Why I Thank God For My Painful Mid-Life Crisis

It happened at the strangest times.

Whether arriving home from coaching my son’s soccer team, or finishing a long-distance bike-ride with friends. Without any warning, I felt it:

A blanket of emotions – depressive, suffocating – descended on me.   Taunting me. Whispering to my soul. Making me feel things I had rarely felt before.

I felt weight of my mortality: that one day, no matter what, I was going to die. Yes, I had always known that my bodily existence had a use-by date. But I had never felt the weight of my upcoming date with the grim reaper.

Until now.

No, I hadn’t received a terminal diagnosis. As far as I knew, I was still fit and healthy. But my life had turned a corner. I had reached a milestone: I had just turned 40.

40.

As  Iooked back on my first fourty years, I felt many emotions: thankfulness; joy; happiness. For life, for family, for friends.

But a stark realisation dawned on me: the last 40 years had just flown by – where they had they gone? And if the first 40 years had gone this quickly, then the next 40 years will go ever quicker (isn’t that the way?). In 40 years, I’ll be nearing death’s door (unless of course I get there sooner).

And there’s nothing I – or anybody else –  can do about it.

This dark realisation fell upon all areas of my life – nothing was immune. If my death was so certain, then what’s the point of life? What’s the point of working, raising a family, husbanding my wife – since we’re all going to die (relatively) soon anyway?  Life began to feel meaningless.

I was not in a good place, so soon after turning 40.

Entering the ‘midlife crisis’

I asked my dear wife Sarah – a practicing psychologist – whether I was depressed. She gently assured me I wasn’t – I didn’t have all the symptoms. Something else was going on. And that something is what our culture commonly calls a ‘midlife crisis’.

Christian author Paul Tripp points out:

The disorientation of midlife is the result of the collision of a powerful personal awareness and a powerful personal interpretation… Suddenly we see things about ourselves that have been developing for years but went by unnoticed.’[1]

For me, I had come to realise my mortality.

Swallowing the secular narrative

No, I hadn’t given up my faith in the Lord Jesus and his return – but boy, the reality of death tested it like nothing else ever had. I had functionally assumed the narrative that many in our culture take for granted: there is no god; we’re just chance accidents here on this planet; here today, and gone tomorrow – with no ultimate purpose, no life after death, no hope, and no meaning.

I felt the existential weight of this hope-less narrative as I hit mid-life.

Making sense of my mid-life crisis

Thankfully, God didn’t leave me floundering. He gave me a lifeline – a way to grow through this unexpected watershed. Ray Galea (a pastor friend of mine), recommended a book by American Author Paul Tripp, aptly named ‘Lost in the Middle – Midlife and the Grace of God’.

It was a God-send. It gave me the gospel-shaped perspective on midlife I so desperately needed. Through this book, it felt like Tripp was speaking to me personally, and applying the riches of the gospel to my situation.

Here’s some of what I learned:[2]

1)      Midlife confusion is common.

It’s natural to get to your midlife and experience confusion and bewilderment as you look back on your life. Here are some of the characteristics of such confusion:

  • Discouragement. At some point you begin to realise that you have lost the expectancy, vibrancy, hopefulness, and courage of your youth;
  • Dread. A generalised worrying about aging and death;
  • Disinterest. Losing interest in things that once interested you – work, relationships, sport, etc.

2)      The Root of the midlife problem is our wrong thinking about life.

According to Tripp, the crisis of midlife is essentially a problem of interpretation:

Whatever trouble midlife brings to us is essentially caused by the wrong thinking we bring to it. ‘[3]

3)      The Gospel-shaped solution

If the root of midlife struggles is a wrong interpretation of life, then we are faced with a choice: will we let the theology of Scripture exegete and interpret our life, or let life reinterpret our theology?  [4]

In other words, will I let my midlife pain overtly shape my view of God – leading to doubt and uncertainty in Him? Or will I let Scripture interpret my pain – leading me to my suffering Saviour, who knows my distress?

The choice is clear.

Looking back, I had let a secularised view of reality frame my experience of midlife – which is why I felt so fearful and starved for meaning.

But a biblical view of reality provides a different interpretation, a different narrative: one that gives meaning, hope, and joy.

In particular, here is a gospel shaped interpretation of midlife:

  • Our suffering is part of God’s good plan for us. Our pain is not the failure of God’s plan. Instead, God is fulfilling his good purposes  through our pain (cf. Rom 8:28).
  • Growing old exposes the futility of idols. Yes, we are aging, and our bodies are decaying. And so relying on keeping yourself healthy and good looking will only end in frustration. Instead, the aging process is a sign showing our need for the One who will rescue us from decay and death.
  • Growing old helps orient our hearts toward eternal hope. Growing old can open our eyes to the sweet eternal hope of the gospel in ways that youth and vibrant health never could.

The Severe Mercy of Midlife and Aging.

We live in culture that celebrates – nay, idolises –  youthful beauty, and dreads growing old. It’s not surprising that Christians get caught up in thinking the same way.

But it’s in the midst of our aging – of the dashing of earthly hopes and dreams – that God can do his greatest work. As Tripp points out so beautifully:

Reject the self-pity, envy, and discouragement that are so tempting at this time. Look to heaven and be thankful. You are being rescued…Don’t mourn the death of your hope in the physical. Celebrate this death, for it is a welcome to a new life of renewed and vigorous love, service, and communion with your redeemer.”[5]

Amen.

 

 

 

(Photo: Pablo.com)

 

[1] Paul Tripp, Lost in the Middle – Midlife and the Grace of God (Wapwallopen, PA: Shepherd Press, 2004), 33-34.

[2] The following is taken from Paul Tripp’s book, Lost in the Middle.

[3] Tripp, Lost in the Middle, 33-34.

[4] Tripp, Lost in the Middle, 225.

[5] Tripp, Lost in the Middle, 102.

Leave a Reply

15 thoughts on “Why I Thank God For My Painful Mid-Life Crisis

  1. Age is just a number – you’re always the same person, you keep learning until the day you die, and God is always with you

  2. Young Alex, take heart!

    If we are here without any god-given purpose, it does not follow that life is meaningless.

    Create your own purpose, such as helping others. If your life is of no meaning or use to you, then make it useful to someone else.

    By all means, assume the existence of the Christian version of god; and aspire to live in a way that pleases him.

    Meanwhile live a life that is useful to others, whether your faith turns out to be right or wrong.

    Remember the words of the great philosopher: “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”

    All the best,

    Martin

    PS: I am about to attend the funeral of an atheist. He will be fondly and respectfully remembered for many achievement during his worthy life.

    • Hi Martin,

      Thanks for your comment!

      I have no doubt that non-Christians see their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, as meaningful and special.

      My problem, however, with thinking that life somehow has meaning in a meaningless, purposeless, and random universe is that’s a logical inconsistency. When our the universe is utterly meaningless, how can a part of it (e.g. our lives) have meaning? You have to invent the illusion of meaning. But such an illusion is still an illusion, which might get you by most of the time – except when you really stop to think about it.

      But if we’re adamant that life has meaning, then perhaps our universe isn’t as random and purposeless as Atheism assumes…

      Thanks again,

      Akos

  3. Thanks for sharing, Akos. Did I miss something? Almost 30 years ago I turned 40, but for me–as far as I can recall–there was no MLC. Just an awareness that I had actually lived that long. Now that awareness is staring me in the face again as my 70th looms. But at 40 I was very busy in the work of the Ministry, and that year I was involved in supporting others who were going through real-life crises–the death of a nephew, the death of my associate’s wife, the terrible death in a motor vehicle accident of a young woman, working through crises in the local church and Presbytery. And at the same time much to encourage as the work of the gospel went on.

    So, not wanting to diminish for you the reality of your MLC, I wonder if this is perhaps something that’s been invented in the world we now live in where many no longer live with a sense of God and the reality life in a fallen world, but one in which we eagerly wait the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8: 23ff).

    • Thanks David!

      I certainly don’t wish to compare my crisis with the crisis of losing a loved one – they are indeed quite different!
      And I agree that at it’s heart is a misinterpretation of our God-given reality: my crisis was exacerbated, if not brought on by, forgetting my God-given identity in Christ. Alas, I held onto my idols too tightly, and mid-life taught me how futile they are – hence the ‘crisis’.

      But, as I’ve said, God is using this time to deepen my faith in Him – a good outcome if there ever was one.

      God bless,

      Akos

  4. Take heart Akos ,at82 I’m still trying to make a difference, traveling hopefully and blessed with good health. Keep your eyes on the Lord, powering on to the real big one 50!
    Do you know Alan and Karen Jessen? She is my daughter.Thanks for your thoughts

    • Hi Cornelis,

      Thanks for taking the time to reply. Wow – 82 and still going strong in the Lord – God bless you! I’m deeply encouraged to hear that. May He continue to nourish and uphold you. 🙂

      I do know Alan and Karen – lovely people!

      Thanks again,

      Akos

  5. Thank you for sharing this, Akos. I relate to all you’ve said and found what you’ve said very encouraging. I have had diabetes since I was 8 years old and have now also reached midlife. I am feeling the complications resulting from 30 years of my medical condition and suffering daily pain. I have been feeling discouraged and dreading the future. But God has reminded me again through your words that it is through trials and suffering that we grow. So although my physical body is not doing well, this is the exciting point in my life where God is growing me through suffering, maturing me and making me into the vessel He can best use for His glory. And each day is one day closer to seeing Him face to face. So my body is tired and falling apart, but my spirit is dancing with joy and the light within is shining brighter than ever before. To Him be the glory!

    • Hi Jenny,

      Thankyou for sharing so openly and honestly. I am so sorry to hear about your complications arising from diabetes – that must be challenging! And yet, dear sister, you’ve summarised so well what I tried to say – suffering is God’s way of growing us – painful as it is – but as He refines us to make us depend on Him more than anything else, then we get to experience a joy that nothing can take away. Indeed, you’ve reminded me of Paul’s words in 2 Cor 4:16-18:

      ’16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’

      I’ll pray that through this painful trial God will uphold you, and grows you, as you look forward to that great day when our pain will be no more…

      God bless,

      Akos

  6. I would say you have taken a step up to a new level of trust in Jesus and awareness that without HIM, we are nothing… I have also “hit the wall”, as you describe ,several times in my life , and it painful and lonely! I am a young – at – heart 70 year old but each time,it has happened, I know that can come through with a deeper, truer conviction that the LORD is our beginning, and our end, so we can trust Him with it all. Blessings, Akos.

    • Bless you Carolyn – thanks for your encouraging comment! It’s great to see young at heart Christians like yourself testifying to God’s faithfulness over time. 🙂

      In Christ,

      Akos

  7. A quick Google search couldn’t find me the quote, but I heard John Piper once said,”Death is like a car. It gets us to where we want to go”.

    Very true words.

    1 Corinthians 15:55
    “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

    For me a concern about approaching death is not an issue, but the questions of ,”What have I done, what am I doing, and what should I do next?” weigh heavily.

    Thanks for your posts Akos. I should buy the book.

    Brad

    • I like your honesty, but also the fact that you sought advice and God’s perspective in your quite valid emotional estate. Your article has been very helpful to encourage another young man like yourself in a similar situation.
      I remember going through similar emotions, for a short time a couple of years ago, and i couldnt stop the feeling even though i knew it was wrong, then someone said, ” if you just stopped thinking about you then you’ll get over it” yes, that may have helped, but bringing my feelings and emotions before God, was what gave me the hope and peace that i needed.