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The Universal Qualities of a Man

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Manhood is not so much about anatomy and age as it is a particular set of character qualities.

When someone is described as “not a man,” we unmistakably know two things about this person:

  1. He is a male. (The statement is not questioning that.)
  2. He is woefully short on some basic character qualities of masculinity.

Manhood is not so much about anatomy and age as it is about a particular type of character. If we did not all have a general idea that manhood is a definite and distinct thing, the statement, “He is not a man,” would have little meaning. But it has immediate meaning, and we take it as a strong rebuke upon the person.

Womanhood is not as laden with inherent moral expectations. Manhood is, and this is necessary to understand in considering what makes a man.

So, what are the character qualities that mark healthy manhood?

To be genuine, these qualities marking manhood should apply generally to men across diverse cultures, not just our own. This reveals what it is that God has placed in humanity and what He has made the man to be, not just what any particular culture expects. As we seek to bring young men into healthy and authentic manhood, we must ask, “What are we shooting for, and what does doing this look like when done successfully?”

This question can be more complex than many assume. One can be a “good man” and quite different in temperament, talents and interests than other men. Teddy Roosevelt was a different kind of “good man” than Abraham Lincoln. Mr. Rogers is not Chuck Norris. Yo-Yo Ma is not Franklin Graham. But these differences do not mean we cannot speak meaningfully and truthfully about what manhood is, and is not. Good men do have basic common qualities.

While certainly not exhaustive or comprehensive, this list is a compilation of many of the most important, widely practiced and culturally expected qualities of manhood according to cultural anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists who have studied the nature of manhood across diverse cultures and time.

  • Courage: A man does not shrink from a necessary challenge, regardless of risk. He will face danger, difficulty and self-denial when called upon for the sake of others.
  • Step Up: A man is the first one out of his seat (figuratively and literally) when a need arises. He’s a problem solver and takes initiative. Passivity is never manly.
  • Provide and Protect: A man has learned how and is willing to provide and care for a particular woman and their common children. He doesn’t skip out on this duty. Even if he never marries, he’s the kind of person who could do this and, in fact, provides for others in various ways. As anthropologist David Gilmore concludes, “A man produces more than he consumes,” and the community benefits from his work and generosity.
  • Self-Reliance: A man can stand on his own and not need to depend on others for his well-being. The Boy Scout Motto is “Be Prepared,” because the man doesn’t want to have to depend on the preparedness of another. He is not a loner though. He is willing to work with others.
  • Honesty and Moral Strength: A man does what is right and calls out others who do not. He deals with others in integrity. Temptation presents itself to every man, but the decisions and actions he takes in light of it significantly determines his manhood. He can be trusted to do what is right when no one is watching. He keeps his word and is dependable to others.
  • Tenacity: A man does not easily give up or shrink away in the face of challenge or adversity. He sticks with it and wants to overcome obstacles. “It can’t be done” doesn’t come to him easily.
  • Self-Control: A man is aware of the proper limits for himself – his strength, appetites, independence, language and power – and respects them. He calls others to do the same.
  • Under Authority: A man recognizes he is under the authority of another – be it a boss, his own father, his pastor and God – and acts accordingly. He is willing to respectfully challenge those in authority when conscience demands, but he is never simply a renegade.
  • Shows Respect: A good man shows respect to himself and those he meets, regardless of their station. He looks them in the eye. Gives another man a firm handshake. Offers words of respect such as “Yes sir/ma’am” or “Thank you, sir.” A man helps others feel valuable.
  • Loyalty: A man is loyal to his family, friends and others who are close to him, even at great price to himself.
  • Humility: A man esteems others as valuable and lifts them up. He does not praise himself. He understands the importance of and strength in apologizing and asking forgiveness when he has offended or let others down.
  • Compassion: This might seem a feminine quality, but a man sees the struggles of the weak and those in trouble and readily comes to their aid. This is a moral strength. A man doesn’t exploit an innocent person’s weakness.
  • He Lives His Character: Lastly, if manhood is a distinct set of character traits, the final quality is that he lives them out in action, and he does so conspicuously in the community.

Manhood is a public quality; womanhood much less so. In fact, hers is generally more private. He is assertive in this. He takes the bull by the horns and is always watchful for opportunities to express them. G. K. Chesterton understood this when he said that manhood shows itself in instances.

A man takes initiative in demonstrating his character. Character not demonstrated is no character at all.

To be sure, women do many of these things. However, they tend to do them differently than men and for often different reasons in different situations. This is easily and intuitively recognized by most people. For instance, women certainly provide for and protect their families. But the world over, we intuitively recognize the ways men and women tend to do it differently. There is no culture where we would be confused as we observe men and women doing these things for the family.

Finally, no man possesses all of these qualities in full measure. But we expect a man to strive for them and will not be pleased with him if too many of them are woefully absent. We say, “He is not a good man” or “He needs to man-up!”

Healthy manhood is a social necessity and must be passed on by older men to the younger. Its qualities must also be expected by women. It cannot develop without both of these. Every culture needs the individual male to achieve these for the good of himself, his family and the larger community. When males do not, they become a significant social problem. This is a human truism.

Our LORD, the Ideal of Manhood

Christianity is unique in that its God became man: fully God, fully man. And it is not just happenstance that He became a man. It was God’s perfect will. Jesus became the ideal of manhood, exhibiting all the qualities of a good man. He was strong, took responsibility for His actions, served and provided for others. He watched out and cared for the weak. He spoke truth faithfully and gracefully. He demonstrated integrity in all He did. He was a man under authority. He stood up to and called out the powerful when necessary. He was the highest example of humility, moral strength, self-control and compassion. Finally, He gave Himself completely and fully for others. He withstoodand overcame the greatest evil in the universe. He was victorious, and He invites each of us to become the beneficiaries of all that He has done for us! That is manhood.

Anyone who wants to learn what a good man is need only study and imitate the life of Jesus. It is right there for us in the Gospels.

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