Clarifying Your Purpose in the Third Third of Life, Part 8

By Mark D. Roberts

November 4, 2023

Article, De Pree Journal, Third Third

This is the eighth article in a series I’ve called, Clarifying Your Purpose in the Third Third of Life. So far, I’ve offered nine suggestions for how you might discover and embrace your purpose as you enter a season of life in which many people aren’t sure they have a purpose anymore.

Today, I’d like to suggest another way to clarify your third third purpose:

Suggestion 10: Pay attention to God’s callings.

I realize that what I’ve just written may seem surprising to you. In this article and the next, I’d like to address some of the questions you might be asking, such as:

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?

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?

What is the Relationship Between Purpose and Calling?

Scripture teaches us that there is an essential connection between purpose and calling. So, if you’re going to clarify your purpose for the third third of life, you need to understand how calling fits into this process.

The first article in this series on clarifying your purpose contained my first suggestion: “Be committed to God’s purpose for all things, including your life.” This suggestion is based on the conviction that your purpose is first and foremost to live according to God’s purpose for everything, including your life. In the first article, I describe God’s purpose as portrayed in the New Testament book of Ephesians, where God’s ultimate plan is “to bring all things together in Christ, things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Eph 1:10, CEB). Through Christ, God will ultimately restore the cosmos broken by sin, establishing divine peace and justice throughout all creation.

Ephesians goes on to show that we participate in God’s purpose by walking in the good works God has for us (2:10), living as agents of reconciliation in the world (2:11-12), and demonstrating the plan of God through our corporate life as the body of Christ (3:10). In Ephesians 4 we come upon a stunning exhortation: “I . . . beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (4:1). Our participation in God’s cosmic purpose is our calling. That’s God’s purpose for us: to live in light of God’s calling.

Other passages of Scripture elucidate and strengthen the connection between God’s purpose and our calling. Romans 8:28, for example, says “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (emphasis added). Similarly, 2 Timothy 1:9 affirms that God “saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace” (emphasis added). God’s purpose for all things, including our lives, leads to God’s calling in our lives. God calls us to participate in the work of redeeming and restoring all things.

Os Guinness, in his book The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life, writes that our

“purpose can be found only when we discover the specific purpose for which we were created and to which we are called. Answering the call of our Creator is ‘the ultimate’ why for living, the highest source of purpose in human existence. . . . [N]othing short of God’s call can ground and fulfill the truest human desire for purpose.” (Kindle location 59-64)

Thus, if we want to know and live into our deepest purpose, we need to answer the call of our Creator—or, as I am suggesting, the callings of our Creator.

Why Do You Refer to Callings Rather Than Calling?

Though I know it’s unusual to speak of God’s callings in the plural as I have been doing, I have already noted biblical reasons for doing so. In 1 Corinthians 1, all Christians have been called by God to several things: to be saints, that is, to be in relationship with God and to participate in God’s work. All Christians are also called into the “fellowship” of Christ, which includes relationship with Christ and Christ’s people. In 1 Corinthians 1 alone we see that our calling has multiple facets. Moreover, in Paul’s letters, we are also called: to freedom and hope (Gal 5:13, Eph 1:18); into God’s kingdom and glory (1 Thes 2:12); to holiness (1 Thes 4:7); and to living fully for God’s purpose (Eph 4:1). Paul makes it clear that our calling includes many facets, or, one might also say, our calling includes many callings.

In her book Make Work Matter, Michaela O’Donnell uses the image of Russian nesting dolls to help us understand the interrelationship between calling and callings. If you picture a set of these dolls, you know they are unified yet separate, unified yet distinct. Each doll resembles the others, the smaller dolls hidden inside larger dolls. Starting with the largest, outer doll, you open each one until you finally get to the smallest, innermost doll. The image of these dolls is rather like our calling/callings. Michaela explains,

“I think calling is a lot like a set of nesting dolls. We have an innermost calling from God—the most sacred and core calling to belong to Jesus. From there, more nesting dolls are added, each representing another layer of God’s calling to us. I want to suggest four layers of God’s calling: the call to belong to Christ, the call to work toward redemption, the call to create, and the call to particulars.” (Make Work Matter, p. 79)

All Christians have nesting-doll callings, no matter our age or condition. Our challenge is to discover how we respond to these interrelated callings in the varying seasons and contexts of our lives. As we get older, we may respond in new and different ways though the basic call of God remains consistent.

Let me use myself as an example. I have been called to belong to Christ for decades. I have always been called as a Christian to work toward redemption, whether as a student, a pastor, or now, a senior strategist for the De Pree Center. But, let me add that I also engage in redemptive work in a variety of other contexts (church, relationships, family, etc.). My creative calling used to be focused mainly on preaching sermons and pastoring a church. Now I write articles and devotions to contribute to the work of the De Pree Center. In this season of my life, I’m called to particular roles in my work, family, church, and other relationships. Relatively new “particular callings” for me include leading the De Pree Center’s Third Third Initiative and serving as a mentor/coach for a growing number of younger leaders.

Are There Callings in the Third Third of Life?

As I just noted, I have some new callings in the third third of my life. I realize it’s common to think of calling as related only to earlier seasons of life. In the first third of life, we discover our calling. In the second third, we live that calling. We believe that people have callings to particular careers, roles in their families, or world-changing missions. But then we age out of such things, or so the popular narrative goes. The third third of life is envisioned as a time for post-calling rest and recreation.

Though our secular culture and sometimes even our church culture form us to think that calling is mainly for the first two-thirds of life, nothing in Scripture supports this view. In fact, some of God’s most dramatic callings in the Bible are given to older people such as Abraham, Sarah, Zechariah, and Elizabeth (Gen 12:1-3; Luke 1:5-24). Who knows, perhaps your third third of life will be filled with unexpected adventures as you respond to the call of God.

The fact that God calls older adults does not mean it’s wrong to enjoy rest and recreation as we get older and have more time for such things. But if we assume that the third third of life is exempt from God’s purpose and calling, we are sadly mistaken.

For example, a woman I know worked for decades as an elementary school teacher. She believed this was something God had called her to do. When she retired a couple of years ago, she assumed her time of calling was over. But, after enjoying the leisure of retirement for several months, she began to feel as if God had something else for her to do. She missed investing her life in students. So she went to her local elementary school and asked if she could volunteer in some way. The school was thrilled to have her help. Today, though she is still retired, she believes that serving students as a volunteer is something God has called her to do and she is glad to be living out this particular calling regularly in the third third of her life.

To Be Continued

In my next article, I’ll address the final three questions you may be asking:

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?

You can find the next article here.

Banner image by Getty Images on Unsplash.

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

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,...

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