The wise Christian knows that maturity and passionate love for God are inseparable. It’s easy to fake maturity to others. Not so to God.
LAST YEAR I DECIDED THAT, BY GOD’S GRACE, I would not become a middle-aged Christian. If with a knowing smile you are attributing my vow to over-forty touchiness, you’re mistaken. Physical age has nothing to do with this condition.
A ten-year-old child who is thoroughly familiar with the Bible can rattle off the right answer in Sunday school. But if he has lost all sense of wonder before God’s truth, he is a middle-aged Christian. So is the college student or Navy ensign who, in preparing to lead others through lesson one of a basic Bible study series, stifles a yawn and approaches the study hopelessly content with his current level of understanding of the Deity of Christ.
In fact, a new believer can be a middle-aged Christian as easily as someone who received Christ forty years ago. The qualifications are simple: be satisfied with your current level of spiritual experience and then sit back and get comfortable.
DANGEROUSLY SAFE GROUND
I’ve been a Christian for twenty-some years. I have enough knowledge to keep from making a fool of myself in Christian circles. I’m proficient enough in Christian jargon to understand and be understood in most religious gatherings; usually, I can find Nahum before the last person stops shuffling pages. I’ve attended conferences and seminars and spoken at a few myself. Most of my brothers and sisters in Christ consider me a reputable fellow believer.
I’m on dangerously safe ground.
It seems to me the Pharisees stood on such ground. They carried their religious aura comfortably: they were respected, satisfied, and complacent. They knew enough not to make fools of themselves, enough to make themselves look very good. Once they reached this comfortable level, they rested contentedly in their ecclesiastical hammocks. They were happy to appear spiritual rather than to be spiritual. The Pharisees felt safe in preserving their status quo; actually, they were on very dangerous ground.
I fear getting comfortable – relating to the Lord in a benign, but nevertheless calloused, way. I want to expose myself to God in a vulnerable and ruthless way so He can change me.
A middle-aged Christian is content to live on “safe” ground because he doesn’t see the fatal incongruity of it. Safety is the antithesis of Christian experience.
Faith is another way of saying risk, stretching, growth. J.H. Jowett said,
…vital religion implies the element of hazard, of speculation, of splendid gamble, and… where there is no risk the so-called venture is dead.1
Without faith no one can please God (Heb. 11:6). God’s plan for His people does not include safe, middle-aged coasting. To the end Abraham, Moses, and Paul pressed toward the mark (Phil. 3:14). They never drew a line and said, “I’ve experienced enough of God to satisfy me. I think I’ll just rest on what I’ve learned.” To the end Paul had the spirited enthusiasm and commitment of a zealous new believer.
Although probably in his sixties when martyred, he never became middle-aged.
Neither did Caleb. When Moses sent twelve men to spy out the promised land, ten brought back a middle-aged report – they recommended dying in the desert or returning to slavery in Egypt rather than hazarding a dangerous conquest, even though the God who parted the Red Sea was leading them. But Caleb and Joshua gave an enthusiastic report and strongly encouraged the people to embrace the venture, risk and all. Risk was not a bottomless pit to Caleb, because, as he proclaimed, “the LORD is with us” (Num. 14:9).
Scripture repeatedly describes Caleb as a wholehearted follower of God. This characteristic kept him from becoming a middle-aged spy at forty and enabled him to say, at age eighty-five, “I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then” (Josh. 14:11).
STAY ON THE HEIGHTS
Paul and Caleb inspire me, but what motivates me is a healthy fear of falling away – gradually, imperceptibly.
I fear fooling myself by continuing to do all the right things externally, all the while bankrupt of any inner reality – picking and choosing which Scriptures speak to me but crediting God with leading me, conveniently closing my ears to Christ’s hard sayings or explaining them away in terms of my culture and personal preferences. “The Lord says: ‘These people come near to Me with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is made up only of rules taught by men” (Isa. 29:13).
Obvious sins warrant an all-out, frontal attack, but it is the little foxes I fear – silent, subtle, just-tainted spoilers that sneak in as slightly distorted perceptions, mild self-righteousness, little acts of obedience left undone, small “short-comings” overlooked, tiny foibles indulged. The foxes go unnoticed at first. Too late I find my garden has been gutted.
“Come further up, come further in,” cried the unicorn in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. That must be my desire as well if I want to banish the foxes from my garden.
Fortunately, in Christ there is an inexhaustible treasure house to explore. Vital Christianity is as exciting as an expedition into virgin territory – but we have the security of a well-trodden historical path, because Moses and Elijah and John Wesley have passed before. Life in Christ has no dead ends, no final peaks, no interminable deserts, no irreversible swamps. Behind every dark cloud, formidable foe, besetting sin, or prickly thorn, God stands ready to enrich our knowledge of Himself and delight us with new discoveries. Tragically, when we decide not to go higher and further, we limit not only our growth but also our thrills.
The danger is clear. “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Heb. 2:1).
How does this tragic process happen? It takes no effort to become a middle-aged Christian. The culture in which we live wears away our sharp perceptions, dampens our zeal, and extinguishes our fire. Slogging through daily life can blur realities until the material world seems more real and desirable than His Kingdom. But perhaps our greatest enemy is the Christian culture we unknowingly design for ourselves.
How do we avoid substituting this self-made culture for Christianity? Perhaps we can start by identifying the danger signs that signal a slide into complacent middle age. Following are some of the most common. Do you see them in yourself?
During the great revival of the 1700s, the men God used had the same message: “If Jesus is not Lord of all, He’s not Lord at all.” The practical Lordship of Jesus Christ is essential to a vigorous faith.
A one-time “Lordship decision” is not enough: I must defer to Jesus daily as He brings issues to my attention. For example: Will I ask forgiveness in a messy situation? Am I ready to endure hardship and inconvenience to get further help in my Christian life? Am I willing to leave behind a new dining room set to go to the mission field? In my job, will I deal honestly even though I may lose salary advances, promotions, or even the job itself?
Questions like these and hundreds more surface throughout life, requiring that I make choices based not on personal considerations, but on obedience to Jesus Christ: “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Lk. 6:46).
In his fiction series The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis said of Aslan, his central character and Christ figure, “he is not a tame lion.” Jesus cannot be domesticated and brought indoors like a house cat. Jesus is Lord, Master, God – not our pet or buddy. “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?’ says the LORD Almighty” (Mal. 1:6).
Although Jesus is totally approachable, available, and ever watching over us in love, we must relate to Him as Lord, not Genie. Prayer is not rubbing a magic lamp to call down His blessing on our plans and desires. We are His servants that His will might be done.
It is absolutely crucial that I not moderate and mute Jesus to be more comfortable with Him. He must never become a fabrication of my design. I cannot cleave to Him as Shepherd but deny Him as Judge, exult in His love but ignore His wrath. “…a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (Jn. 4:23).
My husband, Roger, once shared the gospel with a young man raised in the Catholic Church who was studying to convert to Buddhism. When Roger asked his opinion of who Jesus was, the young man automatically responded, “The Son of God. The only way to God.” Then Roger showed him John 14:6, where Jesus indeed claims to be the only way to God, and said, “You’re absolutely right. But why, then, are you studying Buddhism if Jesus is the only way to God?”
The very words this young man had echoed back from his training in the church finally connected intellectually, practically, emotionally. His eyes snapped open. “That’s not what it says,” he cried angrily. “It can’t say that!” The truth he had heard and could repeat on demand had never penetrated his armor. Though familiar, the truth was foreign.
Shortly after I committed my life to Christ, someone with whom I shared the gospel said to me, “Jean, I know it’s changed your life, but I can’t believe. It sounds like a fairy tale.” The gospel does indeed sound like a fairy tale – or science fiction. Yet a middle-aged Christian may be unable or unwilling to be amazed, shocked, or thrilled at God’s truth. Has the familiar gospel lost its impact on you?
“Familiarity breeds contempt,” it’s been said. In the Christian life, familiarity breeds callousness, cataracts, and a false and deadly sense of well-being. By its nature it often goes undetected, draining off vigor even as it assures that all is well. Have you ever hit a portion of Scripture in your quiet time and thought, “I know what’s here. I’ve read it before, heard my pastor preach on it, even studied it in Sunday school”? This kind of attitude, although it stops short of claiming to know it all, dulls receptivity and invites complacent satisfaction.
Study the life of Jesus. No ruts. All His living was vital and vibrant. Those who take Jesus’ words seriously and expose themselves to Him in a vulnerable way are guaranteed an exciting life.
Although Jesus was consistent – His life perfectly expressed the will of the Father, completely representing what is right, just, and good – He was also unpredictable. His closest followers stood scratching their heads half the time, wondering what He would do next. Jesus’ teachings kept everyone off balance. Imagine a Jew saying, “Drink my blood”! He forced people to stay alert because He didn’t always speak plainly.
Jesus’ unpredictability is perhaps the greatest indictment of our sinful condition. The problem of familiarity arises not because of limitations in Jesus’ life or in the Scriptures, but because we approach this amazing Man and this inexhaustible Book impassively. I pray that the great truths of the Bible might increasingly grip my life, that the familiar wonders of grace, mercy, and the sacrificial death of Christ would never become tired fare. Handling the Word of God should cause me to tremble, not yawn. It grieves me that I know so little of trembling.
“THAT DOESN’T APPLY TO ME”
How often we’ve been warned, “Don’t take it personally.” That may be good advice for the thin-skinned in interpersonal relationships, but it is disastrous advice for our relationship with God. Failure to “take it personally” leads to hypocrisy – such as adults who express grave concern over the lack of spiritual commitment, evangelistic zeal, and faithful Bible study among the youth of the church, all the time overlooking the same lack in themselves.
Remember the Pharisees? Unless Jesus got their attention with a jab to the jaw, they assumed He was speaking to others – those who needed it. This attitude is a fatal flaw of the spiritually middle-aged.
Our walk with Christ demands personal receptivity. When God speaks through Scripture in my devotions, through my pastor, or in the rebuke of a friend, I must respond, “Lord, are You speaking to me? Is there something I must confess? Something I must change?” Throughout the Bible, God warns us to keep an attentive eye to ourselves, to scrutinize and test our lives. In Deuteronomy 4:9 He warns, “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live.”
The followers of Jesus must be fully conscious of their own vulnerability, careful they don’t deceive themselves by holding an unrealistic self-estimate. They should test their actions and examine their motivations (Gal. 6:1-4). The challenge is to stay humble. So, if you think you are standing firm, you may already be a middle-aged Christian.
A SLOWLY COOLING HEART
All Christians experience periods of dryness in their walk with God. But a slowly cooling heart is a slowly dying heart.
Our Lord speaks of the ebbing of fervent love as a critical concern, one requiring repentance and diligent, specific action. “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev. 2:4-5).
What is this first love? In Jeremiah 2:2 the Lord says, “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved Me and followed Me through the desert, through a land not sown.” Bride love. First love. Tender devotion.
Bride love is evidently high and lofty, because Jesus tells us to remember the height from which we have fallen. It is a love that follows the beloved not through a land of milk and honey but through a desert, a land unsown. To be with the loved one is enough.
Middle-aged love, however, is more like the couple who, grown used to each other, have accepted a quiet stagnation, who endure conversationless meals, who linger wearied in boredom, who with expressionless eyes stare past the stranger they promised to love “till death do us part.” No joy. No thrill. No warmth or pleasure. Middle-aged love can happen to anyone – and will happen to anyone who neglects to fan the flame.
If you intend to light a fire, consider your fuel. Well-seasoned wood is easily ignited with a spark, but damp or green wood requires much care and effort to blaze with flame. A cool heart, like green wood, requires constant blowing.
GROWING OUT OF MIDDLE AGE
How do you fan a smoldering ember into the fire of bride love?
Court. Plan time to cultivate your relationship with Christ, to give attention to your Lord, to receive His expressions of love as well as to learn how to express more fully your love to Him.
To avoid middle-aged love, or to grow out of it, try something new: take a walk alone with the Lord to pray or reflect on a verse; try a new posture – kneel beside your couch as you read the Bible, lie face down before God and recommit your life to Him; take a hymnbook to a solitary place and sing praises to God; go out for tea and make a list of God’s goodnesses to you (start, “Lord, I remember when You supplied the money for the conference, when You helped my little girl,…”); set aside time just to listen (“Lord, speak – I’m listening”); approach the Bible in many different ways – perhaps read the Gospel of Luke in a quiet time, go through Proverbs during your lunch break listing the characteristics of a learner, and read a Psalm each night before retiring.
DON’T PLAY IT SAFE
Living as Christ desires but simultaneously playing it safe is impossible. Faith presumes risk. What risks are you taking?
Growing in your relationship with God may mean telling someone about Christ even though you’re scared speechless or leaving a secure culture to serve Christ overseas. If you’re shy, it will mean introducing yourself to a visitor at church. The element of risk may present itself in little scary packages or in big scary packages. The key to embracing it is the lesson we learn from Caleb: risk is safe because God is with us.
Examine your life. Look for opportunities to exercise your faith. Express your fears to the Lord and ask Him to help you.
You will grow older, but you don’t have to become middle-aged. Let God stretch your faith as you expose yourself to His transforming love. Secure in His grace, take the risks that will open your life to fresh and vital experiences with Him.
- J.H. Jowett, God – Our Contemporary (London: James Clarke & Co. Ltd., 1922), p. 51.
Jean Fleming, Discipleship Journal.