The Pastor and an Unmessianic Sense of Non Destiny
For many men of a certain age, the mid-life crisis is just that: a mid-life crisis, a time for despairing that youth, good looks, and perhaps hair have gone, never to return. For me, however, the experience has been pretty positive so far: not only have I been able to hand on my old banger of car to my oldest son (thus making myself the greatest dad in the world), but I’ve also broken with my lifelong habit of driving pieces of junk until they disintegrate and purchased an inexpensive but decent sports car. Not quite sure how my wife let me get away with it; but the fact that my previous car leaked when it rained and the present Mrs. T had told me that enough was enough and she was no longer prepared to “be dripped on” as we drove along in a storm one day, seemed to open up a great opportunity for sneaking a good car onto the driveway. As she rolled her eyes, she did say to me that a husband with a decent looking car is, from her perspective, better than one with a secret girlfriend and/or a not-so-secret toupee. I had to agree: there are indeed much worse forms of the mid-life crisis (MLC) out there.
One other aspect of my MLC, and one that I have found extraordinarily helpful, is the death of ambition which, in my experience, it seems to have brought in its wake. The realization that one cannot be the best at everything, or even those things at which one used to be the best, is presumably a factor in quite a few MLCs—and for me this was a welcome liberation. I woke up one day a few years ago at the age of forty, and realized that, if I was hit by a bus that night, whatever academic contribution I was ever going to make had already been made; I had done it; I need not worry about it anymore. I could, of course, continue grinding the stuff out, like some intellectual sausage machine, but it would be more of the same, variations on a theme I had already played. No, an early Trueman death would not deprive the world of some great insight it might otherwise miss. I knew I would continue to write and even to do research, but I would do these for the pleasure I found in them, not because I believed it was my God-given task to enrich the waiting world with my pearls of wisdom.
This inner peace reminded me a little of the mental health statistics when I was at university. These indicated that good mental health was generally strongest among us intellectual middle-of-the-packers who were happy with whatever results we achieved: if we scored high, that was a bonus; if we crashed to earth, that was a bit of a blow but nothing too serious; we sailed on in our own, carefree way, not allowing work to interfere too much with trips to the pub, the odd game of darts or pool, and the general enjoyment of life. By contrast, breakdowns and suicides were most common among the intellectually brilliant high-fliers, those for whom nothing less than perfection was acceptable.
So it is with the MLC brigade. There are those for whom the diminution of their intellect, musculature, looks, and hair is a traumatic and desperate experience; and they find nothing which seems to compensate. You can point to the growth of hair in nostrils and ears as much as you like, but—trust me—these men will take no consolation from the fact that their overall number of active follicles remains relatively stable.
For me, and I hope for others, being on the cusp of middle age has, contrary to the above, proved liberating. The key, I believe, is to match diminishing abilities and opportunities with diminishing ambition; balance the former with the latter, and you achieve a sort of zen consciousness where middle age does not seem so terrible after all.
Of course, the acquisition of such consciousness is really somewhat counter-cultural: not only does today’s world consider ageing, and the inevitable physical weakening that comes with it, as sins; it also teaches us that everyone is special, has a particularly unique contribution to make, and must have a prize of some kind. Everyone needs to tell the world about their greatness, their uniqueness. It reminds me of the legendary football manager, Brian Clough, who, when asked if he was the best manager in the world famously replied, “No, but I’m somewhere in the top one.” He was funny because he was one of a kind. But we’re all Cloughs now, with the cultural term for those who lack confidence in their unique brilliance being, so I believe, “loser.”
This belief that we are each special is, by and large, complete tosh. Most of us are mediocre, make unique contributions only in the peculiar ways we screw things up, and could easily be replaced as husband, father, or employee by somebody better suited to the task. The mythology nevertheless helps to sell things and allows us to feel good about ourselves; indeed, the older you get, the more things it sells, from gym memberships, to cosmetic surgery, to hair pieces, to botox injections. But it is just mythology—the whole of human history so far strongly suggests that, as you get old, you cease to be as cool, and that you inevitably find that life just isn’t as sweet as it was when you were eighteen.
As I look around the church, it strikes me that this zen-like condition of a lack of ambition is much to be desired because far too many Christians have senses of destiny which verge on the messianic. The confidence that the Lord has a special plan and purpose just for them shapes the way they act and move. Now, just for the record, I am a good Calvinist, and I certainly believe each individual has a destiny; what concerns me is the way in which our tendency to think of ourselves as special and unique bleeds over into a sense of special destiny whereby the future, or at least the future of myself, comes to be the priority and to trump all else.
Put bluntly, when I read the Bible it seems to me that the church is the meaning of human history. But it is the church, a corporate body, not the distinct individuals who go to make up her membership. Of course, all of us individuals have our gifts and our roles to play: the Lord calls us each by name and numbers the very hairs of our heads. But to borrow Paul’s analogy of the body, we have no special destiny in ourselves taken as isolated units, anymore than bits of our own bodies do in isolation from each other. When I act, I act as a whole person; my hand has no special role of its own; it acts only in the context of being part of my overall body. With the church, the destiny of the whole is greater than the sum of the destinies of individual Christians.
This is an important insight which should profoundly shape our thinking and, indeed, our praying. My special destiny as a believer is to be part of the church; and it is the church that is the big player in God’s wider plan, not me. That puts me, my uniqueness, my importance, my role, in definite perspective. The problem today is that too many have the idea that God’s primary plan is for them, and the church is secondary, the instrument to the realization of their individual significance. They may not even realize they think that way, but like those involuntary “tells” during a poker game, so certain unconscious spiritual behaviors give the game away.
Take, for example, prayer. Compare the “O Lord, please use me for doing X” variety with the priorities of the Lord’s Prayer, where the petitions are much more modest: “Lead me not into temptation, deliver me from evil, for the kingdom is yours, etc.” One could paraphrase that prayer perhaps as follows: “Lord, keep me out of trouble and don’t let me get in the way of the growth of your kingdom.” The Lord’s Prayer, by contrast with many prayers we cook up for ourselves, is a great example of words designed for the lips of believers who really understand the gospel, of those with, to coin a phrase, an unmessianic sense of non-destiny.
Now think about church commitment. Many churches require members to take vows when they join, one of which usually requires submission to the authority of elders and a commitment to the local body. This is surely the church vow which is as casually taken as it is regularly broken. How many Christians move membership from one church to another as soon as their pet issue or problem is not addressed, or because they see a better option elsewhere? And I haven’t even mentioned the countless Christians who attend churches but never formally join. Once you shift membership from one church for no reason other than it doesn’t scratch your itch, it becomes a whole lot easier to do it again—and again, and again. But if you have an unmessianic sense of non-destiny, this is unlikely to be a problem: you won’t consider yourself important enough to justify breaking a solemn, public vow.
The West worships the individual. From the cradle to the grave, it tells us all how special and unique we are, how vital we are to everything, how there’s a prize out there just for us. Well, the world turned for thousands of years before any of us showed up; it will continue turning long after we’ve gone, short of the parousia; and even if you, me, or the Christian next door are tonight hit by an asteroid, kidnapped by aliens, or sucked down the bathroom plughole, very little will actually change; even our loved ones will somehow find a way to carry on without us. We really are not that important. So let’s drop the pious prayers which translate roughly as “Lord, how can a special guy/gal like myself help you out some?” and pray rather that the Lord will grow his kingdom despite our continual screw ups, that he will keep us from knocking over the furniture, and that, when all is said and done, somehow, by God’s grace, we will finish well despite our best efforts to the contrary.
MLCs are dreaded by many men, but my advice is: gents, seize with both hands the opportunity to truly grasp that, whatever you thought at age eighteen, you are not actually the messiah and you have no special destiny which sets you apart from everybody else. The former is Christ alone; the latter is primarily reserved for his church. We all need to cultivate that certain unmessianic sense of non-destiny which will make us better citizens of the kingdom.
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Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Carl’s blog in 2010.