The Growing Uncertainty of Middle-Age (or Why I’m Growing More Content with Knowing Less)

The more you see, the less you know
The less you find out as you go
I knew much more then
Than I do now

U2, “City of Blinding Lights,” How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004)

Sometimes I very much feel the truth of the above words from U2’s song. I find myself aware of just how much I don’t understand, how much knowledge I do not have, and of how limited my intellectual abilities are. It feels like it’s a function of growing older, a fact which is relative I know, but being in middle age seems to come with a certain recognition that I’m definitely not as smart as I perhaps once thought I was. And most definitely not as smart as some others seem to think I am. Though maybe I’m just fooling myself on that last point.

In addition, I find myself content with knowing less. I’m ok with more uncertainty about a number of things. Like everyone, I receive data and information from the world around me and I try and process it to the best of my ability. Sometimes I really think I am right in my opinion. Though there are surely times–whether I ever realize it or not–when I am very much wrong. I also make choices based on how I have processed this information. But can I be certain that I’ve made the right choice? Not always. Maybe sometimes I can be. Sometimes I may never know for sure.

What do I really need to know, anyway? My place or role in this world is relatively limited. I am a husband, a father of three kids, and a pastor of a small, but loving congregation. Much of what I need to know consists in how to live wisely and well in these relationships. Truthfully, I don’t even always do that. Hopefully, however, I am at least making incremental improvements. Of course, living well and wisely in our relationships doesn’t mean always knowing what to do or what to say or how to respond to others. At the risk of sounding trite, I at least try to do my best.

Besides, I do feel as though I am more certain about the core, fundamental, elemental matters. As a person of faith, the roots of my beliefs are quite deep down at this point. I am convinced, for example, in the truths encapsulated in historic statements of Christian doctrine like the Apostles’ Creed and in the Nicene Creed. I am convinced that Jesus is the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the one who calls us to and who gives us eternal and abundant life.

But even when it comes to my Christian faith, there are other aspects that I am less certain about or about which I am fine having less certainty about. There are areas of theological debate amongst Christians that I find interesting but which are not hills I am prepared to die on. For instance, I really don’t care about the end-times timeline. I don’t believe that the Scriptures teach a rapture which precedes Christ’s final Second Coming. I don’t know for sure whether the 1,000 reign of Christ is literal or metaphorical. Yet I do believe Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead, that we will be judged on the basis of whether we have trusted in him and in his good news, and that God will usher in a new heavens and new earth where he will dwell forever with the redeemed. And isn’t that the most important part?

I also don’t know for sure whether the young earth creationists or the old earth creationists are correct. Now, I have my thoughts. I also understand that there are those for whom these issues are near or at the center of the gospel. I’m simply not persuaded that they are right in thinking this. What I do know is that God created the heavens and the earth and that the creation declares the glory of God through its design and beauty. That, I believe, is the salient point.

Maybe age brings with it a greater willingness to let some things go, while holding on to what for me are the most important things with an even firmer grip. I’m not going to say age brings humility; it’s not up to me to decide whether that is a quality I have. Perhaps additional years will help me. Honestly, there are moments when accepting that I will not understand for sure about specific things is frustrating or disappointing–especially when I feel like I have to make choices based on what I know about those things. We all make choices with limited information. However, I also find that realizing my limits in this respect can be freeing at times. I am not responsible for everything. I don’t have to have everything figured out to live or make decisions. That is, in part, where faith comes in. Because God knows. He understands completely. He is, after all, omniscient. What I don’t and won’t understand I can leave in his hands. Though there are moments, I confess, when I try to snatch those things back. As time continues to pass, I hope and pray this happens less and less.

49

Yesterday I began the last year of my 40s. Or as my kids like to point out, “Dad, you’re nearly half a century old!”

An encouraging thought, indeed.

Yet as the pastor of a largely senior congregation, I know that I’m comparatively young. One lovely lady in our church has been a member for, I kid you not, 70 years!

So while I may be nearly half a century old, age is relative in some sense. To my kids, I’m old; to most people in my church, I’m young.

The most common way to describe someone in my season of life is to say I’m middle-aged. Halfway between old and young. And it feels strange, if I’m honest. Unless I’m with peers, I always feel slightly out of place but able to connect with people who are younger and older.

But the truth is, even though age is a mere number, getting older—or proceeding further into middle-age!—means change. Eating chicken wings or other spicy food, for instance, comes with a price to my digestive process I never had to pay, say, during my university years. I can dye my beard (As I have done. At my wife’s request, I might add!) or accept reality.

Getting older also means having your perspective change. You begin to see life differently. Things that were once important, you hardly give a second thought. Other things occupy more space in your mind. Or maybe it’s a question of limited space. If something new goes in, something else falls out.

Even as a Christian and a pastor, my perspective has changed. My journey of faith continues. I’m not who I once was. Not entirely. My relationship with God has grown. How I see church and ministry has shifted. Every once in awhile I have this sense of perhaps where God is (or seeks to be) at work transforming me. I think of the words of John the baptist: He must increase; I must decrease.

Though I have also found myself evaluating and pondering my life. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever really had a mid-life crisis; however, I have found myself asking: What have I accomplished? Have a made an actual difference? Where will God lead me in the days ahead? What reasons have I given my kids to seek therapy in the future? You know, the usual questions.

And obviously in many ways I’m glad when it comes to where I find myself at this stage of life. I’m grateful to be a father of three (nearly all) teenage kids. I’m grateful to be married to an incredibly beautiful and intelligent woman who deigns to be with me. In a lot of ways, despite my flaws, I’m much more comfortable with myself than I used to be.

Of course, in other ways I am less happy with myself. I should lose a lot of weight. There are loose ends in my life and I have unfinished business in various ways. I wonder: can I change this or that about myself? Or am I (and those around me!) stuck with me as I am?

Ah, 49! My life still stretches out before me, but now just as much (and probably much more so) behind me. I have no real desire to return to a younger version of myself. I’m more interested in growing older and hopefully, therefore, wiser. Whether the latter is happening, I’ll perhaps let others decide. Meanwhile, I want to lean into the present, and learn more and more to trust that God has my future well in hand, however many birthdays I have left.