A Review of Lost in the Middle by Paul David Tripp
Reviewed by PAUL D. MILLER
“Life is hard, and then you die—blessed be the name of the Lord.” That, in short, is the message of Paul David Tripp’s wrenching book Lost in the Middle (2004). I hated this book because of how deeply convicted I was of sin, selfishness, and idolatry on every single page. I strongly recommend it to everyone.
Tripp is a biblical counselor—that is, a counselor who starts from the Bible’s understanding of human nature and uses biblical wisdom and truth—alongside secular tools where appropriate—to understand people’s lives. “We speak with practical, Biblical help and hope into the confusion, disappointment, anger, fear and discouragement that people experience as they face the harsh realities of life in this broken world,” according to his website. Tripp’s basic framework is spelled out in Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands (2002), a more theoretical and dense work which deserves its own blog post. Tripp has then applied his framework to specific, common issues, like marriage (What Did You Expect?, 2012), communication in marriage (War of Words, 2000), and parenting teens (Age of Opportunity, 2001).
Lost in the Middle is about mid-life crises—although I suspect the problems it addresses occur throughout life (they have for me). In chapter one, Tripp diagnoses the challenges of mid-life: dissatisfaction with life, disorientation, discouragement, dread of the future, disappointment, disinterest in work and other activities, and distance in relationships.
This is a good example of Tripp’s writing style—lots of alliterative, numbered lists. The technique can be a handy way of structuring ideas, especially if these were lecture notes, but it can be annoying and repetitive to a reader. Likewise annoying is Tripp’s peppering every chapter with anecdotes of people’s lives to illustrate the points he is making. After the first few chapters these little stories become wearisome and predictable morality plays. After a while I just skipped them.
(Side rant: this seems to be a pervasive stylistic choice in popular non-fiction. Writers can’t get through two paragraphs without sharing a heartwarming anecdote that illustrates their lesson with vivid humanity. I, for one, hate it. It is condescending—don’t you trust me to grasp an abstract point?—and a waste of precious reading time. If I want stories I’ll read fiction. Side rant over.)
Nonetheless, the ideas in Tripp’s bullet-pointed, anecdote-accented book are powerful. When I first tried to read the book a year ago, I had to put it down after the first chapter because I hated being seen through so easily. Then I picked it back up because I was encouraged that my frustrations were apparently so common.
Tripp deals with mortality, regret, and the failure of our dreams (any one of which could have been a stand-alone book). Collectively these chapters are very painful to read—especially, for me, the last one. It is part of human nature to dream and imagine—of the perfect spouse, job, income, house, children, or anything else. Our dreams will compete with God for our worship; and, because we live in a fallen, broken world, our dreams will either die or disappoint. Either result can trigger immense resentment, bitterness, and anger.
The solution, at least in part, is to treat the pain of dead dreams as a warning against idolatry; to realize that God understands and empathizes with our suffering; and to get some perspective, accept life’s harsh realities, and move on. In other words: grow up.
The second half of the book is really just variations on these themes. God understands our suffering. That’s why he put things like Psalm 88 in the Bible. Recognizing that God knows suffering—that God Himself suffered—should comfort to us. We should also use our pain and disappointment as an occasion to cultivate a yearning for heaven, when “God will wipe away every tear…there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain…” (Revelation 21:4). Indeed, in recent years, this passage about the inauguration of God’s kingdom and our final glorification has been a wonderful comfort, and if I ever want to cry on demand I just reread it.
As helpful as this book was for me, I couldn’t help but wonder if Tripp overemphasizes the role of mental exercises in dealing with pain. There seems to be an implied Trippian model of sanctification that leans heavily on a proper intellectual grasp of Biblical truths. In other words, if you read enough Tripp you begin to think that there is a simple two-step solution to life’s problems;
Step 1: think correct theology.
Step 2: problem solved!
That’s an unfair caricature, but sometimes that’s what it feels like to be on the receiving end of biblical counseling when you only get it through a book. Tripp, in Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, makes clear the vital importance of personal relationships and accountability—which are probably the hardest and most easily neglected parts of biblical counseling. I would add that it helps to stay busy with life, work, and ministry and give less time to mournful introspection.
Because I read Lost in the Middle by myself and wasn’t talking with anyone regularly about the book and my reactions to it, I quite easily channeled my frustrations towards Tripp: “He’s being insensitive to me and my life and is only offering trite platitudes instead of nuanced counseling!” That’s a silly criticism to make of a book which, after all, is inanimate (I have to remind myself of that sometimes). If you read this book (and you should), do it in a small group or with a best friend so you can talk about it regularly. Tripp has written a deeply challenging, Biblically sound book that is hurtful and wounding, which is a good thing. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” (Proverbs 27:6).