Retirement is, for many, the proverbial light at the end of a tunnel that is far too long. Once they become eligible for Social Security benefits (or have enough money saved up), some are more than ready to relax and indulge in all the rest their busy work schedule previously denied them.
This kind of carefree, work-free post-retirement life is a widely shared dream today, but it does not align with a Christian understanding of work and vocation. Retirement and old age do not signal the end of one’s vocation, as attested to by R. Paul Stevens in Aging Matters: Finding Your Calling for the Rest of Your Life.
Stevens begins his book with a startling claim: “We should work until we die.”
The idea may sound extreme at first, but it will seem less so if we remember that, according to Stevens, retirement as we typically understand it – a system of government support for those who have reached a certain age – only first appeared in 1889 (in Germany). It is an institution of comparatively recent origin, hardly a cornerstone of human survival. Moreover, the bulk of the biblical witness shows that people at the time “[worked] until they died,” that is, continued to perform some kind of labor or service.
Someone might argue those were different times. People had much shorter life spans, and their societal norms and expectations are worlds away from our own. Additionally, the existence of some state of affairs in Scripture does not necessarily mean it is normative for us today.
All of this is true. However, those who defend work-free retirement should think twice about what it is they’re arguing for:
What follows [in retirement] for some people is a life of institutionalized sloth —continuous golf, travelling, driving an RV around North America, and becoming a couch potato before the television set.
Anyone who defends retirement as a time of complete freedom from work and obligations is essentially advocating total self-indulgence and end-of-life decadence. As Stevens puts it,
This secular approach wants no work, no health challenges, no commitments, and no generosity.
Such self-centeredness on its face is unbiblical, so whatever we should make of retirement, it cannot be that. How, then, ought we to think about work after retirement?
Work Beyond a Job
In order to better understand retirement, it is crucial to grasp both the expansive definition of work and how our vocation remains constant even though our work does not.
“Work” does not necessarily mean a paid job in an office somewhere. Stevens defines work this way:
Work is energy expanded purposively — whether it be manual, mental, or both, and regardless of whether it is or not remunerated [emphasis in original].
So when he says we should work until we die, he is not saying you must keep showing up to that same nine-to-five job you’ve been doing for the last thirty or forty years and stay there until you drop. Rather, the work to which we must commit our entire lives is that which serves others and “embodies kingdom values.” This work can consist of a formal job with compensation, but it does not always.
What kinds of work can be done in service to God’s kingdom? All kinds (within God’s moral precepts)! Stevens recognizes that the distinction between “spiritual” and “secular” work is a false one, and this truth still holds for people in retirement.
Just a few examples from Stevens of occupations people have pursued on a part-time or voluntary basis following retirement include fixing boats, visiting seniors’ homes, doing household repairs, driving one’s grandchildren to and from different places, and serving as a church administrator.
The one thing all these kinds of work have in common is that they are an extension of Christ’s love to others. As long as work “[brings] shalom to people and creation” and is “done with faith, hope, and love,” it is rendered unto the Lord. The only question is what kind of work a person is best suited for, which is where vocation comes in.
Doing the best work possible in retirement requires having a right understanding of vocational calling. Hugh Whelchel defines it thus:
Vocational calling is usually stable and permanent over a lifetime. Discovering our vocation is possible because it is based on giftedness, interests, passions, and human need, which are all easy to identify.
While our vocation may not change, the work in which it manifests often will, says Stevens:
Your calling remains about the same throughout your life, but the expression of it changes [emphasis in original].
What this means for those in retirement is that calling is still in effect even if you no longer work at a conventional job. In Stevens’ words, “We may retire from remunerated work, but not from our callings.”
That said, it is not necessary to do the exact same kind of work in retirement as one did before. New facets of calling can be discovered in old age:
Discerning your calling is a lifelong process. Maybe you thought you had it all figured out when you were twenty, or thirty, or forty. But in fact this delightful duty goes on and on and on.
As is the case throughout our entire lives, the kind of work God calls us to do in retirement will depend on our unique gifts and circumstances. However, in order to be receptive to that ongoing call we must not make retirement into a time of self-serving idleness, for “We do not retire from loving our neighbors.”
The End of the Beginning
Retirement—and old age more broadly—does not signify the cessation of God’s call on us. Abraham was seventy-five years old when God called him to move from his lifelong home in Haran to the unknown land of Canaan (Gen. 12:1), thus setting into motion the birth of God’s chosen people and the coming of the messiah from that people, Jesus Christ.
We should be always ready for the work God has placed in front of us, before retirement and beyond it, for God’s call does not fade over time, but beckons us ever onward for as long as we live.