May 6, 2021 • Third Third Journal
A few weeks ago I was talking with a woman who had recently retired from an impressive professional career. Though she was enjoying her newfound freedom, she was also unsettled. “I don’t feel like I’m done contributing to this world,” she said. “I still want to make a difference and I think I can. I’m just not quite sure how to do it now.”
Since I’ve been focusing more on the De Pree Center’s Third Third Initiative, I hear things like this often. Folks who have retired, or are close to retirement, are grateful for the opportunity to rest more and work less. Yet they still long to do things that matter with their lives. They talk about making a difference. To use biblical language, they are longing for fruitfulness.
The Meaning of Fruitfulness
Fruitfulness describes a plant or tree that bears much fruit. We have a lemon tree in our backyard that is extraordinarily fruitful. This relatively small tree produces dozens and dozens of lemons each year. In fact, a few months ago it was so fruitful that I had to use some boards to keep the tree from tumbling over because of the weight of its lemons. That’s some serious, literal fruitfulness.
Of course, we use the language of fruitfulness metaphorically as well. It’s as a way of talking about productivity, about activity that has an impressively positive result. A business might be having a fruitful year if its sales numbers are way up. People are said to be fruitful if they are contributing to the world in a way that matters, if they are being productive in a positive way. Fruitfulness can have to do with bearing and raising children, with professional accomplishment, with volunteering in a worthwhile endeavor, just to name a few possibilities.
Longing for Fruitfulness
In my work at the De Pree Center, I get to lead Road Ahead cohorts for people in the third third of life. (If you want to learn more, I’ve written about that experience here.) I say “get to” because it’s a joy to be able to spend several weeks with people as they are seeking God’s guidance for their “road ahead” in life. I am honored by their willingness to share with the group and me their deep, true longings.
In the Road Ahead groups, I keep hearing things like I reported in the first paragraph above. Though expressed in different ways that reflect individual distinctiveness, folks in the third third of life are saying, again and again, “I yearn to be fruitful in this season of life.”
For many of us, the desire for fruitfulness is more obvious and robust in the third third of life than it was when we were younger. This is certainly true for me, and I’ve wondered why. I have a couple of theories to explain this. (I’d be interested in your ideas about this. You can write me at this link.)
First, when I was younger, I simply assumed that my life would be fruitful. My wife and I were raising children together, a rather obvious kind of fruitfulness. I was pastoring a growing church, helping people come to faith and mature in their discipleship. My life was bearing ample fruit and I had many potentially fruitful years ahead. Now, as I’m solidly in the third third of life, I’m much more aware that I have fewer years ahead of me. I want to be sure I use them well, which is another way of saying I want to be genuinely fruitful in this season of my life. And, though I don’t plan on retiring for several years, Lord willing, I’m quite sure my desire to be fruitful won’t disappear when I stop working full time. If anything, it may even become more intense because my opportunities for fruitfulness will have changed.
A second reason the longing for fruitfulness is strong as we age has to do with the tension between who we are and where we live. It’s the conflict between identity and culture, if you will. Please allow me to explain what I mean.
Our Identity and Fruitfulness
Fruitfulness is essential to our identity as human beings. I base this bold assertion on the creation account in Genesis 1. There, God creates heaven, earth, and all that is in it, including humanity. God makes human beings as unique bearers of God’s own image and gives us the responsibility of completing the good work God began in creation. Specifically, God says to the first humans, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). Notice that the very first command of God is “Be fruitful.” Clearly, fruitfulness is essential to our very nature and calling. In Genesis 1, fruitfulness means “make more people,” but it suggests much more than this. (This “much more” is made clear in many other biblical passages, for example, Gen 2:15; Jer 17:7-8; Ps 92:14).
If our fruitfulness is essential to our created identity, it is also essential to our redeemed identity. When we say “Yes” to the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ, we are redeemed from sin and death. We have the certain hope of God’s future. But we are not saved simply to wait around for Heaven. Rather, we are saved for a life of fruitfulness.
No passage in Scripture makes this truth more evident than John 15 where Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. . . . Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. . . . My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (John 15:1-2, 4-5, 8). When we believe in Jesus, we become connected to him as branches to a vine. As a result, we bear fruit, and our fruitfulness glorifies God.
Our Culture and Third Third Fruitfulness
Scripture shows us that our longing for fruitfulness comes from our very identity as God’s special creatures and as “branches” of Jesus Christ. We are made and we are saved for fruitful living. This doesn’t change when we hit a certain age, when we retire from our occupation, or when we start receiving a Social Security check. Fruitfulness is deeply connected to our identity, to who we are, and who we yearn to be.
The problem is our culture gives us mixed and often derogatory messages when it comes to third third fruitfulness. You can find folks out there who affirm the potential for fruitfulness in older adulthood. If you visit Bruce Bruinsma’s “Retirement Reformation” website, for example, you’ll see a banner proudly proclaiming “When the world says it’s time to stop, you could begin to have: Your Greatest Impact.” But this message is not common to our culture. Instead, the dominant retirement and aging narratives neglect or deny our potential for fruitfulness.
I expect I really don’t have to explain this because I’m guessing you’ve heard the common cultural narratives again and again. You know, for example, the It’s All About You story. One website puts it this way, “Retire and make this stage of life all about you. After all these years it’s been about taking care of your job, your employer, and your family. No doubt you stressed about how to juggle time and make everything work. Now it’s time to finally put yourself first in retirement.” And putting yourself first is rarely about making a difference in the world. Rather, it’s about playing golf, traveling, relaxing, and visiting your grandchildren (which can have everything to do with fruitfulness, by the way, though it’s rarely spoken of that way).
Another dominant cultural narrative is the Disability and Dependency story. This is the one you hear whenever people start talking about the “Silver Tsunami.” In this narrative, older adults are past their time of fruitfulness. They are no longer able to do work that matters. Their personal infirmities and limitations keep them from being productive members of society, upon which they are increasingly dependent financially and in other ways as well. A less-than-optimistic writer for the New York Times recently wrote, “Reshaping the workforce, and distorting patterns of saving and investment, the aging of the American population is carving an unexpectedly broad path of destruction across the economy. . . . Aging, according to recent economic research, is stunting the emergence of new businesses and sapping productivity. It is contributing to the rise in monopoly power and eating into workers’ share of national income. Many of our most intractable economic ills can be traced to some degree to this ineluctable fact: America is getting old.” Not only are those of us in the third third unable to be productive, but our very existence is “sapping productivity” in general. Ouch!
At some other time, I will write about the fascinating research having to do with the productivity of older adults. Though aging does bring certain kinds of limitations, the reality is not nearly so bleak as the Times writer believes. In fact, there is ample research to support the notion that third third folk can be truly productive and contribute to broader social productivity. But I can’t get into this today. My point here is that we who are in the third third of life find ourselves torn between our core identity, which yearns for fruitfulness, and our cultural context, which has little place for such longing.
Our Need for a Better Narrative
Our society – including but not limited to those of us who are in the third third – desperately needs a better narrative of aging than those that either release us from the responsibility of fruitfulness or deny to us the possibility of fruitfulness. We need, most of all, a narrative that is based on the story of God in Scripture. We need God to tell us who we are, who he created and redeemed us to be.
This narrative, in which fruitfulness is a blessing for all people, will not ignore the losses and limitations that come with aging (see Eccles 12:1-8). It will take seriously the social and economic challenges that come with an aging population. And it will take seriously the Everest-sized mountain of research on older adulthood, which, in my opinion, having made it partway up the mountain, energetically supports the biblical vision of fruitfulness in the third third of life and how to experience it.
A Closing Exhortation
At this point, you may be thinking, “Mark, you really haven’t helped me figure out how I can live fruitfully. I’ve still got my longing but don’t know quite where to go with it.” Indeed, I haven’t been very practical in this article. I’ve been focusing instead on understanding and affirming our longing for fruitfulness, as well as pointing out some of the barriers we face when it comes to taking this longing seriously. But I will end on a note of praxis.
If you want to be fruitful in life, do this: Abide in Christ! That’s my closing exhortation. It’s not mine, of course. It’s what Jesus said in John 15:4, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” So, whatever you do, if you long for fruitfulness, abide in Christ. Make your home in Christ. Stay connected to Christ. Live in Christ.
If you’re not sure exactly what this means, that’s okay. I’m still learning what it is to abide in Christ and I’ve been a Christian for 57 years. I figure this is something I will continue to learn until my last day in this life. But you and I can do something today that will help us abide in Christ on the way to fruitful living. We can pray this simple prayer:
Lord Jesus, you are the true vine and we are your branches. We belong to you. We’re connected to you. We are blessed to live in relationship with you each moment.
Lord, you promise that if I abide in you I will bear much fruit. I would like to be fruitful. I’d like to make a difference that matters in this season of life. So, I ask you to teach me how to abide in you. Show me what this means, Lord, and help me to do it.
I long to be fruitful, Lord. You know this. It’s certainly related to my desire to have a meaningful life. But I also know that if I bear much fruit, our Heavenly Father will be glorified. That’s how I yearn to live, bearing fruit that matters, fruit that lasts, fruit that glorifies the Father.
So, dear Lord, help me to abide in you today, tomorrow, and each day to come, until that day when I see you face to face. Amen.
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.