Mid-life Crises and the Drain of Duty

In recent months I have seen several people go into a state of personal crisis. A mid-life crisis that manifests in buying a motorbike and starting a combat sport is one thing, going into spiritual meltdown is something altogether different. Why does it happen? I don’t want to presume to know the inner workings of specific individual cases, but can I speculate slightly?

Life is good at thirty. Happily married and enjoying the adventure of starting a family. Business is challenging and money is tight. Church is a weekly feature of healthy life and it is more than just appearances, it feels vibrant and eternal and purposeful.

Somehow, somewhere in the subconscious is a sense that christianity is about devotion manifesting in dutiful living. After all, Christianity brings about moral change in a society, in a family, in a life. So it is not far from devotion to duty when the devotion might be slightly empty. Never mind, life is busy, challenges abound and successes seem fairly frequent.

Church life only seems to reinforce marginal mistakes in living the Christian life. Everyone at church looks the part, and now you aren’t a young adult, but an established one, one that others look to for stability and spiritual example. So the personal struggles and the gnawing feelings of emptiness are suppressed. You heartily amen the undertone of duty and diligence and ethical living championed overtly and subtly in the church.

Somewhere along the line, God has become someone who wants our goodness. We continue to try, but somewhere in there, in the forties, the fifties, somewhere we stop and we look at ourselves. My faith is absolutely empty. I know the truth. I affirm the truth. I live the truth. But I don’t feel the truth. God wants my goodness, really?

At this point there is a fork in the road, maybe even a junction. One option is to chuck it all in and go off the deep end into a life of self-focused hedonism (after all, I have missed out on so much by being good, now it is time to taste and see what the world has to offer before I am unable to indulge anymore). Some will then avoid any conversation that might be convicting, while others will use long acquired vocabulary to essentially abuse grace and justify selfish passions.

Another option is to rest in the security of truth known, and continue in good behaviour, but to lose all sense of credibility in terms of leading others. Hiding the vacuous state of our own souls we press on as if nothing has changed, but we have changed. Now we don’t give ourselves to others in the same way, and perhaps we hide from the emptiness within. Hobbies suddenly become obsessions, or personal likes become out of control masks to numb the void within.

Another option is to throw ourselves at God. After all, in the midst of the duty imposed on us over the years we have gained a bit of a taste for the notion that God is loving and relational. We have heard others speak of it, we have perhaps used learned vocabulary to describe our own “experience” of God. Now we decide to go after God and we crave a real and genuine spirituality. This could lead to bizarre mystical or spiritual experiences, or it could lead to genuine relationship with a God who doesn’t want our goodness, but our trust.

I don’t know, I don’t think I’ve had a mid-life crisis yet. But as I observe others whom I care about, I wonder if there is something of this deep down draining and deadening effect of dutiful Christianity. Eventually it leaves us wiped out and craving something more. The question is whether God actually just wants us to press on and be good, or whether He is wanting something far more personal and intimate and transformative?

3 Responses to Mid-life Crises and the Drain of Duty

  1. Steve Scansen September 1, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

    I am sad to say that I think that this is way more common that we would like to admit!
    How does this happen? I suspect that there are many contributing factors but I think that it is possible that the pulpit is one large contributor. How you might ask? If the preaching is a regular diet of the presentation the duties which we are to do in order to be good Christians then this seems to be the inevitable outcome. Many continue to do the dutiful things like church attendance and moral living, but miss the relationship that is so essential for ongoing fruitfulness. As a preacher it is easy to preach the imperatives of scripture (what we are to do) without the indicatives (what God has done for us in Christ), and cause those in our congregation to go out and try harder and feel worse as they see all that they are not doing. This can lead them to put on the Sunday face/clothes and grow weary in their doing of good as it isn’t enough. We need a revival of true gospel-centered preaching that leads to gospel-centered living. The Christian message is not what we must do for God to earn his favor, but what Christ has done for us. Praise God for a growing awareness of the danger of the drain of duty!!!

  2. Mark N September 2, 2011 at 3:52 pm #

    You are on to something, Peter. I am watching a young church in our area that is drawing many young families and young successful people into its fold. Most are Christians from other churches who find life there. It is inspiring in many ways. Another church nearby had such a season years ago. Over time, however, life got complicated. The mean age of that older curch is about 50, and all of the symptoms you describe are there. I watch this new, younger church and learn. My prayer is that they will build on a strong foundation and not let a utilitarian Christianity fool them into thinking they can do this on their own.

  3. Scott Douglass September 3, 2011 at 12:39 pm #

    I would suggest that mid-life crisis is a time to stop, assess and ask God for wisdom. Devotion out of duty borders on legalism while in grace it is out of love. Maybe it is a time to stop or limit one’s self in ministry or whatever they are doing and seriously ask God for wisdom for what they are doing. Maybe He has other plans for this person but out of duty they are still doing it. They are weary, tired and have lost the vision as for what God had for them originally. Every year I ask God about my involvement in church and ask Him if and what I should give up or at least limit. Spiritual burnout and crisis has many contributing factors and if one is very tired and weary of doing the same thing then maybe it is time for a change. One needs to be led by the Spirit rather than driven by a ministry. Maybe this mid-life crisis is a Western worldview mindset too. Culture places much emphasis on doing rather than being. Maybe one should be being rather than doing and sitting at the feet of Jesus rather than doing this or doing that for God which may not be done His power anyway. Culturally we gauge success by what we do and maybe that needs to be changed to what God thinks of us and change accordingly. I am still thinking this through.

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