A pastor friend of mine turned 48 recently and immediately took leave of his senses. He left his wife of twenty-five years, bought a Porsche, got a perm and a synthetic suntan, and moved in with a former parishioner—a 21-year-old girlfriend. Mind you, I have nothing against suntans, perms, or sports cars (I used to have one myself until I realized that with only one seat, "four on the floor" referred to the kids). I just wondered why he did it. Forty-eight seemed much too old to start all over; I kept thinking of Nicodemus' question: "Can a man be born when he is old?"*
It's just the flesh, I thought at first—high jinks or high-handed sinning. But the way he went about it, so joylessly, resolutely, and methodically, made me think. It was as though he were mindlessly following a script. And then I recalled other of my friends who had done the same sort of thing. It set me to thinking: What causes this forty-year itch?
Maybe it's a sort of male menopause—a time in a man's life when his hormones run amuck and he acts as though he's been dropped on his head from a great height. But I could think of no hard medical evidence for that sort of thing. At least nothing I'd read on the subject sounded very convincing.
One of my friends explained his great escape by speaking of the need for self-fulfillment and personal well-being. He rose to the occasion like Michelangelo once rose to the ceiling. "I have a duty to myself," he intoned. But it was hard for me to believe that he had really jettisoned all his old values out of some strange moral principle that he ought to deny himself nothing. Certainly he knew better than that! And anyway, I felt he argued too loud and too long in his own defense. I wondered whom he was trying to convince.
Another left out of sheer boredom. As he put it, he had arrived: he had the requisite large church, charming house, smiling wife, 2.7 kids, dog, cat, station wagon, seven handicap, and shortness of breath. What bothered him most was the sterile sameness of it all—the feeling that there were no options left. Time, like a wind, had blown down the corridors of his life, slamming and locking all the doors. He was stifled; there was no exit. According to him, the road was gentle and gradual, no milestones or signposts. He just woke up one morning to realize that, like Alexander the Great, he had arrived; he had nothing left to do.
Still another got the itch when it occurred to him that he would never arrive. He had always envisioned himself in a superchurch, a master-pastor climbing the denominational ladder rung by rung. As he aged, desperation set in. Now he knew he'd never make it. His dreams went belly-up, and so did his self-image. He had to get himself some respect.
I think I understand. I too get a lot of ego satisfaction from my job. There's nothing quite like doing a task well to make one feel good about himself. Most of us need to succeed. In fact, we want not merely to succeed; we want to succeed big! The problem, however, is that there seems to be a law of diminishing returns: the older we get, the harder we have to work to get a decreasing measure of satisfaction.
Our ministry tends to frustrate us; payday never really comes. At least there's never a real payoff. There's always the cussedness of others (and our own) to contend with. And in the end there remains that itch that cannot be scratched. It's then that we start thinking about a way to opt out—at least to escape the pain if we cannot achieve lasting happiness. Perhaps we need to turn over a new leaf, or better yet a new life, a new beginning in which we may find what it is, after all, we're after.
But it does not work well. At least my friends who have tried it tell me it doesn't. We don't seem to do any better the second time around. And there are, of course, only a finite number of times we can go around. Sooner or later everyone runs out of time.
I do believe that the problem stems mostly from our penchant for proving ourselves. We humans have an inordinate need to demonstrate our worth and, more often than not, try to establish our worth by performance. What we do, at least in our minds, determines what we are. I know the feeling well. I get restless when I'm inactive. I feel better about myself when I'm too busy.
The problem, of course, is that the curse is still in effect: not all the results of the Fall have been rescinded. Despite our salvation, the ground—even holy ground—still works hard. As it turns out, the field of ministry as well is cursed. We still earn our bread by the sweat of our brow.
I suppose that's why it does no good to hear "Don't overdo"; why we get so preoccupied with our jogs; why we, like so many others, become workaholics. Somehow we believe if we just work a little harder, a little longer, the ground will yield. But it never gets soft; the struggle goes on, and our sense of self-worth suffers. It's clear, at least to me, that we in Christian service have to face a fundamental problem: ministry, in and of itself, will never satisfy.
Jesus, on the other hand, teaches us that satisfaction comes not from ministry—not from what we do—but from what we already are: greatly loved sons of God. For example, think of Jesus' disciples returning from their first preaching mission and excitedly reporting on their conquest of demons. That's enough to make anyone feel good about himself, but Jesus immediately interrupted with the counter "Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven" (Luke 10:20). He clearly wanted to establish that it's not service that counts; satisfaction and worth grow out of relationship—we are known and loved by God.
Consider the Father's words to Jesus at His baptism: "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17). What had Jesus done? What mighty work had He performed? As far as we know He had no prior ministry. He had not yet delivered a sermon or done a mighty deed, the things we normally associate with the Father's "well done." But He was known by the Father and fully approved.
Satisfaction comes from knowing and being known by another, an idea that strikes us at once as far too familiar. Relationships, we know, are clearly the important and satisfying things in our world, although some have grown weary looking for a friend. But, though we know relationships are most important, somehow it seems too simple to say that ultimate satisfaction comes merely from knowing God—too simple to be true. But then, sometimes simple things are the profoundest of all.
It strikes us as too familiar because our ministry is mostly helping others to know God. What we're inclined to miss is this: the relationship we preach is the one we ourselves avoid. The One we claim to know is mostly unknown to us and far away. And therefore, we, like others, can get no satisfaction. It's that unsatisfied longing for God, our deep calling out for Him, that unnerves us; and I for one am convinced that it makes for the forty-year itch.
And so it seems to me that it comes to this: We must keep drawing near to God. When we do He will draw near to us. He said He would, you know. He longs for us as well. His deep yearning answers to ours; He sings back to our sighs of discontent—inviting, urging, and alluring us with His love.
To respond to Him is to have all of God; we then have all we need. As the psalmist said, "Whom have I in heaven but you? And being with you, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Those who are far from you will perish.... But as for me, it is good to be near God" (Ps. 73:25-28).