Now that I’m a few years into my forties, my kids periodically remind me that I’m “over the hill.” I’ve not generally been one to worry much about my age, but my kids’ words help me recall that human life does not go on indefinitely. The average life expectancy for a man my age is about 80 years old. That means I’m halfway finished, as long as my life expectancy is not below average.
With this realization, I’ve begun to understand why people have mid-life crises. Until this point, I’ve felt like there is plenty of time to take on new projects and set new goals in life. If I wanted to go back for further schooling, I could. If I was intrigued by the idea of traveling to some far-away place, there would be time. But now, I am reminded that my time is not unlimited. And I’m forced to consider questions like, “What if I never get that degree? What if I never take that trip?”
As I think about these questions, I also need to deal with the reality that I do not have the flexibility to take on very many new projects and goals at this stage of my life. The time and financial resources that a degree or a trip would take are currently invested in my marriage and family life. I have career responsibilities from which I can’t just walk away. But when I feel time getting short, and I don’t have the ability to chase after the dreams I think I’d have, life can be frustrating.
It’s no surprise that some people respond to this growing awareness of mortality with dissatisfaction, regret, or fear. Though research suggests that the number of mid-life sports car purchases are vastly overrated, this season of life can still be a time of soul-searching. So how can we hope to not only survive, but thrive in our middle years?
From a Christian perspective, mid-life offers the opportunity to reflect on our values and priorities. As John Piper points out, mid-life should be cause to rejoice that we have another half of our lives to go. What will we do with these remaining years? How can we offer ourselves to God in whatever time we have on this earth?
To answer these questions, we have to reflect biblically on a few items. First of all, arriving at the middle of life offers an important reminder of our limits. We are not created to do everything or experience everything we would like in life. God limits us to remind us that we are not God, and that is an important thing for us to acknowledge. Our world may suggest that we can have it all, but God reminds us that having everything we want is not healthy for us. We need God's loving limits.
Realizing that we can’t do everything also forces us to be content. The book of Ecclesiastes offers one example after another of how “meaningless” our marks of success are in the eyes of God. If we’re disappointed at the fact that we won’t get that degree or take that trip, perhaps another question helps: “Why was I hoping to do that?” “I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another,” the Teacher writes in Ecclesiastes (4:4). Sometimes I have to admit that my life goals are driven by selfish ambition rather than godly desire, and with Paul I have to learn to “be content in any and every situation” (Phil. 4:12), even if that means I give up something on my bucket list.
It’s not wrong to have godly goals. Ask yourself, “What legacy do I want to leave in the remainder of the time God gives me?” Lately I’ve been reflecting on Paul’s perspective in Philippians. He writes this letter as he is in prison, contemplating the possibility of his own death. “If I go on living in the body,” he says, “this will mean fruitful labor for me,” fruitful labor for Christ (Phil. 1:22). If I’m going to get a degree in the coming years, how can I use that for the Lord? If I really want to travel somewhere, can that experience help me understand Christ’s love for me and for the world more clearly?
And finally, recognize that God can use who you are, not who you aren’t. It’s easy to look at famous politicians, entertainers, scholars, or business executives who are my age and feel like an underachiever because I haven’t accomplished what they have in the same life span. But then I need to remember that God hasn’t asked me to be president, or run a Fortune 500 company. God has called me to be a husband, a father, a pastor, and his grace is sufficient for any of my shortcomings (II Cor. 12:9).
There’s an old story told about Rabbi Zusya, who lived in the 1700s. As the story goes, one day he was reflecting on the purpose of his life. “When I get to heaven,” he explained, “God will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’ He will ask, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” In Christ, God makes us who he wants us to be and perfects what we are not. Our difficulties in mid-life, as Paul Tripp reflects, “are signs of God’s grace, love, and faithfulness” as we learn that “this life is not our destination” but “preparation for a final destination.” And that’s a good view to focus on as I look ahead to what my kids call “the down slope” of life.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Rev. Travis Jamieson