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Play the Man: Becoming the Man God Created You to Be

Play the Man: Becoming the Man God Created You to Be

by Mark Batterson

Learn More | Meet Mark Batterson


Tough as Nails

The First Virtue of Manhood: Tough Love

Behold, their brave men cry in the streets.

    —Isaiah 33:7 NASB

May 20, 1927

Roosevelt Field, Long Island

At 7:52 a.m., a twenty-five-year-old pilot named Charles Lindbergh fired up his single-seat, single-engine airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Lindbergh almost ran out of runway before takeoff, but no brakes meant no turning back! Thirtythree hours, thirty minutes, and thirty seconds later, Lindbergh touched down in an airfield outside Paris, becoming the first person to make a solo nonstop transatlantic flight.

Half a dozen pilots before him had failed, buried at sea. And Lindbergh’s flying résumé paled in comparison to theirs. He was a mail pilot with a handful of barnstorming events under his belt. But what he lacked in experience, he more than made up for with mental toughness.

Lindbergh had no radio and no fuel gauge. He also got next to no sleep the night before! Because of weight limitations, Lindbergh hardly packed anything, not even a toothbrush. He only took one quart of water and five ham and chicken sandwiches. He ate only one of them.

Through the darkness of a moonless night, Lindbergh aimed at Europe. He flew as high as ten thousand feet and as low as ten feet, fighting thousands of miles of fog over the Atlantic Ocean. Lindbergh got the first hint that land was nearby when he saw a fishing boat as morning dawned on the second day. He closed the throttle and circled the boat, yelling, “Which way is Ireland?” The poor fisherman either didn’t speak English or was too spooked to answer.

As the sun set for the second time in his epic journey, the lights of Le Bourget paved the way to Paris. He circled the Eiffel Tower, then flew toward what he thought would be an empty airfield. He found the airfield all right, but it wasn’t empty. Instead, a huge crowd crying, “Vive!” gave Lindbergh a hero’s welcome. Lindbergh won not only the $25,000 Orteig Prize for the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris, but he also won the hearts of people around the world.

The day after his flight, newspapers ran 250,000 stories totaling thirty-six million words. One publication called it “the greatest event since the resurrection.” Lindbergh received so much fan mail—3.5 million letters—that thirty-eight Western Union employees were assigned to manage his mail.

So how did Lindbergh do it? How did he succeed in doing something so many others had failed to do? How did he endure the fog, the fear, the fatigue?

Here’s my theory.

During the darkest hours of the night, I bet Charles Lindbergh thought of his grandfather, August Lindbergh.

In 1859, August Lindbergh immigrated to America from Sweden and found work at a sawmill in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Two years later, Lindbergh fell into a whirring saw blade that tore through his upper torso. It left such a gaping hole that one eyewitness said they could see his beating heart.

A half-conscious Lindbergh was carried home, where he waited three days for a doctor! When the doctor finally reached Lindbergh, he amputated what was left of his arm and sewed up the hole. Now, here’s the amazing thing: August Lindbergh didn’t scream or cry. Not even an “ouch!” He toughed it out, suffering in silence.

With a grandfather like that, is it any wonder Charles crossed the Atlantic? Compared to all the pain and agony that his grandfather endured, a solo flight across the Atlantic was a cakewalk.

Toughen Up

Next time someone complains a little too much about their aches and pains, tell them about August Lindbergh. I actually tried this with my youngest son, Josiah, when he was twelve years old. He might have been a tad too young for that gory story, but it worked like a charm. He quit complaining!

Reality check: most of our problems are first-world problems.

My wife, Lora, recently spent several days in a Syrian refugee camp on the border of Greece and Macedonia. The horrors that many of those refugees have endured is unconscionable— homes destroyed by bombs, families torn apart by civil war, children drowned at sea trying to escape. We have Syrian refugee friends who recently immigrated to the United States who actually buried their sixteen-year-old son alive for nine hours to protect him from being forcibly recruited to join ISIS. That will put your problems into perspective in a hurry.

The refugees can’t go back home to Syria because their houses are destroyed, and they can’t go forward because of a barbed-wire fence at the border. It’s not unlike the situation the Israelite refugees found themselves in after the exodus— trapped between an uncrossable Red Sea and a stampeding Egyptian army.

That’s a tough spot.

We, however, get frustrated when we miss a connecting flight or can’t hook up to the internet. Really? We get upset over a thirty-minute delay before boarding a 450-ton Boeing 747 that will soar to thirty thousand feet in the air and get us wherever we want to go at half the speed of sound. We need to keep checking our perspective.

Sometimes we need to lighten up.

Sometimes we need to toughen up.

I’m not advocating wholesale stoicism. I am advocating a single virtue—toughness. It comes in lots of shapes and sizes, from physical toughness to mental toughness. But in this chapter I want to focus on the rarest form of toughness— tough love. That’s the first virtue of manhood.

Tough love is far more difficult to attain than physical toughness, and far more important. It sets the men apart from the boys! A tough guy isn’t someone who can blacken an eye or bloody a nose; it’s someone who is willing to be nailed to a cross for someone they love.

Playing the man is tough love!

Take Up Your Cross

When you hear the phrase “tough guy,” who do you think of? Some people think of baseball iron man Cal Ripken or NFL icon Brett Favre. Or perhaps you recall your favorite film hero. Certainly William Wallace or Maximus Decimus Meridius come to mind for many! And they qualify as tough guys, no doubt.

But none of them carried a cross to Golgotha and then allowed themselves to be hammered to it with seven-inch nails. And if we had been eyewitnesses to the crucifixion, we wouldn’t read Luke 9:23 the same way:

    Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

Take up your cross.

We say it so effortlessly, so flippantly. But that’s because we read it figuratively. It’s estimated that a Roman cross weighed three hundred pounds, and even if Jesus carried only the crossbar, it was still placed on raw flesh that had just been flogged! And He carried it no less than 650 yards down the Via Dolorosa.

When I say “tough as nails,” this is what I mean. It’s the epitome of toughness. Being a tough guy doesn’t mean sticking up for yourself when you get offended. A true tough guy sacrifices himself for the sake of others.

Jesus didn’t just carry a three-hundred-pound cross; He carried the weight of the world. Every offense ever committed was placed on His shoulders, and He carried it all the way to Calvary.

Love Who?

In 1992, a grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan made front-page news. For years, Larry Trapp terrorized a Jewish leader in his community named Michael Weisser, making death threats against him and his synagogue. Then one day Larry tore his Nazi flags, destroyed his hate literature, and renounced the KKK. Why? Because when Larry Trapp was dying of a diabetes-related kidney disease and unable to care for himself, Michael Weisser took him into his home and cared for him. “He showed me so much love,” said Larry Trapp, “that I could not help but love [him] back.”

That’s tough love!

    Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Tough love is loving others when they least expect it and least deserve it.

The message of the gospel can be captured in two words: love conquers. But that love is not the puppy love our culture celebrates à la The Bachelorette. It’s a long-suffering love. It’s a love that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. It’s a love that even loves its enemies.

Tough love is sacrificial love—a love that is willing to be nailed to a cross for someone else’s sin. Tough love is unconditional love—a love that is not dictated by someone else’s performance. Tough love is covenantal love—for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.

It’s easy loving your wife when everything is going great, right? When it’s not going great, it’s not so easy. Why? Because our love tends to be reactive. Tough love is proactive. It’s not a need-seeking love; it’s a need-meeting love. It doesn’t seek validation, because it doesn’t need any! It adds value to the beloved!

One of the great mistakes we make is thinking that God feels about us the same way we feel about ourselves. So we project our imperfections onto God. The reality is this: there is nothing you can do to make God love you any more or any less than He already does. God loves you perfectly, eternally.

I know you know that, but do you believe it?

Simply put: you mean the cross to Christ.

When we are at our worst, God is at His best. Think of it as the sacrifice of love, and like the sacrifice of praise, it may be the most meaningful form of love because it means loving someone when you least feel like it.

Unbar the Doors

I recently spoke to a conference of pastors in Great Britain, and my speaking slot happened to be right after Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury. Not an easy act to follow! I pastor a church that is twenty years old, and I can hardly believe it’s been twenty years. Archbishop Welby pastors a church that dates all the way back to AD 509. He’s the 105th archbishop in a lineage that traces to Augustine of Canterbury.

During his talk, Archbishop Welby shared a story about Thomas Becket, one of his predecessors, who was murdered in 1171. Archbishop Becket and King Henry II didn’t get along so well. In fact, the king said something to the effect of, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four knights interpreted that question as a royal command and set out to confront the archbishop. Arriving on December 29, 1170, they hid their weapons under a tree outside Canterbury Cathedral and their armor under their cloaks. When Becket refused to go with them peaceably, the knights retrieved their swords. The archbishop’s clerics told him to bar the doors of the cathedral, but Becket did the opposite. “Unbar the doors!” he shouted. “Unbar the doors!”

This is rather gruesome, but the crown of Becket’s head was cut off, his brains spilling out. Becket’s blood dyed the floor of the cathedral a crimson red.

It’s on the very spot where Becket’s blood was spilled that his assassination is rehearsed every year with the presiding archbishop playing the role of Becket. It’s a solemn ritual, a profound reminder that, in the words of Archbishop Welby: “What we believe is worth dying for.”

So let me ask you this: Is your version of Christianity worth dying for?

It was for Thomas Becket. It was for eleven of the twelve apostles who were mercilessly martyred for their faith. And it was for an eighty-six-year-old bishop named Polycarp who played the man.

How about you?

Anger Issues

In Rocky III, Rocky’s rematch with Clubber Lang is a classic fight scene. Rocky takes it on the chin over and over and over, but he does it intentionally, mockingly. “You ain’t so bad,” he says, taunting Lang. “C’mon. You ain’t so bad. You ain’t so bad.” His confused manager, Apollo Creed, calls it crazy: “He’s getting killed!” Rocky’s brother-inlaw, Paulie, calls it strategy. “He’s not getting killed, he’s getting mad.”

We think of anger as being sinful, but sometimes not getting angry is sinful. The key is getting angry about the right thing, at the right time, in the right way. In the words of Aristotle, “Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power, that is not easy.”

Anger is not sin. In fact, Scripture uses the strongest type of anger, hate, to describe how we should feel about sin. And if we hated sin more, we might do it less! Now, if that gets translated the wrong way, it’s extremely dangerous. It’s sin, not sinners.

Jesus got mad.

He got mad at the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He got mad at death when it robbed Him of His friend Lazarus. He got mad at the disciples when they tried to deter Him from the cross. He got mad at the money changers who turned the temple into a den of thieves, and then He threw a temple tantrum!

That’s tough love!

Now, here’s a little tip. If you try to play God instead of playing the man, it won’t work out so well. When you try to do God’s job for Him, it backfires. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict; it’s your job to love.

We all have anger issues. It’s important that we ask ourselves, What am I getting angry at? Some of us beat ourselves up because of the mistakes we’ve made, but those self-inflicted wounds undermine what God is trying to do in us and through us. Sometimes we get mad at God, thinking He is responsible for something that has happened in our lives. If we’re going to get mad, we should get mad at the one who kills, steals, and destroys.

Here’s some homework: take an anger inventory.

When do you get angry? Why? And what is the outcome? Do an anger autopsy. That’s how you identify your triggers. Nine times out of ten, the trigger is not getting what you want when you want it. Which brings us right back to selfishness. You have to identify your sin triggers so you can lock the trigger instead of pulling it.

Thou Shalt Offend Pharisees

“Who am I going to offend?”

That is one of the most important questions a man has to ask himself—and answer. This I promise you: you’re going to offend someone! So who will it be? If you’re afraid of offending people, you’ll offend God. If you’re afraid of offending God, you’ll offend people. It’s one or the other!

My advice? Offend Pharisees! That’s what Jesus did, and He did it with great intentionality and consistency.

I’m naturally a peacemaker, and that can be Christlike. But sometimes keeping the peace is just conflict avoidance. Yes, Jesus calmed the storm. But He also rocked the boat! Jesus didn’t avoid conflict; He often caused it. Why? Because Jesus knew that conflict, not comfort, is the catalyst for growth.

Orson Welles gives a famous speech in The Third Man:

    In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed—but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

My apologies to Swiss readers, but I rest my case!

One of the biggest mistakes I made as a young leader was trying to make everyone comfortable, but in the long run that doesn’t do anybody any favors. I’ve since redefined my job description as a pastor. My job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and the latter is not less loving than the former. It’s more so!

Comforting the afflicted is love.

Afflicting the comfortable is tough love.

It is so much easier to just avoid conflict, isn’t it? So we delay discipline, but in the long run that hurts more than it helps. Or we postpone tough conversations because we lack the emotional energy or courage.

Tough love demands tough decisions, tough conversations.

Jesus could have healed any day of the week, but He often chose the Sabbath. Why? Because He knew it’d be twice as fun! Why not kill two birds with one stone? Heal sick bodies while getting under the thin skin of the self-righteous Pharisees. Jesus knew it would get their goat, and that’s why He did it. He was goading them. And that’s what you do when you love someone. It’s called tough love.

    The words of the wise are like goads.

A goad was a spiked stick used for driving cattle. Sometimes we have to say something hurtful in order to be helpful. If we fail to confront someone in their sin, we settle for the status quo. And that’s not loving! If we really love them, if we really believe in them—then we goad them like a cattle driver. Now, let me nuance this a little bit, because it’s not a license to hurt people.

You have to use the right words, at the right time, in the right spirit. If you have an agenda, keep your hurtful words to yourself. If you’re simply venting your frustration or saying something that will make you feel better about yourself, then don’t bother, because it will backfire.

You must genuinely have the other person’s best interest at heart. And bookend your goading with lots of affirmation. That’s how you speak the truth in love.

As I look back on my life, you know who I respect the most? It’s not those who “took it easy on me.” It’s those who pushed me to my potential, then pushed me past it. I didn’t always like it at the time, but their goading led to growth.

Who do you need to goad?

And who have you licensed to goad you?

Playing the man doesn’t allow pussyfooting. Postponing tough conversations only makes them more difficult. It also robs us of the opportunity for growth.

Iron doesn’t sharpen iron without friction.


When I was a kid, I wore a brand of blue jeans called Toughskins. The reinforced knees were a blend of Dacron Type 59 polyester and DuPont 420 nylon. Those jeans came with a money-back guarantee that kids would outgrow them before they outwore them.

One of my frequently repeated prayers for my children is that they would have a soft heart toward God and toward their mom and dad. But that soft heart is best protected by tough skin. Thin skin doesn’t cut it—it’s too often injured, too easily offended.

One of my annual rituals is choosing a verse of the year. The verse I chose a few years ago was Proverbs 19:11: “It is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.” It was the same year I released a book, The Circle Maker, which has sold more copies than any of my other books but has also garnered its fair share of criticism. It’s no fun being falsely accused of false teaching or false motives. And I could have swallowed that pill and let it poison my spirit, but I made a decision to overlook the offense. My goal that year was to be unoffendable.

Don’t let an arrow of criticism pierce your heart unless it first passes through the filter of Scripture. No one is above rebuke, and we’re all imperfect. So if the criticism is valid, repent. But if it’s not, don’t swallow the pill, because it will poison your spirit. Overlook the offense! You’ll be more of a man because of it. Playing the man requires tough skin, and it’s absolutely necessary if you want to play business, play politics, play sports, or even play marriage.

When I was in junior high school, I was called a few names that aren’t fit for print. I’m sure you experienced this too. No one graduates from junior high—they survive! But as I look back on it, I think it prepared me for real life by teaching me how to prove the naysayers wrong. Now, please don’t use that as an excuse for name-calling. Bullying is a legitimate issue. When I was a kid, physical bullying was a real problem. Add social media to the mix, and it has gotten even uglier. Either way, there is no place for it. Nothing is more cowardly than bullying.

That said, I wonder if our culture of political correctness has left us too thin-skinned. Again, I’m not advocating for careless, thoughtless, heartless insults. But when political correctness becomes the Golden Rule, speaking truth becomes bigotry. Truth is crucified in the name of tolerance, undermining civil debate, conscientious objection, and religious conviction.

We live in a culture where it’s wrong to say something is wrong. And I think that’s wrong! Remaining silent on a subject that God has spoken about isn’t loving—it’s cowardly. And when we fail to use our voice, we lose our voice. We as the church should be more known for what we’re for than what we’re against. But playing the man requires standing up for what you believe in, even if you’re standing alone.

A few diagnostic questions: When was the last time you were criticized? If it’s been awhile, it should make you nervous. Why? Because it probably means you’re maintaining the status quo rather than challenging it. You can’t make a difference without making waves, and some people in the boat won’t like it. So be it. Rock the boat anyway. Also, how easily offended are you? If the answer is easily, then you need to man up. When you take offense, you become defensive. And the second you become defensive, the kingdom of God stops advancing through you. Playing the man means playing offense with your life. In marriage, playing offense is called romance. With your kids, it’s the difference between reactive and proactive parenting. In the workplace, it’s bringing your A-game attitude Monday through Friday, nine to five.

Jesus was constantly badgered by the religious paparazzi; He was apprehended by a self-righteous mob that chanted, “Crucify him.” Then He was flogged, mocked, and nailed to a cross by Roman soldiers.

Question: What didn’t Jesus do?

Answer: Defend Himself.

Jesus was still playing offense on the cross. He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” If you are defensive, then figure out who you need to forgive. Start playing offense by praying for them!

Blood, Sweat, and Tears

Real men cry.

Ending a chapter titled “Tough as Nails” on that note feels a little funny, but I think it’s an appropriate ending. If nothing is tougher for men than baring their souls and revealing their true feelings, then a true tough guy is someone who does just that.

In twenty years of leading National Community Church, I’ve tried to be strong and courageous. And that often means putting on a brave face and soldiering on. But if you surveyed our staff, I bet many of them would point to moments when I broke down and cried as the most meaningful, the most powerful.

I remember being emotionally wrecked once by a question during a session at the Catalyst Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. I took our staff to Catalyst for thirteen years straight, but this one moment ranks above the rest. Craig Groeschel asked the question: “Does your heart break for the things that break the heart of God?” My honest answer was no. My heart had become calloused, not just my skin. So we delayed our reservation at P. F. Chang’s to have a come-to- Jesus meeting with our staff. We confessed. We cried. And not unlike the way a broken bone heals, my spirit became even stronger in the place where it had been broken.

I’m not saying you have to wear your emotions on your sleeve. But we’re men, not automatons. And sometimes crying is leading.

“Jesus wept.”

It’s every kid’s favorite memory verse—two words! But those two words speak volumes about Jesus. The original language indicates intensity. This wasn’t a single teardrop rolling down His cheek—this was a meltdown! Jesus lost it, and I love this dimension of who He is.

Jesus got sad. Jesus got mad. Then Jesus got even, raising Lazarus from the dead.

Good leadership takes blood, sweat, and tears. You have to make sacrifices—blood. You have to work hard—sweat. But you also have to lead with empathy—tears. And you can’t fake this dimension of leadership!

When was the last time your wife saw you cry?

When was the last time your wife saw you cry?

What about your friends?

If it’s been awhile, you’re probably repressing something. And repression usually leads to obsession or depression. Your lack of vulnerability isn’t courageous, it’s cowardly!

Toughen up.

Tear up.

Play the man!

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