“So, how does it feel to be thirty?” That question has always made me feel like I’ve been missing out on some magical emotion that is bestowed on normal people on their birthday. But I don’t think so.
“A lot like twenty-nine,” I answered, only half-joking. As one of my favorite poets, Robert Frost, once said, “I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life in three words: It goes on.” I think what Frost meant was that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Life is lived seasonally. To put it another way, the sons and daughters of God are called to “[serve] the purpose of God in [our] own generation” (Acts 13:36).
That’s why it’s not just the totality of our whole lives that matter, but the individual hours, the days, the years, and the decades — including our twenties.
What Would I Do Differently?
For many of us, the twenties are (at least as we perceive them) the most formative decade of life. Adolescence recedes, and the last shadows of childhood give way to the people and places that will linger the longest in the soul for the remainder of life. Most people think of the defining landmarks of the twenties as college, career, and marriage, but there’s even more than that: friendships, relocations, new rhythms of life. The twenties are a rich, fertile time.
“The places I leaned on him the most were the places I had nowhere else to lean.”
They were that for me, even though there was much I squandered, just as my forefather Adam squandered his own rich, fertile garden. When I reflect on my twenties, I see the sovereign mercy of Christ, the grace that restores what the locusts take away, but I also see sin and mistakes that I would give much to do over.
So, here are a handful of reflections from my twenties. If you or someone you know is approaching or in their third decade, I hope these words encourage you toward the path of wisdom and flourishing. For those of you who have left that decade behind, please don’t underestimate how the most important things we learn really are evergreen.
1. Value and invest in people.
One long-term mistake I made in my twenties was undervaluing other people. I took friendship for granted and stuff for treasure. When I think back, especially to my early twenties, I’m grieved to recall how little effort I put into loving those God had put in my life.
I say “effort” intentionally. Loving others requires effort, which is why I was often so poor at it. I learned it’s easy to underline 1 John 3:16 during morning devotions and imagine that I’m willing to lay down my life for others, while minutes later searching for every excuse not to return a call, or meet someone, or attend an event. It culminated in a sad irony: The older I got, the more I desired close friendship, and the less feasible it became as the obligations of marriage and family and job took root.
Don’t prioritize stuff. Don’t overprotect your time. A single-strand cord is more flexible, but a three-strand cord is “not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12). If in your twenties you find yourself in a season of life where Christian friends are nearby and accessible, give profuse thanks to your heavenly Father, take a break from Twitter and Netflix, and go love them — and be loved by them. It won’t get easier later.
2. Beware of preoccupation with you.
One of the most familiar pitfalls in my twenties was self-focus. I spent a good deal of time in my own head, worried about this and that, and forgetting that joy comes through self-forgetfulness. Here lies a particularly gaping pothole for my generation, a whole generation coming of age in the waters of social media. Self-forgetfulness is difficult when your time and relationships are shaped by apps that exist to help you escape flesh-and-blood reality and constantly reinvent yourself.
“The main lesson was that there was more grace in God than sin, immaturity, weakness, and ignorance in me.”
I burned a lot of time on Facebook, becoming emotionally invested in having a cool profile picture, a lot of “Likes,” and an online identity that was popular and admired. Besides feeding my vanity, this drove me deep into the canyons of self-preoccupation. While self-preoccupation promises short-term satisfaction and comfort, it leads to long-term disillusionment. A hall of mirrors sparkles for a moment, but eventually you quickly realize you were created to look out the window at something infinitely more majestic than yourself.
Take that metaphor literally. Go outside. Look up at the sky. Disengage from online life long enough to delight in the physical world that is always singing a hymn to its Maker. Do it with others. This frees us from the crushing weight of self-preoccupation. It’s also one of the best antidotes to anxiety I’ve ever found.
3. Invest in what makes you happy.
I’ve only recently realized how much of my twenties were given over to reading and watching things I didn’t actually enjoy reading or watching. It wasn’t self-disciplined; it was grasping for the approval of others, trying to refine my tastes to be palatable to those whose approval I craved. It turns out this habit is hard to break once it’s formed.
Here’s how Screwtape put it to Wormwood:
The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring two-pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. (The Screwtape Letters, 66)
Why is this? Because “second-handing” dulls our taste for the explosively personal promises of Christ. Unbelief thrives on second-handing and glory-seeking. “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44).
Sometimes Christians can be too quick to talk about the idolatrous potential of hobbies and too slow to consider how the things of earth can stir our hearts and provoke us toward God. Before you spend your twenties making sure your life is perfectly Instagrammable for the right people, read this spectacular book by Joe Rigney, and ask the Lord to reveal to you more of the “secret signature” of your soul. Then, cultivate interests and joys that push you toward your Savior even if they don’t boost your “platform.”
4. Cultivate trust in God.
The single best way to spend your twenties is to learn to trust God more. If that sounds cliché to you right now, trust me, it won’t for long. Many of us begin this decade unencumbered by responsibilities, only to be blindsided by the realities of debt, failed dreams, frustrated desires, and unexpected suffering. The road of Christian living has off-ramps of doubt all around it.
I was a 21-year-old, disaffected Bible college student hooked on pornography when Jesus answered the prayers of my parents and resurrected me. I was in a frustrating entry-level job with a wedding date and insufficient income, and the Lord provided. We were a young couple called to leave both sets of parents and the only hometown we’ve known to go to the Midwest, and the Lord tenderly dried our tears and surrounded us with friends.
“Your twenties and thirties and eighties and nineties are in his hands. Trust him.”
At every juncture in my twenties, the preserving goodness and mercy of Jesus surrounded me. He met my fears with provision and my sin with forgiveness. The main lesson of my twenties was that there was more grace in God than sin, immaturity, weakness, and ignorance in me. The places I leaned on him the most were the places I had nowhere else to lean, and these were the places he most showed himself faithful. My shame, regret, and anxieties were disarmed not by being a better version of myself, but by enjoying more of Christ.
Don’t doubt the sovereignty of the One who knows the stars by name and the hairs on your head (Isaiah 40:26; Luke 12:7). Don’t doubt the goodness of the One who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for you (Romans 8:32). Don’t doubt the worthiness of the One with whom there is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). Your twenties and thirties and eighties and nineties are in his hands. Trust him.