about the merits and demerits of political parties, even debate with them about whose pizza is better, Dominoes or Pizza Hut. About all of these topics men have knowledge, opinion, even conviction. Not so with spiritual fitness. In comparison to these topics, spiritual fitness is like the ocean floor – dark, unmapped, and happily ignored.
This explains an essential aspect of the derelict condition of male spirituality. Christian men cannot pursue spiritual fitness because they do not know what spiritual fitness is. The average man today is not like a student struggling to pass Calculus because, in spite of diligent effort, he is unable to master the basic principles. This example assumes a student with a clear understanding of the task at hand. Not so with spiritual fitness. The average man is much closer to a frat boy who is skipping class because he genuinely believes college is about learning more efficient ways to chug beer, not about earning a degree. (The tragedy of so much of modern life is the sincerity with which it is pursued.) Such is the spiritual plight of contemporary men. Ignorance blinds men from the spiritual purpose of life; they settle for less because they don’t know there is more.
Christian leaders need to appreciate the degree to which ignorance hinders the spiritual development of men. To say this is not to claim that ignorance is the only problem, or even the biggest problem, men face. The road of discipleship is littered with landmines and booby traps including twisted desire, diabolical temptation, personal slothfulness, and habituated sin. But most of these are talking points in churches. Less so with ignorance. Too often pastors and Christian leaders buy into a hereditary fallacy, believing that the basic code of Christian character, doctrine, and lifestyle is passed from one generation to the next like language or skin color. They admonish guys to pray more, to prioritize spiritual development, to pursue Christ, assuming that their audience understands what they are talking about. Most guys don’t. They are in like the Israelites in Egypt, charged to make bricks without being given the straw needed to make them.
2 – Men Don’t Think Spiritual Fitness Matters
Here is a second reason why guys never graduate from the kindergarten of spiritual maturity. They are confused – nay, deceived – about the relevance of maturity. Four circumstances have conspired together to deceive men.
1 – The Doctrine of Grace Has Been Abused
Guys are confused, first, because the church has abused the holy doctrines of grace. Countless sermons and pop songs have pictured God as a celestial Golden Girl, with no higher ambition for her lazy grandkids than to give them a warm glass of milk. Men are told that God loves them no matter how badly they flunk life, that the depth of sin merely highlights the height of grace. The Prodigal Son is held forth – not as a foil to grace – but as a template for life, fully justified so long as, in the end, one lands repentant at the doorstep of God. The result is that guys don’t think that spiritual fitness matters. It has the value before God of a Van Gogh painting in the bedroom of Helen Keller.
One must tread carefully when talking about grace. Salvation by grace does indeed mean that we contribute nothing to our status before God. He loves us from eternity and has freely elected us into his family in spite of our lack of spiritual hygiene. In addition, pointing index finger to vine, Jesus tells us that we can do nothing apart from him. Yet, this understood, guys must remember that there are two points of view to consider when thinking about grace: one of status (justification) and one of maturity (sanctification). While, on the one hand, we contribute nothing to our status before God, but receive his grace with the calloused hands of a beggar, on the other, we are called not merely to receive grace but to act upon it – to become what we are in Christ. This is the point of view of maturity.
With maturity in view, the Bible intentionally avoids using Oprah Winfrey as a picture for God. The preferred image is not that of a life coach, but that of a majestic patriarch, a fatherly emperor, who is passionate about the education, training, and development of children who will one day inherit an eternal kingdom. It is no exaggeration to say that God is the most ambitious of all parents. His pluck puts Elon Musk to shame. Only God would dare take on the project of reforming a species as apish as homo sapiens, and only God is so spendthrift as to commit every available resource – from the blood of Jesus to the power of the Spirit – to insure that the makeover is perfect.
All this spotlights the truth that grace is not a reason to go on vacation but a motive to get to work early. Grace is the Gatorade of spiritual fitness, the electrolytes needed to keep sweating, not shut down. To shun such grace is worse than an act of folly; it is a personal offence against God. Guys need to know that God is not a Walmart greeter whose mirthful grin is sketched in permanent marker. He is a righteous Father who is willing to do whatever is needed – including wield a rod – to spur a stubborn ass down the path to holiness. God’s inexhaustible supply of grace is purposeful with the intent of enabling sinful people to grow into the character of Jesus. Contrary to popular belief, grace does not eliminate the need for spiritual fitness; grace makes spiritual fitness possible.
2 – No One Has Told Them about the Judgment of Christ
There is another reason why guys are confused about spiritual fitness. No one has told them about the judgment of Christ. Thomas Jefferson is famous for having produced an edited New Testament with the supernatural cut out. A revised edition must be in circulation today because guys seem to have missed all of the billboards in the New Testament highlighting individual accountability. Men don’t understand that when Paul says there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus he is talking about final rejection, not further judgment. He is saying that in Christ there is no unsaved Christian, no second cut after which some don’t make the team. He is not saying that personal obedience is irrelevant among Christians, like gender, race, or the Old Testament rule against eating hot dogs. Paul is clear even if his explanation is terse: Each individual will be judged for the things done in the body. Rewards will be given, or lost, based on personal obedience.
The hymnody has not helped this corporate amnesia. Hundreds of hymns speak of Christians being translated into final glory with the seamlessness of a Lady Gaga costume change. Only a handful make any reference to final judgment. The result is a lopsided spirituality whereby Christians affirm one New Testament doctrine (immediate entry into heaven) while blanking another (individual judgment). This is to everyone’s peril.
One effect of this dementia is that the spirituality of modern men looks nothing like that of Paul. Paul had the spiritual grit to make a Navy SEAL look like a wimp. He was every bit as relentless in his fight against sin as Muhammad Ali against George Foreman. He was as earnest to have a reason to boast on the Day of the Lord as Jeff Bezos is for quarterly earnings at an annual shareholders meeting. But where is the trickledown of this gospel mentality among men today? The pipeline is clogged. Modern guys are content to stop at the first question, ‘Are you or aren’t you saved?’, not realizing that this is step one in a flow chart that leads on to other questions such as, ‘Are you growing in the knowledge of His will?’, ‘Are you putting sin to death by the Spirit?’, ‘Are you making disciples?’, and ‘Are you storing up treasure in heaven where moth does not destroy and thieves do not break in?’ How has this happened? The answer is because guys don’t think spiritual fitness matters. If there is no accountability, one can happily bury his talents and binge-watch Game of Thrones, awaiting a pat on the back when Jesus rings the bell.
3 – They Believe the World Is a Playground, Not a Battlefield
Still there is more. A third reason why guys are confused is because pop culture has convinced them that life a playground, not a battlefield. They have visited the oracle of Bruno Mars and come away with the hidden wisdom of YOLO, you only live once. Snug within this worldview, men ignore the need for training, discipline, and focus. Such training is superfluous. No one does pull-ups to prepare for the monkey bars. No one signs up for jujitsu to improve on the Merry-Go-Round. The playground only has three rules: respect others, stay safe, and have fun. Such is the life philosophy of most men.
Yet, the Bible teaches that life is a battlefield, not a playground. This shift of perspective changes everything, like a letter in the mail with the personal headline ‘Drafted for War’. If life is about Saturday night, what ultimately matters is craft beer, good queso, and having the right game on a 72 inch screen. Spiritual fitness is of no greater importance than an infomercial for Rogaine. But if life is a battle in the trenches, the music stops. Preparation and training become imperative. The man who hears artillery fire in the distance could give a care about Monday Night Football. He wants to know how to use an M16.
This warped perspective is why so many Christian guys end up causalities of ordinary life. They are unprepared for the live fire of spiritual warfare. Men can’t handle failure because they believe Disney when it says that dreams come true. They are surprised by grief since death looks fun on Xbox. They get angry at God if struck by illness or catastrophe because, in a Western democracy, life, liberty and a good cell phone connection are basic human rights. Guys carelessly step out into the world like a bunch of third graders on recess. No wonder most end up casualties of war. They aren’t fit for battle.
4 – They Underestimate Their Spiritual Potential
Finally, there is a fourth reason why men are confused about the relevance of spiritual fitness. They have never heard the famous words of D.L. Moody, ‘The world has yet to see what God can do with a man fully yielded to Him.’ Men believe that the heroes of faith are a superior class of human beings, like Lebron James or Cam Newton, freaks among mortals. They think it preposterous that God would take the weak things of this world – the Gideons, Davids, and Peters – and use them as select instruments. Therefore, devoid of hope, they are without spiritual ambition, unwilling to prepare for what God might do through them because they already know the answer, nothing.
This lack of aspiration is why men are content to waste the most valuable resource God has given them – life. They do not feel the need to train in courageous faith because, unlike Hudson Taylor, they are not headed to a foreign mission field. An ambitious Scripture memory program is pointless because, unlike Dawson Trotman, they will not establish a global discipleship organization. So here is the tragedy: bedazzled by the glamour of saints, men forget that, in the kingdom of God, there are no benchwarmers. They miss the hope that he who is faithful in little will get more playing time. They don’t see that the Holy Spirit is always recruiting and that his preferred player is not a Silicone Valley CEO, but a guy with a normal day job like Peter, James, and John.
3 – They Care about Lesser Stuff
Enough about ignorance. Enough about the failure of Christian leaders. Guys are stuck for a third reason: they just don’t care about spiritual fitness. In a world where Iphones defibrillate the mind with addictive pings and vibrations, where advertisements charm the heart like prostitutes behind glass windows, spiritual fitness attracts as much attention as a mockingbird at a NASCAR race.
1 – The Evidence of Time
Where is the evidence for this? Look first at time. If a man wants to know what he incontestably values, all he has to do is log his time use over a week and review the data. Time is a non-renewable resource, like coal, not water. For this reason, people don’t waste time; they invest time. They spend their time according to what they value. Stare long enough at a spreadsheet logging daily consumption of minutes and hours and a scale of priorities jumps into view like a skeleton through an X-ray. One sees the bones of career, fun, friendship, health, beauty, adventure, family, and so on in a visible structure, the order being determined by a simple criterion: the degree to which I cannot not have something.
Thus, for example, most men cannot not have a profound and detailed knowledge of College Football. They need to know the key players of important teams, understand the different divisions, have a functional knowledge of strategic formations on offense and defense, see game-changing plays, and be able to talk intelligently about the history of the game. They are passionate about football, so much so that they invest more time and energy in football than they do in Bible study. Fast-forward through life and this explains why so many guys have a kindergarten knowledge of God while having completed multiple PhDs as armchair quarterbacks. Most men are happy to live without a deep knowledge of God. This same is not true of football. The proof is in the time-sheet.
2 – The Evidence of Attention
Another measurable of care is attention. Anyone who wants to know what he cares about should ask the following questions: what do I consistently think about? Where do I invest my worry? What do I strategically pursue? What grips my mind when I can’t sleep and the clock strikes 1am? Rest assured that, where your mind is, there your heart is also. Thinking is too strenuous of work for this not to be the case.
So, then, what do most guys fixate on? Career. Sex. Health. Physique. Adventure. Fun. There are not a lot of guys in the modern world sitting in cubicles coveting the Scriptural imagination of C.S. Lewis. One has a better chance of finding a raisin in a coal bucket than identifying a man in the gym dreaming about a pioneer mission to Myanmar. Who today uses strategic planning to pursue the prayer life of George Mueller? Why not? The truth is plain: guys don’t care about spiritual fitness. They invest their mental resources in building outdoor kitchens and improving their short game in golf, not in sculpting a missional lifestyle or trekking the narrow path that leads to the kingdom of God.
3 – The Evidence of Spilt Blood
A third metric is a man’s altar of sacrifice. In the ancient world every home had a hearthside altar where a sacred fire was maintained and ancestors were venerated. While the content of worship has changed, every man still has a private altar where he makes daily sacrifices for the sake of some transcendent value. This altar represents the heart of a man. On this altar one sees the blood of sacrifice, the measure of what a man is willing to give up in order to have his first love.
What are the altars at which modern men worship? One is career. Throngs of wives and children are torched daily for the god of promotion. Kids cry themselves to sleep while dads sell their mental and physical health for a new job title or a higher wage. Another is the altar of luxury and comfort where money is poured out as freely as water from Niagara Falls. The very same guys who feel reluctant to put a ten dollar bill in a church plate happily rejoice to share credit card details with Apple to ease their freewill offerings to ITunes. The altars are endless. There is no need to name them all. A more significant point must be made. Among the surplus of altars in the modern world, one is as quiet and unvisited as the exclusion zone of Chernobyl, the cross. Who today can sing with any sincerity the words of the classic hymn ‘When I Survey’, lyrics which profess a willingness not only to sacrifice the world, but oneself at the foot of Jesus?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
The truth is that guys don’t pursue spiritual fitness because they don’t esteem Jesus. A lack of love is the root of the problem.
The Flame of Hope in the Midst of Darkness
There are no simple fixes to change the spiritual condition of men. There are no methods or techniques to be implemented that can shift the direction of a culture. Yet, now and again the Spirit does inspire small groups of Christians to band together in a renewed effort to live for Christ. Usually these movements stay small like little campfires in a frozen wood. Other times they ignite into spiritual wildfires that raise the temperature of an entire generation. Truth be told, scale is unimportant. What matters is the sincerity and purpose behind the effort. If God endorses the project, digging a molehill is as important as constructing a cathedral.
Cross Training is an attempt to light yet another match for the kingdom. The hope is that as men band together a small flame can kindle, attracting the interest and involvement of others. If God throws kerosene on the ministry and a broad movement results, so be it. Yet no time, energy, or money will have been wasted if the final product is 12 more guys ready and able to live by the prayer:
"God, give me a deep humility, a well-guided zeal, a burning love and a single eye, and then let men or devils do their worst!" (George Whitefield)