Thir-ty. It’s amazing how two syllables can spark so many emotions. Dread. Discouragement. Sadness. Even shame. “Age is just a number,” they tell us, so why does this number prompt a crisis in our hearts?
In short, we thought that 30 would look different. Much different. As many of us survey our lives, they look nothing like they were supposed to when we hit the big three-o. We were supposed to have our dream job. We were supposed to be married. We were supposed to have kids. But I’ve had to ask, do any of these “supposed tos” actually align with what Jesus asks of me? The answer I’ve come to is no—my 30th birthday angst has much more to do with cultural influence than the call of Christ.
Even the most self-aware of us are greatly shaped by our culture—we often consider things “normal” until we encounter someone outside our culture who finds our actions nonsensical. In Russia, I once sat down on concrete stairs to be frantically cautioned by a friend, “It’s not good for women’s health to sit on cold places! You won’t be able to have children!” When I laughed, she assured me she was not joking. On subsequent trips to Russia, I noticed the same thing—at a bus stop in the winter, not one woman sat on the bench. More conversations with Russians confirmed this: Under no circumstances could I sit on a cold surface if I cared about my fertility.
In our thinking about 30, I suspect we also may be forfeiting a comfortable seat on the bench, constrained by cultural beliefs that don’t align with reality. I want to tease apart three beliefs that have affected me and my friends, then re-envision turning 30 through the eyes of Jesus, who, as always, answers us with hope, clarity, and a firm way forward.
Belief #1: By 30, we need to have accomplished something great.
We’ve all seen the “30 under 30” lists—a product of our culture’s obsession with achieving career success in our twenties. Even if most of us don’t aim to be featured in Forbes, there is still the unspoken rule that by 30, we need to have our careers figured out. The media inundates us with examples of wildly successful twenty-somethings, and we feel that if we haven’t “made it” by 30, we’ll have lost our chance at achieving success. Why this obsession with success in our twenties?
First, we live in a culture that idolizes youth. Late night TV Host Craig Ferguson explains how an advertising strategy sparked this cultural adulation:
“In the late 50s, early 60s, a bunch of advertising guys got together on Madison Avenue and decided that what they were trying to do was sell products to younger people. They thought “we should try to sell products to younger people because then they’ll buy things their whole life.” … And what happened was that in a strange kind of quirk of fate, youth began to be celebrated by society in a way that it had never been any time in human history.”
We believed what the advertisers told us—being young was good; being old was bad. And though technology is great, it fueled the idea that youth was the window for success. Maria Popova says,
“This celebration of youth, coupled with technology, has distorted our perception of time — the world moves faster, and so do our expectations. Today, we want success in seventeen levels, or seventeen minutes, seventeen seconds — and when the promise of something new and better is just a click away, who wants to wait seventeen years?”
This expectation of instant gratification makes us feel like a failure if we don’t achieve all our dreams in our twenties. But let’s focus on the statement “achieve our dreams.” Another aspect of Western culture that exacerbates this sense of failure is our extreme individualism. The Geert-Hofstede Cultural Dimensions defines individualism as, “the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members. It has to do with whether people´s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “We”. According to Geert-Hofstede, the United States is one of the most individualistic countries in the world. On a 100-point scale, the US scores a whopping 91 (compare this with the more collectivistic China, which scores a 20).
What’s more, our culture tells us that while achieving success, we should aim to reach the pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: self-actualization. We should not only achieve success but do so while pursuing our passions. All these cultural messages—the cult of youth, the 30 under 30, “I” over “we”, self-actualization—have filled us with a hurried angst. We think that if we had our dream job, if we could pursue our passions, we would be at peace. But the truth is, we wouldn’t.
Even King Solomon, one of the richest, most prosperous men to ever exist was never satisfied. In Ecclesiastes 2:4-11, he lists his successes. He:
- Undertook great projects
- Built houses for himself and planted vineyards
- Had more herds and flocks than anyone else in Jerusalem before him
- Had a huge harem of beautiful women
- “Denied [himself] nothing [his] heart desired.”
Still, he says: “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” Even with endless wealth, achievement, and pleasure, Solomon was not satisfied. And neither would we be in his place.
We wouldn’t be satisfied because the true cry of our heart is not achievement, not self-actualization, but intimacy with God. What marks our lives as meaningful is not achievement but growing in intimacy with Jesus as we imitate Him. And Jesus’ example is quite different than Solomon’s brand of success. About 91% of Jesus’ life was unseen, undocumented. It is in the epic and the awesome that we find the exclamation point at the end of the sentence He came to write, but we can’t forget this: 91% of Jesus’ life, the 30 years before the 3, was paced by the rhythms of the mundane, His movements not made holy by their visibility, but by the fact that it was Him acting.
And then He died.
He died to Himself.
He died for us.
Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10: 38-39)
In our culture, “finding one’s life” looks a lot like Solomon’s “chasing after the wind.” “Finding our life” on Jesus’ terms, though, is an eternal adventure unaffected by our career or economic status. Career success is a blessing, but it is not our identity. If we are growing closer to Him amid a lack of worldly achievement, we are successful in the most important way possible.
Belief #2: I need to be married by 30
This is a big one for me and my friends. Most of us expected to be married long before 30, and as our birthdays approach, many of us have had some form of a freak-out. What I’ve only recently realized though, is that my angst about singleness springs not only from an inner desire for a spouse but from my culture’s response to my singleness at my age.
A conversation between Shane O’Neill and Bronwyn Lea on The Naked Gospel Podcast [check it out!] sparked a shift in my perspective toward being almost 30 and single.
The host, Shane O’Neill helpfully frames the conversation in terms of “social scripts. He says,
“When it comes to a lot of the social scripts about sexuality—a lot of them have kind of been prescribed for me and I didn’t even know that I was trying to live out those stories, so even the idea that marriage would satisfy me, and so then making that my telos, my goal, my aim in life, but that also then while you’re single, you’re almost kind of like half human because you haven’t found your other half yet so to speak.”
Bronwyn Lea also comments on the social scripts she has noticed, saying, “There is the unspoken assumption that sexual fulfillment is the mark of adult agency, so we laugh at the 40-year-old virgin because, you know, is he a man or is he a boy? There are these stamps for masculinity, that you need to get a job, and you need to have sex and you need to do whatever the case may be to be a man. And there’s a very similar subtext for women, that when we talk about sexuality in the church, people talk about being wives and mothers, and I’m like, “Are all of the women who aren’t mothers not women? Are all of the women who are not married [not women]?”
Something clicked as I listened to their conversation. It wasn’t just my inner desire for a spouse that was driving me, but the subconscious belief that because I am not a wife, because I am not a mother, I am not a fully realized adult. Unfortunately, this is a social script I attribute more to the church rather than the culture at large. Whereas my workplace supervisors have always treated me as a grown woman, in a number of churches, my singleness has seemed to mark me as “sub-adult”.
There is also a social script that if no one has wanted to marry you by thirty, you must be defective. I used to think this was something I picked up from my time spent in Russian culture, where being 30, single, and female was mockable. (I would often cringe at the running joke in a favorite Russian sitcom—whenever someone found out the 30-year-old main character was unmarried, they’d say, “is something wrong with her?”)
Unfortunately, this social script isn’t limited to Russian women, but extends to Western Christians—both women and men. As an example, I once told a Christian woman in her fifties about a 30-year-old man I was interested in. As I listed off the fruit I’d seen in his life, she looked at me, unconvinced, and said, “well if he’s such a great Christian guy, then why is he 30 and unmarried?” It’s good I wasn’t feeling snarky, or I would have asked her if I should go undercover like Josie Grossie in Never Been Kissed and snag a fresh-faced 21-year-old at the local Bible college.
Bronwyn Lea offers a Scriptural contrast to this social script:
“Often when people are turning 30, they have this crisis and it’s often for the first time that people are thinking “why am I so frustrated or angry or feeling such angst about turning 30” and they realize, “oh it’s because I haven’t achieved these expectations that I had in my mind, by the time I was 30 I would have this kind of job, I would have been married, I would have kids, and then I would be a real man, then I would be a real woman.” And we get to 30 and think if we haven’t achieved those things then “am I a real man or a real woman?” And really, I think that the Scripture has so much encouragement for us that you do not have to earn your maleness or your femaleness. I mean, Jesus was a man who never went through sex and childbirth or becoming a dad. He did not need to validate his manliness, he just was.”
Bronwyn’s words beckoned me to throw off the weight of a social script that in no way aligned with Jesus’ definition of being a fully realized, fearfully made man or woman. Yet again, our Savior strikes back with the beautiful truth of his life.
We are not half a person because we are unmarried at 30.
We are not children because we do not have our own.
We are God’s poems—masterpieces made in His image, not meant to force ourselves into the narrow confines of social scripts but to live in freedom.
Belief #3: God has forgotten me.
For my friends and me, our twenties have been more Lord of the Rings than romantic comedy. We’ve collectively walked through chronic illness, depression, grief, loneliness, financial instability, and broken relationships. At times, it’s been easy to feel that as God pours blessing on others, He has forgotten us.
The story of Joseph though, reminds me that God never forgets His children, that He is always working in our lives regardless of whether we can see it.
I think Joseph has the trump card on terrible twenties—he was sold into slavery at 17, was a slave for about a decade, then was thrown into jail for two years after being falsely accused of attempted rape. If I were Joseph, I would have felt that God had forgotten me. We know the end of the story—God raised Joseph up at age 30, and Joseph helped to save the nation from famine, including the very brothers who had sold him into slavery. If Joseph’s life had gone as he expected, it would have been enjoyable—a tranquil life with his family. God had something bigger in mind, though.
What I see in Joseph’s story, I also see in mine. I may not know the end of the story, but He has given me more glimpses than I deserve of how He is working my darkest moments for a purpose beyond what I can imagine. I’m not saying that since Joseph’s circumstances changed at age 30 that ours will too—I’m not naming and claiming “30 as the year of abundance.” I just want to highlight that in the midst of a dark decade with no relief in sight, God was working in Joseph’s story, and He is working in ours as well.
So, this is how I’m reframing the big three-o.
Turning 30 is not an assessment of accomplishment but an invitation to imitate Christ.
Turning 30 is an adventure of tossing social scripts aside and replacing them with God’s.
And turning 30 is an invitation to once again marvel at the faithfulness of the God who has always remembered me.
For more wisdom from Bronwyn Lea, check out her book, Beyond Awkward Side Hugs.
Check out The Naked Gospel Podcast–it’s bingeworthy.
 Maria Popova, “The Long Game: Brilliant Visual Essays on the Only Secret to Creative Success, from Leonardo da Vinci to Marie Curie
 Hofstede Insights, Country Comparison, https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/china,the-usa/