by Abed Zien El Dien
As the end of December approaches, so does my 40th birthday, which has sparked contemplation about the journey ahead. Engaging in a conversation about this milestone with an older Christian friend brought forth the concept of midlife crisis. He shared with me some of his own experiences as he went through a midlife crisis. It was not an easy 6-month ordeal, but God took care of his heart, body, and mind.
I will explore the dimensions of this phenomenon, drawing from personal experiences and insights shared by others in the Christian community. I hope to offer some insights for those who haven’t faced a midlife crisis, reflections for those who have, and encouragement for those currently navigating a midlife crisis. Therefore, if you’re currently reading this blog and haven’t undergone a midlife crisis, like me, it may be advantageous to glean insights from the life experiences of fellow Christians to prepare for what may lie ahead. For those who have already navigated through one, this piece may offer a thoughtful reflection on your personal journey. And if you find yourself amidst a midlife crisis as you peruse this blog, I extend my sincere hopes that God will assist you, just as my friend attested to God’s sustaining power.
First, let’s delve into the concept of a midlife crisis, exploring its definition, causes and symptoms, and phases. A midlife crisis is characterized as an intense emotional upheaval typically occurring between the ages of 40 and 60, marked by a profound yearning for change. While grappling with change is an inherent part of the human experience, this period magnifies the desire for transformation. This transformative phase is distinguished by heightened emotions, maladaptive coping strategies, and shifts in behavior.
A definition. During a midlife crisis, individuals often question the significance of their accomplishments and whether these achievements still contribute to a sense of purpose and fulfillment. This internal questioning may manifest in sudden career changes, reevaluations of relationships, or the pursuit of new hobbies. However, it can also lead to impulsive behaviors such as reckless spending and/or excessive drinking that may result in health issues. In essence, a midlife crisis involves a fundamental shift in self-perception and engagement with life.
Various causes and symptoms may contribute to a midlife crisis. As we age, the tension surrounding our identity and purpose tends to intensify. Significant life events, such as divorce, the loss of a loved one, feelings of boredom, or major life changes, can also serve as catalysts for this transformative period. Examples include realizing dissatisfaction with one’s career path, regretting not pursuing more meaningful work, recognizing physical decline with age, feeling unfulfilled in relationships, or missing significant goals set earlier in life. While some individuals may exhibit few symptoms or grapple with unresolved emotions, others may resort to coping mechanisms that jeopardize relationships, finances, or health.
It is important to address this life milestone of a midlife crisis because it impacts our spiritual journey. A period like this can influence one’s relationship with God in two contrasting ways. On one hand, an individual may feel excessively empowered, reluctant to seek God’s guidance, convinced of their ability to manage everything independently. Conversely, the depths of despair during a midlife crisis might lead to a belief that even God cannot provide solace. One respected late Christian pastor, a mentor of mine, shared that he underwent a midlife crisis, temporarily losing faith in God. Despite this, he continued his ministry, keeping his struggle to himself until the phase subsided. It is particularly hard, especially in a shame-honor culture such as mine, for those in ministry to vulnerably share their struggles, as their reputation might be damaged, or they might fear they will need to leave Christian ministry. Nevertheless, being silent about such struggles is not a healthy solution; rather, opening up to mature Christians friends, mentors and therapists is healthier.
Another Christian friend and pastor confessed that, during his midlife crisis, he felt an urge to deplete his life savings, whether in financial or relational aspects, affecting his relationship with God, self, and others. Moreover, the inclination to change jobs and ministries during this period could significantly impact one’s vocation, especially if impulsive decisions are made.
The good news is that a midlife crisis not only begins but also ends. The phases of grief often closely parallel a midlife crisis, typically commencing with denial and potentially culminating in rage. A midlife crisis can involve persistent daydreaming, revisiting the past, and engaging in rash, impulsive actions. The resultant stress may lead to feelings of despair or a desire for retreat. With time and appropriate support from loved ones, these emotions can evolve into an acceptance and resolution stage. The U-shaped happiness curve illustrates that, despite a decline in happiness levels during middle adulthood, positive emotions tend over the long run to rise with age. Increased self-satisfaction and heightened optimism about the future serve as indicators that a midlife crisis may be nearing its end.
Despite its challenges, a midlife crisis also presents positive opportunities. According to Richard Rohr, the second half of life is often perceived as grappling with aging, health concerns, and relinquishing the physical aspects of life. However, this experience can be reframed as a form of upward and onward falling, leading to a more profound connection with the whole, where the soul finds fullness and becomes integrated into the Big Picture. Rohr also emphasizes that the truth often brings moments of discomfort and introspection before one experiences liberation.
The journey of midlife crisis does not have to be travelled alone. Returning to the experience of my Christian friend from the beginning of this post, he emphasized the importance of openness with family, wife, and children as a crucial support mechanism in his journey. A network of loved ones and mature Christians can help alleviate a midlife crisis’s excess energy and intense urges, providing a sense of accountability and assurance that there is a caring community around you. The danger lies in internalizing the struggle, as intense emotions can hold power to manipulate you. Bringing the struggle into the light gradually weakens its grip.
From a biblical perspective, considering figures like Moses, David, Saul, Peter, and other characters mentioned in the Bible, with a focus on their struggles, it is not surprising to find symptoms of a midlife crisis within their journeys. It is worth mentioning that King David might be a biblical example of someone who went through a midlife crisis of sorts. The tragic story of David sleeping with Bathsheba is told in 2 Samuel 11:1-12:25. After political (2 Sam 1-5), spiritual (2 Sam 6-7) and military (2 Sam 8-10) triumphs, David falls into the sins of adultery and murder (2 Sam 11), after which he gets into troubles with his family (2 Sam 12-12:36) and his kingdom (2 Sam 13:37-24:25). Despite his successes, while apparently failing to remember God, David gave into dissatisfaction and novelty-seeking. At the prime of life, David was bored from winning wars, and stayed at his palace during wartime, sending Joab instead. As he was longing for a fresh, exotic experience, David found just what he wanted as he was walking on the roof of his palace. The rest of the story is catastrophic!
Still, God used Nathan, who skillfully and caringly used allegory to confront David. It was a “wake up call” (2 Sam 12:3). If not for Nathan, maybe David’s end would have been similar to that of the previous king, Saul. There were still serious consequences afterwards in David’s life and family because of his sin; however, Nathan the prophet and others proved trusted advisors. Mature and caring Christian friends are always needed, especially in a midlife crisis.
A midlife crisis, by its very definition, is about a breakdown of discipline, accompanied by intense controlling emotions which might make a Christian’s attempt to ask God for help a futile endeavor. Still, turning to God is essential for Christians during a midlife crisis. The crisis can serve as an opportunity to reconsider, reshape, and reassess our lives in alignment with Christian discipleship. Drawing inspiration from the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:26, the emphasis is on disciplined perseverance in the race of life, with a continuous fight against sin, as God’s grace sustains and guides. John Piper, in “How Do I Survive This Midlife Crisis?”, expresses his commitment to maintaining reverence for God’s sternness and finding joy in His benevolence. His daily routine involves reading the Bible and prayer, integrating these practices into his existence, seeking preservation and being molded into the image of God as described in the Bible.
In conclusion, Rohr’s words are insightful: “We move forward in ways that we do not even understand and through the quiet workings of time and grace … when we get there, we are never sure just how it happened, and God does not seem to care who gets the credit, as long as our growth continues.”
Abed is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry at ABTS. He is a member of the Church of the Nazarene and enjoys watching movies, listening to music and taking walks.