Doctors have recently coined a phrase that until very recently did not exist: gender dysphoria. There is still controversy in the medical community about the idea, but it means that a person experiences a significant amount of “distress” connected to a feeling that a person's physical gender is not their true gender.
There is much that could be said about this medical condition, but there is a spiritual condition that we could also label “gender dysphoria.” We, too, can experience a level of “distress” that comes from living out our Christian manhood and womanhood.
We might be able to identify easily whether we are a man or a woman. After all, “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). But knowing how to live in light of our gender is another matter. The cultural gives us confusing and often contradictory indicators about manhood and womanhood. A sitcom tells us that men are weak and comical, but another show on Netflix tells us men are brutal and ferocious. One show has a heroine that is physically attractive and scientifically brilliant, but another a mother who wins us with her gentleness and care for others.
And we have our own family histories. Your dad and my dad might have been very different. Your mom and my mom maybe came from entirely different cultural backgrounds.
All of this can be profoundly confusing.
Amidst this cacophony of opinion, Christians must root themselves in God's word—his unchanging foundation of what is true and which defines critical ideas like manhood and womanhood for all times and not just certain generations or nations.
ACT LIKE MEN
The Bible starts with biology and then tells us to act like it. As those made male, we are men. No matter what anyone says or how we feel, we are men. And then God says, “act like it”: “Act like men, be strong” (1 Cor 16:13).
Paul writes this word at the end of his letter to the Corinthian church. It was a church that had disunity, false doctrines, celebrity-worship, and a muddled gospel. His letter was sent to clarify many of these issues for them. But at the end of the letter amidst personal greetings and details about his travels, he fires this cannon blast of five commands: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Cor 16:13-14).
Our focus is on the third and fourth of these: “act like men, be strong.”
THE MEANING OF THESE COMMANDMENTS
The ESV's, “act like men, be strong,” is only two words in Greek (andrizesthe, krataiousthe). The first of these, “act like men,” is used only here in the NT. The second is found only four times, two of which are in Luke 1-2 where John the Baptist and Jesus are both described in their youth as “growing strong in spirit.”
If this were all we had, it would be hard to do much with these commands. But this combination has a long history in the Greek Old Testament. Typically it is translated as “be strong and courageous” in our English Bibles.
It is no accident that “act like men”/“be strong”/“be courageous” joined in our Bibles. There is a unique demand on men to be strong and courageous. Important things are lost if cower and grow weak, and likewise valuable things are achieved if we can be strong and courageous.
In the OT it's used at critical times—last words, commissionings, times when Israel or a king is about to embark on a perilous adventure. Because Paul used these particular verbs in this particular phrase, I believe he wants us to hear those echoes. If we turn to Deuteronomy 31 we can see one powerful occasion for the phrase. This is when Moses is about to die and Israel is about to enter into Canaan. Their first order of business in Canaan will be to eradicate dozens of cities and nations, a sobering reality for a slave nation whose recent history has been spent walking in a desert. Listen to his words:
So Moses continued to speak these words to all Israel. 2 And he said to them, “I am 120 years old today. I am no longer able to go out and come in. The LORD has said to me, 'You shall not go over this Jordan.' 3 The LORD your God himself will go over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, so that you shall dispossess them, and Joshua will go over at your head, as the LORD has spoken. 4 And the LORD will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when he destroyed them. 5 And the LORD will give them over to you, and you shall do to them according to the whole commandment that I have commanded you. 6 Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” 7 Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the LORD has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. (Deut. 31:1-7)
The phrase will follow quickly after this when the Lord challenges Joshua to lead Israel into Canaan. “Be strong and courageous,” he will say, even three times (Joshua 1:6, 7, 9). During the reign of David his chief general Joab will speak this word to the Israelites as they face both the Ammonites and Syrians: “Be of good courage, and let us play the men for our people” (2 Sam 10:12, KJV). David himself will speak this to Solomon as his son is about to ascend to the throne: “Be strong and courageous, and keep the charge of the LORD your God” (1 Kgs 2:2-3).
We need to hear these echoes as we look at Paul's words to the Corinthians. A Jew as immersed in his Bible as Paul is not speaking these words in an off-handed way. They would have been part of his personal theological vocabulary.
From them we can learn five things about acting like men and being strong.
FIRST, “ACT LIKE MEN AND BE STRONG,” BECAUSE WE HAVE VERY REAL ENEMIES
This biblical refrain reminds us that there are very real enemies. Those nations in Canaan (Moses, Joshua), the Ammonites/Syrians (Joab), the challenges that every king faces (Solomon). “Act like men, be strong” is good counsel.
What about us? There are four enemies we can mention.
ENEMY #1: NOT GROWING UP
“Act like men” can speak to bravery: “Act like men, don't fear!” It can also speak to maturity, “Act like men, not children!” Here in Corinthians, one aspect of maturity special attention: relationships.
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (1 Cor 3:1-3)
And in the middle of 1 Corinthians 13 on love:
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. (1 Cor. 13:11)
Duncan Hamilton's powerful biography on Eric Liddell, For the Glory, reveals that Liddell modeled this kind of manly strength vividly during his time as a missionary in China during its war with Japan. Being a missionary in China brought its own hardships, but when the Japanese invaded he eventually ended up in a Japanese internment camp in WWII he tested even more. Yet, he persisted in kindness in face of sins of others. Hamilton said of him,
“In his own way he proved that heroism in war exists beyond churned-up battlefields. His heroism was to be utterly forgiving in the most unforgiving of circumstances.”
Some of us need to consider whether the kind of manly strength required of us is similar, to love others who are acting in unlovely ways.
ENEMY #2: LUST
Sexual lust and sexual immorality are a second enemy of ours. Jesus tells us, “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28). This kind of looking is when you turn back for that second glance or linger too long.
The key in our context here is to see that this is an enemy we must fight. This is an enemy that desires to come into our minds and souls and marriages and families and workplaces and churches and do all the damage it can.
It's an enemy we must fight with tools like www.covenanteyes.com. It's an enemy we must fight by taking control of our digital lives. IPhones and Androids each provide helpful ways to guard against lust if we will take advantage of the controls and apps available to us. Chances are you'll need to develop the humility of personal confession as well, finding those 1-3 people in your life to whom you can confess your struggles and failures.
ENEMY #3: DIGITAL DISTRACTION
Related to this is the enemy of digital distraction. This is where our digital connectedness spills over into digital distractedness. Connectedness makes the world my office and waiting in line at Walmart a chance to send that email to my manager. But distractedness is where I begin to lose my awareness that real people with real lives are standing just feet from me and instead I'm lost on espn.com or a political blog or last quarter’s financials. At times those people with real lives are my spouse and children and long-time friends.
Maybe in order to fight this enemy I need to consider a short-term media fast. Go 1-7 days as unplugged as you can possibly be. The goal here is really to assess whether you are digitally connected in general or digitally distracted.
ENEMY #4: LETTING YOUR PAST DEFINE YOU
A fourth enemy that can crush our ability to “act like men, be strong,” is letting our past define us. It's one thing to acknowledge that our past affects us. And that our past is part of who we are. It's another to let it define us in a way that prevents us from moving forward in godly confidence and obedience. If our past has a lot of regret and failure and sin, we might feel unworthy to step forward and disciple our children or evangelize or lead a ministry at church.
Listen to the way Paul approached his past. Let it inform you:
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Cor. 15:8-10)
Paul was honest about where he came from. He wasn't kidding when he said, “I persecuted the church of God” (v. 9). He is described in Acts 8:3 as “ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” A man who imprisons women because they are Christians has a right to feel humbled by his past. That's why Paul knew he was “unworthy to be called an apostle.” But he also knew the gospel of Christ and the Spirit of God. The gospel brings true forgiveness and the Spirit brings true power to change. So he went forward in his calling as an apostle “by the grace of God.”
Some of us need to hear that. Are there ways that you are letting your past rob you of Christian productivity? This is an enemy that can crush our ability to “act like men.” Your past is a big deal, but get over it. No matter who you are or what you did, get over it. Move forward in light of the gospel of Christ and the Spirit of God.
Consider those four enemies. We need to “be strong” in our day because of enemies like this.
Tomorrow we'll look at four more ways we need to “act like men, be strong” (1 Cor 16:13).