Retirement is generally recognized as a part of the American Dream. We grow up, we work, we retire, and we die. It’s just another part of the rhythm of life. But is the hope of an easy life of retirement something Christians should cling to?
The model that the culture seems to point toward for retirement (at least if I can trust the ads on television) is one of complete leisure, once I quit working, for the rest of my life.
Yet even before sin came into the world, God told humans to work (Gen 1:28). Idleness and dissipation do not appear to be a part of the divine design for humans.
In fact, the model of retirement that is built around limitless leisure seems to undermine God’s design for human existence.
A Rhythm of Work and Rest
The pattern given to humans in Scripture is of lifelong engagement in labor with regular periods of rest (e.g., Leviticus 23:3). Such a rhythm of work and rest points toward God’s own activity in the creation account (Genesis 1:1-2:3). We should rest, but we should not look forward to a decades long rest in retirement as the end goal of our existences. The final rest for humans is not in this life, but in the life to come (cf. Hebrews 4:9–10).
On the other hand, there is a biblical case to be made for a change in work responsibilities due to age. The clearest example is the assignment of priestly responsibility for 25 to 50 year-old Levites in Numbers 8:23–26:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “This applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting. And from the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more. They minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service. Thus shall you do to the Levites in assigning their duties.
Though God here prescribes a change in the level of activity at a certain age, this is not a shift to idleness. The older priests still had work responsibilities that were less physically rigorous. There is a place for a change, but our goal should not be to end our days in total leisure. The cultural mandate is still compelling after we reach retirement age.
Vices and Virtues of Retirement
In a 2010 article in the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, Edward Collins Vacek, SJ, considers the ethics of retirement.
He argues that retirement, properly implemented, allows for a change in responsibility but does not result in a complete detachment from society. He outlines several vices to avoid and virtues to pursue during retirement
- Vacek cautions against a retirement to a lifestyle of dissipation where the retirees have no goals, and thus no purpose. Additionally, he argues against an attitude of self-gratification. Retired life should not become just about self-interest, since that denies the Christ-like attitude commended to Christians in Philippians 2:3. Avoiding these vices does not prohibit many healthy enjoyments, but it does prevent a loss of purpose that kills the spirit and diminishes real satisfaction.
- Vacek encourages retirees to maintain an integrity of life, which includes maintaining relationships and continuing to pursue spiritual disciplines. He also encourages generosity in retirement, including “new opportunities for serving others.” The service of others represents concern for the world that one will leave behind, which is consistent with the cultural mandate.
Retirement from a career may be socially and financially possible. There is no biblical mandate that we keep working in the same job until we die.
However, there is a message in Scripture that humans should continue to contribute as they are able. Our goals should be to pursue excellence in our vocation, to add value to the world, and to serve God through our daily work. This should extend to the phase of life even if we stop working for pay.
For the Christian, hope is in the Redeemer of all creation, whom we serve as we work, even after we quit our “day job.” The challenge for us is to live with that hope in mind.
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