December 1, 2023 • Article, Third Third, Third Third Journal
In the series, Clarifying Your Purpose in the Third Third of Life, I’ve offered ten suggestions for how you might discover and embrace your third third purpose. The tenth suggestion was:
Suggestion 10: Pay attention to God’s callings.
Last month’s article addressed three questions that might have occurred to you as you reflected on this suggestion:
What is the relationship between purpose and calling?
Why do you refer to callings rather than calling?
Are there callings in the third third of life?
In this new article, I’ll respond to three additional questions you might have:
Aren’t callings only for special people?
Why do you talk about God’s callings?
How can I know God’s callings in this season of my life?
Aren’t Callings Only for Special People?
In my church growing up, we were delighted when God called someone into “the ministry,” which meant either pastoral ministry or missionary work. We did not usually celebrate when someone felt called to be a teacher, business owner, nurse, or parent. Nobody ever said plainly, “Those people don’t have a calling.” But our language and practice tended to project this message loud and clear. Thus, if your experience is like mine, you may be wondering why I speak as if all Christians have callings. Aren’t callings only for special people?
Reserving God’s callings only for special people or special roles contradicts the plain teaching of Scripture. For example, notice how the Apostle Paul addresses the recipients of his first letter to Corinth,
“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours . . . . God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 1:2, 9, NRSV; emphasis added).
Notice that all members of the Corinthian church are “called to be saints,” that is, called to be set apart for relationship with God and for sharing in God’s work. Moreover, they have this in common “with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” namely, all Christians everywhere. Verse 9 emphasizes that this calling is “into the fellowship of [God’s] Son.” All Christians are called into relationship with Christ and Christ’s people.
So, while God sometimes calls certain individuals to particular ministerial roles and in this we rightly rejoice, God calls all people into relationship with God and God’s people and into participation in God’s work in the world. This too is worthy of celebration. All Christians—including you—have a calling, or as we might also say, callings. This is just as true for someone in the third third of life as it is for those in the first two-thirds. We who are older must never assume that we have aged out of being called to live in light of God’s purpose or in response to God’s callings.
The truth is, from God’s point of view, every single Christian is a special person. Every believer is a saint, that is, someone set apart by God for relationship with God and participation in God’s mission in the world. So, I suppose you could say that God’s callings are only for special people as long as you recognize that all Christians are special people to God . . . including you!
Why Do You Talk About God’s Callings?
We usually talk about calling or callings as something we have. For example, I might say, “I have a calling to be a pastor” or “I have a calling to be a husband and father.” Speaking that way is common and not necessarily problematic. However, there is a danger that we must seek to avoid when we talk this way. For me, it’s the danger of thinking of my callings as things that are fundamentally mine, things that I have developed, things that I own and control.
Whatever else we might say about biblical calling and callings, they are certainly not owned or governed by the person who is called. Perhaps the most basic truth of calling we must keep in mind is that it is something God does. Before calling is a noun it is a verb. We have a calling or interrelated callings because God calls us.
Recently, I wrote an article on “Call, Calling” for the second edition of the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. I began my article with a section entitled “The God Who Calls.” I’d like to quote from what I wrote there:
In Pauline theology, calling is not so much something believers have as it is something God does in their lives (1 Cor 1:9). Calling is so essential to God’s activity that Paul can refer to God simply as “the one who called you” (Gal 1:6 NRSV; see 1 Thes 5:24).
God calls people on the basis of God’s own sovereign choice and purpose (Rom 8:28-30). One’s calling does not depend on one’s own works or worthiness (though one is to walk worthy of our calling) . . . . Rather, God calls people “according to [God’s] own purpose and grace” (2 Tim 1:9 NRSV; also Gal 1:6).
Seeing the Christian life in terms of calling underscores the authority and initiative of God. Those who know God through Christ are not initiators in this relationship but responders to the initiating, calling God.
Why is it so important for us to remember that our callings are fundamentally God’s callings? There are many reasons. First, this truth keeps us from thinking that we get to make up our own callings. It also reminds us that we need always to respond to the Sovereign God who calls us. Knowing that our callings are really God’s callings both humbles us and fills us with gratitude for the privilege of being summoned by God into relationship and service. This knowledge also helps us to be resilient when living our callings is difficult, discouraging, and draining. If I’m the lord of my callings, then I have every right to abandon them when the going gets tough. But if my callings are from the Lord of lords, then I will seek to hang in there, asking God for the strength to persevere in that to which God has called me.
It’s important to remember that God calls us, not as a tyrant, but rather as our gracious Savior. Let me quote again from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, “[God] saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace” (2 Tim 1:9). Notice the intimate connection between salvation and calling. Notice also that God calls us in light of God’s purpose and grace. God’s callings are not tyrannical orders but loving invitations. If we respond positively when God calls, we will live with lasting meaning and joy.
How Can I Know God’s Callings in This Season of My Life?
Many readers of this article will be glad that I finally got to this question. It is, after all, what most of us in the third third of life are wondering about. Though we acknowledge that a right understanding of calling/callings matters, what we long for most of all is to know God’s callings for our lives. We yearn to live with the clarity of purpose that comes from knowing what God would like us to do. Hundreds of times in my life I’ve prayed something like this: “God, I will do anything for you. But I don’t know what you want from me. If you make your will clear to me, I’ll do it. Please, help me know what it is!” I expect you’ve prayed like this too. Maybe you’re praying this way right now.
So, in down-to-earth terms, how can you know God’s callings in this season of your life?
First, you’ll be better able to hear God’s callings if you understand and embrace the biblical truths I’ve outlined in this article and the previous one. For example:
- If you are convinced God has callings for you in the third third of life, then you’ll be open and eager to know what they are. If not, you won’t.
- If you believe that God calls all Christians, not only special people, then you’ll be ready to hear God’s call to you. If not, you won’t.
- If you perceive that God’s calling entails different, nested callings, then you’ll be prepared to receive and live into these various callings. If not, you won’t.
- If you understand that your callings are really God’s callings, then you’ll seek first what God is calling you to, surrendering your personal preferences to God’s sovereign and gracious will. If not, you won’t.
Therefore, if you want to know God’s callings in this season of your life, let the biblical truth about call and callings shape your thinking, motivate your praying, and inspire your living.
Second, if you want to know God’s callings, take another look at the earlier suggestions in this series on Clarifying Your Purpose in the Third Third of Life. For your convenience, here they are:
Suggestion 1: Be committed to God’s purpose for all things, including your life.
Suggestion 2: Seek the Lord in prayer and surrender to God’s will.
Suggestion 3: Pay attention to how God has made and gifted you.
Suggestion 4: Pay attention to what God is putting on your heart.
Suggestion 5: Pay attention to where you are bearing fruit.
Suggestion 6: Look for continuity but be open to surprises.
Suggestion 7: Get in touch with and act upon your generativity.
Suggestion 8: Experiment your way forward.
Suggestion 9: Discover and discern your purpose in community with other Christians.
Suggestion 10: Pay attention to God’s callings.
I wrote these as suggestions for clarifying your purpose in the third third of life. But, given the intimate relationship between purpose and calling, those suggestions will also help you clarify God’s callings.
Consider this example. It’s certainly true that you should discover and discern your purpose in community with other Christians (#9). But this is also true of hearing and clarifying God’s callings. Yes, sometimes we hear the call of God when we are alone with God. Take Moses at the burning bush, for example. But even such unusual revelations need to be discerned, clarified, and supported in community with other believers. The instructions of Paul to the Thessalonians are relevant here: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thes 5:19-21 NSRV). Even if we are convinced that God has called us to something, we should invite our sisters and brothers in Christ to help us discern and clarify that calling. (If you’re looking for wisdom on how spiritual discernment can happen in community, I’d recommend: Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups, by Ruth Haley Barton.)
Summarizing the Good News of Third Third Callings
So much more could be said about how you can pay attention to God’s callings in the third third of life. If I had the space, I’d love to talk about other helpful spiritual disciplines in addition to Christian community. God often calls us through disciplines of journaling, silence, solitude, worship, fasting, retreat, study, service, and spiritual direction. (You can learn more about these practices in the classic book by Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth.)
But this article is already quite long so I need to wrap things up. Let me conclude by summarizing the good news I’ve been glad to share with you:
- God does indeed have a purpose (or purposes) for you in the third third of your life.
- In light of God’s purpose, God has called you into relationship with God and God’s people and into a life of sharing in God’s work in the world.
- God’s calling has different facets or callings, which you can discover in a variety of ways with God’s help.
- Though you may be most eager to clarify God’s particular callings for your third third, don’t neglect your core callings: to belong to Christ, to work toward redemption, and to create. Focusing on these will actually help you identify your particular callings. (For more on this point, see Michaela O’Donnell, Make Work Matter, ch. 3, “Believe That You Are Called.”)
- By paying attention to all of God’s callings and living in response to them, you can experience purpose, meaning, and joy in the third third of life.
Banner image by Ave Calvar on Unsplash.
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.