“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church” (Eph. 5:25). The problem is most of us can’t just flip a switch and love our wives “as Christ loved the Church,” even if—especially if—we understand the true meaning and depth of Paul’s words. Nonetheless, we realize that the apostle to the Gentiles is trying to give us a blueprint for success as husbands and fathers.
The key for us as Christian men is to realize that implementing Paul’s instruction requires training and hard work. We need to build virtues, which not only are godly habits, but spiritual muscles that will help us attain “the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
We all know that the world gives us a different blueprint for success. The secular model of a successful man is a rich, powerful womanizer. As an alternative, I offer three virtues, which also are fruits of the Holy Spirit, to help us dismantle this model and rebuild our image of manhood on more solid ground.
One virtue is chastity. What does this virtue teach us about the gift of our male sexuality? Another crucial virtue for men is meekness. What does this virtue teach us about manly strength? And the third virtue is generosity. What does this virtue say about our attitude toward possessions and wealth, as well as our priorities in life? What we learn is that by cultivating chastity, meekness, and generosity in our role as husbands and fathers we can better imitate Christ’s self-giving love for his Body, the Church.
Chastity: Sign of Contradiction
Chastity pertains to everybody. Many men focus on sex as the “bottom line,” and so once they’re married, sex is “legal” and chastity is no longer needed. This is an erroneous and immature way of looking at it. Loving our wives as Christ loves his Church is much deeper and richer than that.
All Christians are called to chastity throughout their lives. Some embrace virginity or consecrated celibacy, which enables them to give themselves to God alone with an undivided heart in a beautiful, singular manner. The rest of us are called to live chastely whether we are married or single.
Chastity is a virtue or spiritual muscle, just like prudence, justice, faithfulness, sobriety, courage, and a host of other virtues that are meant for every generation. Paul writes:
As for yourself, you must say what is consistent with sound doctrine, namely, that older men should be temperate, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, love, and endurance. Similarly, older women should be reverent in their behavior, not slanderers, not addicted to drink, teaching what is good, so that they may train younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good homemakers, under the control of their husbands, so that the work of God may not be discredited. Urge the younger men, similarly, to control themselves, showing yourself as a model of good deeds in every respect, with integrity in your teaching, dignity . . . (Titus 2:1-7)
But what is chastity? The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it as the moral virtue which, under the cardinal virtue of temperance, provides for the “successful integration of sexuality within the person leading to the inner unity of the bodily and spiritual being” (CCC 2337, 2341). The “successful integration” of our sexuality makes us men of integrity and men of wholeness, which is the foundation of purity of heart.
Conversely, a lack of such integrity or wholeness means, in a sense, that we’re disintegrated, that we’re scattered, dissipated, dissolute. A lack of chastity, then, is ordered to a lack of personal integrity. We are then open to sins of lust—especially pornography—that disintegrate our sexuality and cause us to lead a “double life.”
Beyond “Thou Shalt Not”
Our Catholic tradition has understood the Sixth Commandment as encompassing the whole of human sexuality, and not just adultery. Thus we say that a sexual sin is a sin against the Sixth Commandment. But we need to understand this rightly. To do so, let’s briefly look at the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shall not kill.” That commandment entails a lot of “no’s” or “don’ts”: “Don’t murder,” “don’t lynch,” “don’t maim,” “don’t dismember,” “don’t abort your children,” “don’t engage in unjust war.” Of course the list could go on and on.
Even more profoundly, though, we’re pro-life, which isn’t merely about opposing all these evils, but rather about upholding a fundamental respect for the dignity and right to life of all human persons created in the image and likeness of God, leading us to strive to create a culture and world that shares this core value.
The Sixth Commandment (“Thou shall not commit adultery”) has its own share of “no’s” or “don’ts”: “No premarital sex,” “no extramarital sex,” “no pornography,” “no masturbation,” “no homosexual activity,” “no prostitution.” This list also goes on and on.
But even more profoundly and positively, we are “pro-love” in the sense of laying down our lives for our beloved, which is a sign of contradiction for those who think love is merely about self-gratification. Love is the greatest of the virtues, the greatest of the Commandments, and it consists in giving of ourselves to God and neighbor.
In this light, we should see chastity as the virtue that empowers us to give of ourselves—the more chaste and pure we are, the greater our capacity for love, which usually expresses itself in friendship.
Made for Each Other
Such friendship is taken up a notch in Christian marriage, where we are called to give completely of ourselves in a lifelong, faithful commitment to our spouse in a unity of life and love. Chastity enables us to make this mutual gift in a full and authentic way. When we do this, we image Christ and his Church.
Married couples truly are “made for each other.” Supernatural grace that comes with Christian marriage builds on the natural complementarity of man and woman. Through their mutual gift, the two really do become one flesh (Eph. 5:31), just as Christ completely identifies himself with his Bride, the Church (cf. Acts 9:4). This two-becoming-one of husband and wife is brought about, symbolized, and recalled in the marriage act.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical God is Love, calls us not to settle for a self-seeking erotic love, but to a Godlike, self-giving love that builds on and perfects all the lower forms of love. In this context, chastity gives us the strength not to be reactive or controlled by our passions and lusts, but rather the freedom that comes with self-mastery—the freedom to love as Christ loved the Church. This strength is the fruit of a lifelong battle in which we cooperate with the Holy Spirit as we strive to imitate the purity of Christ.
Meekness: Strength in Harness
At first glance, meekness may be the most unattractive Christian virtue to modern man. Today, many people think of meekness as weakness, the antithesis of the self-assertion that enables us to get our own way. We picture a meek person as a wimp or doormat, not as a virile, Christian man.
Yet, those of us who are serious about following the Lord and growing in Christian virtue know that the Bible presents a different image of meekness. Our faith extols meekness not only as a desirable virtue and fruit of the Holy Spirit, but also as a Beatitude. Moses, who boldly delivered an entire nation from bondage, is described in Scripture as the meekest of men (Num. 12:3).
Surely Jesus himself embodied all the virtues, but when it comes to meekness, there can be no doubt. He says, “Learn from me; for I am meek and humble of heart” (Matt. 11:29). Not only is our Lord meek, but he also expects us to imitate his meekness. This message is for everybody, but in a special way it goes out to today’s men, for whom meekness, sadly, is a rare commodity.
Meekness, sometimes used interchangeably with “gentleness” in biblical translations, comes from a Greek word meaning “not easily provoked,” which in turn comes from the word for a highly spirited trained horse. Such a horse has become so gentle and mild that a child may pet it or ride on its back. But the important thing is that the horse no longer thrashes about wildly, but rather has been trained to take direction. The strength of the noble animal has been harnessed for good—not forfeited, not dissipated. Similarly, a harnessed or “meeked” river can generate power, and a harnessed or meeked fire can heat a campsite. Meekness—like chastity—has always implied harnessed strength, not weakness.
Meekness implies an openness to God that allows him to act through us, particularly at those times when our fallen nature might lead us to thrash about wildly. It surely involves a certain gentleness toward our neighbor, but it primarily applies to our relationship with God, as we daringly acquiesce to his harnessing of our gifts and talents for our own good, the good of our family, and the good of his Church.
Cool under Pressure
Meekness invites God’s presence, enabling us to do good in response to evil. Meekness moderates anger according to right reason. Therefore, meekness is opposed to the vice of anger, which involves excess in the passion of anger—in other words, what we might call “unbridled” anger.
While a blind rage prevents us from seeing things rightly and responding appropriately, meekness allows us to remain in control. An example from the world of sports might help illustrate this point. When a professional athlete is provoked and allows the provocation to “get in his head,” he commits a foolish foul or penalty by blindly retaliating. Such retaliation does not demonstrate strength, but rather foolishness and a lack of virtue. His action hurts himself and his team. Conversely, the player who keeps his head in the game proves himself coachable and likely raises his game a notch under pressure, like Peyton Manning or Tim Duncan.
When it comes to living as Christians today, meekness prevents us from “going ballistic” and allowing our anger to consume us. But not foolishly making things worse is only part of the equation. Meekness also allows us to remain focused on the prize: Jesus Christ and eternal communion with him. This may seem obvious, but we all have experienced the blinding effects of our emotions at one time or another. Meekness keeps us focused during crunch time, when things don’t seem to be going our way.
St. Francis de Sales counsels us not only to “seek the sweetness of aromatic honey in courtesy and suavity with strangers, but also the sweetness of milk among those of our household and our neighbors; a sweetness terribly lacking to some who are as angels abroad and devils at home” (Introduction to the Devout Life, III:8). This counsel challenges us to examine how we are able to restrain our anger at home, at work, and also within the Church, which is our true home in the Family of God.
Our Lord says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). We know that Christ was perfect in his humanity. We also know that the sin and violence inflicted upon him did not deter him from fulfilling his Father’s will. He teaches us that meekness isn’t for wimps, but rather is tough as nails—the nails of the cross.
Generosity: In Giving We Receive
We know that generosity entails “freely giving something of value away.” From the etymology of generosity, we also know that this gift is inherently life-giving. These distinct meanings come together in marriage. After all, marital love consists in a total gift of ourselves to our wives.
Generosity in any context does not come easily. It’s a paradoxical, counter-intuitive virtue, as our natural instinct is to try to make ourselves happy through acquisition, not self-donation. Yet the Gospel is crystal-clear on this point. “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25).
Or as St. Francis of Assisi aptly summarized, “It is in giving that we receive.”
Two areas where families are especially called to be generous are tithing and openness to children. There may be others, but in my experience those are two of the biggest drains on the pocketbook I’ve come across as a married man. The challenge for us is to step out in faith in these areas and trust Christ.
Look Out for Number One
Each year my growing family is stretched a little thinner as we support more and more “good causes.” With a modest income and several school-aged children, why do we do this? We see it as looking out for number one, except our number one is not ourselves, but the Lord.
The biblical concept is tithing. In the Old Testament, tithing was a moral and spiritual obligation to make an offering to God of 10 percent off the top of all the fruits of one’s labors (cf. Lev. 27:30). In fact, if one didn’t tithe, it was considered stealing from God (Mal. 3:7-8)!
Even more fundamental than the mere “accounting”.aspect is the sense of generosity and piety that goes along with tithing. It’s all about making the Lord the priority in one’s life, as brought home so clearly in the story of the widow’s mite (Luke 21:1-4). The poor widow was not a major temple benefactor by earthly standards, but her gift was singled out for praise by the Lord because of the great love she showed in giving the little she had.
Maybe that’s why my favorite birthday or Father’s Day gifts tend to be the ones my children make themselves. These artistic treasures, often saved for posterity on our refrigerator or my office’s walls, serve absolutely no practical purpose. What makes them valuable to me is that they represent a loving sacrifice on the part of my children, which means infinitely more than any monetary value other gifts might have.
We are called to support the Church through the generous use of our time, talent, and treasure. The exact amount isn’t as important as the priority and generosity that accompany the giving. The traditional 10 percent is a helpful, biblical measuring rod, but there’s nothing preventing us from giving 15 or 20 percent! At any rate, I can say from personal experience, despite many financial obligations and the fact that over a decade ago I left my law practice to work for a non-profit ministry, that the more our family has tithed, the more the Lord has provided for our every need. I shouldn’t be surprised at this, because he tells us that this would be the case (cf. Matt. 6:33). Yet I still truly marvel at this reality.
Perhaps God multiplies our offerings like Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes. Maybe tithing instills a right order and priority that shape all of our spending. Perhaps tithing encourages us to do without things that really aren’t necessary. More likely it’s a combination of all of the above.
Generosity involves much more than writing a check—but my wife and I have decided that’s not a bad place to start. I guess we’re just putting our money where our hearts are.
But what about our fertility? Understanding generosity as meaning full of giving life, we can’t address the issue of generosity in a marital context without talking about openness to the gift of children.
Be Fruitful, Be Happy
According to the psalmist (Ps. 127:4-5; 128:3-4) and the Catechism (2373), large families are a sign of God’s blessing. And what does our Lord say when the disciples complain about all the children who were being brought to him? “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom belongs to such as these” (Matt. 19:14). Yet, we well know that children are not always seen by contemporary couples as a blessing. So where do we stand?
As chaste men, we strive to be love-giving men of integrity who give ourselves totally and completely to our wives, especially in the marriage act. As meek men after the example of Moses and our Lord himself, we are committed to living how God wants us to live, even when the going gets tough. And like the seed that falls to the ground and dies, our generous gift of self to our spouse is life-giving on many levels, but most obviously in the sense of bringing into the world children made in the image and likeness of God.
The Catholic Church has always taught and continues to affirm that contraception is gravely opposed to marital chastity. It attempts to separate the love-giving dimension from the life-giving dimension of the marital act, and in so doing both dimensions are compromised. Contracepted sex is neither generous nor objectively loving. The inherent selfishness of contraception mars the integrity of the marital act, as its ends become dis-integrated. Once we open the door to contraception, any sexual activity among “consenting adults” can be rationalized.
But the point here isn’t to drive home the sinfulness of contraception, the binding nature of the Church’s teaching regarding contraception, or even to advocate for natural family planning as a morally licit, marriage-building alternative to contraception. I’m assuming all of these things. Rather, if we live marital chastity in a way that excludes recourse to contraception, then we have in our g.asp a recipe for loving our wives as Christ loved his Church. Indeed, therein is a recipe for a happy, successful marriage. That has certainly been true in my own experience.
Do we consider “one more child” a blessing or a curse? What would Jesus say? As the youngest of 14 myself, I’m eternally grateful that my parents didn’t have the “good sense” to stop at 13.
The union of Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride, the Church, is fruitful. The essence of the Church is evangelization, to bear fruit that lasts, so that in the words of St. Paul, Christ may be the firstborn of many brothers and sisters (cf. Rom. 8:29).
“Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved his Church.” The Church refers to the family as the domestic church, the basic building block of the Body of Christ. Through our fidelity and fruitfulness—not merely in terms of having children but in terms of leading each other, our children, and others who touch our lives to Christ—we truly imitate the “great mystery” of Christ and his Church.
There’s more to Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Giving up our self for our spouse is a call to heroic chastity, meekness, and generosity, and as with Christ on the cross, this entails sacrifice. Paradoxically, through such sacrifice, through being the grain of wheat that falls to the ground, we find true joy and happiness—in this life and in the glory of heaven.
Seven Keys to Chastity
- Self-knowledge. The more we know ourselves, including our weaknesses and propensities, the better we are able to avoid occasions of sin.
- Fleeing temptation. If we find ourselves confronted with a temptation to sin against chastity, the manly thing is to run, not fight.
- Self-denial. Chastity is a grace, but it’s also the fruit of spiritual effort and discipline, known as asceticism.
- Fidelity to prayer. Our relationship to Christ gives us the grace we need to strive for greater purity each day.
- Obedience to God’s Commandments. We cannot be men of integrity if we persist in sexual sin.
- Spiritual resilience. Getting right up after a moral lapse, great or small, and trusting in God’s superabundant mercy is crucial in our journey to spiritual maturity.
- Eucharist. Our Lord desires to strengthen us in chastity through the gift of his body and blood.