Whenever a book written for men (notoriously known for their lack of interest in reading) sells over one million copies, you can be sure that it has made a clear connection. John Eldredge has called attention to some problems with which most men seem to intuitively resonate.
Our culture (and even our churches) has adopted a strategy that facilitates the feminization of men. Masculinity, with its predilection to adventure and risk, has become a condition to be cured. Consequently, school systems and churches have not taken the unique features of masculinity into consideration when designing curriculum or programs. Our culture, intent on emasculating its boys, has produced a huge sense of withdrawal and boredom from its men.
Eldredge clearly knows how to write to men and (by the testimonies of many) has achieved one of his objectives, which is to give men permission to be men. With all of the good insights Eldredge offers in this book, it is actually a little painful to mention two very significant problems which undermine the entire book.
An unbiblical view of God
The first problem is that Eldredge appeals to a wrong view of God as his foundation for masculinity. Part of his thesis is that men have a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to fight for.
The problem occurs when he tries to project these activities onto the life of God. In the words of the title for chapter two, God is ‘the wild one in whose image we are made’. Eldredge’s description of God and his ‘adventure’ leave the reader with a confusing and unbiblical picture of God.
For him, men are risk-takers and adventure-seekers at heart because God is a risk-taker and adventure-seeker. He claims, ‘God is a person who takes immense risks. No doubt the biggest risk of all was when he gave angels and men free will, including the freedom to reject him – not just once but every single day … there is something much more risky here than we are often willing to admit’.
He goes on to say, ‘[God] did not make Adam and Eve obey him. He took a risk. A staggering risk, with staggering consequences. He let others into his story, and he lets their choices shape it profoundly … God’s willingness to risk is just astounding – far beyond what any of us would do were we in his position’.
While one can appreciate Eldredge’s desire to root his understanding of men in the character and nature of God, these statements do not portray God in the same way that the Bible portrays him – which leaves Eldredge’s understanding of manhood fundamentally flawed.
The Bible depicts God as knowing the beginning from the end. He is aware of our thoughts before we speak them. He knew all about us before we were formed in secret in our mother’s womb. He removes kings and establishes kings. He holds the heart of the king in his hand. He is the potter and we are the clay.
But the language Eldredge uses raises several problems. First, the sovereignty of God is subordinated to man’s freedom. His is a man-centred model that develops a picture of God based on a particular understanding of human relationships. The best approach would be to begin with the nature of God as revealed in Scripture.
Limiting God’s power
Second, if God is taking risks, there are no assurances that God’s purposes will actually be accomplished. If God is uncertain about how his creatures will respond, then how can we really be guaranteed that he will be ultimately victorious over evil in the end?
Third, if Eldredge is correct, there is a diminishment of the power of God, since there is no certainty regarding the outcome of his ‘risky’ decision to create. God’s power would seem to be limited by his creation’s willingness to cooperate.
The biblical view of God’s omnipotence – his ability to bring about his will – shows that God is not subject to or dependant upon his creatures (Isaiah 14:24-27; Matthew 19:26; Ephesians 1:11; Luke 1:37).
A biblical view of manhood should be connected to the roles and responsibilities assigned in Scripture. Why not just argue that while God has made men and women in his image, he has also given them particular roles and functions that correspond to their gender?
This can be easily seen in the warp and woof of Scripture, where men are consistently called upon to lead and protect. In the contexts of homes and the community of faith, they are given the responsibility of headship and oversight.
In cases where men like Moses or Abraham faltered in their courage or faith, they hear from the God of the universe that he will bring about his plan. He is in control. This is where they place their confidence. This is the point from which they draw their strength.
An unbiblical view of the believer
The second problem is that in his effort to encourage men to follow their heart in these matters of masculinity, Eldredge has given a false view of the condition of the heart of a believer.
His line of thinking can be seen in what follows: ‘Too many Christians today are living back in the old covenant. They’ve had Jeremiah 17:9 drilled into them and they walk around believing my heart is deceitfully wicked.
‘Not anymore it’s not. Read the rest of the book. In Jeremiah 31:33, God announces the cure for all that: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people”. I will give you a new heart … You have a new heart. Did you hear me? Your heart is good[his italics].
‘The Big Lie in the church today is that you are nothing more than “a sinner saved by grace”. You are a lot more than that. You are a new creation in Christ’.
These descriptions of the life and heart of the believer drastically misconstrue or overstate the principles behind the doctrines of justification and sanctification. First, to say that the heart of the believer is ‘good’ is not biblical language.
Eldredge makes a jump from the Bible’s use of terms like ‘saint’ and ‘child of God’ to the conclusion that the heart must, in its converted state, be good. He has confused the biblical concept of newness with complete goodness.
There is definitely something new and the beginning of something good. But our confidence is not in the idea of goodness, but in God who started the good work. This is why Paul said to the Philippians, ‘being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 1:6).
The Bible describes the act of justification as a declaration of righteousness upon a heart that is not righteous. In fact, this is at the heart of the Christian message. The righteousness of the believer is not his own, but is the righteousness of Christ.
Not only does Eldredge confuse the doctrine of justification, but he also misrepresents the doctrine of sanctification. Once we are justified by faith in Christ, the indwelling Holy Spirit begins to conform us into the image of the one through whom we were justified.
Only now, through the Holy Spirit, am I able to overcome these sinful inclinations of my flesh. This is not about whether or not my heart is good but about whether or not I will yield to the Holy Spirit in these various battles with the flesh.
Confidence in God
The distortion of these crucial categories has produced an unbiblical and confusing approach to the Christian life. The overtones of this book to follow your ‘new and good’ heart only help to create the ‘false self’ that Eldredge is so intent on destroying.
What men need is a clear picture of who God is and the truth about their own sinful tendencies as they attempt to follow him. What they need to know is that their regenerated heart still has an inclination to sin, but they can overcome their inclinations to sin by the power of the Holy Spirit who indwells them.
They do not need to place confidence in their ‘good’ heart but in the God of the Bible – who is not taking risks, wringing his hands, or waiting to see how all of this turns out.
This review has been shortened. Randy Stinson is the Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He may be contacted at [email protected] or see also http://www.cbmw.org