June 6, 2022 • Third Third Journal
Recently I was talking with several people who are in or soon to enter the third third of life. We were speaking about purpose and its importance for third third flourishing. As I was outlining some foundational elements for living with purpose, a friend said, “I understand the importance of what you’re talking about. But I’m wondering if there’s a process. If somebody in our season of life doesn’t have a clear sense of purpose, is there a process by which they can figure it out?”
What a great question! It got me thinking about whether there is such a process and, if so, what it is. So, I got to work. I scanned books I’ve read about finding and living with purpose. I reviewed several scholarly articles on the connection between purpose and flourishing in older adulthood. I reflected on conversations I’ve had with people in the third third of life, some of whom have a compelling purpose for living and some of whom are still searching for that purpose. For example, a thought of a woman who, when she retired from her business career, knew for sure that she wanted to help immigrants to the U.S. get settled. I also replayed in my mind something I heard from a recently retired man, “I’ve got plenty of things I could do each day. But I’m looking for something more than a bunch of tasks. I’m searching for a reason to get up in the morning.” For years that reason had been related to his work. Now he’s looking for some new “alarm clock” of meaning that will inspire him to get out of bed.
Based on many conversations with third third folk, I believe most people are not either completely purposeful or completely purposeless. They are somewhere in between the two extremes. Their lives are guided by some sense of purpose, whether this means caring for their grandchildren, helping out at the local elementary school, or traveling to new destinations. But their experience of purpose can feel rather piecemeal. They would have a hard time saying clearly what is their life’s purpose, the why for their existence, and their main reason for living.
So, my friend put into words what many in the third third of life are wondering about: “How can I find my purpose for this season of life? Is there a process that can help me become clear on the big ‘why’ of my life? And if so, what is that process?”
Is There a Process for Finding Your Purpose?
Upon reflection, I don’t believe there is a single process that will lead every person to clarify their calling. In fact, I’m quite sure there is not a single process because, as I’ve listened to people talk about their purpose and how they identified it, I hear a wide variety of stories. Some people speak about special moments of inspiration when they “just knew” what they were to do with their lives. Christians usually attribute this moment of revelation to God. Other people who have a clear sense of purpose today describe a circuitous path that brought them to this point. Nicholas Pearce, in his book The Purpose Path, comments: “Yes, everyone has a purpose path, but it’s rarely straightforward—there are twists, turns, forks in the road, and unpaved ground.” (Pearce, p. 91). So, I’m quite sure there isn’t a one-size-fits-all process by which every person can discern their life’s purpose.
Though you can’t find a roadmap that will guide you step-by-step along the perfect road to your purpose, there are things you can do to move forward wisely on the way to clarity of purpose. I had the privilege of interviewing Nicholas Pearce in my role as co-host of the “Making It Work” podcast. Pearce is an award-winning professor of management at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, as well as a pastor and the author of the bestselling book, The Purpose Path: A Guide to Pursuing Your Authentic Life’s Work. Pearce believes that we can find our life’s purpose by asking five basic questions:
What is success?
Who am I?
Why am I here?
Am I running the right race?
Am I running the race well?
Then, according to Pearce, once we have determined our purpose, we need “vocational courage” to pursue that purpose no matter what season of life we’re in.
Notice that Pearce is not proposing a “do this, then that” flowchart for determining our life’s purpose. Rather, we will wrestle with his five questions at different times and in different ways. I should mention that, though The Purpose Path was not written explicitly for older adults, it is as relevant to us as it is to younger folk. Pearce explains that partnering with God in life “equally applies to the person who is in their forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, or even eighties or nineties; . . . It is never too late to discover your reason for being and devote as much life and strength as you have left to live into your purpose every day” (Pearce, p. 76). Amen to that!
I have found Pearce’s five questions to be thought-provoking as I work on my own sense of purpose in life. I commend his book to you. But, as you’ll see below, I am going to suggest ten additional things you might do when looking for your third third purpose. Before I get to these suggestions, however, I need to offer a couple of quick definitions.
Defining “Purpose” and “Clarifying”
You may have noticed that I entitled this article “Clarifying Your Purpose in the Third Third of Life, Part 1.” It might be helpful if I defined a couple of key terms in this title: “Purpose” and “Clarifying.”
We have an intuitive sense of what purpose means. This sense aligns with the basic Merriam-Webster definition of “purpose” as “something set up as an object or end to be attained.” But, of course, this definition includes all kinds of purposes. You could rightly say that I went to the pharmacy yesterday for the purpose of buying some COVID-19 home testing kits (sigh). I did have a purpose for my shopping trip. But this is not the kind of purpose we’re talking about here.
When we speak of having purpose, that is, purpose in life, we’re thinking of something bigger, something more significant and influential than the temporary purposes that fill our ordinary lives. I find helpful the definition of “purpose” proposed by Stanford professor of education William Damon in his excellent book, The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life: “Purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self” (Damon, p. 48). When we third third folk say that we’re looking for purpose, that’s what we’re talking about. It’s something “meaningful to the self” and “consequential for the world beyond the self.”
This notion of purpose shows up in more popular forms as well. In 2009, for example, Simon Sinek gave a TEDx talk in the Pacific Northwest. It was called, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” As of today, it’s the third most popular TED talk in history, with over 58,000,000 pageviews. Sinek’s talk is all about why we do the things we do. As Sinek says, “By ‘why’ I mean: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? . . . Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?” Similarly, Marc Freedman, CEO of Encore.org, said, “Purpose is feeling like the world needs you as much as you need it, that you have something to contribute and that you still matter.”
Our purpose gives us the “why” of our lives. It tells us why we’re here on earth, what our life is for, and where our life should be heading. This sort of purpose guides us, inspires us, and, yes, it gets us out of bed in the morning.
Before purpose can inspire us to hop out of bed, however, we need to know what our life’s purpose is. People use a variety of verbs to describe how we attain this knowledge. Some talk about discovering our purpose. Others prefer finding our purpose. Still, others prefer the language of creating our purpose.
Though all of these ways of speaking get us to more or less the same place, I prefer the language of clarifying our purpose. Talking about discovering or finding our purpose suggests that purpose is rather like buried treasure. It’s something out there that we can go dig up or something hidden in our own hearts that needs to be uncovered. Sometimes purpose can indeed be rather like hidden treasure. But often it isn’t something we magically find so much as something we help to produce. Those who talk about creating our purpose highlight this reality. But, as a Christian who believes that God’s purpose for us is most important of all, I don’t think it’s helpful to talk about creating our purpose as if we were free to make it up on our own. I believe we help form our particular purpose in relationship with God and God’s purpose for the universe as well as for our individual lives.
No matter how we get there, I think most of us are yearning for clarity about our purpose. We would like to be able to see it clearly, talk about it clearly, and pursue it with clear eyes and clear hearts. If we have clarified our purpose, then we can live into it, choosing to be guided and motivated by it.
Ten Suggestions for Clarifying Your Purpose
I’m going to offer ten suggestions for clarifying your purpose. These “to do” items would also be helpful in a season of re-clarify your purpose. Perhaps you’ve had a strong sense of your life’s purpose in the past, but you’re wondering if it might be time to redefine your purpose. I believe the ten suggestions will be helpful no matter where you are on your “purpose path.”
I should say at the outset that many of these suggestions can be found in other sources. I haven’t bothered to footnote every source that has been instructive to me. I’m certainly not claiming to be the first person to offer some of the suggestions you’ll find below. Moreover, many of these suggestions come directly from Scripture. I am writing here, as I usually do, as a Christian who believes that Jesus is our Lord and Savior and that the Bible is God’s truthful word for us. Thus, what I suggest is often a distillation of biblical teaching as I understand it.
Because this article is getting rather long, I’m going to end with the first of the ten suggestions I have mentioned. If you follow this one suggestion, you’ll be heading in the right direction as you seek to clarify your life‘s purpose.
Suggestion 1. Be committed to God’s purpose for all things, including your life.
This first suggestion is perhaps the most important of all. It is based on the fact that your primary purpose is first and foremost to live according to God’s purpose for everything, including your life. This truth leads to an obvious question: What is God’s purpose for all things, including you?
Scripture offers various ways to answer this question. One of these is found in the New Testament letter of Ephesians. The opening section of Ephesians 1 describes how God is working out his cosmic purpose through Jesus Christ, something God determined even before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4). Through Christ, God offers us adoption, forgiveness, and redemption according to grace (Eph 1:5-8). Moreover, through Christ, God is restoring the whole cosmos that was broken by sin. As it says in Ephesians 1:9-10, God has a plan for “the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, things in heaven along with the things on earth” (CEB, italics added). God will unite all things in Christ, restoring the whole universe to what God had intended from the beginning.
Christians are beneficiaries of and participants in that work. Ephesians 1:11-12 states: “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.” God has a purpose for you and for me, namely, that we live for God’s glory in everything we do in every part of life.
So, how do we glorify God through who we are and what we do? We might at first envision the things we do when we go to church: singing praise, offering prayer, and so forth. We might also picture what we do in Christian service to others, such as teaching Sunday school, feeding the hungry, or sharing the gospel with a neighbor. These actions certainly glorify God, but they’re only the beginning.
Ephesians 2:8-10 reveals more about how we are to glorify God. It says: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (italics added). It’s crucial to note that we have been saved not by, but for good works. We don’t earn our salvation by what we do. It comes by grace received through faith. But we do express our salvation through the good works God has for us to do. And these are not just the ones we associate with church. Ideally, we should be doing the good works of God at all times, in our work and our family, in our friendships and our finances, in our prayers and our play.
When we begin our search for purpose by focusing on God’s purpose for all things, including us, we realize that our purpose is about far more than ourselves. As Rick Warren writes in The Purpose-Driven Life:
It’s not about you. The purpose of your life is far greater than your fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose. (p. 17)
Of course, so much more could be said about God’s purpose for all things, including you. But even this concise summary of teaching from Ephesians gives you a way to begin to reflect on your own purpose in light of God’s cosmic purpose. You might, for example, consider the following questions:
- How am I participating in God’s work of uniting and restoring all things in Christ? How could my life contribute to God’s work in the world?
- Am I intentionally seeking to live for the praise of God’s glory in all that I do? In my work? In my relationships? In my free time? With my money? With my talents and skills? In my retirement? If I am living to glorify God, why? If not, why not?
- Am I walking each day in the good works God has prepared for me? Do I know what these good works are? Do I have clarity about what God has created me in Christ to do?
If you’re looking for a quick way to figure out your purpose in life, you might be frustrated by my first suggestion. It seems so big and theological. And, in a way, it is both of these things. But I am convinced that if you want to identify the purpose for your life, you need to start with God’s purpose.
If you’re looking for something practical to do, let me encourage you to engage in the practice of biblical reflection. You might begin with the passages from Ephesians I’ve noted here: Ephesians 1:3-14; 2:8-10. Read these portions of Scripture slowly, letting each word sink in. Think about what they mean and what they mean for you. Talk with the Lord about what you’re thinking. Using the same passage(s) of Scripture, do this several times over the course of several days, or even weeks and months. Though you won’t be focusing narrowly on your own personal purpose, the more you meditate on God’s purpose, the more you’ll find things stirring in your soul. I’d urge you to give it a try!
So far, I’ve offered my first of ten suggestions that will help you clarify your purpose in life. In Part 2, I’ll present additional suggestions.
Compass photo by Jordan Madrid: https://unsplash.com/photos/gWSWEn9WIfk
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.