‘I’m concerned about our young families,’ a lady in church confessed to me. ‘How can we encourage them to have an interest in world mission?’
Ok, I thought, good concern but… ‘what makes you think they’re not concerned about world mission?’
‘Well we rarely see them at missionary meetings. What will happen when we aren’t around anymore? Where’s the next generation of Christians with a heart for world mission?’
I tried not to sound defensive but I wasn’t convinced that this assessment of my peers was entirely accurate. ‘They lead busy lives… I’m not sure we can conclude that just because they’re not at a certain meeting that they have no interest in world mission, can we?’ And I talked about the long hours some of them work, the busyness of life with young kids.
She understood, but… ‘When our kids were young my husband was working 12 hour days and then straight to the prayer meeting or deacons meeting before coming home for his tea’.
The conversation continued for a little while. It was a helpful conversation. It got me thinking about the particular challenges and temptations of life in your 30s and 40s. Of course people’s life circumstances vary enormously; some married, some not; some with lots of kids, some with none; some in busy jobs, some not. And there’s a big difference between 30 and 49. But nevertheless, if we can generalise, maybe I can suggest some common features of this stage in life.
Busy, busy, busy!
Everyone’s busy, I know, but this stage in life can feel pretty unrelenting. It’s likely a time of increased work responsibilities, bringing longer and more draining working hours. Add, for some, the arrival of children, and reduced sleeping hours! As children grow up, sleep returns but evenings and weekends are spent ferrying them from after school clubs to parties to church activities. Add in concern for aging parents; possibly increased responsibilities in church as well.
And all this is compounded by the culture we live in. It’s a busy culture. We work longer hours than most other countries in Europe. And it’s a complex culture. People have always had to work hard, but the mental energy required to deal with the complexity of our lives is unprecedented. The incredible choice we have available to us makes renewing the mortgage, arranging insurance or buying a car both time consuming and stressful. Life is busy, even crazy busy.
The midlife crisis may be a cliché, but it may not be complete fantasy. Midlife brings enormous changes, but also the sense of being increasingly sucked into and trapped on a merry-go-round with no chance to get off. At least some begin to ask: where’s this all going? Why am I doing what I do each day, every day?
Some things become increasingly unlikely as we get closer to 40, and then 50. From the trivial – I’m probably not going to run in the Olympics or win the Tour de France, to the more serious – marriage may not ever happen. As a friend of mine said – there’s a big difference between being single at 25 and 35.
Add all this together and midlife can easily be a stage when we lose our focus and zeal for following and serving Christ. So how can we continue to seek first God’s kingdom through our 30s and 40s?
Live for eternity
Midlife may at times feel like the beginning of the end, but not if we have eternity in view. We may feel like the best has gone – the energy and freedom of younger years, but in fact, our hope in Christ is that the best is yet to come! On the merry-go-round of life we can lose this long-term focus. The writer of Ecclesiastes confirms what we know by experience, life under the sun, in a closed system without God, is meaningless (e.g. Ecc. 2:17). But we live in an open system, history is heading somewhere, this life is just the introduction to the story of eternity. In the new creation our aging bodies and minds will be renewed. And what we do now can last beyond this life; the resurrection of Christ guarantees that our labour in the Lord will not be in vein (1 Cor. 15:58).
The real problem with busyness is not busyness itself, Jesus was busy, but that we become slaves of the urgent, and fail to do the important. There’s a remarkable incident near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Mark 1:29-39), when he’s had a long Sabbath teaching and healing people into the evening, followed by an early morning in solitary prayer. When Simon and his companions find him, they say ‘everyone is looking for you!’ No doubt more people had arrived to be healed, certainly people needed teaching about the kingdom. But shockingly Jesus says ‘no’ to this ministry opportunity, in order to move on and preach in other villages. It’s shocking because we can find it so hard to say no to the urgent demands on our time. But Jesus knew his priorities. He knew what God had called him to do. Robert Banks comments: ‘Jesus did not finish all the urgent tasks in Palestine, nor all the things he would have liked to do. But he did finish the work God gave him to do. So can we’.
But what is the work God has called us to do? In Ephesians 5:16 and Colossians 4:5 Paul commands us to ‘redeem the time’ (ESV) or ‘make the most of every opportunity’ (NIV). The context in Ephesians helps us here. The days in which we live are evil (5:16) but we have been transferred from darkness to light, therefore we are to live as children of light (5:8). To redeem the time is not a call to squash more and more into our already full lives but rather to live differently in every area of life. Paul goes on to talk about marriage (5:22-33), family life (6:1-4) and work (6:5-9). I’m called to serve God by loving and caring for my wife and children. I’m called to work wholeheartedly in my day job, as unto the Lord. To neglect family for the sake of endless church meetings is often to create a false sacred secular divide. Returning to my conversation above, missionary meetings are important, but so is the family.
On the other hand the context in Colossians also helps us. Here the command to ‘redeem the time’ comes while Paul is talking about gospel opportunities (4:5-6). For some, work and family life can become all-consuming, so that serving in the church and spreading the gospel get squeezed out. But while much of our busyness in these areas may be unavoidable, we still have choices to make. Do the children have to be involved in all those extra-curricular activities? Apart from football training once a week I can’t remember doing much else after school before I was 11! Do I have to be in the office 10 hours every day and be available on email or phone 24/7? Is God really in charge of how I spend my time?
God has called us to serve him in lots of different spheres, we haven’t even mentioned our friendships, concern for the needy, how we use our rest. With limited time we’ll have to seek God’s priorities, and learn to say ‘no’ sometimes. Life will continue to be busy, but God misses nothing we do for him. Our choices may sometimes disappoint other people but we are to live for the audience of One, and look forward to his commendation: well done good and faithful servant.
John Richards is a pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Mold.
 See Kevin DeYoung’s helpful book Crazy Busy (IVP, 2013).
 Robert Banks, The Tyranny of Time (IVP 1983), p.218, quoted in Tim Chester The Busy Christian’s Guide to Busyness (IVP, 2006) p.47.
 This phrase is from Os Guiness’ book The Call.