Manhood & Rudyard Kipling’s Poem “If”

Every time I recite Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” I feel inspired and encouraged to work and keep going forward. Many people feel the same. It is a widely praised, quoted, and printed poem.

I was so inspired by it that I decided that I would try and do a “Bible” study on the poem in our church. No, I don’t think the poem is part of the Bible. Rather, I thought it would be worth considering what Kipling is saying and seeing how it fits into the Bible’s picture of manhood.

Here’s how we did it. We would take a line or two from the poem and ask four questions:

  • What is Kipling saying?
  • Is it biblical?
  • What would it look like to implement it in our lives?
  • How does the Gospel empower us to move toward the ideal in the poem?

It all turned out quite well. We had a lot of good discussion about what it meant for us to live as men of God in this world.

Here’s a few things we discovered.

There are many parallels to Ecclesiastes and particularly Ecclesiastes 7 in the poem. For example:

  • The caution against anger (7:9)
  • Not getting stuck longing for the past (7:10)
  • Accepting conditions as they are without judging them (7:13)
  • Accepting good days as well as bad days with equanimity (7:14)
  • Not being too righteous (7:16)
  • Not getting upset by slander or what people say (7:21-22)

We learned something about the power of poetry. You can say, for example, “use your time well,” but it’s much more powerful to say, “if you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run . . .” Writing a poem of moral imperative is difficult, but Kipling makes it work by his continual use of the word “if.”

The poem challenged us to work through the things of the past and keep pressing forward to the future. This is in line with what the Apostle Paul said, “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward” (Phil. 3:13-14).

The poem encouraged us not to get bogged down with the wrongs people do to us and to keep loving and honoring people no matter what. In other words, pay attention to your duty toward others rather than fretting over how they respond. We found this aspect of the poem in line with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere.

While we did not reject outright any of the “ifs” of the poem, we did have questions about some of the statements and how they might be taken. For example, is it good to make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch and toss, and is Kipling advocating this? Is the idea of neither foes nor loving friends hurting you consistent with the Bible’s view of grief? Would the idea of filling the “unforgiving minute” with “running” lead to frantic lives?

We also considered how the Gospel would encourage us to implement these things. The hope of the future that the Gospel provides can help us to move forward in the face of loss or past hurts. Trust in God’s justice can help us let go of the wrongs that others commit. Trust in God’s strength can empower us to do right in the face of pressure. We found many other encouragements. The Bible continually presents God’s power, promises, and presence when it encourages us to do our duty.

Finally, how does all this help us become “a man”? The promise at the end of the poem is, “you’ll be a man, my son.” The definition of manhood is complicated and controversial. In my view, the male orientation is fundamentally outward. The female is inward or home-oriented. I do not mean this to be an ethical prescription. It is a description of what actually happens. If you take maleness as that outward orientation, then you can see how this poem helps. These prescriptions help you move forward and move outward to do and act in the world in the face of the most common difficulties and entanglements that keep us from doing so. If we can keep ourselves moving forward in the face of loss, failures, enemies, and temptations, then we will really be able to do things that bless ourselves and others and glorify God. More importantly, we will live as we were meant to live. In that sense, we will find satisfaction in simply being “a man, my son.”