The Task of the Second Half of Life

A sermon preached on June 6, 2021 2Corinthians 4:16 – 5:1 entitled “The Task of the Second Half of Life.”

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  (2Corinthians 4:16 – 5:1)

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung and the role he played in the start of AA – how he sent a seemingly incurable alcoholic from Rhode Island off in search of a vital spiritual experience – one he eventually found by becoming a part of a Christian fellowship.  The man remained sober for the rest of his life, devoting the rest of his life to helping other alcoholics discover the serenity he had known through the higher power of God.

Carl Jung was a wise man.  He believed that life has two halves, each with its own distinctive tasks.

In the first half, our task is to establish a place for ourselves in this world — to establish what is called “ego-strength” and some degree of self-reliance. To build our own little kingdom, so to speak.   On a practical level this involves things like getting an education, like finding a way to earn a living, establishing a career and a positive reputation, perhaps finding a life partner or buying a home.

Life compels us to undertake this task, and we do so with varying degrees of success and failure.

When we enter the second half of life the central task of life shifts.  Though the first task inevitably continues to some degree, it’s significance lessens as we are challenged to see our lives as a spiritual journey – seeking out deeper roots, a life centered in something far greater than our little egos.

We come — sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly — to a crossroads in life, sometimes referred to as a “midlife crisis.”

Jung stated that the vast majority of people who came to him for therapy that were past the age of 35 – although their presenting problem might have been something like depression or anxiety, at a deeper level what they were searching for was a spiritual vision of their lives – an understanding of oneself as a spiritual being called to live our spiritual values – and it was in embracing that quest that healing of the presenting symptoms would be found.

I think Jesus had a similar notion of the two halves of life.

Did you ever notice the fact that as much as he clearly loved children, he never called one to follow him – to be his disciple?   A person must first build up a sense of themselves before they seek to surrender that self to the love of God – the essence of discipleship.

Jesus told a parable of a farmer who finds himself at the crossroads of life.  The abundant harvest has produced more grain than the man can store in his barn.  The farmer represents someone who has successfully accomplished life’s first task.  He has established himself in this world, confident that his basic needs for survival will be met.

“What shall I do now?” the man asks himself. It is a good question, a very important question – one that deserves significant time to ponder for the man has reached the “second half of life.”  Unfortunately, though the man does not give himself opportunity to reflect deeply on the question.  “I know. I will build bigger barns!”  He plunges forward without reflection, essentially seeing the task of his life moving forward the same as it always has been.  He envisions a future devoted to his own pleasure and comfort.

At this point in the parable, God suddenly appears to call out the man: “Fool!  This night you’re going to die and what good will all your stored up grain do you?”

The man is a fool because he hasn’t recognized that there is now a new task to undertake, one that involves what Jesus calls storing up “treasure in heaven”.  It doesn’t seem to occur to him to look beyond the confining contours of his personal kingdom to see his hungry neighbors who he has the capacity to help with the abundance of his blessings.

As I mentioned before we human beings vary widely in terms of the degree of success or failure we experience with the first task of life.  Most of us have known a mixture of success and failure.   It’s easy to get caught up in our failures – to live with regret.  The interesting thing that occurred to me as I reflected on Jesus’ parable was that it involved a man who had been unusually successful in life’s first task.  Perhaps there is a suggestion here that when a person knows little by way of failure in life’s first task, it may be harder for him to recognize and embrace the task of the second half of life.  The pull of building “bigger barns” is hard to resist.

Perhaps some failure in the first half of life isn’t such a bad thing.  Personally knowing failure leads to a capacity for empathy towards the struggles of others – which, in itself is an opening to the spiritual journey.  Perhaps our regrets are misplaced.

The Apostle Paul is proof that God can reach even those who are highly successful in the first task of life.  He was a rising star in the community of the Pharisees.  Confident in what he thought he knew about life, Paul had an impeccable reputation and with a career that was, taking place.

And then one day on a business trip Paul suddenly found himself at the crossroads of life, facing perhaps the most sudden and dramatic of mid-life crises recorded in human history.

The risen Christ appeared to Paul in a blaze of glorious light, leaving him blinded for three days — his certainties about life turned upside down.  After an extended period of deep reflection and prayer, Paul embraced the central task of his second half of life.  It wasn’t about himself and his ego needs.  It was about sharing the Gospel – the extraordinary grace and love of God that had been revealed to him in his encounter with the risen Christ.

In the passage I read this morning, Paul is now deep into the second half of his life.  He is an old man.

He states a simple fact: “Our outer nature is wasting away.”

A simple test as to whether you’ve reached that second half of life is whether somewhere in your body you can resonate with that statement: “Our outer nature is wasting away.”

If you can’t, be assured that gradually the indicators of this truth will over time reveal themselves: wrinkles appear where once there were none, the skins sags, and the hair begins to turn gray. The joints begin to ache and one’s energy wanes.

How do we deal with this truth that our outer nature is wasting away?

Well, we can take appropriate steps to hold off the “wasting away” process:  We can begin to take better care of our bodies, pursue a healthier lifestyle, hoping to recover more energy.

We can redouble our efforts to be productive and effective in this world.

This is all good, except when the motivation arises from an underlying sense of terror in response to Paul’s simple truth:  our outer natures are indeed wasting away.  Eventually our bodies will turn to dust.

We live in a culture that often seems driven by such terror.  Youth is idolized, and billions of dollars are spent by people to look and feel young.  In contrast to the vast majority of cultures throughout human history in which our elders have been respected as potential sources of wisdom, our culture seems intent on pushing the people we call “elderly” to the sidelines of life so they won’t be right in the midst of life reminding us of our common destiny.

Sometimes mid-life crises can lead people to do destructive things in a desperate attempt to feel young again: to perhaps betray trusts in order to climb higher in the success ladder of life’s first half, or have an affair to experience again the youthful thrill of “falling in love” which isn’t actually real love, because such love inevitably fades.

But the truth must be faced: our outer nature is wasting away, and if we don’t face the truth and embark on the spiritual journey to which we are called, as Jung indicated growing old will mean increasing depression, anxiety, bitterness, and despair.

For Paul, however the fact that our outer nature is wasting away isn’t cause for despair, it is rather an invitation to go deeper, to address the longings of our soul – to look beyond the visible to the invisible — to return to the truth that the most important things in life can’t be measured the way our cholesterol, or our money in the bank or grain in our barn can be measured.

The Gospel to which Paul witnessed invites us to see our lives from a higher perspective than that of our little egos caught up in the struggle to succeed in this world.  The inevitable suffering that comes from living in this world that is in bondage to decay is as Paul calls it but “a slight momentary affliction” in comparison to “the eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.”

In the light of the Gospel we recognize what matters most is real love – not the fleeting infatuation of youthful “falling in love.”  The love that endures.  The love of giving oneself freely to others, to God.

As we learn to surrender the ego that tended to rule the first half of our lives, Paul says, “our inner nature is renewed daily”, because love will flow through us more easily, and whenever it does, we make contact with our eternal souls.

The love we share with one another is the one thing that is eternal – the one thing that doesn’t “waste away”.  It is treasure in heaven.

So, in Holy Communion, we remember the meal Jesus shared with his disciples the night before he died. He was perhaps 33 years old. With a much shorter life span in those days, Jesus was well into the second half of life.

If Jesus had focused on what is visible – if he were focused on that first task of life, defending our personal little kingdoms rather than God’s kingdom — he would have fled back to Galilee to live to fight another day.  But his focus was not on what is visible to the human eye, but rather on the invisible — the “eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” – the wondrous love of God that he was invited to give expression to by laying down his life for all people, trusting that the love of God would not abandon him in death.

As we come to the communion table, we humbly acknowledge that our outer nature is passing away, but we come gladly, for in the bread and cup the grace of Jesus is offered to us – a grace that assures us we need not be afraid that our outer nature is wasting away, a grace that awakens the love deep within us expresses the very image of the eternal God, connecting us with every other human being.