Well, about a year ago we recorded an episode titled “My Midlife Crisis — and Counsel for Yours,” episode 1173 in the archive. It was a very personal, autobiographical account of a season of your life, Pastor John. It has now been listened to about 200,000 times. It has generated a load of grateful emails in the inbox. And since, we’ve gotten a lot of emails from guys going through this season of life who, well, just want you to talk more about it. Here’s one, from a listener named Leo.
“Hello, Pastor John! Thank you for your APJ episode on your own midlife crisis. That’s where I’m at now, and you have helped me to see that I am not alone. Thank you! I was wondering if it was a combination of mission, life, stress, and genetics that caused you to feel at times like crying and having a deep sense of depression. It seems complex. I recently reached 43 years old and noticed some changes in my mood and extreme depression at times. Can you share more about your own experience?”
Keeping, Holding God
Well, I’m reluctant to talk about myself since I think it creates a kind of pleasant bond among us weepy guys. It doesn’t do us a lot of good in the end. It’s nice to have comrades in misery, but it doesn’t help much.
“I really want to make known to as many people as who will listen that God has kept ahold of me.”
But I am willing. I didn’t have to answer this question, but I am willing to talk about it for two main reasons. One (and it’s the main one) is that the older I get, the more I want to give God public, heartfelt, explicit credit and praise for keeping me through every kind of distress that I have experienced. I really want to make known to as many people as who will listen that God has kept ahold of me. This is the decisive reason why I have kept ahold of him, and it is my first and main reason for being willing to say a few more words about this. I want to give God glory for being a keeping, holding God.
The second reason why I’m willing to say another word about this experience is that God’s keeping is manifest — his divine act, his decisive keeping, is manifest, shown, evident — precisely through our fighting to be kept. Now, make sure you hear that rightly. It’s a little bit odd, so make sure you hear it rightly, and not the other way around.
It’s not that God is moved to keep us by our fighting to be kept. Are you with me? Let me say it again. It is not that God is moved to keep us by our initiative in fighting to be kept, but (let’s turn it around now) that God moves us to fight to be kept, and thus he keeps us. If that sounds perplexing to you, that’s why I’m willing to talk about this again, because if you don’t get this, you don’t get the Christian life and how God sovereignly keeps his own.
God Uses Means
Now, first, the decisive thing to say about any Christian midlife crisis is that God keeps us. When I say Christian midlife crisis, what I mean is that God and God alone is the decisive one in getting us through so that we remain faithful to him for a lifetime.
God may use a thousand things. He mentions genetics, and stress, and all that stuff. That’s absolutely right. Who can fathom all the reasons why we go up or down, or why we come out and go back? Who can fathom the practical horizontal effects that are at work? Thousands of them, not just four. God may use a thousand things to keep us back from the cliff of pride and greed and sexual immorality and apostasy. But whatever the means — the horizontal means that we and others can see in our lives and the lives of others — whatever the means are, what is always decisive is the invisible power of God.
Promised Steadfast Hope
The greatest benediction in all the Bible, I think — there may be another one greater, but I don’t know of it — is spoken in celebration of God’s keeping. That’s amazing. Here it is:
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, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24–25)
“God and God alone is the decisive one in getting us through so that we remain faithful to him for a lifetime.”
That’s stupendous. That’s just over the top. What’s he praising? He’s praising that he kept me. He just kept me. If you don’t feel amazed that you woke up a Christian this morning, you don’t get it. You just don’t get it, because if God hadn’t kept you at 3:00 a.m., you’d wake up at 6:00 a.m. and be an unbeliever. That’s stupendous.
Peter puts it like this: “. . . who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5). How are we being kept? By God’s power. How does it work? It works by awakening in us faith every morning.
Paul, more than anyone else — bless him, I love him, we all love Paul — felt the wonder and the force of God’s keeping. He says, “[God] will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:8–9). In other words, he keeps whom he calls.
Or he says in Philippians 1:6, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” He began it; he will finish it. He will finish it decisively, and that’s why you will finish it.
Look at 1 Corinthians 10:13: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation, he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Don’t miss the word endure. The escape from the tests is through the enduring, and that is the work of God. That’s my first and main aim in looking at this issue of midlife crisis again: just to give God all the credit for every stitch of endurance and perseverance.
Don’t Let Your Guard Down
Here’s the other aim — namely, to communicate clearly that God’s keeping is manifest, shown, precisely through our fighting to be kept. I’m going to say it again because this is just so perplexing why people have a hard time getting this, yet they do. God’s keeping — God’s decisive, sovereign keeping of his own, his children — is manifested, works itself out, is shown, is evident in our lives precisely through our fighting to be kept.
“If you are fighting to be kept, God is at work in you.”
If you are fighting to be kept, God is at work in you. That’s the key statement in 1 Corinthians 9:26–27. Paul says, “I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Amazing — it’s amazing. Paul believed that if he let down his boxing guard, sin would deliver a knockout blow. I don’t know when people are going to listen to this, but just three days ago, there was a big heavyweight boxing match. I saw the headline, so I clicked on it. These people are paying, who knows, one hundred dollars for a live stream to get to watch this boxing match for fifteen rounds. But it ends in 28 seconds. I love it. Because this guy lets down his guard, and whammo! — he’s on the floor. Knocked out in just a few seconds. Paul believed, “If I let down my boxing guard for a moment, sin will deliver a knockout blow to me. It really will.” That’s how God keeps Paul. He makes him a fighter.
He says in Philippians 3:12, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Beautiful. “I press on; I lay hold of.” But why? “I’ve been let hold of. I’ve been taken. I’m in his hands. I’m just grasping what I’ve been grasped with. Yes, I really run the race, but he is running in me.” Just like he says in 1 Corinthians 15:10: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
Never Stop Fighting
As I look back over my thirties and forties — indeed, my twenties through my seventies — as I look back over my life, I have never stopped fighting. I don’t remember any season. I don’t remember a week. I wrote a whole book entitled When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight For Joy. That’s not an accident — a whole book on how to fight for joy.
I have never stopped fighting to tremble at God’s severity. I have never stopped fighting to rejoice at God’s kindness. I cannot remember missing a day that I was not in God’s word and in prayer. I suspect there were some. I’m not claiming any perfection. I just can’t remember any. It’s that much a part of my life. Every day is a day of pleading over the word that I would be kept and shaped according to the God I see in the Bible.
I’ll end with this. I’ve never tried to go it alone. It’s easy to go at it alone. People are hard. People cause the most problems. Books — they’re not a problem. People are the problem. I know that’s not right. I know that’s not biblical. “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). Well, how am I going to take care? Here’s the answer: “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).
Trust is my lesson. Trust God’s sovereign keeping. And in that confidence, cut off your hands, and tear out your eyes, and fight for a greater joy than any sin could ever bring.