Recently I had a surprise visit from some Emergency Medical Technicians in my city. Well, it wasn’t really a visit. They came to rush me to the hospital. And it wasn’t really a surprise. My wife had called 911 just minutes before because it looked like I was having some kind of seizure, perhaps a heart attack, or possibly an astonishing display of demon possession.
After a day in the hospital and many tests, the doctors ruled out anything major – heart attack, stroke, seizures of various kinds. Eventually, they labeled it an episode of vasovagal syncope, which means I had some kind of a fainting spell. (The name hardly made me feel better.)
Mostly, I’m thankful beyond words for the attention I received, the technological wonders we have at our disposal today, and the skills of many, many men and women who devote their lives to helping people like me. The men who got to my house within mere minutes of my wife’s phone call, the 911 operator who stayed on the phone to help my wife stay as calm as could be, the steady hand of the EMT who inserted an IV in my arm while we sped through traffic, the ambulance driver who skillfully sped through that traffic, the many drivers who pulled over to the side of the road, slowing down their rush hour commute home, and the dozens of medical professionals at the hospital who performed remarkable tasks as if they’d done so thousands of times before (because they had!), all impressed me in ways I will marvel at for the rest of my (hopefully long) life.
But less than 24 hours in the hospital afforded me with a significant amount of time to think, pray, and reflect on some larger issues of life. I pondered the frailty of our human bodies, the limits of science, the assurance of salvation, and the wonders of God’s grace which provides a “peace that surpasses all understanding” (which came in handy as I was inserted into an MRI tube). And because of my age and the repeated inquiry of, “Are you retired?” (the answer was and remains, “No”), I considered when and how I’ll cross that line into retirement. I continue to ponder how thinking biblically can help us wrestle with this important topic.
I see two dramatically different visions of retirement offered to me, a Christian man “of a certain age.” From the secular world, the picture is almost exclusively financial, with a few images of non-stop relaxation thrown in. Financial advisors ask “How much money do you need to save to ‘achieve’ financial independence?” Then they sometimes add, “How would you spend your free-time?” Usually, the proposal is one of limitless leisure. I can play golf all day long, every day of the week or, if I prefer, develop my skill at pickleball.
Somehow, as a Christian, this strikes me as approaching worship of the idols of leisure, control, and self-indulgence. By the way, isn’t the term “achieve” the exact wrong word for arriving at the time when we can retire? Isn’t it better to acknowledge that God has graciously provided decades of employment income so that we can continue to rely on his provision coming through an IRA, 401K, or pension rather than from a paycheck? Isn’t it all from his hand? Did we really “achieve” any of what we have? Echoes of 1 Corinthians 4:7 seem to contradict all that: “What do you have that you did not receive?”
There are historical realities to factor in as we think about retirement. For a long time, in America at least, the majority of men (who accounted for the majority of the workforce) worked jobs that taxed their physical strength. They probably needed to retire at age 65 due to limits of what human bodies could handle. Then, they “took” social security until they died — often fewer than 10 years later. The system devised with those limitations in mind worked — at least, for a lot of people for much of the time.
With advances in medical science and, therefore, longer life spans and the increase in so-called white-collar occupations (It’s less physically taxing to sit in front of a computer instead of working construction), people could work past 65 and live longer than 75. Economic prosperity and new tools for self-funded retirement like IRAs also helped people retire younger with more accumulated wealth. Thus, more time for golf, pickleball, or whatever. Some Christians have been able to “retire” from their paycheck-producing occupations and step into a second career of missionary work. Thanks be to God! But is this the only or best option for all Christians?
The second vision of retirement, often coming from older men in the pastorate or other ministry, is really a vision of non-retirement. “You don’t retire from a calling” one 80+ year-old pastor told an interviewer. Or, as I heard from another long-time missionary, “I’m never going to retire. I don’t see the word retirement in the Bible.”
Are these the only two options? Preach until you die in the pulpit (as I’ve heard some ministers express their wish) or in pursuit of pickleball tournaments? I wonder if members of the churches with 80+ year old pastors wanted them to continue until they died in the middle of a sermon. More pressing, I wonder if people listening to those sermons ever notice a decline in their pastor’s mental acuity, a lack of clarity in his communication, or signs of difficulty reading the Bible due to his diminishing eyesight.
It’s not just from pastors or missionaries that we observe the “I’m never going to retire” model. Senators who keep seeking reelection (and winning those elections!) until they are in their late 80s (examples can be found on both sides of the political spectrum), actors and media personalities who stay in the public eye (usually with the help of plastic surgery), and athletes who can’t let go of the limelight (or come back from retirement to try to win another Super Bowl), convey a message that retirement means death.
To a certain extent, I understand when non-Christians insist on working until they drop. For many of them, their work is their identity. David Crosby, the award-winning musician of Crosby, Stills, and Nash fame, kept touring and recording long after his voice and his physical body lost vitality. Why? As he told one interviewer, it was to prove he was worth something. His language was colorful and his point was clear. Without making music, he felt he had no worth. Johnny Gilbert still announces, “Thissssss is Jeopardy” every night and he’s 94. And who can forget the photos of Ruth Bader Ginsburg pumping iron at a gym at age 87 — with a cancer diagnosis!
But Christians should view work, aging, and even death differently. Our identity is not in our work. It’s in the finished work of the Messiah. It’s not in our occupation. It’s in our adoption. Our status as a child of God provides meaning, security, and affirmation that no job, no occupation, no achievement can offer. And yet, we Christians struggle to live out our identity in all aspects of life, including retirement planning.
Maybe the word retirement can’t be found in the Bible. But I believe the concept is there. Or, more precisely, the wisdom of planning in light of the realities of aging is addressed in Scripture. The Bible does urge us to take stock of our stage of life and adjust accordingly.
Moses tells us that we should “number our days aright that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). He had just acknowledged something our current youth-obsessed culture wants to ignore. “The length of our days is seventy years¾or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (vs. 10). We must adapt to the realities of declining strength, lest we gain the exact opposite of a heart of wisdom.
Ecclesiastes drives the point home more vividly. With poetic beauty, the text describes the aging process as something less than beautiful:
Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when people rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when people are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags itself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then people go to their eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
Remember him¾before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it. (Ecclesiastes 12:1-7)
There will be cognitive and biological declines. Denying that they’re coming or, worse, that they’ve already begun, hurts ourselves and creates numerous difficulties for those around us. Far better to know when to shift from elaborate long-term planning to eternal settled resting. At one point Paul wrote, “After I go through Macedonia, I will come to you¾for I will be going through Macedonia” (I Cor. 16:5). On other occasions, he made plans to visit certain people and places (see I Timothy 3:14). At those stages of his life, Paul planned accordingly. But later, he put away his map and calendar and declared with a resigned confidence, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day¾and not only me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2 Tim. 4:7-8).
Less dramatically, but no less significantly, John offers different rationales for addressing people in different life stages:
I write to you, dear children,
because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
I write to you, fathers,
because you have known him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
because you have overcome the evil one.
I write to you, dear children,
because you have known the Father.
I write to you, fathers,
because you have known him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
because you are strong,
and the word of God lives in you.
and you have overcome the evil one. (I John 2:12-14)
For “dear children,” those new to the faith, the wonders of forgiven sin and knowledge of God can propel toward maturity and growth. For “young men,” those somewhere between newborn babes and elders, the victories over the evil one and the power of God’s word living within can provide strength and motivation to pursue maturity. For “fathers,” the oldest in God’s family, their long track records of knowing God from the beginning can prolong their stamina for obedience and perseverance.
But different stages of life also present different challenges. Some temptations that pack greater punches at a young age don’t seem so fierce in old age. And vice versa. Advancing age can bring a time of easy forgetting. Hence John’s twice-stated reminder that “you have known him who is from the beginning.” Having a certain level of physical or spiritual strength (as John reminds the young men), is a great plus¾but can be a source of misplaced trust. A newly born faith can be exciting. But the focus must shift from experiences to intimacy with the One who has made himself known. We need to remember and act our age. And we all need to do so by drawing near to the God who does not age, change, or grow weary.
Here’s a different vision for retirement that encouraged me during my recent stay in the hospital. Rejecting both the “never-gonna-quit” and the “pickleball-forever” models, I prefer to view life as a sequence of chapters. I’ve lived through the chapters of youth, early marriage, young parenting, intense career years, etc. Now I’m entering the chapter where I can focus on serving my church and discipling younger men more deeply and less distractedly.
Should God provide you with enough financial resources to stop going to the office to earn a paycheck, you may have another source of wealth to spend in ways that offer eternal dividends. Paul had a vision for discipleship that extended past Timothy to “reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). Likewise, he urged older women to train younger women (Titus 2:3-5). Guys in their thirties need to hear men in their seventies say things like, “I wish I would have left the office a bit earlier. I could have had an extra half hour of play time with the kids before they became teenagers who only wanted to roll their eyes at things I said.” Young mothers who go for days talking only to toddlers and wondering if there’s life after diapers benefit from older women who tell them, “Yeah. Those are difficult years. Hang in there. I’ll pray for you. And if you ever need to talk to a grown-up, here’s my number.”
As I continue to recover from my recent health scare, I notice the age of the doctors and other medical professionals who treat me. They’re all young! And for that, I’m very thankful. Young people are not intimidated by the technology they need to use. They have the mental energy to stay current on rapidly changing advancements in their fields. They have the physical strength and dexterity to handle tools (like scalpels) precisely. These realities apply far and wide beyond the world of medicine.
Not too long ago, while on vacation, I ran into a man in his 80s who told me he still worked full time as a radiologist. He said his patients still trusted him with their medical needs. But it made me wonder. If I had the choice between an 80-year-old doctor with decades of experience or a 30-year-old recent medical school graduate, who’s services would I prefer? I think I’d go with the one who felt more at home with an iPad, where she could look up test results and compare findings to the latest research.
The great news is that, along with physical declines can come increased wisdom. Walking with God for decades can teach us a great deal about trusting him, waiting on his timing, and savoring his word. While Psalm 90 has a great deal of sobering bad news in it (“You turn men back to dust” – v. 3; “You sweep men away in the sleep of death” – v. 5; “All our days pass away under your wrath, we finish our years with a moan” – v.9), Moses finishes with a hopeful prayer we would all do well to offer: “May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us¾yes, establish the work of our hands.”
Old age can breed cynicism. We can wonder if anything matters, especially when more of our time gets filled with medical appointments, physical restrictions, and never-quite-completely-gone pain. But Psalm 90’s final verse (with its final phrase repeated for emphasis!) tells us that God can “establish” the work of our hands. Some of our efforts can have lasting impact in ways we can hardly imagine or measure. Confidence in God’s ability and desire to establish the work of our hands flows out of an earlier prayer in the Psalm: “Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days” (v. 14).
After we enjoy the retirement dinner and marvel at God’s financial provision, we can step into the next chapter of our lives. It would differ from the previous chapters, although it would build upon them. And who knows?! This new chapter may turn out to be the best one of all.