“What does man gain by all his labor at which he toils under the sun?” Ecclesiastes 1:3
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Robert Browning
With careful precision, a young toddler boy stacks small colored blocks precariously on top of each other. Aware that one bad placement could mean destruction, he slows his pace and steadies his hand to get his tower just a few inches higher. Satisfied with his efforts, he stands back and eyes his accomplishment. Suddenly, as if transformed into some wild beast, he lunges at the wooden structure swinging his arms in abandoned fury. Blocks cascade to the floor and the young boy collapses into giggled euphoria. His delight lasts only a moment before he is set building another in order to repeat the whole process.
Why is this scene so familiar to us? It seems that it gets played out in the life of every boy. What is it about a boy that loves to build towers and tree forts, to dig holes and blow up fireworks, to attack enemies and destroy things?
I believe it is the masculine longing to impact the world. If we are truly honest, this longing is innate in our gender and only deepens as a boy becomes a man. And as with the boy who builds his tower all over again, rarely is our desire ever satisfied. The tension between the desire to impact our world and the disappointment when it does not last or is not enough drives men into a profound vortex known as futility.
I heard this in a conversation between two men at Home Depot a few weeks ago. They were selecting the right nails for their project as we shared the hardware aisle together. One man turned to the other and said passionately, “Too bad I didn’t bring my nail gun!” His friend, a bit confused and annoyed, replied, “Why? We don’t need it. We only have a few nails to put in.” The nail gun man clearly took his friends comment pretty hard. He shot back, “Yeah, but I like to use it and rarely get to.” Did you hear that? The nail gun was this guys chance to come through on this job, to have his strength make a difference in his world. And his friend thwarted him, shut his desire down. My heart sank with his. Futility strikes again.
Work is only one area of life where we men struggle with feeling like we are not enough for the task. We may have a great night with our wives, even pull off romance well, but then we awake to another day of marriage, another day we need to love her. Or take finances. Two days after my paycheck hits the bank account, its devoured by a thousand hungry life needs. Why does our strength never feel like enough?
I think God is responsible for this whole nagging futility deal. Back in Genesis, after Adam and Eve first sinned, God cursed each of them uniquely. Here’s Adams: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life” (3:17). As Dan Allender has pointed out, the curse on Adam affects more than just farming. God levels a blow on Adam in his strength. And on all man as his sons.
God prevents our masculine strength from ever being enough. Its easy to see the curse as the backhand of an angry God. But as John Eldredge says, the curse is actually wildly redemptive. God wounds us as men, gives us a limp so to speak in the place we are wired to come through, right in our strength. And he does it to protect us from living independently, from living the lone ranger life, from living godless. Futility and frustration are meant make us aware that we need God. And lead us back into relationship with Him.
I think God gets to men most often through our anger. God is trying to provoke us. He wants a fight, wants to wrestle with us, and knows that a man must walk into his rage to get his heart. Not every struggle in life is His doing. We do have Satan as an enemy. But most assuredly, some of the struggles in your life come from God. He will trash your life to get to your heart.
A few years ago, while in grad school, I had a string of car problems over a few month period that totaled over $5000. It was terrible. One day during this time, I noticed my muffler was growing especially loud. My heart sank. Here we go again, I thought. I half heartedly turned to prayer, asking God to take care of it, to get me through this, to fix my car. I kid you not, right in the middle of my prayer, my muffler fell completely off. I saw it skid along the road in my rearview mirror. I was enraged. I cussed. I yelled at God. And then the shock of what had just happened actually made me listen to God. He had my attention. And what did I hear?
“I’m trying to get to your heart.”
Next time your world as a man does not work out, next time something on the car breaks or you have some crisis with your wife, and the “I’m not enough” futility gnaws your insides, may you hear God’s invitation back into relationship.