In his classic book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis observed: “Sameness is to be found most among the most ‘natural’ men, not among those who surrender to Christ. How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.”
Reading these words, I can’t help but think of the Christian leaders who claim that God designed specific “roles” for us based on gender. For men, this means being strong, unemotional, rational, and a protector and provider. But is this uniformity what God asks of men? As Lewis observes, this approach better describes tyrants and conquerors than it does the saints. How easily we swallow the myth that “boys don’t cry,” forgetting that male saints, and Jesus himself, often failed to conform to the gender stereotypes of their (or our) day.
Consider Saint Francis of Assisi (1182–1226). An enormously complex individual, Francis was a mystic and the founder of the Franciscan order. He preached to the birds and wept uncontrollably when contemplating Christ. He often wandered about, so absorbed in the adoration of Jesus that he got lost and forgot to eat or sleep for days. He was certain that Christ spoke to him audibly and through visions, calling him to rebuild a church by begging for stones.
Being a breadwinner was the last thing on Francis’s mind. He was committed to poverty, prayer, service, and simplicity. Renouncing his family wealth, Francis showed how dependence on Christ unleashes our liberty and real identity. Unfettered from the cultural expectations of a man in his day, he abandoned himself to Christ, freeing him to pursue his holy passions. They in turn brought enormous renewal to Europe.
What if our paradigms of masculinity, both inside and outside the church, were modeled on leaders like Francis? Too often today, male leaders follow toxic models of masculinity that demand dominance and the subservience of others. They have little tolerance for emotions, empathy, and selfless service. Nothing could be further from Christ’s example.
Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41) and mourned his friend’s death (John 11:33–35). Tender and nurturing, Christ cooked for the disciples (John 21:9), washed their feet (John 13:8), and cared compassionately for the ill (Matt. 9:20–22, 35; Mark 2:9–12; Luke 17:12–16; John 9:6–7) and those who mourned (Mark 5:22–24, 35–43; Luke 7:11–17; John 11:38–44).
He honored women’s lives and work, even using feminine metaphors to illustrate and amplify God’s nearness and motherly protection. He taught that God longs to gather us like children, “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Matt. 23:37b). To show how earnestly God searches for those of us who are lost, Jesus paints God as a woman who lost a priceless coin. Unwilling to rest, she lights her lamp and furiously sweeps the house, searching in every corner until she finds her lost treasure.
God loves each of us as a tender mother. Men should follow this example. When fathers love their children with tender empathy, engagement, and an accessible nearness for their daily concerns, their children benefit. Their sons grow into men less prone to aggression and more inclined to become nurturing fathers themselves. Their daughters are more inclined to excel professionally and are less likely to have children out of marriage.
As Christian men become like Christ, they often defy cultural expectations for men. Intimacy with God frees men to become their true selves and empowers them never to disdain what culture deems and demeans as “feminine.” Men’s vulnerability, emotion, and nurture of others demonstrate their newness of life in Christ. Becoming fully human in Christ, they discover and share a depth of personality that embraces profoundly human ways of knowing and loving as God, self, and others.
God tenderly cares for us like a mother. Jesus nurtured the disciples, caring for their emotional and bodily needs through tears, empathy, and presence. Saints like Francis show us an abandonment to Christ that is demonstrative and counter-cultural for a man. Researchers show that nurturing fathers raise confident daughters and engaged, loving sons. So perhaps the masculinity of “boys don’t cry” is toxic by nature, enforcing gender roles that too often lead to violence and abuse. Our world needs powerful reformers like Francis, men deeply surrendered to Christ, detached from culture, wholly remade in the image of Christ, and unabashedly and fully human.