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Clarifying Your Purpose in the Third Third of Life, Part 2

July 7, 2022 • Third Third Journal

Introduction

This is Part 2 of a multi-part series of articles on the theme: “Clarifying Your Purpose in the Third Third of Life.” In Part 1 I said that I was responding to a question from a friend who asked me, “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?”

I explained in Part 1 that I don’t believe there is one single process that leads all people to clarify their purpose. What I’ve learned recently confirms this belief. In our June 2022 Third Third Life e-newsletter, I asked folks to let me know their answers to the following questions:

    1. If you are fairly clear about your third third purpose, where did this clarity come from? How did you discern your purpose for this season of life?
    2. If you are not very clear about your third third purpose, what seems to get in the way of your clarity?
    3. If you were going to suggest one thing that someone might do to gain greater clarity about their purpose, what would that one thing be?

I heard from at least a couple dozen people, to whom I owe my thanks. I appreciate what folks shared with me. I found that, indeed, people get to their understanding of their purpose by different routes. There isn’t a “one-path-fits-all” approach. I was also struck by the fact that many people in the third third of life are still working on their sense of purpose. They have figured out some things, while others remain to be discerned. For example, one person who wrote me feels called to invest more consistently in her grandchildren and children (not just grandchildren, by the way). But she isn’t quite sure what else God has for her to do. She knows there’s more and she’s still in a discernment mode.

Though I don’t think there is one perfect path for figuring out your purpose, I am convinced that there are things we can do to gain greater clarity about our purpose. We shouldn’t just sit around waiting until we know for sure what our third third purpose is. One man who wrote to me emphasized the importance of actively doing things, trying out possibilities, exploring options, and learning from lived experience. His advice fits with one of the suggestions I’ll offer later: “#9 – Experiment your way forward.”

In Part 1 of this series I began with the first of ten suggestions of things you might do in order to clarify your purpose: “#1 – Be committed to God’s purpose for all things, including your life.” (You can see what I wrote about this here.) Christians don’t begin to discern our purpose by searching within ourselves or by paying attention to the needs of the world, though both of these are important. Rather, we begin clarifying our purpose by attending to and reflecting on God’s purpose for all things, including us.

In Part 2, I’d like to consider suggestions 2 and 3:

Suggestion 2. Seek the Lord in prayer and surrender to his will.
Suggestion 3. Pay attention to how God has made and gifted you.

Suggestion 2: Seek the Lord in prayer and surrender to his will.

Scripture repeatedly teaches us to ask God in prayer for what we want. Jesus, for example, says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matt 7:7). Certainly it would be appropriate for you to ask the Lord for specific things related to you third third purpose. You can ask God to guide you, inspire you, and empower you.

But I would also encourage you to offer yourself to God as you pray, surrendering your life to God and being open to his gracious purpose for you. Jesus teaches us to say to our Father in heaven, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). When we pray, “Your will be done” we are implicitly adding, “And not my will.” A few verses later in Matthew, Jesus adds, “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else” (Matt 6:33, NLT). When we do this, we are choosing God’s will over our own, surrendering to God’s gracious sovereignty. In a profound way, Jesus models that kind of prayer in Gethsemane when he prays, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36).

While seeking the Lord in prayer is something I often do, I would confess that I find surrendering to God more difficult. The fact is that I really do want what I want. Yet, as I grow in Christ, I’m slowly learning to give more of myself to God. I have been helped in this growth process by a prayer of St. Ignatius known as the “Suscipe.” Suscipe is a Latin word meaning “receive or take,” and is the first word in this prayer by St. Ignatius as it appears in Latin. The Suscipe goes like this:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. All I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace. That is enough for me.

I pray this prayer each morning during my devotions. I can say the words, but struggle to mean them with my whole heart. I shared this struggle with a third third friend of mine who, to my surprise, also prays the Suscipe each day, and also finds it difficult to say it without reservation. Would God’s love and grace actually be enough for him?

I was encouraged by my friend’s openness. His struggle, so much like mine, reminded me of the fact that seeking the Lord and surrendering to his will isn’t something we do once and then move on. Rather, it’s a lifelong process of redirecting our hearts and reforming our souls. Such redirection and reformation come as a response to God’s grace. Our experience of God’s limitless goodness enables us to pray more truly and fully, “Your will be done.”

Suggestion 3: Pay attention to how God has made and gifted you.

Psalm 139:14 includes this memorable and moving line: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Each human being is a unique creation of God. Even though sin corrupts the goodness of creation, still every person bears God’s image. Every person is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” including you.

God has given you distinctive talents, skills, strengths, personality traits, values, perceptions, and spiritual gifts. You have developed and used these throughout your life. As you transition into the third third of your life, you’ll be able to use many of these gifts, though perhaps in new ways. For example, in your full-time work life, you may have been the supervisor of younger workers. Now, if you’re retired, you might use some of those same skills to mentor younger folk in the workplace, in the church, or in underserved schools in your city. It’s also quite possible that you will develop new strengths are you get older.

Common negative narratives about aging exaggerate the loss of ability as people get older. To be sure, older adults cannot do all that they were once able to do. Research on aging confirms what we know from personal experience. My knees won’t allow me to jog anymore, though I still love hiking. And I find it harder to remember names, though usually a forgotten name will magically come back to me hours after I wanted to use it. To be sure, some people experience significant and painful losses in the early parts of older adulthood, such as early-onset dementia. But most older adults continue to have considerable skills, with some becoming stronger as we age. Research shows, for example, that older brains are more integrated than younger brains. As geriatric psychologist Gene Cohen writes in The Mature Mind, “The complex neural architecture of older brains, built over years of experience, practice, and daily living, is a fundamental strength of older adults” (p. 8). The implications of this brain development are profound. For example, in From Strength to Strength, Arthur Brooks, a leadership professor at Harvard observes, “When you are young, you have raw smarts; when you are old, you have wisdom. When you are young, you can generate lots of facts; when you are old, you know what they mean and how to use them” (p. 27).

If you’re not sure about your talents, skills, strengths, personality traits, values, and spiritual gifts, I’d urge you to ask people who know you well. They will help you see things about yourself that you may not be able to see on your own. Plus, you might also find helpful various tools that will identify your particular strengths, motivations, and personality. Possible tools include:

None of these tools has cornered the market on identifying “who you really are.” Each of them, in my experience, can help you see things about yourself that you might not have seen before. Also, they might clarify and confirm things about you that will help you discern your purpose in life. For example, when I took the CliftonStrengths assessment, it confirmed that I am rather a “heady” person. Most of my top strengths lie in the “Strategic Thinking” domain. No surprise there. But, my second strength is Achiever, which helps to explain why I’m not in full-time academic work. I am wired to build things, not only to study and write about them. I sensed this about myself in graduate school but was never able to fully articulate it until I took what was then called StrengthsFinder.

By paying close attention to how God has made and gifted you, you will be helped in the effort to clarify your purpose in the third third of life. This suggestion alone won’t answer all of your questions about purpose and calling, however. But it will allow you to say with greater confidence, “Whatever my purpose is in the future, it will help me to exercise these gifts, strengths, etc.”

Conclusion

So far I have presented three of the ten suggestions for clarifying your purpose in the third third of life:

Suggestion 1: Be committed to God’s purpose for all things, including your life.
Suggestion 2. Seek the Lord in prayer and surrender to his will.
Suggestion 3. Pay attention to how God has made and gifted you.

In Part 3 of this series, we’ll move on to the next suggestions. Here’s a teaser. Suggestion 4 begins like Suggestion 3: “Pay attention to . . . .” How might you complete this sentence?

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