Midlife Clarity

Five Proverbs for Men in Crisis

I haven’t yet been through midlife, but now I seem to be at it. Or at least approaching it, depending on how you define midlife. Some get as specific, and early, as age 41.5; others define midlife as a broad range beginning around 45, and even dragging on as late as 65.

Standing here at age 41, and looking around, I can imagine — without even considering what physiological and neurological components might be involved — why this juncture in a man’s life can be difficult.

Swirl of Complex Factors

John Piper has written about the tumults he faced at midlife, a “season [that] lasted several years,” and was most acutely confusing and difficult in his forty-first year. Writing more than thirty years later, he says, “That was a very hard season of life, and the record of it in my journals is to this day painful to read.” (For those who would like to chase that trail, Piper published some excerpts in the article “Walk with Me Through a Midlife Crisis.”)

His journal entries include self-descriptions like irritable and unlikable, and phrases like “felt like lead,” “could hardly converse,” “wanted to cry again and again,” “my emotions were dead,” “on adrenaline all day Sunday,” “incredibly cranky and so discouraged,” “so blank,” “so blind to the future,” and again “so discouraged.” He says at one point that “it seems that yesterday’s near collapse is the outcry of my body for some relief.” And perhaps most striking of all to me as a pastor is this: “I must preach on Sunday, and I can scarcely lift my head.”

In sum, Piper captures midlife as “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.”

Facing Finitude and Failures

One definition of “midlife crisis” centers on a man’s growing awareness of his finitude and his failures: “a psychological crisis brought about by events that highlight a person’s growing age, inevitable mortality, and possible lack of accomplishments in life.” One dear friend of mine, who has made it far past 41.5, and is now closing in on 60, said to me recently about his journey through midlife,

The reality of your limitations (on most fronts) become clearer. We are often forced to face who we really are instead of who we imagine we’ll be someday. Midlife is a phase where one’s psychology (in terms of self-understanding) has an opportunity to grow into one’s theology. For it’s a phase when one’s functional theology is tested by the reality of mortality.

With the ring of wisdom, that presents midlife not only as a trial to be endured, but an opportunity for Christian maturity — “to grow into one’s theology.” With that in mind, I came across Proverbs 16:1–9 recently and found that this unit of ancient wisdom speaks to an aspect of the phenomenon that I’m hoping to steady myself for. Consider at least five layers it might offer to men approaching, or in, midlife trials.

1. Our actual life is ‘from the Lord.’

The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. (Proverbs 16:1)

I suspect one conscious reason midlife can be tough is the stubborn, immovable realities of life. As young men, two decades ago, so many doors seemed open; the possibilities seemed endless. It was easy to dream, and even expect we might live out some, if not all, of those dreams.

“Rarely, if ever, do our actual lives live up to the grandeur of the great hopes we’re prone to generate in our youth.”

But midlife brings a bracing reality check. Far fewer doors are now open. Many of our secret and spoken dreams and aspirations now seem unrealistic, or impossible. What might be has crashed on the rocks of what is. Somehow it got real in the last two decades, and perhaps it took us a while to realize it. Then it dawned on us almost all at once.

Rarely, if ever, do our actual lives live up to the grandeur of the great hopes we’re prone to generate in our youth. Our youthful plans are one thing. Then, in time, comes the “answer of the tongue.” That is, what really emerges and is manifest in our lives in the years that follow, to midlife and beyond, is “from the Lord.”

2. His plans include our ‘days of trouble.’

The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble. (Proverbs 16:4)

The midlife disappointments we may feel, with ourselves and others and our circumstances, are no sign that God is distant and has lost control. In fact, just the opposite. He has his purposes for his sons in precisely those failures and letdowns and pains. Our “days of trouble,” however external or internal the obstacles, and however past or present — and the ones sure to come in the future — are lovingly sifted through his fingers for the deeper joy and final good of his sons. He has planned all our days. Even the worst ones. Especially the worst ones. And the days beyond them.

3. God matures us through humbling.

Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished. (Proverbs 16:5)

One purpose God accomplishes, among others, in our midlife disappointments is our humbling. He is, and has been, purging our hearts from the arrogance of youth and unholy ambition. How much of our youthful sky’s-the-limit wishes were not simply natural but proud? How much, in arrogance, did we presume health, wealth, and prosperity, on our terms? One of God’s great works in moving men from naive youth to mature manhood is the great humblings leading up to, and in, midlife. He moves, with severe mercy, against the arrogance of our youth.

We’ve had our dreams, and made our plans, as we should, but God’s plan is definitive, and humbling. “One can strategize about the future, to be sure,” comments Tremper Longman on Proverbs 16, “but this wise observation would lead one to acknowledge that the future can only be determined by God. Such recognition would engender a proper humility and open one up to changes” (Proverbs, 327). How often does the hard, painful midlife crash against the rocks of reality serve to “open us up to changes” of God’s leading that we’ve been long, subconsciously resisting?

4. Christ has atoned for sin.

By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil. (Proverbs 16:6)

Midlife brings awareness not only of compounding frustrations, or how we’ve been hurt or deterred by other’s sins, but also of our own iniquity. We are sinners. Midlife “crisis,” however profound it might feel, has not yet plumbed the depths if there is no awareness of our own sin — sin that does not just disappear or go away with avoidance but needs to be addressed and forgiven.

Perhaps midlife brings new awareness of bad choices and wasted time. This “crisis” is an opportunity to acknowledge that and own it, in the full confidence that God, in Christ, has made full provision for our sin. And by his Spirit, change is possible. We can pivot. Even if none of the presenting complexities seems to involve our own sin, how liberating to know that in Christ our “iniquity is atoned for,” and can fearlessly be mined for, found, and confessed, leading to our turning away from evil.

5. Our ‘lesser’ can be his ‘better.’

Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice. The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps. (Proverbs 16:8–9)

To the degree we’re mourning something, or many things, that seem to be lesser in our life than we dreamed in our youth, it might be good to consider how lesser, in God’s economy, often amounts to better.

“Midlife confronts us with the limits, and errors, of our own all-too-human ways of reckoning.”

Midlife confronts us with the limits, and errors, of our own all-too-human ways of reckoning. What we have, at our seeming halfway point, may seem like so little compared to the “great revenues” we hoped. But what soul-destroying revenues might we have been spared? And how upside down might our instinctive evaluations be, without learning something of God’s vantage? And what might we, and others, discover to be true when our Father issues the last word?

Proverbs 16:9 not only echoes Proverbs 16:1, but also sums up Proverbs 16:1–8 under the banner that Derek Kidner captures as “God has not merely the last word but the soundest” (Proverbs, 119). Yes, look to him now, by faith and in patience, for his last word, and soundest word, that is coming as you endure.

Able and Faithful

Humbling ourselves, at midlife, under God’s mighty hand brings no promise of immediate relief. From beginning to end, the Scriptures promise real rescue — and exaltation — to the one who genuinely humbles himself. But when? Peter says “at the proper time” — that is, on God’s perfect timetable, not ours.

Some may see only a few discouraging days; others may struggle under debilitating weights for months, or longer. Yet all are invited, one day at a time, to roll those burdens onto the broad, omnipotent shoulders of our God, “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

However long, however discouraging, however debilitating the season, in Christ our heavenly Father cares, and until the sun rises again, and the air is fresh again, and our burdens are light again, and beyond, he is able to keep us. Perhaps midlife will be the time when the power of Jude’s doxology really begins to hit home:

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy . . . (Jude 24)

God is faithful — faithful to his Son, and to his sons. He will not let us be burdened beyond what we can bear but will help us endure (1 Corinthians 10:13). He is able to “make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times,” even in this season, you may not only endure, but “abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8).