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When Your Twenties Are Darker Than You Expected

4. Doubt

“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.”

5. Desolation

“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 Twenties

God 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.

1. Diligence

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). 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.

2. Dreams

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 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″ data-version=”esv” data-purpose=”bible-reference”>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.

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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.