Strategies for When Life Seems Aimless
Today’s question is about waiting when life seems to be aimless and going nowhere, specifically when it comes to a career, but the implications cover any kind of waiting really. This specific question comes to us from Daniel who asks: “Dear Pastor John, I’m a recent college graduate, and I feel directionless as I try to figure out what this time of my life is supposed to be about and what God has planned for me. In this transition from college into the workforce, I feel like I’ve lost my energy, purpose, and direction. I know that all I do is for God’s glory, and I know my joy is supposed to be rooted in Christ and not in my circumstances. But my question is: How should Christians like me handle this so-called ‘quarter-life crisis’?”
The first thing to say is that this season will pass, but God intends for Daniel to engage in the kind of spiritual warfare that God will use to make it pass. That is the place to start.
Know Your Condition
And the first strategy in that warfare, that engagement, it seems to me, Daniel has already pursued — namely, the recognition that this condition of his mind and soul is a kind of crisis and needs to be, as he says, handled: How can I handle this?
One way to describe the crisis would be that it is perhaps like the well-known ancient spiritual condition called acedia. And that comes from the Greek word for neglect. But the term acedia came to refer — to use the words of one resource I read — “to a state of listlessness or torpor, of not caring or not being concerned with one’s position or condition in the world.” And they said that it can lead to a state of being unable to perform one’s duties in life. Its spiritual overtones make it related to, but arguably distinct from, depression. So it sounds like we are dealing with acedia here.
So the first strategy is to identify the crisis, look it full in the face, make no denials, identify its nature, and make plans for war.
Wait Patiently on the Lord
The second strategy: Set your face for a patient, God-centered waiting upon the Lord — not that the waiting will be inactive, but rather it will be a recognition that the victory may take time and that. in the meanwhile, we will not give in to despair. So we put these words of David on our tongue:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:1–3)
We take heart that, however long the waiting might have to be — David doesn’t say — however long we may have to be in the pit or in the miry bog of acedia, listlessness, directionlessness, we will not despair, but will look expectantly to God to act in his time. That is strategy number two.
Realize You Aren’t Alone
The third strategy: realize that genuine Christians often are marked by this kind of malaise. You see it, for example, in 1 Thessalonians 5:14:
We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.
The word for “idol” is interesting: ataktos. It is kind of the chaotic, the disordered. It feels like everything is out of whack. So idle, fainthearted, weak. That is not unlike what Daniel describes he is feeling these days. And Paul recognizes those folks are in the church. They need to be cared for. That is real Christian experience and real Christian warfare.
Take Up the Word of God
And the fourth strategy: put the word of God over against the particular losses that you are feeling. And Daniel said, “I feel like I have lost my energy, purpose, and direction.” Let me take those one at a time and just put a word of God over each one.
Let’s first take energy. The psalmist says,
The Lord is my strength and my shield;
in him my heart trusts, and I am helped. (Psalm 28:7)
So the Lord himself is our strength, and the psalmist says that we experience that strength by trusting in him. And to be more specific, Nehemiah says “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10). So pursue the joy of the Lord, and you will be pursuing your strength.
There is a kind of paradox here. When you feel energy, it is you who feels the energy. When you get up and act, it is you who are getting out of bed and acting. And yet the Bible says the Lord is your strength. Sometimes you hear people say, “God helps those who help themselves.” Well, that is a kind of secular effort to express a biblical truth that secular people cannot understand, and therefore, they can’t say it right. What that is trying to say biblically is: God helps the weak and paralyzed and dead to help themselves so that in all our so-called “self-help,” God will get the glory because all our “self-help” turned out to be God-help. That is what they are trying to say. That is the biblical truth. And here is the way Paul puts it 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.
So, Daniel, by all means pursue your restored energy. Seek it in the Lord. Seek it in the joy of the Lord. And when you have sought it and trusted him for it, get out of bed and do the next thing that needs to be done.
And then over against the sense of loss of direction, I would put 2 Thessalonians 3:5:
May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and the steadfastness of Christ.
And what that text shows is that the Lord himself is the great heart-director. When we need direction, we plead for our hearts to experience God’s direction. It is precisely the heart that Daniel needs direction for — not just his head, not just his body. The heart is the great life-director. And behind the heart is the Lord.
And so pray that God would direct the heart first to the love of God and then to the steadfastness of Christ and then, in that love and in that steadfastness, to the clarity you need for your life’s work.
Remember Your Purpose
And then, lastly, Daniel says he feels like he has lost purpose. And over against that I want to put 1 Peter 2:9:
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Whatever else God has for you in life, this is crystal clear: you exist to make the excellencies of God known, especially the excellencies by which he calls people from darkness to light. And it is a marvelous light, Daniel. As much listlessness as you may feel just now, you live in marvelous light. And it is your purpose, a God-appointed purpose, to see it, to savor it, and to make it known.
Put one more specific text over against that loss of purpose: 1 Peter 4:10.
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace
You, Daniel, like every Christian, have gifts from God. These gifts are peculiar to you. They are peculiar means by which only you can steward God’s particular grace to you. Your purpose in life is to use those gifts to steward that grace for the glory of God.
‘The Lord Is My Portion’
So let me end with just this encouragement from Lamentations 3. Jeremiah was very low as he wrote this in his sense of helplessness as his beloved Jerusalem was being devastated. And he cries out,
My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.
And then he does battle with this crisis that he is in, and he says,
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:20–24)
So call God’s promises to mind, Daniel. Hope in him and move. God will — he will, as you move in his strength — restore the joyful sense of energy and direction and purpose.