I turn fifty this weekend. Fifty. It came faster than I expected.
I received a birthday greeting in the mail from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). I told my wife that it was like receiving a card from the Grim Reaper. Retirement is not something I’m prepared to think about yet, either psychologically or financially (though I may be prepared in the former sense before the latter sense).
Or spiritually. There is no retirement from Kingdom work.
I am among the oldest of so-called “Generation X,” born from the mid 1960s to the early 1980s. We are a gap generation, an undistinguished “X” between the massive, socially dominant Baby Boomers and the noisy, hip Millennials. We are not “the greatest generation,” and we’re not the coolest. We’re the quiet, middle-child generation. We came of age in the relatively conservative Reagan-Bush era, which means we aren’t political or cultural revolutionaries. And we are now increasingly finding ourselves in middle age, no longer trendsetters, and not yet sages.
Fifty Feels Different
Middle age feels different than I thought it would. My grandmother once said to me (she was in her early nineties and I was in my early thirties), “Inside I still feel like I did in my twenties. I look in the mirror now and wonder, who is that old lady?” Now I understand better what she meant. Much of the inner me at fifty does not feel different than I did at 25. But when I see myself in photos, I wonder at the middle-aged man. Is that really what I look like? That looks like my dad.
But looking older is not the hard part of middle age. That’s mainly hard on my vanity, which is good for my soul. The harder part is the deeper, existential realization that at fifty I am still far more like the 25-year-old inner me than I thought I would be.
I thought I would be more mature by now. I thought I would have greater faith. I thought I would be more prayerful, less fearful, more patient, less irritable. There has been progress in all these areas, but not as much as I expected.
I thought I would be a more Christ-like, Spirit-filled disciple of Jesus, a better husband, a more skilled father, a more thoughtful friend. I thought I would be a bolder witness for Christ and a greater lover of people. I thought I would be more fruitful. And I thought I would have made more progress in overcoming my constitutional and temperamental weaknesses.
The hardest part of middle age is realizing how much of the me I thought would change still remains. The pace of sanctification is turning out to be painfully slow. Disgusting depravity is still a daily battle on many levels. I am still so “beset with weakness” (Hebrews 5:2).
Middle Age Temptations
I know better now why people have mid-life crises. There are more demands on us at this stage of life than at any previous time. Family, vocational, financial, and often ministry challenges are more complex than ever. And these arrive precisely at the time when it dawns on us that we are more sinful, weaker, and less wise than we thought we’d be by now. We can feel trapped in the middle.
That’s why some respond by withdrawing into a protective cocoon while others bolt for some greener-looking pastures. Some grasp at a new fantasy since the old ones didn’t deliver, while others simply succumb to the cynicism that all dreams are empty fantasies and begin the hardening process that produces bitter old people. When weakness meets weariness, and discouragement meets disillusionment, we must be on our guard. These are spiritually precarious moments.
Sufficient Grace to Endure the Race
I’m finding that what I really need at this phase of life is the refreshing gospel reminder that it is precisely my weaknesses that showcase most clearly and beautifully the strength of God’s grace (2 Corinthians 12:9–10), and that I have need of endurance, so that when I have done the will of God I may receive what he promised (Hebrews 10:36). My weaknesses have a purpose in God’s design, and so does my weariness.
Middle age is like miles twelve to twenty in a marathon (at least psychologically), when the initial energetic optimism of the start is gone and the finish line still seems far off (even with the AARP cheerleaders). Miles still stretch out ahead, and we know there are still some hills. Our body is weary, and our mind is susceptible to mental diversions. Regrets, anxieties, and fears cloud our thinking more than they did at the beginning. We are faced with various temptations to give up.
These middle miles may not be the most glorious miles of the race, but they frequently are the most important. Whether or not we finish well is often determined during this stretch of road.
So as I help lead the vanguard of Generation X into our sixth decade in the race of faith, with the rhythm of my feet upon the pavement and through some fatigue, I’m preaching to myself, There’s sufficient grace to endure the race (2 Corinthians 12:9; Hebrews 12:1).
Fifty came faster than I expected. So will sixty and seventy, if the Lord wills. So will the finish line. So will Glory. And each will feel different than I thought it would. My expectations, and certainly my self-image, are not what’s important.
What’s important, what this whole race is about, is obtaining the Prize (Philippians 3:14). And I want to keep running that I may obtain it (1 Corinthians 9:24).