Walk with Me Through a Midlife Crisis

Perhaps the reason the crisis comes at midlife is to show us, at the cresting of our natural powers, who is truly sovereign. And merciful.

Perhaps you will not be surprised, then, that 26 years later, as my ministry at Bethlehem was coming to a close, the message I chose to give at Together for the Gospel celebrated the sovereign keeping power of God over my life. “Now to him who is able to keep you . . .” (Jude 24). I suppose I could look back and pick out some strategies for surviving and thriving for 33 years in the pastoral ministry rather than quitting at 6. But what seems more critical to say is this: It is a miracle of God’s sovereign, sustaining, keeping grace.

 

In 2007, John MacArthur and I were on a panel together discussing discouragement. I gave an example of a “midlife crisis” with this story:

There is something to men in midlife crisis. I remember one time, I was 40, sitting on the steps halfway through vacation sobbing. Noël comes down the steps. She asked, “What’s wrong?” I said, “I don’t have a clue. I don’t have a clue why I’m so sad.” And that season lasted several years, and the grace was that I could still function.

MacArthur was nonplussed. He said, “I’m wired to deal with those in a different way. I can’t imagine just sitting and crying and not knowing why I was doing it.”

It was a memorable — and, in part, hilarious — moment for a few thousand people. You’ll have to listen to the audio to feel the sparkle of that interchange.

California Warning

There is an interesting part of my story that didn’t get told. That inexplicable crying happened in California at Ben Patterson’s house, which he was letting us use for a few days while I preached for him in his church. As it happened, as I preached on Father’s Day, Jim Conway, the author of Men in Midlife Crisis, was in the audience.

He came up to me afterward, introduced himself, and said, as I recall, “How old are you?” I said, “40.” He said, “You’ve got a year and a half. Be careful.”

What did he mean? Research had shown that a man’s “midlife crisis” typically came to a climax at the age of 41.5. He used words something like, “Don’t get a motorcycle. Don’t get a sailboat. Don’t leave your ministry, and don’t leave your wife.” It was a timely warning.

Perhaps I can do you the same favor.

I don’t know all the factors that precipitate such a crisis, or even if, thirty years later, the statistics are still the same. I am no expert on midlife crises. But I do know that was a very hard season of life, and the record of it in my journals is to this day painful to read.

Setting at Midlife

At 40, I had been married 18 years. We had 4 sons, ages 14, 11, 7, and 3. I had been the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church for 6 years. Minnesota had become home, after living in South Carolina (18 years), Illinois (4), California (3), and Germany (3). We owned our inner-city home (with about $60,000 yet to pay), which was a 7-minute walk from the church. We were a one-car family. The 3 oldest sons were attending Calvin Christian School. The church had grown to about 900 on the weekend, and I was preaching at three services on Sunday morning.

So why was I crying on the steps of Ben Patterson’s California home?

No doubt it is partly genetic. I am who I am largely by the DNA given to me by Bill and Ruth Piper. John MacArthur got his genes, and I got mine. And then there is the biology of midlife. I don’t know what that is. I suspect the body and the mind keep on going through phases just like they did at 1 and 4 and 12 and 18. But there is more to it than physical. We are more than machines.

Conditions for Midlife Meltdown

There is the devil, and his relentless harassment (Ephesians 6:12–16). And there is what Jesus called “the cares of the world” (Mark 4:19). And there is Paul’s warning that “those who marry will have worldly troubles” (1 Corinthians 7:28). And there is conflict in the church, even on the staff (Philippians 4:2), and the steady stream of criticism for what you say or don’t say, or do or don’t do (1 Corinthians 4:12). And there is what Paul calls “the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Galatians 4:19), and the “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” for those we long to see saved (Romans 9:2). And there is “the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for [the church]” (2 Corinthians 11:28), and the “sleepless nights” (2 Corinthians 6:5), and the doctor’s diagnosis that might be “the sentence of death” (2 Corinthians 1:9).

Probably what happens in the ministry at midlife is a dangerous confluence of these typical (!) ministry pressures at a critical stage in life when physical changes, marital stresses, children’s challenges, vocational aspirations, and the burdens of success (or failure) create the conditions for meltdown. This perilous confluence of forces leads to a shuttering reassessment of life and the desire to be somewhere else.

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