AUTHOR BLOG: Lent, men and resilience in the face of the strong man

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We all like to play with sticky snow that makes snowballs, and lament wet snow that cannot hold together. Fuller Youth Institute has developed the theme of ‘sticky faith’ for young people. They’ve developed it because the church is losing young people when they leave, what has been referred to as, the goldfish bowl of church and are thrown into the open sea of the world – and their faith doesn’t stick.

But have you also noticed the lack of men in the church? According to some recent research, at the current rate of loss there will be no men in the church in this country by 2028. It seems like they could do with learning some ‘sticky faith’ too!

An implicit concept in the idea of sticky faith is resilience, faith that sticks even in difficult circumstances. For men, this would be faith that saw them through such challenges as losing a job, financial worries, or a breakdown in relationships. The specialists from Fuller Youth Institute argue that the way to make faith stick is to notice God through the regular employment of spiritual practices.

The 40 days of Lent (which means spring) is an opportunity for new growth in creating ‘sticky faith’. Forty days is a significant biblical number and it is also the length of time that helps us, psychologically, to break unhelpful habits and start new helpful ones. Making changes stick is not easy. It is why Lent as a season is so important. I first really discovered the power of Lent and 40 days when I read Rick Warren’s bestseller The Purpose Driven Life. Ever since then I have taken Lent seriously. It can change lives, with change that sticks.

One of the problems with creating ‘sticky faith’ with men is that they are presented with a distorted, feminised portrait of Jesus. We need to rediscover a lost portrait of Jesus: He is not gentle Jesus, meek and mild; He does not float around in a nightgown. Mark’s gospel offers us a neglected title for Jesus, one that speaks powerfully to men. Jesus is called the ‘more powerful one’ by John the Baptist (Mark 1:7). In the Greek He is literally ‘the stronger one’.

Who does this make Jesus like? It echoes the portrayal of Yahweh as divine warrior in Isaiah’s new exodus theology.

So Jesus is the divine warrior. But He was also a contemplative. Men like the idea of being a warrior, but how do we get men to take contemplation seriously, because many don’t?

One ancient term for a contemplative is that of a ‘tracker’. The contemplative was someone who tracked ‘the footsteps of the Invisible One’, in the words of a fifth century Bishop, Diadochus of Photike. This is the lost bushcraft of the soul that men need to be reintroduced to if they are going to be changed into the likeness of Christ and develop His resilience. TV programmes by wilderness experts like Bear Grylls and Ray Mears are very popular with men.

Lent is associated with Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, where He battled Satan and contemplated God. It also echoes the story of the Exodus, the people of God in the wilderness journeying from slavery into freedom. Isaiah the prophet talked about a new exodus. As Christians we believe that is what Jesus came to fulfil, and Mark’s gospel takes up this theme.

Lent is also a time for recognising that in order for Jesus to do this, His journey needed to end with the cross and the resurrection. This process begins in Mark’s gospel with Jesus ‘the stronger one’ binding Satan ‘the strong one’ (Mark 3:22-27) at the beginning of His ministry.

It is on the cross that He completes His eschatological victory over Satan, death and sin. That victory, won in principle, needs now to be won in reality in the present through hard conflict. Men who are caught in bitter existential battles with lust, greed, power and the slavery of the economic system – who are caught in addictions to pornography, alcohol, drugs and the emptiness of competing in the arena of consumerism – need to hear the language of the strong man being bound in their lives. This language needs to be part of their spiritual rebirth. Forty days of wrestling with these addictions this Lent might just be the breakthrough they need.

In my pastoral experience and in running a men’s group, and counselling men, helping them use the language of binding the strong man in their spiritual life is very important, as is asking them what is the strong man that needs binding. Which inner demon afflicts them the most, to use the language of the earliest Christian psychologists, the Desert Fathers? The afflictive thoughts they identified are still the ones that need wrestling with: gluttony, lust and greed; anger, sadness and spiritual apathy, or carelessness; vanity and pride.

We may have opened the door to Christ, but very often we fail to close the door to Satan; very often we fail to close the door on our sinful thought patterns. These thoughts are tracked and transformed through spiritual practices like Lectio Divina (a slow, prayerful tracking of God through reading Scripture in a meditative way) and the Jesus Prayer, the simple repetition with our breath of the ancient words, ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,’ which enables us to become aware of the presence of God. They also enable us to step back from the catastrophic thinking that can spin us into depression, anxiety or even suicidal thoughts, when we face redundancy or other difficulties, and help us to notice the small details of God still involved in our lives.

We need to go back to Scripture to recapture the true image of Jesus and men, and we need to go back to more ancient traditions than our own to challenge our thinking. Lent is a perfect opportunity to unplug from the things that drive us and consume us.

But just as we need to get our children to notice God more, and learn to pay attention to Him, so we need to do that with men. They need to be taught how to track God again, to relearn the joy, to borrow the words of a wilderness expert, of tracking the Mystery to its Source.

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