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Walk with Me Through a Midlife Crisis

How God Kept Me from Quitting

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

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.

Hence the warning, “Don’t get a motorcycle. Don’t get a sailboat. Don’t leave your ministry, and don’t leave your wife.”

From where I stand now at 73, having served that same church for 27 more years after the crisis of those midlife years, I want to stand on the rooftops and shout, Don’t quit! Don’t throw away your ministry, or your wife, or your children, or your future fruitfulness. Join Paul in appealing to the highest power and authority in the universe to strengthen you “with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11). Endurance! Endurance! With joy! That is the need of these years. Only God can do this.

Background Music of the Critical Year

But it might help to get a glimpse into my journal entries in those days, lest you have any romanticized notion of midlife melancholy (depression?). From what I can reconstruct, the year 1986 seems to have been the closest thing to a season of crisis — my 41st year.

February 28, 1986: This morning as we were getting dressed Noël said, “I found a lump in my breast this morning.”

It seems to have been only an infection. Perhaps. But then there was an irregularity that pointed in another direction.

March 15, 1986: Noël goes into the hospital for a D&C on Monday at 7 a.m. . . . Dr. T. is concerned. Noel’s grandmother had cancer of the uterus.

For all we could tell, the outcome of these little scares was positive. But such things tend to linger in the background of the mind. With reason. Three years later, this:

March 27, 1989: Noël had surgery today for a benign cyst in her right breast. It was about four centimeters deep. . . . I was with her at the hospital from 6:15 a.m. to about noon. The surgery took about an hour. We told the boys about her need for the surgery Sunday evening. They became very still and serious.

Health concerns, you might say, were a distant, background sound in the strange music of 1986. All through that year of stress, I was aware of tightness in my chest.

March 6, 1987: I had a complete physical on Tuesday, including an EKG and an extended blood test. I was feeling chest discomfort off and on for a couple of weeks. I’m still aware of it now. But all the tests say I am perfectly normal, with the blood pressure “of a sophomore in high school” (Dr. F.). I think this is good news, but then maybe it is something in my bones. Who knows. I will go on as he says, trying to get plenty of sleep, and see what develops.

Turbulent Courtship

If lingering health concern was the background music of 1986, the dominant sound was created by the tumultuous courtship between our church and First Baptist Church across town.

May 25, 1986: The most stunning development is the invitation to a conversation with First Baptist Church concerning a possible merger of some sort, so that Bethlehem Baptist Church could come to their facilities instead of building a new sanctuary.

We were in the midst of trying to figure out whether to build a new sanctuary (the one that presently exists). So, this possibility lit the fires of hope that something really creative and exciting might happen.

For six months, my journal is strewn with dozens of entries about the endless hours and meetings spent on trying to make this merger a reality. As meetings multiplied — some late into the night — emotions would soar with excitement, and plunge with doubt and discouragement.

On October 27, 1986, the merger dream died — like a broken engagement so filled with hope for a happy marriage.

October 28, 1986: It is Tuesday, October 28, the day after the merger died. It died last night at about 9:30 at First Baptist Church. . . . I cried more yesterday than on any day since my mother died (1974). Breaking the merger off was emotionally wrenching. I wept on Ralph J.’s shoulder. They were “deeply disappointed,” “surprised,” “angry,” but the deacons had acted at 6:30 and the die was cast. Very intense. Ron K. was our main spokesman. Dennis S. was too moved to lead the meeting. Dick F. was on the brink of tears when he spoke. I flowed over the brink when, in the end, they turned to me.

It’s not as though the “engagement” had been smooth till the last minute. The strain had been growing. Two weeks earlier it had almost died.

October 10, 1986: It is 1 a.m. We have been in a combined [merger] committee since 7:15 at Bethlehem Baptist Church. It was very tense. At one point, when we split to our own committees, I broke down and cried. I am very weary. This was to have been my day off. I had a funeral at 10:30, and a graveside at 12:30. Last night I was up till 1 a.m. getting ready for it.

The Camel’s Back Was Weak

The merger dream — with countless papers to prepare, and meetings to attend, and emotions to manage — was, I see now, a hope-giving, adrenaline-producing weight added to a schedule of ministry already out of control. There was no gatekeeper in my life (like I have now) to help me filter the demands I felt as pastor. There is little mystery where the California tears came from, when you glimpse a week in the life of John Piper in May of 1986.

May 23, 1986: Yesterday, a “day off,” was a very low day, one of the lowest in a long time. I do not know for sure but my guess is that the cause is as follows:

All day last Friday there was the push to write a sermon — with a visit to John A. to discuss the merger with First Baptist Church fit into the midday — and a party with Becomers Class at the end. After the party, I was up till 12 or later getting ready for the 6:45 a.m. Saturday study with the deacons.

Saturday after the meeting, more sermon writing and then a wedding where I was to pray in spite of the fact that I disowned the theology presented. Saturday night, up late trying to memorize the call for worship, write a pastoral prayer, compose a welcome to worship, and be filled with my sermon.

After four or five hours of sleep, I pushed through three services not just preaching but calling to worship, praying, welcoming, singing, greeting the people, and interviewing someone after the third service. In the afternoon no rest, but push to get ready for the festival in the evening with my welcome and words of appreciation and readings. After the festival, we drive to the W.’s for supper and conversation and prayer.

Get home late and try to put something together for staff retreat before bed.

Monday morning rise early, devotions with the family, and off to a 7 a.m. prayer meeting. Then from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., staff retreat. Arrive home 6:15 for shower and quick bowl of cereal and off to search committee meeting at seven. Interviewed from seven to 10:30 p.m. Late to bed, hard to sleep.

7 a.m. site development task force meeting. A run out to visit Mr. J., whose wife died the night before. At 10, tour First Baptist for two hours. All afternoon work on correspondence, etc. Ben’s recital at seven. Leave early to go visit Miss W. who thinks I am proud and aims to leave the church. Hard to sleep that night.

Wednesday meetings with Neil F. and John A., and Charlie B., and Irv M., and the S. couple. Then prayer meeting, and afterward met Mrs. M. who can’t trust her husband because of old abuses and recent movies. Then comes Thursday — the morning was spent getting a shot, then biking with Noël. I was irritable and unlikable. After lunch I was so exhausted I went right to sleep for an hour and was awakened by crying Barnabas at 2:30. For the rest of the day I felt like lead. Lead in my chest and hands and heart. I could hardly converse. I wanted to cry again and again. I felt like I’d been run over by a Mack truck — my emotions were dead. I could have sat and stared at anything blankly.

But I took the boys to the park and pushed myself to pitch with them and help them swing. Then we went out to Karsten’s choir concert at school. Noël carried my shadow quietly. We spoke briefly of it, prayed, and went to bed.

Now it is Friday morning, and it all starts again, only I am not rested. I cannot get all the air I need at normal breathing — as though my diaphragm is too tired to do its work without periodic forced deep breaths. I feel very tired.

I think as hard on me as the schedule is the plague of controversies in which I am standing against people who think I am wrong. What’s worse, the issues are so complex and I am not sure myself of how to apply them. . . . First Baptist Church and the immensity of that merger and task hangs over me. . . .

So, it seems that yesterday’s near collapse is the outcry of my body for some relief . . . .

I think three services on Sunday has been a quantitative leap. I live — I suppose — on adrenaline all day Sunday (on rarely more than five or six hours sleep). Then I am exhausted Monday through Wednesday, kept going by necessities. Thursday comes and I am incredibly cranky and so discouraged. I need to sleep but I hate to sleep away my day off. I want to read!

So it goes. Lord, help me find the pace to finish the race, and finish it with love, not irritability.

Cry from the Lowest Place

When the merger died, it was almost a knockout blow to an already reeling fighter — the (very big) straw on the weakened camel’s back. I wrote about it eight years ago in an article titled “How I Almost Quit.” The cry from the lowest point was two weeks after the merger death.

November 6, 1986: O Lord, have mercy on me. I am so discouraged. I am so blank. I feel like there are opponents on every hand, even when I know that most of my people are for me. I am so blind to the future of the church. O Father, am I blind because it is not my future? Perhaps I shall not even live out the year, and you are sparing the church the added burden of a future I had made and could not complete?

I do not doubt for a moment your goodness or power or omnipotence in my life or in the life of the church. I confess that the problem is mine. The weakness is in me. The blindness is in my eyes. The sin — oh, reveal to me my hidden faults! — is mine, and mine the blame. Have mercy, Father. Have mercy on me. I must preach on Sunday, and I can scarcely lift my head.

Glory, Majesty, Dominion, and Authority

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 his amazement at God’s keeping us from falling, Jude draws our attention to “glory, majesty, dominion, and authority” (Jude 25). This is how we finish our course. God’s glory, majesty, dominion, and authority triumph over a thousand obstacles — including our own foolishness and sin.

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.

I Love You, O Lord, My Strength

Take heart. You will not be tested beyond what you are able (1 Corinthians 10:13). “The great shepherd of the sheep” will “equip you with everything good that you may do his will” (Hebrews 13:20–21). He will “make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8). He will “sustain you to the end” (1 Corinthians 1:8). “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24). This is my witness. And I join David’s exultation: “I love you, O Lord, my strength” (Psalm 18:1).