When Your Twenties Are Darker Than You Expected
“There are (at least) five feelings that overwhelm and disillusion the wandering young saints, day after day.”
Aspects of Quarter-Life CrisisThere are (at least) five feelings that overwhelm and disillusion the wandering young saints, day after day.
“I thought things would be better.”
“I thought I would be better.”
“I thought friendships would stay together.”
We show up at the doorstep of our twenties and mid-twenties hoping to meet our childhood dreams. It turns out that we oversold ourselves on our future. No astronaut missions. No presidencies. No spouse and kids. No house. “Wait, does life suck?” Expectations aren’t shown to be false—only shown to be miniature scales of what we’re actually hoping for; financially in dire straights, emotionally unfulfilled, professionally unimpressive and spiritually stagnant. “I thought I would have grown out of this sin by now.” Shared, white-walled apartment spaces drag our nerves with doom: “This can’t be it. This can’t be all there is.” The doors of childhood are closed behind. Life, it seems, indicates that things will only be getting worse from here.
“I’m just not as happy as I used to be.”
“I feel fundamentally unable to see the bright side of life.”
“My ability to feel joy is just broken.”
Each day—another day, and another—erodes the soul. Each day, a little less meaningful, a little more hazy; a few less moments of true beauty, a few more innocent pleasures to make it through. Unrelenting haze. Emotional nebula. Spiritual indolence. Slowly—down, sinking—down, twisting—down. Lethargic weight, myopic gaze. “Darkness” is not a sufficient word. Heavy. Weary. Vapid. Unaroused. Despondent.
“Nothing I do matters.”
“I’m going to be stuck here forever.”
“My parents are so disappointed.”
“All of my friends are doing so much better than I am.”
“Life just feels like a rat race.”
Despair is the emotional muscle of “Oh God, this will never end.” Pay up. You’re bulldozed. Despair is the overdrawn bank account—“Insufficient hope. Please deposit more faith to make a withdrawal.” And we have nothing. Rejection letters, romantic break ups, deaths of parents and siblings, bad news tailor fit to our most arresting anxieties. They’ve embarrassed us with empty hands. They are thieves of hope. Ruthless pillagers of dreams. Our circumstances, emotions and relationships—we are fooling ourselves if we don’t think they are interwoven in the fabric of our beliefs. And when they die, despair comes alive.
“The church doesn’t understand or address the issues I’m struggling with.”
“I feel judged by God all the time.”
“I’m not sure that God exists. And if he does, I don’t care.”
Doubt has been consecrated and crowned by the millennial generation of twenty somethings—hail, our new priest and king: incredulity. “God, if your people are so loving, then why …” “God, if you’re so great, then why …” “God, if you’re not a sadistic, disinterested deity, then why …” As we sink deeper into despondency, we lock arms with doubt. Our faith turns from “He will come again” to “That one time when …”—from “I believe” to “I once believed.”
“I haven’t felt God in a really long time.”
“Friends are fake.”
“I don’t have a place that feels like home.”
Desolation—“Anguished misery or loneliness; a state of complete emptiness or destruction”—from the Latin desolare, “to abandon.” Loneliness can be the most crushing force in the universe. The heartache of leaving home requires more than wisdom and a coffee table—it can take and contort and dismember the soul. To lose for the first time the holding hand, the loving concern, the caring eye, the steady help—it can be grievous. Alone; therefore, alone forever; therefore, helpless. To be desolated is to be broken by the void. And we are being broken.
God and the Darkness of Our TwentiesGod was a twenty-something once—Christ in the flesh. But there is more. He created twenty-something-ness. He died for twenty-somethings and was raised for twenty-somethings. I know, I know. It’s irrelevant. It doesn’t change anything. Jesus Christ doesn’t change anything, you might think.
Leslie Newbigin said, “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist; Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.” Is Jesus irrelevant? How is wallowing in a dialectic of self-deprecation and self-pity going? Is that doing things for you? Is that doing more than Jesus has done? If so, get off this article. Get off the Internet. Go and drink and at the very least be merry, for tomorrow you die (1 Corinthians 15:32). But if you’re clawing for a grip—for something, anything—keep reading. Jesus actually changes quite a bit. Here are five things he offers.
Responsibilities are scorching. Perhaps never more so than when we first feel their heat, and that they will never end. In order to feel a desire to move forward in a new stage in life, we have to do the hard work of letting go of our old life—a good life, as children, as carefree, as optimistic, as unjaded, as fearless and free to dream beyond our reach. That’s gone now. It’s not an overstatement to say that we may need to formally grieve our childhood so that we can leave it behind. “We’re like shellfish that continue to open and close their shells on the tide schedule of their home waters after they have been transplanted to a laboratory tank or the restaurant kitchen” (William Bridges, “Transition”). We need to acclimate to our new surroundings.
In a dark and depressing transition, Ezra “made confession, weeping and casting himself down” (Ezra 10:1). The people gave him a mission—to make space for God: “Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it” (Ezra 10:4). Before anything else, we need one thing in our twenties: a meaningful task. It’s part of our constitution as human beings—to seek and yearn for and mourn the absence of a meaningful task: “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). Diligence sets the necessary rhythm for the gospel to weave its way into the crippling emotions that our twenties can bring. Diligence in grief, in moving on, in acclimating, in moving forward—diligence in meaning is the fundamental counteragent to the quarterlife crisis.
First, if you see the darkness as a deathblow to hope, you’re already dead. There is no overcoming the darkness of despair if it meets a willing heart. But it is not a deathblow. Despair is a gauntlet thrown—here, in our twenties, we must learn the guerilla violence of the Christian life. “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” There are no points for style. Despair is not a prophet or friend—despair always speaks with a froward tongue, and it deserves bloody brutality. This is not a macho thing. It is a life-in-the-Spirit thing. Jeremiah’s prophet Baruch cried, “Woe is me! For the Lord has added sorrow to my pain. I am weary with my groaning, and I find no rest” (Jeremiah 45:3). God responds, “I will give you your life as a prize of war in all places to which you may go” (Jeremiah 45:5). God fights with us, if we would fight. The apostle John writes to the young because “you have overcome the evil one” and because “you are strong” (1 John 2:13–14).
Second, those dark feelings might not be so dark. They might actually mean something. They may be a flashing red warning: “Do that other thing.” Or “Don’t settle here forever.” Paul insists: “Let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” (1 Corinthians 7:17). Are you following the dreams of your parents? Your community? Are your dreams a slave to your fears? The intimacy of our individual union with Christ allows us the freedom to stop living other people’s dreams. God has given you a personal call. It’s OK to take a risk on your own, and dream big for the glory of God.
Are you dissatisfied? Good. The world is full of feasts that satiate the flesh in the moment, but starve the soul (Ecclesiastes 7:2). Believe better about yourself than “this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4). If we believe the world’s message that we are incomplete, inadequate, insufficient just to the degree that we can fix it—with enough Facebook, with enough money, with enough sex, with enough hobbies—then we are slaves to those things (Romans 6:16). We are both more hopeless, and have more reason to hope, than we would ever imagine. God endorses your dissatisfaction with the world’s self-concept package: “Large, with a side of self-doubt and a sprinkle of guilt—hold the Jesus.” How predictably joyless.
Self-hatred is self-perpetuating—it is not an isolated thought; it is a downward and accelerating cycle. We judge our desires: incomplete, unaccomplished, base, stupid, unrealistic. Don’t try to preempt your disappointment and abandonment with self-condemnation and self-abandonment. It is a cycle into a numb and catatonic existence. Find the fire. Our twenties can be an anesthesia—they can numb us to pain and motivation. If we can stop the morphine drip of despondency, we will find that our unbearable existential angst is not a prophet of doom—it is the pain of depressurization, rising out of the depths. “I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you. Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand” (Psalm 73:22–23). Dissatisfaction is what God uses to separate us from the beasts.
God is a loving Father. Full stop. Part of that package: God cares about your parental issues. If you had an abusive, disappointing, harmful, traumatizing or maladaptive relationship with your parents, that is a tragedy and a burden. And yet, God—your perfect Father—cares for you, and cares about your story. David Powlison explains, “Dynamic psychology [turns] the antique relationship with parents into a magic wand to explain all of life. The Bible offers … a more concrete and life-transforming explanation” (“What If Your Father Didn’t Love You?”).
God knows us and loves us and is working patiently in and with us. TweetGod does not expect you to be a Wall Street executive. God does not wish you were making six figures. God does not wish you had a happy-go-lucky personality. God does not wish you would just “Get yourself together already!” We are not on our own. We are not broken beyond repair. We are not doomed to be our parents (2 Kings 21:21; 2 Kings 22:2). We are not condemned by our heavenly Father for being in process (2 Peter 3:15). He knows us and loves us and is working patiently in and with us: “I write to you, children, because you know the Father” (1 John 2:13). You can depend on him for love, affirmation, affection, correction, a guiding hand and his never-forsaking care. Breathe.
God is devoted to us. That may sound strange—aren’t we devoted to God? Isn’t “devoted” an inferior activity? No. God is devoted to Christ and we are one with Christ: “Do not be afraid or tremble … God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). To the extent that God is devoted to and present with Christ, he is devoted to and present with us (Ephesians 1:20). God will never be more devoted to us than he is today, even at his return: We have “salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10).
This may sound trite. That’s OK. God doesn’t promise that his truths will always carry the wit of that guy in your creative writing MFA that’s putting you $25,000 in debt. God says trite things—God repeats one single, unoriginal, overstated, overplayed truth again and again because we forget it just as often: “Work, for I am with you” (Haggai 2:4). “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:18).
God is with the lonely and the heartbroken. “Where? Where is he?” He is … he is there. Sometimes there is more to say, and sometimes there is not. You object: “Reproaches have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none” (Psalm 69:20). He will not stop repeating: “He who touches you touches the apple of his eye” (Zechariah 2:8).
Paul Maxwell (@paulcmaxwell) is a PhD student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and philosophy professor at Moody Bible Institute. He writes more at his blog, paulcmaxwell.com, and pretends to like coffee. More from Paul Maxwell or visit Paul at http://www.DesiringGod.org/blog/authors/paul-maxwell