By Cole Feix
It’s lonely at the top. Relentless hard work, insatiable drive, and the will to win make the man. Heroes are the ones who rise above the crowds; they’re the ones who put the team on their back. They make the shot when it’s do or die. But nobody is larger than life.
At 22, Muhammad Ali was the greatest boxer in the world. His 6’3”, 200 lb frame was stunning. Every time he stepped in the ring, the world paid attention. Over the course of his career he only lost 5 times, and by all accounts he will forever be known as one of the greatest of all time. But his prime was short lived.
In 1984, just 20 years after he became the heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali made a tragic announcement; he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. It’s heartbreaking. By the time he was 60, the heavyweight champ couldn’t dress himself. To this day, care specialists get him up in the morning, bathe him and take care of him. He can’t talk. He can barely move. How could this happen? Muhammad Ali didn’t need anybody. He was a titan. Now, he’s at the mercy of a team of nurses and loved ones.
Individualism is a charade. There’s not a man alive who hasn’t wished to be a hero; it’s part of who we are. The problem is that we’ve lost sight of what manhood really looks like. God’s plan for manhood has become so perverted that we worship the qualities that are fleeting and ignore the ones that are eternal. Individualism lies at the heart of this perversion. With sin-blinded eyes, we begin to read the Bible like this too. Characters like Paul, who were deeply entrenched in community, have become individualist icons. For many men today, the fact that Paul was single, traveling, innovative, and audacious means that he must have been a lone wolf type character, but reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Paul knew that manhood consisted not in isolating himself, or building his identity in his own accomplishments, but in transparency, forgiveness, and prayer as community activities. Men are called to be community builders. Colossians 4:7-18 provides a window into Paul’s life, his community, and these three essential qualities.
Paul traveled with a large group of people over the course of his ministry. The last few verses of his letters, although so often forgotten and skipped over, dispel any possibility that Paul lived and traveled in isolation. The majority of his letters begin by stating that he is writing with other Christian men, and they end listing dozens of men and women who are serving alongside him. In fact, more than 50 people laboring for the gospel in the early church appear in the final verses of Paul’s letters. Colossians 4:7-9 shows us the kind of transparency that Paul walked in,
“Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts.”
Transparency is scary. We do not want other people to know us deeply and intimately because we’re afraid of what they might think. We’re afraid of what they might tell others. These are rational fears, but they are not Christian fears. In fact, they rob us of some of the most life-giving pieces of our relationships. Paul’s friends were around him all the time. They saw him at his best and at his worst. He was completely known. They were with him when he preached the gospel and people believed. They were with him when he was beaten for turning the world upside down. They endured sleepless nights with him, persecutions, suffering, and imprisonments. In all of this, Paul trusted them with his message, “And you, who were once alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.” If ever there was a message that could be discredited by personal flaws, this was it.
However, Paul was flawed. He did fall short. He was imperfect. The beauty of the gospel is that this is true for everyone. Jesus did not come to preach a message about perfection and sinlessness that we cannot identify with, but one that strikes us at the core of who we are. As people got to know Paul more deeply, they saw layer after layer of grace. He did not have to fear transparency, and he did not shy away from honest community because his heart, mind, and body were totally given to Christ. Because he opened himself up in this way, his community could see him, love him, encourage him, correct him, and walk with him. We miss out on the richest parts of Christian relationships when we don’t give anyone the opportunity to know everything about us and love us anyway.
The second part of this passage exposes what might be the next most prominent feature of anemic individualistic manhood, asking for forgiveness, “Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instruction – if he comes to you welcome him).” Paul and John Mark go back a long way. On their first missionary journey, John Mark abandoned Paul and Barnabas in Paphos to return home to Jerusalem. The next time they were preparing to leave, Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them. After all, can you imagine how awkward the next family Christmas would be if he hadn’t… But Paul strongly opposed him. Their disagreement was so severe that they parted ways. Barnabas took Mark and Paul took Silas, and they went their separate ways.
Now, more than ten years later, Paul’s view of John Mark has dramatically changed. We are left to wonder about the conversations they must have had. There was a lot that must have changed in John Mark, but Paul must also have expressed humility in order to bring this end about. We are not left to speculate about the way this relationship ended. In Paul’s last letter, he wrote, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me in ministry.”
Relationships are messy. Living in community means we will need to become experts in forgiveness, both giving it and receiving it. We’ve been taught that real men don’t apologize, but we know better. The saddest thing about this perversion of manhood is not the men who refuse to apologize, it is the generation of men who have been wounded by their heroes and never restored. We are all in need of older men who will be honest about their mistakes, humble themselves by asking for forgiveness, and showing us how to walk in a community of restoration.
In the last section of this passage, Paul commends one of his fellow laborers for his prayers on behalf of the Colossians. Almost every letter of Paul’s begins or ends with prayer. In fact, he writes about praying so much that you have to wonder how he got anything else done! The language Paul uses is remarkable. He writes, “Epaphras… always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.” Epaphras was from Colossae, and even in his time away, he spent time struggling for them in prayer. The burden he had for his community was so contagious that Paul shared his concerns, and no doubt the two of them prayed together frequently for this young church.
A life of prayer is one of dependence, struggle, and community. Everything about prayer displays our need for others. We need God desperately, and so we plead with him, not only for what we desire, but for our own good and transformation. We need others desperately, and so we intercede for them, we pray with them, and as we do those things, we grow with them. A man flying solo has no need to pray, has no one to pray for, and has no one praying for him.
While we will continue to be told that men walk alone, we know that we are called to be community leaders. Men are not called to build themselves up, no matter how titanic they might become. God has called men to openly and humbly lead within community. Manhood is not found in acts of valor that lead to earthly exaltation, but in transparency, forgiveness, and prayer that lead to godly growth.
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