These notes for young men were actually written for my son many years ago. I might say a few things differently today. But I think many young men could still find them helpful so I'm publishing them on the blog.
A while back, I heard a talk from a pastor on “Practical Manhood” aimed at young men. I was not particularly impressed with the counsel being shared so I figured I'd develop my own list of things young men should be taught to do today. This is more "life coaching" than biblical exegesis/application, but hopefully there is some useful wisdom to be found here. Here is the list:
1. Seek wisdom and submit to it. It’s great to have mature, godly men as peers and friends (and do all you can to maintain those friendships as you get older!), but what you really need most when you are young are older, wiser fathers and father-figure type men in your life who can share their experience with you. Don’t think you have it all figured out. Seek counsel. Find a mentor. View older men as interesting and ask them as many questions as you can. Soak up their wisdom. Hear their stories and learn from their mistakes. Anyone who is a couple decades (or more) older than you lived a lot of their life in a different age than the one we’re in now (e.g., an age without the internet or cellphones) — an age that had different blind spots, and therefore their experiences can expose the blind spots and weaknesses of the present cultural moment that you are most familiar with. Most likely, your first boss will be an older man. What can you glean from him? Be submissive to the authorities God places over you — even when you think they’re wrong, you’ll learn a lot from being under authority. Respect older men, even those who still have some obvious flaws, because they can teach you a lot about life. Find older men you can imitate (e.g., men who have succeeded in work, who are happily married, who have raised faithful kids) and learn how they got to where they are in life. All of this serves the ultimate purpose of helping you learn to live and lead as a man. The best way to prepare yourself for leading a wife as her head someday is imitating those men who are already exerting Christ-like leadership in their marriages. Many young men do not understand how to lead or what it means to exercise authority. But older men can help you learn, and this will prepare you for being a husband and a father, when a household will depend on your leadership, virtue, wisdom, and competency. Then it will become your turn to mentor the young generation of men, sharing you wisdom with them!
2. Act, speak, and dress like a man. (The Art of Manliness website and podcast really emphasize this. Check it out.) Shake hands firmly and look the other person in the eye when speaking. Stand tall like a man, and walk like a man. Use your voice like a man, speaking clearly and straightforwardly and audibly. Speak with authority when required — that doesn’t mean speaking like a drill sergeant, but it does mean learning how to speak so others will listen, both because of what you have to say AND how you say it. (Jordan Peterson may not be a Christian, but he is a good example of this. He speaks with sincerity and gravitas. He makes his words count, so people hang on every word he says. He doesn’t have to shout or get all emotional; he’s just earnest and carefully chooses his words. He comes across like he has something very meaningful to say so people listen to him, even 45 minute lectures.) I don’t have a Bible verse for these things, but they are obvious applications of the overall picture of manhood we have in Scripture. Learn how to communicate like a man. Further: Dress like a man. Don't dress like a slob. In an age of gender confusion, make your gender clear by your appearance, e.g., short hair (see 1 Cor. 11). No man-buns. No metro-sexual clothes. The bottom line: You need to know who you are. You need to have a well-defined sense of yourself and your mission. You serve others, but do not become a people-pleaser. You are careful and deliberate in how you allow yourself to be influenced by others. Your strength and identity as man should be on display in the way you carry and conduct yourself. You are a man; act like one.
3. Do the right thing, even when it is costly. Take responsibility for yourself and your commitments. Be a man of your word. Do what you say you will do. Biblical men are men of integrity. They keep their promises, even to their own hurt. They make sacrifices. They serve. They are disciplined. Their character is predictable because they have demonstrated a pattern of righteousness in their lives. (Daniel is a good example of this. His enemies knew they could only catch him in something having to do with his God because he was so blameless in every way, and so consistently faithful in his religious devotion. But even when he was suffering for doing what was right in the lion’s den, he entrusted himself to God and let the chips fall.) Look at the qualifications laid down for an elder/pastor in 1 Timothy 3, and make those the aim of your life. They are a good summary of the Christian life for men. Recognize that masculine piety will be different from feminine piety in certain key respects, and since the church today tends to privilege feminine forms of piety, sometimes you will have to go against the grain, even in the church. A key to living with integrity is maintaining the spiritual disciplines which undergird the Christian life: going to church (Hebrews 10 — do not forsake assembling together), reading Scripture (2 Tim. 3 says the Bible equips the man of God for every good work, so know your Bible!), serving when you see an opportunity (don’t wait to be asked! jump in there and do what needs to be done!), fasting at times (e.g., Lent), and especially prayer (men are often reluctant to pray because prayer is a sign of dependence).
4. Take initiative and be chivalrous with women. A man is especially defined in his manhood by how he relates to women, just as a woman is defined in her womanhood by how she relates to men. The gender differences should always be on display in how we interact with the opposite sex. Sure, chivalry seems old fashioned, but it’s really important. Chivalry means different things in different contexts, but here I mean manners appropriate to manhood in the presence of females. Chivalry is way of taking charge and expressing confidence. Chivalry is not just a matter of being mannerly in a generic way; it is a way of signaling and symbolizing that you are a man who can protect and provide. Treating women with respect actually never goes out of style. Hold the door open for a lady. Walk nearer to the traffic on a sidewalk. Hold an umbrella over her when it rains. Let women go first whenever there is a line. These are little things, but they add up to something huge. Treating women with chivalry creates a mindset of mutual respect and honor between the sexes; it impacts both of you. It recognizes the God-give differences between men and women, something which our culture is rapidly losing. It also shows women you are man to be reckoned with, that you will protect and provide for a woman, that you can be trusted with authority, that you know what manhood (and womanhood) is all about. Have some unscrupulous men used chivalry to manipulate and mislead women so they could take advantage of them? Sure. Will some women take advantage of your chivalry? Of course, feminism has trained women to demand equality when it suits them, and to demand special treatment when it suits them. Do not play these feminist games. But even in our day, the kind of woman you would want to date and marry will appreciate your chivalry without taking advantage of it. And today these protocols and manners are so rare, they are usually a sign that a man is the genuine article so they help you catch the eye of a woman who knows what to look for in a man. I would tell a young woman today to not consider a man as a prospective suitor/boyfriend/husband if he is not chivalrous — it’s a red flag that indicates this man does not yet know how to treat women as he should, he does not yet know how to use his masculine strength for the good of others. Learn what manners are, learn how to treat a woman, learn how to be respectful. These are tangible signs of manhood. If you show chivalry in everyday situations, you will actually find that your way of relating to your wife is much more constrained and respectful even in tense moments of disagreement — the chivalry you’ve practiced has trained you at a deep level to treat the “weaker sex” with honor even in times of sharp conflict.
5. Avoid porn. Porn is the #1 man-killer in our age. It has been mainstreamed, so many people think of it as harmless, but it is deadly. Indeed, it is a public health crisis. Porn drives sex trafficking, rape, abortion and other sex crimes. It drains and destroys a man’s masculinity; porn is a way of wasting your strength. It saps a man’s drive and ambition. It makes a man a hollow shell of himself. Porn turns a man totally in on himself. Porn feminizes and emasculates a man because a man who is immersed in porn does not know how to pursue a real woman. Porn teaches lies to a man about his own sexuality and tells lies about a woman’s sexuality as well. It is terrible preparation for marriage. Some men are so deadened by porn, they can no longer have a sexual response with a real woman. Do not use porn to try to satisfy your curiosity about sex or thinking that porn will teach you to be a better lover; porn is not the way to get your “sex education” (there are wonderful Christian resources that can answer every question you could ever have about sex from a biblical perspective). Porn is dangerous because it is addictive; it rewires the brain similar to the way heroin or other drugs do. So fight against porn, taking even radical steps to protect yourself from it (internet filters like Covenant Eyes, accountability partners, etc.). Jesus made it clear we should deal ruthlessly with our lust (Matt. 5), and porn is like pouring gasoline on lust. Porn is not only a sin against women, it’s a sin against your own body. Flee it. Kill porn before it kills you.
6. Pursue a wife, and love her well once you find her. Sure a small handful of men are called to singleness/celibacy and are gifted for it. But most of us are not. And so a young man needs to be open to marriage, sooner rather than later, especially given the nature of sexual temptation (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1-5). In fact, most young men need to aspire to marriage and prepare themselves accordingly. So what's a young man to do? As soon as he has sorted out his vocational trajectory (Prov. 24:27), he needs to pursue a wife. While it is true you need to have a certain level of maturity to marry (or to be considered marriageable), nothing will accelerate your maturation like getting married. Marriage makes you grow up. There are a lot of reasons to consider getting married young, considerably earlier than the average man in our culture (which is approaching 30 years old). This will mean having what has been called a cornerstone marriage, as opposed to a capstone marriage -- that is, it will be the kind of marriage, where you start out with nothing (or very little) and then build a household (your little kingdom) together as king and queen. . The Westminster Larger Catechism tells us that one way we can violate the seventh commandment is through the "undue delay of marriage." If the male sex driven really starts to awaken around age 11 or 12, it is difficult — not impossible, because with God all things are possible — but it is obviously very difficult to remain chaste until, say, age 30. Of course, the reality is that most men are not remaining chaste, and so they enter marriage with all kinds of baggage. Cheap sex — sex without love, without commitment, without covenant — is actually very costly! God forgives sexual sin, and those who have sinned sexually can still go on to have wonderful marriages because God is gracious; sometimes the way the church has emphasized “purity culture” in recent decades has obscured that truth, so it needs to be said. But there is a price to pay if you deviate from God’s plan for our sexuality. Consider this vision of your future life: You make it to your wedding day pure, you see your wife’s naked body for the first time that night, and you are able to tell her, "You were worth the wait!” That is quite a strong foundation to build a marriage upon! Of course, making it to your wedding day is not the end of the battle. You have to fight for purity and against lust even as a married man. You have to fight against all those sins that threaten to wreck your marriage. The more you can laser-focus your sex drive on your wife, the more satisfying your sex life will be, so don’t let other women distract you from her; feeding your sex drive with images and thoughts of women besides your wife actually robs you of the joy of sex within marriage (cf. Prov. 5). The more you can learn to serve her and communicate with her (easier said than done!), the more satisfying both of you will find your marriage, and the happier you are with the marriage, the better the sex gets. Good marriages are pretty common in the church. But really great marriages are rare. To have a really great marriage is not a matter of finding “the one” — there is no perfect soulmate out there just waiting for you. No, it’s about learning to “becomes one” together, as you navigate all the challenges of married life in love and humility. Being soulmates is not a starting point for marriage; that kind of chemistry between a man and a woman is an achievement that comes only after years of loving and respecting one another in marriage. Marriage is the art of learning to live as one flesh. Do what it takes to make it work — it’s worth it. Marrying a good woman who can your crown and glory will be among the greatest blessings God gives you in this life. Marrying a woman and building a household together that lasts until death parts you will be one your greatest achievements.
7. Learn to deal with your anxieties. We all have them, but we don't know what to do with them. But suppressing them does not make them go away. Anxiety is at the root of so much effeminate behavior we see in men today. We have to learn how to deal with our anxieties and rise above them. We have to learn how to cast our cares upon God, because he cares for us. Stop worrying and start trusting. We have to learn how trust in the happy ending God promises. Every Christian's life is a “fairy tale come to life;” it is a "fairy tale made fact” (Tolkien). Never give up hope, even in the hardest of times. There is always a reason for joy, a reason to keep going, a reason to keep fighting. God says to us again and again: Do not fear. Be strong and courageous. Everything is going to be ok. In fact, everything is going to be a lot better than ok. Rise above your circumstances by trusting in God’s good, gracious, and glorious plan for your life. What’s worst thing that can happen to you? Death? No problem, Jesus has already defeated death. In your whole life, you are playing with house money. You cannot lose. Everything is a gift, so give thanks, even for the hard things. And don’t worry — God’s got it all under control. Further, dealing with your own anxieties prepares you to be the stronger vessel in a relationship with a woman. In marriage, one of the ways you will lead your wife is by relieving her of anxiety. By dealing with your own anxieties, you can start to relieve her of her anxieties -- which is part of God's design for marriage and one of the ways you become the Christ-figure in the marriage. Women tend to be more anxious than men in part because they are the weaker vessel and have to depend upon and follow the lead of a man. Some husbands intensify their wives' anxieties because they are weak and incompetent. A husband who is wise, who leads well, who acts in strength and kindness will find his wife becoming softer, more secure, and less anxious over time. But the only way a man can truly bear the burden of his wife's anxiety is if he has figured out how to deal with his own.
8. Have a plan. Set goals. Think ahead. So much of wisdom is prudent foresight. No one controls the future; only God knows what we’re going to face. Life is vapor (Ecc. 1). But use what you know to make the best plan you can. Planning helps you grow in discipline, and in discipline there is freedom. For example, planning with money means budgeting. If you do not budget you will never have enough money, and you will never know where all the money went. You will wear yourself out trying to earn more. If you plan, and make sure your plan is shaped by God’s principles for life, the money (and everything else) will take care of itself. Of course, the plan has to be flexible, but it can still serve as a map as you navigate life's challenges. Another example: If you want your wife to be able to stay home after you have kids, you will probably have to plan years in advance how you are going to live off of one income. Another example: If you want to put your kids into a Christian school, most likely you will need to make financial arrangements years in advance to make sure it’s a real possibility. Another example: To be able to retire without becoming a burden to others (such as your kids, or taxpayers), you need to be planning decades ahead. No plan will be perfect, but a prudent plan is far better than flailing your way through life without mission or direction. A man is defined by his mission in life. And there is no way to have a mission in life without forming a plan and then executing on it. A man is defined by the ways he extends dominion over the creation (Gen. 1-2). But is impossible for a man to take dominion in wise and effective ways without formulating a plan for doing so. Things do not just happen; men make things happen by planning and then acting on the plan. Develop a blueprint for the kind of life you want to have, then get to work building that life.
9. Learn all the skills you can, and experience as much of God’s world as you can. Your career will probably force you to be a specialist in some area, but strive to be a generalist in the rest of life (see Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences). Learn about as many different things as you can. Be as competent in as many fields as possible. Always be learning a new skill. Be curious. Ask questions. Find experts in different fields and pick their brains. Talk to people. When you meet new people, make sure you learn more about them than they learn about you. Read widely — and read a wide variety of books on everything under the sun. Do things with your hands, not just your brain. Work on stuff. Fix stuff when it breaks. There’s a youtube video for just about anything. Figure it out! It'll keep you well-rounded, it’ll keep your brain in shape. Only call a handyman as a last resort. Be a modern day version of a “Renaissance man.” Travel when you can. Explore. Be adventurous. Do things that you’ll want to tell your grandkids about. Experience all life has to offer. Don’t just take pictures with your phone, actually look at the world around you and be in the moment. Wherever you are, be all there. Master life. Be your own version of “the most interesting man in the world." Rule as much of the creation as God allows, and develop the skills needed to subdue the your piece of the world in wisdom.
10. Keep money in its place. Money wrecks as many men as sex does. Some men get consumed with making as much money as possible. It becomes a competition, the way they prove their worth. They sacrifice their family and their health to get it. Or money becomes the way they think they will gain security and so they clench to every bit of it they have. But the cliche, often repeated but seldom believed, is true: Money cannot buy happiness. The most important ingredients in a happy life are not related directly to money (happy marriage, loving kids, meaningful work, etc.). Money wrongfully used and wrongfully pursued can actually make us very, very unhappy. When we serve Mammon, it wears us down. You cannot even enjoy what you get. If God gives you a high level of prosperity, rejoice and strive to be a good steward, holding it loosely. But if he doesn’t make you rich, rejoice as well — God has probably spared you a lot of heartaches and headaches. Be content with what you have. Live within your means. Give thanks at all times. Dethrone mammon by giving money away. Learn to use money skillfully by being generous, by tithing to your church, by saving and investing, by spending thoughtfully. But do not think that money is the key to a fulfilled life because it is not.
11. Pursue a calling, not a career. See your vocation as a ministry. Do your work as a way of serving God and others. The work God calls you to do is central to your life mission. If the work does not serve the common good in some way, go find some other work to do. Work that serves the common good in some way is much more satisfying. Your work is assigned to you by God and you are really working for him. When you see your work as a calling, you can endure the “downsides” of the job because you know God has a purpose in it. Every job has thorns and thistles. But God is also at work in our work, not only to mature us, but to serve the needs of others. This is the Protestant doctrine of vocation, which gave rise to the Puritan work ethic, which is really what built America. Do not buy into a sacred/secular dichotomy, as if the only kind of work that pleased God is church work or mission work. God blesses all kinds of work (Gen. 1-2). Do your work with excellence and God will say, "Well done good and faithful servant."
12. Have grit. Grit will carry you a long way. Grit is the essence of what makes us men. Be tough, be courageous, be resilient, be persistent. Life is tough, and life is never fair. Don’t settle for being a “pretty boy” who whines when he doesn’t get his way. Grow up. Deal with it. Fight through the hard times. Keep working, keep pushing, keep fighting. Read “If” by Kipling again and again — it’s the perfect description of true grit, and true manhood. The real test of manhood, of grit, comes when things are not going our way, we’re feeling stressed, and we need to figure out what to do but there is no clear direction. Times like those reveal what we are made of. God has each one of us run an obstacle course, full of traps, trials, and temptations. Run for the joy set before you, run through the crosses God calls you to endure, run for his glory, run hard to life’s finish line (Hebrews 12). Finishing well is a huge theme in Scripture (e.g., Paul in 2 Timothy). Grit will get you there.
13. Have fun. Sometimes we forget God actually wants us to have fun. But this is a constant theme in Scripture. God has filled the world with good gifts, and he wants us to enjoy them to the fullest. Of course, we can only do this if we are thankful. It is as if God has put the human race in a wine cellar full of the choicest wines. But only those who thank and glorify him have the corkscrew needed to open the bottles so the joy can flow out. Without giving God thanks, no matter what you have, you cannot really enjoy it. So be like Chesterton, who not only thanked God before meals, but before the opera, before the game, before making love, before the walk in the park. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon constantly counsels joy, even in the midst of this vaporous life. Enjoy your wife. Enjoy your children. Enjoy the fruit of your labors. In 1 Timothy 4, Paul tells us it is demonic to forbid those gifts of marriage/sex and food/drink that God has provided richly for our pleasure. This is Satan's way of frustrating God's original creation design, found in the dominion mandate of Genesis 1. Yes, life is full of hardships, and some people's lives are harder than others. We all have a degree of suffering measured out to us in God's wise providence. But amidst the hardships and trials of life, God wants us to taste his gifts and see that he good. He wants us to have a tangible experience of his goodness. So: Feel free to enjoy sports. Feel free to enjoy a tv show. Feel free to enjoy good music. We must never let our guard down in way that would let the world into our hearts to corrupt us, but there are plenty of ways we can enjoy God's world while avoiding defilement. In marriage, never stop pursuing your wife. Enjoy teasing her and flirting with her -- she's bound to enjoy it as well. In your work, do not be so task obsessed that you cannot enjoy the occasional sense of accomplishment from what God has enabled you to do. In family life, your children will be tremendous sources of joy. If you put in the effort to train and discipline them when they are young, you will enjoy being around your kids for decades -- and perhaps get to enjoy your kids' kids as well. The Christian life is the blessed life. God's way of life is the best way to live. God has filled his world with hidden treasure and the Bible its a kind of treasure map -- as we follow its directives, we unearth all kinds of glorious riches along the way. Live life to the fullest, for the sake of your own joy and for the sake of God's glory.