What is the Christian understanding of work?…It is that work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties…the medium in which he offers himself to God.
– Dorothy Sayers, Unpopular Opinions
If work is, as Dorothy Sayers states above, the medium in which we offer ourselves to God, how should Christians view retirement?
This is a great question, one I that I often hear when I am out speaking. Based on my study of the Bible and history, retirement is primarily a Western, twentieth-century phenomenon.
Our culture has promoted the idea that retirement revolves around withdrawing from one’s work or labor in order to enjoy life to the fullest without obligation, commitment, or worry. As a result, we have the mentality that you can do what you feel like doing whenever you want to do it. Retirement is all about you. It is a reward for all your hard work.
The only place in the Bible that mentions anything like retirement is found in Numbers 8:23-26. God tells Moses that the Levites–the priests who were charged with serving God by doing much of the work in and around the Tabernacle–were allowed to begin their work at age twenty-five and work until the mandatory retirement age of fifty. However, these retired priests did not pack their bags and spend the rest of their lives at the beach in Tel Aviv. They were expected to take on the role of assisting the younger men in performing their work.
The older men were expected to mentor the younger men in their trade by providing the wisdom and leadership that came from twenty-five years of experience in serving the Lord. In his commentary on Numbers, Adam Clarke states,
They were no longer obligated to perform any laborious service, but were to act as general directors and counselors. This helped the younger men assume more responsibilities, and it allowed the older men to be in a position to advise and counsel them.
All the other examples in the Bible are of men who worked most, if not all of their lives.
- John the Apostle served and wrote into his nineties.
- Moses was eighty years old when he went to Pharaoh and asked for the freedom of the Israelite slaves and he continued working until he died at age 120.
- Daniel was probably in his eighties when he was thrown into the lion’s den.
- In Titus 2, Paul instructed the older men and women to teach younger people how to behave through their example.
Today, if a Christian is fortunate enough to supply for his or her needs without receiving a salary, he or she may retire from their job or career at any time. However, a Christian never retires from serving God through his or her vocational call. While we may have moved into a new season in our lives, God still calls us to grow and invest our gifts and talents in the work that he is doing in the world.
As Christians, retirement should be a time of increased opportunity to do God’s work. Work is part of God’s design. There is a great exchange between Frodo and Gandalf near the beginning of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, a conversation that sheds light on how we should view retirement:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
The truth is that each of us has to decide how to redeem the time that God has given us. “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise” (Ephesians 5:15). This means that we take every opportunity we have to serve the Lord. For many, retirement may give them new ways of working towards the kingdom, be that in paid work, in relational activities, in voluntary commitment, or in the ministry of prayer.
There is inherent dignity of labor in the Scriptures, and God calls us to labor in his vineyard until he calls us home. Our labor may not be at one particular job, but we have to be actively productive as long as we possibly can, being faithful to our vocational call to glorify God, serve the common good, and further his kingdom.
Coach John Wooden, a very committed Christian, was one of my all-time heroes. After winning his ninth NCAA basketball title at age sixty-five, he retired from coaching but did not stop working. Until the day he died at age ninety-nine, he remained involved at UCLA, wrote a number of books, and was often quoted and consulted. At the end of his life, Wooden, like the Apostle Paul, could say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
May each of us be able to say the same.
What is your view of retirement? Leave your comments here.