Redefining What It Means to Be a "Godly Man


God wants men to be courageous and fierce, says John Eldredge, author of Wild at Heart. The bestselling book sees the men's movement through a Christian lens, urging men to overcome the stereotype of Jesus as a "bearded Mr. Rogers." Beliefnet's Editor in Chief spoke with Eldredge about how men can reclaim passion and adventure as part of their faith.

SW: You write that Christianity as it currently exists has done some "terrible things" to men. What do you mean by that?

JE: Christianity has basically communicated to men that the reason God put you on this earth is to be a good boy. Mind your manners, be a nice guy. Thatís soul killing! Itís not true, and for a man to hear the message that the greatest achievement of his life is simply not rocking the boat, not offending anyone, not taking any risks but just being a genuinely swell guy — that kills him.

His nature is made for something much more dramatic. Hereís how you can tell: look at the games boys play or the films men love. Boys want risk, adventure, danger, exploration. Why do men love maps? Women donít love maps.

Look at the films men love, whether it's Chariots of Fire, Schindler's List, The Shawshank Redemption, the Die Hard films, Indiana Jones, or James Bond. They all involve a challenge, a great battle, something to be won, some deep hardship to be faced and overcome. Thatís the soul of a man. To tell him that youíre really not made for that, that what God really wants is for you to be an altar boy, kills a man. It takes all the passion out of life.

SW: Related to that, you argue that Christians misunderstand Christ.

JE: Good grief, look at the images weíve been given of Jesus Christ, particularly from our Sunday school years. The pictures of Jesus we were given — in fact, the only pictures I have ever seen of Jesus in any church — are 'gentle Jesus, meek and mild.' Heís got a lamb on his shoulders. Or heís sitting in a field with children on his knees, looking for all the world like Mr. Rogers with a beard! Heís the sweetest guy you could possibly meet. And men canít relate to that, frankly.

You look at that guy and you say, "Heís a weenie!" This is not a man I would follow on the beaches of Normandy. This is not a man who would lead me in a protest against apartheid. This is not a man who would teach me how to romance a woman. I mean this guy can't even drive a car, I bet.

So weíve really misunderstood who Christ is. Weíve emasculated Christ and weíve emasculated men in the church.

It's a very inaccurate reading of Jesus. Heís called the Lion of Judah, for heavenís sake. When he comes back, the scriptures describe him as riding a white horse with his robe dipped in blood! He is not sweet. Heís loving, but he is also fierce and immensely brave. I think heís a whole lot more like Braveheart — William Wallace — than Mr. Rogers.

SW: Whatís been the reaction to that message as youíve talked to Christian audiences?

JE: A wild fire. Men are just desperate to hear a message of freedom, passion, validation. Even better, women are writing and calling, saying, "I donít know what you did to my husband, but Iíll take him and you can keep the other one."

The modern man has this dilemma between striving for his passion and being with his family. They're not always incompatible, but sometimes they are. You write that sometimes a man has do it, even it means less time with his family.

I understand the tension because I live it myself. Iím married. I have three children. I have a mortgage to pay. The plumbing breaks and the yard needs trimming. However, what my wife and children need most from me is my passion for them. They need a man alive. A dead man does them no good. A man who is bored, depressed, in resignation about life — if that man spends 40 hours with his family each week, heís doing them no good. Before you can love well, and offer them passion and aliveness, you have to go get that.

Donít ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself, "What makes me come alive?" Because what the world — a wife, a child — needs is men who have come alive.

Yes, there are times when I have to sacrifice my desires on their behalf. Ultimately, where this message comes out is, God made men in the image of his strength. Not just big muscles — I mean soulful strength, courage, daring, and a fierceness.

It was men who stopped slavery. It was men who ran up the stairs in the Twin Towers to rescue people. It was men who gave up their seats on the lifeboats of the Titanic. Men are made to take risks and live passionately on behalf of others. Ultimately, Iím not encouraging selfishness. I'm saying, go get your heart back so you can offer it to those you love.

SW: My favorite anecdote involves your son rock climbing. Could you tell us about that?

JE: I was rock climbing with my three sons, Sam, Blaine and Luke. They love to climb. Theyíre going to climb anything anyway — the fence, the refrigerator, the neighbors. So we sanctify it and do it up right with ropes at some rocks near our house. Sam is a typical first born, somewhat cautious, hesitant and fearful. He was climbing up the rock. Heís perfectly safe; he couldnít fall more than four inches because of the rope. But when you get up there you feel the height and itís a little hairy.

He hits this one spot where he gets scared. "I think I ought to back down.Ē I said, "If you want to come back down, come on down." He was beginning to get teary. I said, "Thereís no pressure. Youíve got nothing to prove. Let's try something else."

He says, ďNo, I want to do this.Ē

You know that shop talk sometimes men do with sons? "Hey, great move!" I was doing that, and said, ďHey, you are a wild man!Ē

He makes it to the top. Maybe 15 minutes later he sort of sidles up to me and says, "Dad, did you really think I was a wild man up there?"

That is the question that every boy is asking, in some way, of his father. The boy wants to know, "Am I real man? Do I have what it takes?"

Every man needs a battle to fight, an adventure to live and a beauty to rescue.

SW: A lot of the book's examples of adventure involve conquering physical obstacles in the wild. Do you think it's important to have a physical element?

JE: I do. Especially for boys and growing up to be men. For the most part, boys are very physical. Itís not enough for them to be told they have what it takes and they have greatness. They have to discover for themselves. We learn by doing. The doing has to be somewhat physical.

I donít believe the physical adventures are the most difficult. Try intimacy if you want to get scary. The greater adventures are walking with God. In the scriptures, every time God gets hold of a man, he takes him into an adventure. He calls Abraham to lead a culture, leave his job and home to go with a God heís just recently met. The spiritual adventures are the most risky because the stakes are the highest.

SW: Here I am sitting in the middle of Manhattan, surrounded by Starbucks, with no mountains to climb. Whatís the message for us city slickers who are not going to get to the woods any time soon?

JE: You have adventures daily. Getting to your car late at night happens to be one, getting a seat on the metro might be another. The important thing is that when a man chooses a life of safety, something inside him dies. Unfortunately, most men want to create an entire world around them where everything is predictable and everything is under their control. I think adventure is waiting us wherever we turn. It may be starting a new career. It may be the joining a fellowship of men and developing male friendships. It might be the adventure of pursuing a woman to be your wife — to court her, to win her. Thereís adventure all around us. When we play it safe, we die. Something in our soul goes dormant, goes underground and we lose our passion for life.

But I do want to add for the city slickers — because I worked in Washington, D.C. — that you still need to get out, whether itís bike riding or raquetball. I do believe a man needs to be physical. And you have to understand, I weigh 135 pounds. Iím five feet nothing. Iím not some athlete. Iíve just discovered that we learn by doing and some of that doing involves getting out.

SW: Can women, and do women naturally, have that same desire, that need for fighting battles and having strength?

JE: No. Ask one. She will tell you it's not so much a battle to fight, but she longs to be fought for. Every woman longs to be pursued, to know sheís worth fighting for. I do think women long for adventure, but they very rarely long for adventure alone. They want a shared adventure. They donít want to be left at home. They want to be caught up in a great adventure.

I took my wife and sons with me to Alaska, into a great adventure. We went sea kayaking. We took hikes. Women do long for adventure. They donít want to be on the front lines fighting the battles, but they want to know thereís a man who wants to fight for them.

SW: You talk about a beauty to fight for. Do you mean physical beauty?

JE: Yes and no. To say physical beauty doesnít matter is ridiculous. Just look at culture since the dawn of time. Weíve always recognized beauty as one of the great virtues — not just beauty in a woman, but beauty in music, in art, in nature. We crave beauty as human beings. And for men, thereís nothing as captivating as the beauty of a woman.

My position is this: Every woman is beautiful. Iíve seen it happen in my counseling practice. When sheís in love, what you would call a plain or ordinary or dull woman comes alive and actually becomes radiant.

But of course I mean more than physical beauty — itís a soulful beauty, a spiritual beauty. Iíve seen 80-year-old women who are lovely because of who and what they are. Do they have the figure they had when they were 21? Of course not. But something about them makes you say, ďnow that is a lovely woman.Ē

SW: Can the ďbeauty to fight forĒ be another man?

JE: I donít believe so, not on a sexual level, because according to the Christian tradition, God creates a man and a woman and they shall become one flesh. The design — physically, emotionally, spiritually — is undeniable. The genders fit together.

I believe men need the love of other men. Starting off, a boy needs the love of a father. I mean touch, hugs, wrestling, time, words. If a man does not receive that from his father, he craves it for the rest of his life. If you go back into the story of most men who feel that what they have is a homosexual nature or longing, youíll find that every one of them had a bad relationship with their father. What theyíre looking for is masculine love. Thatís good. But theyíve sexualized it, and I think thatís wrong.

SW: Is Christ the only way to heal the wounds?

JE: Every man does carry a wound in his soul. You donít get out of this life without it. Life is brutal on any human being. But the deepest wound is the "father wound." Little boys or little girls learn gender identity from our fathers. The little boy wants to learn from his father, "Do I have what it takes?" The little girl wants to know from her father, "Am I lovely?" If you ask women, theyíll say that their deepest wound is from their father and centers around that question.

How do we get that wound healed? For many of us, our fathers are gone — or if we went back to them, theyíd wound us again. Theyíre not good men. I think thatís why, among other reasons, God is portrayed in the scriptures as a loving father. We take our need from our earthly father and bring it to our spiritual father, our real creator and the one who truly knows us, knows us more deeply than we know ourselves. Only through God can the wounds ultimately heal.

SW: The flip side is the role of Satan in helping to create the wound. You write that the Enemy wants us weak.

JE: Yes, absolutely. Until we live like we have an enemy, we will not understand life. The problem of evil is the ancient philosophical problem. We try to fix the blame on all sorts of sacrificial goats — we choose political systems or our mother-in-law. We blame our boss, a policy, or a race of people.

But we are mistaken. We are told and warned that there is an evil in the universe which is spiritual in nature, ancient, and quite personal. If we live like that, life will begin to come into crystal-clear focus. Weíll begin to see that there is someone who hates us and really wishes us harm.

That will help us not to blame others. Itís not your wife and it wasnít even your father, to be honest. Your father may have been a wicked man, but he was being used by that Ancient Evil — the Evil One — to harm us. I believe Satan hates glory wherever he sees it. He hates it in God and he hates it in human beings because human beings are in the image of God. We really were meant to be glorious.

The story of many peopleís lives is the long story on the assault on their glory.

SW: Some of our readers will be listening to part of your message, but will say, "I donít believe in Satan or that Christ is the way to heal the wounds." If you donít believe those two things, whatís the relevance of your message?

JE: Aristotle said long ago that if you want to know what is good — the good — simply look at the conditions under which human beings flourish. Human beings flourish where there is love, for example, and not hatred. Human beings flourish where there is freedom and not tyranny. Those things are universal.

I think the message of Wild at Heart is universal at this level: that men long for freedom and passion; they long for a cause, a battle; they long for an adventure with a beauty. They cannot be happy without those things. They will not flourish as men and their women will not flourish as women without them. So thereís a universal truth in this. If we will simply follow it honestly, weíll discover that the only reason this could be universal must be because thereís some great good behind it all that wired the universe this way. God.


Steven Waldman. "Redefining What It Means to Be a "Godly Man." (November, 2002).

This article reprinted with permission from


Steven Waldman is Editor-in-Chief of

Copyright © 2002

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