At Work & Theology 101

Gaining Perspective in a Quarter-Life Crisis

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By age 30, many young people today are asking themselves the same questions that a 50-year-old would ask, “It this as good as it gets? Why aren’t I living the dream? Am I a failure?” That’s what author Rachel Jones writes about in her new book, Is This It? It’s not a mid-life crisis they’re having; it’s what has been termed, the “quarter-life crisis” and it’s rampant among young people today.

In a review of Is This It, Gaye Clarke suggests that it’s overstated to call what they are experiencing a “crisis:”

So the Quarter-Life Crisis does sound familiar. But is it truly a crisis? Transition can be a tough sell. But call something a crisis and, at least as I understand it, it garners an outsized focus. To me, the Quarter-Life Crisis is neither unique or new. Even though it may certainly feel like a unique crisis, it’s an experience that’s “common to man” (1 Cor. 10:13).

It’s true that asking questions about our identity and worth is common at some point in our lives, but for this generation of young people, this does feel like a personal crisis. They have put massive pressure on themselves to be the next Mark Zuckerberg or to make it on the “Forbes 30 Under 30″ list. If they don’t make their goals in time, they are engulfed with self-doubt.

But why is this crisis happening so early in their lives? What is causing such angst?

The Two Great Lies

The quarter-life crisis can be attributed to two great lies our culture promotes among children in school, students in college, and professionals in the business world.

The first great lie is, “If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be.”

The second great lie is like the first one, yet possibly even more damaging: “You can be the best in the world.”

These lies are accepted by many Christians as well as non-Christians. They have catastrophically damaged our view of work and vocation because they have distorted our biblical view of success.

The Cultural Idol of Success

Success, defined as “being the master of your own destiny,” has become a cultural idol. In Counterfeit GodsTim Keller describes the idol of success:

More than other idols, personal success and achievement lead to a sense that we ourselves are God, that our security and value rest in our own wisdom, strength, and performance. To be the very best at what you do, to be at the top of the heap, means no one is like you. You are supreme.

In order to have a biblical understanding of our value and the purpose of our work, we must recognize a more timeless, faithful definition of success.

The late John Wooden, the most successful college basketball coach in history and a committed Christian, was once asked how he would define success. He replied:

Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.

The New Testament defines success in a similar way in Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30). This parable offers insight not only into the definition of success, but also into the purpose of our call to work.

Jesus teaches that the kingdom of heaven is like a man going on a long journey. Before leaving, he gives three servants different amounts of money, denominated by talents. Whatever its exact value, in the New Testament a talent indicates a large sum of money, maybe even as much as a million dollars in today’s currency.

The man gives five talents to the first servant, two talents to the second servant, and one talent to the last servant—each according to his abilities. Upon his return the master asks what his servants did with the money. The first and second servants doubled their investments and received the master’s praise. The third servant, who was given one talent, safeguarded the money but did nothing to increase it. The third servant was condemned by the master for his inactivity.

The Biblical Definition of Success

Whatever they represent—natural abilities, spiritual gifts, or other resources—talents in this parable at least represent tools God gives us to fulfill the cultural mandate to “take dominion” over the earth—to reweave shalom into creation—and to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples (Gen. 1:28; Matt. 28:18-20). In this context, we can assume two things from the parable:

  1. God always gives us enough in order to do what he has required.
  2. Whatever the Lord gives us now, he will ask us about later, expecting us to diligently work with these resources to further his kingdom.

Therefore, a biblical gauge of success is based on whether we have cultivated and invested our God-given talents and, by faith, taken advantage of divine opportunities to use them—whether we have been given one, two, or five talents.

  • This definition should be convicting: we are called to greater heights of stewardship then we ever before realized.
  • But it’s also relieving: we are only called to steward our own talents and opportunities, not those allotted to people like Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs.

It is up to us whether the Master will respond, “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your master,” or, “You wicked, lazy servant!” Love of the Master drives and inspires our work.

So whether you’re going through a mid-life or quarter-life crisis, these are truths we all need to hear. We’re not working to be on the ‘Forbes 30 Under 30 list,’ though some may be called to such influence. We’re simply working to receive the Master’s praise.

Editor’s note: Read more about the biblical meaning of success in How Then Should We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work.

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