Are you dreaming of your retirement? Are you eagerly awaiting the day when you can close your office door for the last time, celebrate with family and friends, and wake up the next day without the ever-looming responsibility of work? Are you looking forward to twenty good years of world travel and unfettered recreation on the golf course or in the RV? If so, then you are not unlike many Americans for whom retirement has become the default aim of one’s life—the goal which all other objectives either serve or hinder.While funding for retirement has some financial analysts worried that a fair portion of Americans may not be able to attain the retirement lifestyle for which they’ve always hoped, the reality is that many working folks consider retirement the normal state for people in their latter years.
The Bible and “Retirement”
Scripture, however, draws us to conclude that retirement—defined as the formal end to productive activity and the curtailing of others-orientated obligation for the sake of personal recreation and ease—should never be the Christian’s aim in life. Rather, the Bible exhorts us to view productive, people-focused labor and gospel-grounded good works as the unceasing business of the believer during their time on earth (1 Cor 15:58; Eph 2:10).
That’s not to suggest that we can’t step back from certain kinds of work as we get older due to reasons related to energy, skill, safety, and health. But it is to say that legitimate career changes notwithstanding, the Christian should be characterized by a passion for productive well-doing for the whole of his or her life, not just during the peak of their “high earning years.” Jesus Christ died for the express purpose to make his people “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14) and there is no indication in Scripture that we should shed that zeal around age 65.
Is Retirement Unhealthy?
Ironically, there is a growing scientific consensus that formal retirement actually raises one’s risk of succumbing to various physical ailments such as “severe cardiovascular disease and cancer…[and] increased risk factors (e.g. BMI, cholesterol, blood pressure) and increased problems in physical activities.” Other studies suggest that retirees may experience a cognitive decline in their post-work years that would be offset by continued labor. Setting aside the daily routine of work can lead to the development of more sedentary and otherwise unhealthy habits like increased eating, drinking, and smoking. The lack of purposeful work can also result in a kind of aimlessness and depression.
But these recent discoveries of retirement’s pitfalls shouldn’t surprise us. We understand that from the very beginning God designed humans for the purpose of useful labor. Prior to the Fall Adam was placed in the garden to “work it and keep it” (Gen 2:16). Both the man and the woman were commissioned by their Creator to exercise dominion over the earth and subdue it for their sake and the sake of all those who would later inhabit this world (Gen 1:26-31).
After the Fall, God places a premium on diligence, hard work, and productive labor (Prov 10:4; 12:24; 13:4; 21:5) and regularly chides those who refuse to work the way they were created to (Prov 6:6, 9; 10:26; 15:19; 19:24; 20:4; 21:25). The New Testament follows this pattern by exhorting Christians to work hard, earn their own living, and to not pander to those who have, out of a kind of pseudo-spirituality, pulled back from the responsibility to provide for their needs and make themselves useful to others (Eph 4:28; 1 Thess 4:11-12; 2 Thess 3:6-12).
The Spiritual Pitfalls of “Retirement”
Retirement, however, is often viewed as the twenty-year reward for giving forty-five solid years to one’s profession. To many it seems that retirement is the “never-ending weekend, that well-deserved oasis of freedom and rest we reach after decades of hard work.” But such an approach to our latter years is presumptuous, selfish, and ultimately foolish.
Leveraging one’s life for the sake of retirement is presumptuous because it assumes that our lives are our own to do with what we will. But if we are Christians, we have been “bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23). We belong to the Lord Jesus to be used for his service according to his will, not our own. If we are seeking to follow closely after our Lord, we should desire to be as useful to him as possible for as long as possible.
Second, retirement is inherently selfish. If a person is able to amass enough wealth so that they are able to leave their job and remain afloat financially, that new-found freedom should be used in service to others, not on oneself (Phil 2:1-5; Gal 5:13). There is nothing necessarily wrong with planning to eventually end or modify one’s career. As I mentioned above, such a move may be necessary due to health, energy, and skill factors, and a person may simply want to change directions in their career for personal reasons. And, there is nothing inherently sinful with planning some global adventures with your spouse later in life. But if we find ourselves with more time on our hands and greater flexibility with which to spend it, the impulse of the Holy Spirit will be for us to use this time for the benefit of others, not to maximize our leisure (Rom 8:12-14; Gal 5:22-23; Eph 5:15).
Finally, retirement is foolish because it is contrary to our design as humans and as Christians. Other than the troubles that attend old age, I believe one of the primary reasons why retirees are often beset by various ailments is because they have entered into a lifestyle that God never intended for them. We were made originally by God for productive labor, and we were remade in Christ for productive labor. A breezy two decades on the golf-course will not bring you the joy you thought it would. Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35).
Retirement, however, is nothing but receiving: a return to pre-adolescence when all your needs were met by others and little was expected of you, except to eat, sleep, and play. If this is your hope for the last years of your life, genuine happiness will be elusive. You may even need to take spiritual inventory of your priorities if your goal in your latter years is to reconstruct your early childhood (see Luke 12:16-21).
Sowing to the Flesh or to the Spirit?
While the health troubles that could attend retirement are not the main reasons why Christians should avoid setting aside productive labor in their mid-sixties, these physical and mental ailments do serve as a vivid reminder that God’s Word is true and that he won’t be mocked, “for whatever a man sows, that also will he reap” (Gal 6:7). What will a person reap? “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal 6:8).
The two results of each kind of sowing are set in parallel with each other. The one who sows to the flesh will reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life. The contrast is between hell (corruption) and heaven (eternal life). Paul’s argument is not that we are saved by our works (see Rom 4:5; Eph 2:8-9; Titus 3:4-7), but simply that a person characterized by sowing to the flesh cannot expect to inherit heaven—and what else is retirement but a solid couple of decades of sowing to the flesh. That’s why Paul encourages his listeners to “not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal 6:10).
Due to the way much of our culture views retirement, there is a massive temptation to see the final years of our life as an opportunity to nurse our weariness from well-doing. Paul’s word to retirees is to resist this temptation and to use their new freedom to keep at the task of glorifying God and serving others. “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10).
If you enter your post-career days with a desire to make the most of your time on earth for the glory of God, you will experience deep satisfaction and enjoy the assurance that God’s Spirit resides in you (Rom 8:8-14). Planning to take a twenty-year break for life is tantamount to taking a twenty-year break from serving Christ and others, which is the very purpose for which God saved you. Living so selfishly is to bury your talents in the ground (Matt 25:24-28). If this is the unbroken pattern of the last two decades of your life, you may actually find yourself without much joy in this age, and without heaven in the next.