Have You Been Dis-Illusioned?
Guest Post by Wendy Alsup
I just turned forty-eight years old, and I get the idea of a mid-life crisis in a way I did not in my twenties or thirties. I walk with many brothers and sisters in Christ experiencing mid-life crises as well. Many believers have them, but we may miss it since most of us remain disciplined enough not to buy a sexy new sports car or have an affair.
Putting away stereotypes of acting out a mid-life crisis, it is valuable for us to consider what happens in mid-life to believers, why we might have a crisis of belief about our life, our person, or our God, and how God Himself meets us in it.
The timing varies person to person, but I think of mid-life as the stage of life when our naïvete wears off, and we become disillusioned.
Disillusion—to free or deprive of illusion.*
Disillusion—to destroy the false but pleasant beliefs (held by a person).**
Those definitions gut me, because that is exactly what happens to many of us in our thirties and forties. It certainly happened to me. I have watched many others struggle as their idea of the good Christian life crumbled before the reality of the life they truly faced. I cringe at my naïve sentiments in my college years and throughout my twenties, my simplistic view of how my life would turn out, and the foolish notions I had about the ease of the results if I made the “right” choices at each intersection of life.
Are you disillusioned with life? Have the illusions you held for your life in your twenties fallen apart? Have your false but pleasant beliefs about how your life would turn out been destroyed? In college, I couldn’t comprehend the crushing weight of miscarriage and infertility. It never dawned on me that children of believing friends, despite gospel loving parents, would choose rebellion and drug abuse or die of cancer or in car accidents. I didn't understand that God might clearly lead me into a ministry that would also fall apart right in front of my eyes. It never occurred to me that many of my Christian college friends, who in theory married the “right” guy, would watch their marriages crumble in the dust. It certainly didn't occur to me that would happen in my own. Single or married, with children or not, I have watched the light die in the eyes of friends from Christian college and ministries over the last decade. Their “false but pleasant beliefs” of the good Christian life have been destroyed, as have my own.
We are dis-illusioned.
As our false but pleasant beliefs on life are exposed, what do we do in the aftermath?
The Power of Pretenses to Destroy
First, it helps to name the problem. For many of us who grew up in evangelicalism and/or were part of vibrant Christian ministries in the 1990's and 2000's in particular, we adopted some pretenses. And pretenses (something imagined or pretended, a right asserted without foundation) have the power to destroy.
The best way to identify the pretenses we were subtly taught or just adopted on our own is to compare them to the truth of Scripture. Mine centered around one simple lie – that life is a sprint with the finish line and moderate celebration to be had sometime around my thirties on earth. I saw my twenties as the race, figuring out my life, my ministry, my family. I naïïvely thought those would be the big hurdles in life, and once I figured out where I would live and who I would marry, once we had children and settled into ministry and jobs, the rest of my life would be mostly enjoying the fruits of my early labor with occasional smaller hurdles to overcome.
But the truth from Scripture is that life is a marathon. And though we can expect and rejoice in times of peace and respite along the way, they should be seen more like the cups of water that runners pour over their heads at various points in their long run rather than celebrations at the finish line.
In Hebrews 12:1, the Bible uses marathon language when it talks about enduring in a race.
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
Endurance isn't a key component in sprints. Sprinters train for speed. But in Ecclesiastes 9:11, Solomon observes that the race of life doesn't go to the swift. Instead, we need endurance, and it is marathoners, not sprinters, who train for endurance. Getting that difference is key to overcoming mid-life disillusionment.
The Power of Christ to Heal
Once we've identified our false beliefs that destroy us, we can embrace the truth that heals us. That's the moment when our dis-illusionment is transformed into something good and healthy that will nourish us for the long haul in life.
The author of Hebrews goes on to tell us in Hebrews 12 to keep “our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith.” Why does Jesus have the power to heal us when our naïve notions of life on earth are torn apart? Because He endured before us! The author of Hebrews goes on to say:
For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
The next verse says to
consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, so that you won’t grow weary and give up.
That language reflects the fork in the road at a mid-life crisis. Do you grow weary and give up? For most believers I talk to who are walking through an extended season of disillusionment, they'd give up if they knew where to turn in their resignation. I've often joked that I'd resign my responsibilities if I could find someone who'd accept them. But, like the disciples in John 6:68, where else would I go? I can't give up on Jesus because Jesus refuses to give up on me. I'd jump ship, but He won't let me. Oh the grace that He holds us fast to Himself in the storms.
How does Christ then heal us as we endure? Think of healing as getting stronger, like the person doing a couch to 5k program who gets stronger session by session of practice. As they continue training, their lungs, heart, and calves get stronger. Eventually, they go from running 5ks to 10ks to a half-marathon to a whole one.
The author of Hebrews tells us to think of enduring suffering like discipline.
Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? (Heb. 12:7)
Don't mistake this discipline for punishment! We don't endure suffering to pay for our sins. Instead, this discipline is like training for a marathon. It's the kind of discipline or training that makes us stronger. God our Father is training us to go longer and stronger in the marathon of life in His name.
James 1:12 encourages us,
Blessed is the one who endures trials, because when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
James reinforces this in James 5:11,
See, we count as blessed those who have endured. You have heard of Job’s endurance and have seen the outcome that the Lord brought about—the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
What happens as we endure through a mid-life crisis? Our spiritual heart, lungs, and calves get stronger. We learn a rhythm of grace, like the cups of cold water poured over the head of a runner at various intervals, that sustains us. We learn the pace to run our race--not too fast and not too slow--as we endure long seasons of struggle. Our minds settle onto the thoughts that equip us, thoughts of Christ, His suffering, and His perseverance.
Like Paul in Ephesians 1, we should pray that God opens our eyes to the power at work in us, the same power that raised Christ from the dead. And you know what? When we pray that, He will do it.
Note that Paul doesn't ask that the Holy Spirit would come down on the Ephesian believers. He instead speaks of the Holy Spirit already in them. They just need to be enlightened to understand and live in the reality of that truth. Like many on the couch contemplating a 5k, we miss the truth that most of us really do have all the equipment in our bodies to get from the couch to a 5k. How many have done a couch to 5k program and expressed that they never thought they could? Their eyes were opened to something in them they didn't know they had.
Much more so, we are better equipped by the Holy Spirit than we realize to endure in long seasons of suffering. Mid-life disillusionment then becomes a gift, because it forces us to find something better than our own abilities to survive. It forces us deeper into our belief system, and when we are pushed to find the power beyond us to believe, we wake up to the fact that He was already in us, that same power that rose Christ from the dead, equipping us to face the next stage of our lives with hope. In that sense, dis-illusionment that points us instead to the truths of Christ in us, the hope of glory, is a necessity for maturity in the faith. And the faith that emerges will be worth the race we endured to grow it.
*The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
**Kernerman English Multilingual Dictionary (Beta Version), © 2000-2006 K Dictionaries Ltd.
Wendy Alsup is the author of Practical Theology for Women, The Gospel-Centered Woman, By His Wounds You Are Healed, and Is the Bible Good for Women?. She began her public ministry as deacon of women’s theology and teaching at her church in Seattle, but she now lives on an old family farm in South Carolina, where she teaches math at a local community college and is a mother to her two boys. She also writes at gospelcenteredwoman.com. She is a member of a local church in the Lowcountry Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. To read more of Wendy's writing, visit her blog, or follow her on Twitter.