30 was so strange for me. I really had to come to terms with the fact that I’m now a walking, talking adult.
— CS Lewis
If CS Lewis said it, it must be true, right? Thirty – and the decade that follows – is a wonderful, ‘strange’ decade where we come of age. Some time ago, I did a post on 7 lessons for our twenties, and here this occasional series continues with some lessons for our thirties.
Is (Or Was) This You?
Since everyone is different, there’s no way I can speak to every thirty-something in this post. But, in general, I think the trajectory goes something like this.
As our thirties begin, we’re either finishing up school or professional training, or, still fairly early on in our careers. We may be married for a few years, or, heading in that direction. Others, though, will still be single and feeling discouraged about it. Still others may be working a few days a week and home with the kiddos on the others. Many of us have significant debt from school, and we’re thinking about owning our first home and settling down.
By the time we can see forty just over the horizon, things likely look very different. At this point, we’re well into our careers and pretty competent, possibly with some kind of leadership role. If we’re going to get married, we probably are by this point, although some marriages will be struggling or over by now. Most of us will be done having children or pretty close, although some will be wrestling with the pain of infertility. And we likely have a relatively stable, ‘normal’ daily routine.
I’ve probably missed or offended half of you somehow, but I hope most can identify.
Challenges Beneath The Challenges
In reality, though, that description is only skin deep. Not bad or wrong, just the kind of summary you might give to someone you haven’t seen since college.
No matter what your journey looks like on the surface, there’s always more going on below.
What are some of the deeper, unseen challenges?
Early thirties. A lot of younger thirty-somethings wrestle with insecurity. If you’re still in training or earlier on in your career, you may not feel all that great about your abilities. (I remember one well-meaning person calling me a ‘fledgling pastor’, which tapped into all my own insecurities.) And if you’re still single, you may wonder if there’s a reason for that. But if you’re married, you may be working through some difficult, early-marriage dynamics and not necessarily feeling like a pro. And if you’re a parent by now, you’re probably changing diapers with one hand and googling ‘how to be a parent’ with the other.
Mid thirties. As we get married, have children, and settle down, we come face to face with limits and a loss of freedom. Marrying someone means saying no to everyone else. Finding a job and church we enjoy means we may never live in Manhattan, touch the hem of Tim Keller’s garment, or host rooftop parties with celebrities. And when we have our first child… well, life really changes. While our hearts explode with love, our kids depend on us for everything and this brings limits of time and energy that test us – and our marriages – in big ways.
Late thirties. As life settles into a predictable routine, disappointment can settle in, too. We may find ourselves thinking, ‘I don’t remember asking Google to take me to the corner of Exhausted & Overwhelmed…’ Or, maybe we’ve arrived at the life we envisioned only to find it isn’t what we thought it would be. We discover stubborn sin patterns in our personal lives and marriages, learning we can’t ‘just change’. We can feel stuck in a job that’s just okay, wondering if we’re really making a difference. And down time has probably made its way onto our personal endangered species list.
Well, that was cheery, wasn’t it?
If it all sounds a little depressing, keep reading. I’ve highlighted some of the common challenges our thirties bring, but only to set you up for the hope God gives us every step along the way.
Four Big Lessons For Your Thirties
So if these are some of the challenges, what does God want us to learn?
Here are four possibilities:
1. Savor the joys of your thirties. So many of life’s most important joys arrive and deepen during this decade. Finding meaningful work, enjoying your spouse and children, and simply being healthy are immeasurable blessings we shouldn’t miss. The Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us to find joy in everyday life again and again (e.g., 2:24; 3:13; 5:18; 8:15; 9:9), and we shouldn’t let the challenges change that.
2. Find security in Christ, not our competency. When we’re starting out at anything – as a professional, spouse, or parent – we’re not good at it. But anything worth doing well is first worth doing poorly. Instead of working frantically to become amazing in one area, or trying to hide our imperfections, we should let our weaknesses drive us to find our security in Christ, because his love and acceptance really are ‘by grace… not a result of works’ (Ephesians 2:8, 9). This will also protect us from pride as we become more skillful later.
3. Embrace our limits and find joy in giving more deeply and sacrificially. As we get older and make choices that come with sometimes-painful limits, we gain the joys that come from going deeper with what we’ve chosen. We get to love sacrificially like Christ, which shapes our character and brings life. Like my friends who work at an inner-city Christian healthcare clinic. They could make three times what they do and live in a quieter, safer suburban neighborhood, but their sacrifices are bringing restoration, joy and health to people in desperate need. And, they are being transformed, too.
4. Let disappointment make you long for heaven. Just today I heard of a thirty-something who didn’t get into a training program. It was his first major disappointment. It’s not that things can’t go wrong in our twenties, but we usually feel like our lives are trending upward. But that can’t happen forever, and disappointments help us understand what it means that the whole creation really is futile, groaning and eagerly longing for Christ’s return (Romans 8:18-25). So, when things don’t go as planned, we can be honest with God but find comfort because – Some Day – it’s all going to be made right.
Not everyone’s thirties (or any decade) will look the same, but the exciting, major life decisions we make there often come with insecurities, limits, and disappointments. But God is right there with us, and this season can be our best, most fulfilling yet.
If you’re in your thirties, what’s your biggest challenge right now? How do you think God is using it in your life? (If you’re forty or older, we’d love to hear your reflections from that time!)