I’m not sure when or where I first saw this but it was about fifteen years ago: Real Men Don’t Retreat. Real Men Advance!
Looking closer, I saw it had to do with a men’s outing. That church was organizing a weekend in the woods somewhere for men to learn more about God together. I’m not a fan of institutionalized single sex gatherings in the family of God, but putting that quibble aside for a moment it’s worth noting some troubling aspects of this aversion to the word “retreat.”
“Real Men Don’t Retreat” is not in the Bible
To say “real men don’t retreat, they advance” runs counter to Scripture.
Elijah found a quiet place to rest when he needed a break. God did not chastise him but rather fed him and protected him and met him in that solitary place. (1 Kings 19.)
- Jesus repeatedly took his friends to a quiet place to rest and prepare after long days of serving others. (Luke 21:37.)
The aversion to the word “retreat” appears to be rooted not in a desire to follow Scripture but in a cultural machismo about what people think “real” men should act like: don’t back down, don’t give an inch, and whatever you do don’t show weakness.
In reality, the real men who really go on these retreats don’t live that way. I bet if asked almost all would admit they wouldn’t want to live that way, either. The point of these types of gatherings – these retreats – is to take a break, have a time of rest, and become prepared for returning to the more active parts of life.
After all, these are not retreats in the sense of giving up ground. They are retreats in the sense of finding a place to rest and recuperate and rejuvenate. That’s what Elijah did on his own and that’s what Jesus did with his friends. It sounds like something men are supposed to do to me.
Women advance too
When a men’s gathering is advertised as an advance (because real men don’t retreat) and the corresponding women’s gathering is advertised as a retreat, the message is subtly spoken but has a powerful import: women retreat because they aren’t big and strong and macho like men.
In the context of God’s kingdom – which is the context for these church gatherings, after all – this teaches that men move the kingdom forward while women do not. Or, for those who recognize that the Holy Spirit is the one who moves through God’s people to achieve God’s purposes, it means the Spirit chooses men to advance the kingdom while not choosing women. Women sit on the sidelines.
Again, this is not borne out in Scripture.
Miriam, Deborah and Huldah were prophets used by God to lead and teach God’s people. (Exodus 15:20, Judges 4:4, 2 Kings 22:14.)
- Anna the prophet announced Jesus’ birth to all gathered in the Temple, while Priscilla and her husband taught other teachers and led churches. (Luke 2:36-38, Acts 18:24-26, 1 Corinthians 16:19.)
These examples from the Bible are not the only times women are described doing things that are active and advancing the kingdom of God, but they serve as sufficient instances to show that the Holy Spirit works through women to advance the kingdom just as men are used to do the same.
Shedding the ungodly burden of being a “real” man
Another hurtful aspect of this theme about men not retreating is that it denies men the opportunity to express weariness, to feel hurt, to call out for help. It’s not that men won’t be weary, hurt and in need. It’s that telling men they only advance and never need a time of retreat tells them they shouldn’t feel those things, or at least they shouldn’t admit they feel that way.
Most organizers of these retreats wouldn’t come out and tell men to stifle these aspects of being human. They’d probably actually tell the men they should turn to one another for help when they are weary and hurt and in need. Yet words carry meaning. When men are told that real men advance and never retreat, any aspect of stepping back or taking time away comes with the message that this person is not a real man in the eyes of the church.
This is not how God made us. God made us like him, and when Jesus lived he showed us exactly what that means for all the people God has created.
- Jesus got hungry. (Mark 11:12.)
- Jesus got thirsty. (John 4:7.)
- Jesus got tired. (John 4:6.)
- Jesus wept. (John 11:32-36.)
Jesus took time away – both with friends and by himself – to rest, recuperate and rejuvenate. If asked whether he was on a retreat or an advance, I don’t know what the answer would be. But I do know that from a modern language understanding, these are the aspects of taking time off and allowing a brief retreat in order to be prepared for what comes next.
It fits in with other oddly counter intuitive and contrary ways of the kingdom of God.
For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (John 14:11.)
So the last will be first, and the first will be last. (Matthew 20:16.)
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45.)
In light of Jesus’ teaching on living in God’s kingdom, retreating to advance makes complete sense. It’s not always go go go. Sometimes God’s people – men and women both – need a break. So feel free to retreat, and rest, and recuperate, and rejuvenate.
Just like Jesus did.