Welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast. And, Pastor John, we have not done an entire episode on the midlife crisis, especially your own experience of it. But you have a story to tell, though it’s not something you talk about at length. There’s an old conversation with John MacArthur that I know of. But could you now speak to middle-age listeners, especially men who are forty or nearly forty? What did you learn during this dark season? And what would you say to other men in the midlife years, or soon to be in them? So take us into your story.
Forty and Reckless
I think I was forty when we were on vacation in California. Ben Patterson, who was at that time the pastor of a Presbyterian Church in Irvine, asked me to preach for him and offered me his house for some days of vacation while they were away. And so, we took him up on it. Two things happened which were remarkable and probably a wake-up call — a warning for me in midlife to hold fast to Jesus.
“Don’t leave your wife, don’t buy a motorcycle, don’t get a sailboat, and don’t throw away everything you’ve built.”
One was that I felt inexplicably depressed while I was there. One morning I was sitting on the stairway to the second level of their house, crying. My wife found me and was startled because that’s not typical. She asked me, “What’s wrong?” And I simply said, “I don’t have any idea.” That’s what MacArthur got so surprised by in that conversation that we had. He just shook his head and said, “I’ve never experienced anything like that.” And I said, “Well, I wish I hadn’t.”
The other thing was that after I preached at Ben’s church it just so happened that Jim Conway, the author of Men in Midlife Crisis (which I believe is still in print and useful), came to me and asked me how old I was. He came up after the service and said, “How old are you?” I thought, “What is that?” And he had introduced himself, so I suspected it must have something do with midlife.
He said, “How old are you?” I said, “Forty.” He smiled and said, “You got a year and a half.” He meant the average age (I think I’ve got my details right) for men to pass through midlife crisis. The age is 41 and a half — at least, that’s the way I remember it. I had never even thought about the issue of midlife crisis. I tend not to put a lot of stock in generalizations like that.
But there is a good bit of evidence, isn’t there? Something happens for many men as they move into their forties, and not all of it is pretty. I don’t remember his exact words, but he summed it up with something like this: “Well, John, don’t leave your wife, don’t leave the ministry, don’t buy a motorcycle, don’t get a sailboat, and don’t throw away everything you’ve built.”
That kind of captured some of the stupidity that men at this moment do. They just throw away some of the most valuable things in their lives and try to make something new out of silliness like that. That gives you a snapshot of my brief experience with it and with him.
Where Did This Come From?
Now, I’ve tried to think, “Why is this? Why does this happen to us?” I am certainly no expert, and people ought to read books — not just listen to a podcast — if they want to try to figure this out. Let me tell you what I think though, trying to analyze myself and look at the world. I hope to wave some warning flags for guys like you maybe. It may be about where you are.
1. Physical Factors
I suspect there are physical dimensions to this, like hormonal things. You know, male menopause or whatever you want to call it. I don’t know. I’m not an expert. But I would guess that there are changes happening. I don’t know enough to talk about that. I’ll leave that to the side. I suspect that there are more situational reasons for this.
2. Career Peak
A man may feel he’s peaking out in his career. He may feel that it hasn’t turned out to be as great as he had hoped, and a certain measure of disillusionment is settling in as he ponders another twenty-five years of doing the same thing.
The dreams for what his vocation might become have not proved to be as satisfying as he thought. And it can be really oppressive to think of doing the same old, same old for another half a lifetime. I think that’s part of it.
3. Body Image
Here’s another part of it. He may look at his body in the mirror — or his wife’s body — and realize it’s downhill from here on. We’re not getting any prettier or handsomer. He’s not going to look any more handsome or any more fit, and she’s not either.
“Take a Bible and a notepad and wrestle with God for three hours until you get fresh clarity for why you’re here.”
In fact, he may have let himself go and become a kind of overweight, bedraggled, average, run-of-the-mill, paunchy man. He may feel lousy about it, but physically too tired to do anything about it.
The pressures of his vocational life have caused him to let go of his exercise — to let go any routine of fitness. Maybe even he’s not getting enough sleep because kids and work and stresses — who knows what all. And when you don’t get enough sleep, you get discouraged and easily depressed.
4. Routine Marriage
Very possibly he and his wife have settled into a kind of twenty-year-old coexistence with their long-discovered differences that have not been worked out very well and still function like irritants between them. The peace and the pleasure that he used to enjoy and hope would get better have been replaced with a kind of truce — with neither he nor she offering affirmation and joyful partnership like they used to. That dream seems to be drying up from what he had hoped it would be.
5. Pressures of Raising Teens
Here’s one more, and I have the gut feeling that this may be close to the heart of the matter for some guys. I don’t know whether it was for me or not, but this feels big. At this point in his life, his children (of course I’m just thinking of guys that have children) are probably entering their teen years.
They’re forcing on him questions of his own moral and spiritual identity as he tries to lead his children into adulthood. The uncertainties and the questions and the perplexities of raising kids, raising young adults, in this world feels like never-ending pressure and confusion for which there are just no simple answers.
The need to give guidance and provision and example to the children is relentless and never-ending. There are no days off from parenting. And this all feels new because raising teenagers is so different from raising three-year-olds and nine-year-olds. For all those reasons and more, I suspect there is something very real to this issue of men in midlife crisis.
Cling to Christ
And looking back now from age 71, I am overflowing with thankfulness to the mercy and the power of God to hold on to me during those years. There are some depressing parts of John Piper’s journal. I hope the world doesn’t ever get to look at them. When I look at them, I have to say, “Thank you, Father. If you had not been massively true to your promises to complete the good work that you began, I wouldn’t have made it. I sure didn’t have the fingers to grip this cliff.”
My encouragement to men is that you lay hold of Jesus Christ as Paul says in Philippians 3:12. Lay hold of him precisely because he has laid hold of you.
Get up in the morning before your children. I know that’s a challenge if they have to be at school at 7:30. But I did it for years, and I know it’s crucial. Get up before your children, go to your private place, get down on your knees before God Almighty and beg him for strength for another day.
Ask that he would fulfill his promise never to leave you, never to forsake you. Ask that he would help you and strengthen you and uphold you by his word. Tell him every morning that he is your only hope as you instruct these children in his word.
Ask your wife if you can get a half day away on a Saturday or a Sunday. Go away for three or four hours. Borrow somebody’s house if it’s wintertime. Go to the park if it’s not. Take a Bible and a notepad and wrestle with God for three hours until you get fresh clarity for why you are on planet earth.
What is the purpose of your life? Get clarity on that.
“God is faithful. That’s the bottom line.”
I don’t mean mainly what other vocation you should have besides the one you’re in. That might be part of it, but that’s not the issue. The issue is about the radical commitments of Acts 20:24 and the radical commitment of Philippians 1:20.
Paul gets real clarity, and it’s not complex. It’s short. You can put in a sentence why he exists: to magnify Jesus Christ — whether strong or weak, whether living or dying — to finish our course in faith and love, not turning to the right, not turning to the left, not making shipwreck of our faith, our marriage, or our ministry.
Seek His Face
I have no doubt, brothers, that if you will take the time to seek his face and know him and love him, you will mount up with wings like eagles. You will run and not be weary; you will walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:31).
It’s true. I know it’s true. I have tasted it in the impossible moments — in the moments when you don’t think you could do another thing. In those moments, you lay hold on Isaiah 40.
I promise you that if you stay faithful to your wife, God will re-enchant your marriage in ways you can’t imagine. And the children? They are in his hands. You are not God. You are his emissary. Tell them the truth every day from Scripture. Live it with love, in meekness, lowliness, penitence, and strength — as best you can. And put them in the hands of God.
God is faithful. That’s the bottom line.