While on rounds one morning, my brother Matt, an oncologist at a research hospital, consulted with a man in his mid-40s who had an inoperable brain tumor. The patient had a prior history with cancer that he had lived with for years, but now was accosted by a brain tumor that eventually would take his life.
"I know you need to talk to me about my options," the dying man said, "and I'm willing to undergo the chemo. But I most want to return to the West, watch the sunsets, and enjoy my family with the time that's left." He then talked about his faith in Christ as if my brother needed conversion.
Minutes later, Matt walked a dozen steps to his next patient, a woman in her mid-80s who had just received news of reoccurring, metastatic cancer. "I've never seen so much anxiety in a patient," said Matt. "Her eyes were wild with panic."
Age, of course, does not necessarily correlate with heroism or stoicism at the breaking news of the end of your story. I'd like to think that the older I get, though, the deeper I am becoming spiritually—i.e., that I am growing more like Christ. The middle-aged patient seemed to possess a reality of faith beyond intellectual assent to its truths and a couple decades of church and Bible study. I wonder what my level of anxiety—and faith in the goodness of God—would be on the drive home after a visit with my oncologist. It's sobering enough to remember that every year, as poet W. S. Merwin once observed, I pass unaware the anniversary of my death.
Have I made any real spiritual progress over the past 30 years of faith?
For many, the blossoming of faith coincides with their teens or 20s. It's the phase of life when everything is fresh and full of my potential to transform the world for Christ. It's the years of short-term mission trips and earnest decisions for Christian service and long conversations about a life of significance. In suburban America, much of what 16th-century Spanish monk John of the Cross called the "beginner years" of faith correspond to life's early milestones: high school, college, marriage, and children.
But sometime after age 30, the steep learning curve plateaus, and the markers of spiritual growth are less pronounced. The language of faith is not fresh anymore (much like life itself). Once I've sung the most contemporary choruses in church for a decade or so, studied the Bible, changed a few diapers in the toddler room, and ministered to the imprisoned, the culture of faith feels comfy, like the friendship of an old married couple. I now can anticipate the denouement of most Advent sermons: "Find some time to quiet your soul to find Jesus amid the hubbub of the Christmas season."
But my obligations are also now different in scale. I'm lashed down by a mortgage, three high-maintenance kids, looming college tuition, and the chronic anxiety of managing a small business. I seldom chafe at that. But the enthusiastic pursuit of a life of significance peters out in midlife. Life's poorly marked trail soon disappears around a bend and into an unmapped stretch of desert: unforeseen suffering and unanticipated consequences. A friend with two children, one of whom has special needs, spent five years in court fighting her ex-husband for the monthly support that the judge had granted her at the divorce. Broke, she stopped pursuing the money. She says, "I had reservations about marrying him—and even my mom warned me. But I wouldn't listen to anyone."
The middle is fraught with course corrections and an incorrigible hope in do-overs. So what's the measure of my life in Christ once I've veered off the map or reached a destination short of what I thought God had planned?