The Kind of God, The Kind of Man

By Don Neufeld

Masculinity modeled after a distant, harsh, controlling “Father” God has a significant impact on men and those who live with and love them.

As we sat down for their first session of counselling as a couple, Jeremy (not his real name) was quick to confirm that I was a “devoted Christian” and indicated it was important to him that I know that “only one truth” exists on which to base our lives, and by implication, the counselling. His wife indicated she was “struggling with being a godly wife.” Jeremy shared that his wife did not like the word “submission”, but that “God is a God of order”, which for him meant that “when stuff hits the fan there is only one leader”.

In the early sessions it became clear that Jeremy had difficulty hearing his wife and tuning into her deep distress about the state of their relationship. As she indicated, “he fights me on my experiences”. On top of his full-time work as a manager in the service industry that often demanded on-call responsibilities seven days a week, his enthusiastic commitment to his ministry work in their congregation and to the parishioners led his wife to express significant discouragement with not feeling valued in the scope of his priorities.

The graphicness of this actual case example highlights a number of significant themes that characterize some Christian couples that I have worked with in my career as a social worker. The assumed characteristics and role definitions of men, rooted in a specific reading of especially Paul’s letters in the New Testament, ends up looking very much like the dominant, aloof and controlling God of classical Christian theology. Professor Stephen B. Boyd describes such modelling of masculinity after images of God in his book The Men We Long to Be: Beyond Domination to a New Christian Understanding of Manhood. He speaks of how these images legitimize unhealthy characteristics in men such as invulnerability, isolation, and domination.

Further, the order gleaned from scripture of God->Jesus->Man->Woman enshrines a hierarchy between men and women that then becomes the basis of power dynamics in relationships. This amounts to both a privileged position of power and a burden of responsibility that play havoc in men’s lives. This havoc often then falls on those who live with and love men.

Therapeutic work with Christian men, in relationship counselling, in individual and in group work, does well to consider the echoes of these images of God in situations where power has been wielded in destructive ways and emotional distance is evident in relationships. The assumed authority and entitlement of men living under the presumptions about male superiority and privilege too often lead to extremes. This is especially so when normal human insecurities are threatened and powering up becomes the ready answer. This powering up finds implicit and sometimes explicit justification and permission within some streams of Christian teaching and preaching. Messages of compassion and restraint of these human impulses, when present, fall far short of the broader societal endorsements of male dominance and violence.

In relationships with spouses, in parenting, within the workplace or in community settings, misapplied power in the hands of finite men hurts others, and in turn leaves men’s lives and relationships in shambles. Lacking more fully developed toolboxes for life, the hammer continues to be the only available tool for a life that would be much better served by fine instruments of empathy, care and tenderness. Societal messages about true manliness that decry any sign of weakness, trivialize emotionality and honor competitive performance, leave men with deep dilemmas within their lonely selves. They are confronted with the contradictions between how they presume they are supposed to be as men and the outcomes which foster distance, fear and disdain in the eyes of those by whom they long to be loved.

For boys and young men who are schooled in Christian families and communities with a calling to lead, to be the head of the home, to provide and protect, to live up to the image of “Godly men” they are intended to be, the actualities of life can be daunting and ultimately devastating. Striving to establish their legitimacy from the playground to the workplace, from dating to the wedding day, from the locker room to the bedroom, the demands to perform are incessant and often take a deep toll on boys’ and men’s lives.

The looming voices of primarily men in their lives instill the “fear of God” should they fail on this quest. Fathers driven by their own fear of being seen to be inadequate, model their behavior after the dominant images of an angry and cold “Father God” who haunted them in their developmental years, inflicting the same destruction into subsequent generations.

The competitive and performative nature of this type of masculinity can lead to risky, extreme and isolating behaviors. Shame is always knocking at the door as any shortfall is bound to bring external criticism and internal messages of failure that can be overwhelming. The image of a controlling, demanding and harsh God who has presumably instituted these high expectations for men in the Bible, is a dominating presence for many. The need to follow the traditional definitions of masculinity and to enforce their dominant roles in families and communities goes unquestioned, as it is the only picture of masculinity that so many ever witness as legitimate. And with God as the ultimate and unwavering judge, men in good faith simply want to be faithful.

Open and Relational Theism offers relief to the burdens of performance and shame, and opens an avenue to lower the guard of aggression and power. A God who is fully loving and relational invites men to live not in the fear of shame brought on by failure and the threatening presence of an angry “father”, but in a voice that is remarkably gentle and calm offers the potential for peace. Mimicking God’s highest attribute of love, we take our cues for life from Jesus’ life, who modeled sacrificial love including love for enemies and strangers.

Intimate relationships, parenting, and interactions with those in our workplaces and communities, are lived from a place of grounded character-based strength, not through intimidation and detachment. The characteristics and role expectations of men are not simply determined by social mores of First Century society, but an openness exists in which each individual man, and men in general, can participate as full and unique persons according to their gifting and interests. God has joined with his creation as we vision and develop healthier ideas of masculinity. Men join with women to envision and work towards relationships of mutuality, trust and love.

A clinical approach to men who are seeking counsel, whether for troubling behaviors that have prompted pressure from others, for internal states of stress and hopelessness, or due to addictions and risk of self-harm that is so pervasive, requires that we also offer ourselves as agents of such a loving God to bring soothing and hope. Men need invitations to safety and love, even when their behaviors may have caused harm to others or to themselves. An Open and Relational image of God offers a powerful and intriguing alternative that is life-giving. Introducing such a picture of God brings men into a realm of possibility for change. A new paradigm for masculinity arises, and has significant potential to bring healing for men, individually and collectively. God’s love draws men towards lives of peace.

Don Neufeld is a social worker in private practice specializing in services for men. He is the co-editor of Peaceful at Heart: Anabaptist Reflections on Healthy Masculinity (2019) and the co-author of Living that Matters: Honest Conversations for Men of Faith (2023). He is a student in the Master of Theological Studies program at Conrad Grebel University in Waterloo, Ontario.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love