I recall a number of years ago when a sweet 18-year-old wrote a paper explaining how saving for retirement, even thinking about retirement, is sin. We must use all our resources for the gospel and never consider stopping work before we die. Anything we save for the future is utterly selfish and taking away from God’s kingdom, and laziness could be the only possible reason a Christian would want to retire from full-time employment.
I was, by that time, beginning to feel some of the chronic pain and exhaustion that has increased over the years, and I found her reasoning to be, shall we say, youthful, as well as non-biblical. I’ve heard iterations of it since, some just as extreme, and mostly from folk who are either young or have physical constitutions stronger than some of the rest of us. And I call foul.
Of course, part of the problem is the cultural vision of retirement displayed all around us: make lots of money so you can fulfill all your hedonistic dreams for as many years as possible, without responsibility to anyone but yourself or anything but your desire for ease and pleasure. However, retirement need not mean this, not at all. In fact, this vision of retirement is the one that leads to discontent, boredom, restlessness, and even, for many, early death.
In fact, retirement can simply mean the ability to serve God and others in different ways – and perhaps in better health because it is easier to pace yourself, to rest sufficiently, to say no when necessary. The problem with modern retirement is not the saving of resources or the withdrawing from full-time paid work: it is a lack of purpose beyond ourselves for the time it gives us.
We are, certainly, to give generously to God’s work from what we earn. We are also to save for the future so as not to be a burden on others unnecessarily. How each of us balances this tension must be left between us and God, not mandated at some special rate. I may give now and find that others cannot give later because they must meet the needs I failed to prepare for; I may save now and find myself tempted to waste my overabundant resources later. Because there is no formula here, we must learn to walk in the Spirit and cultivate our desire to serve God with our resources, listening to His voice day by day.
We have a responsibility to provide for family; in a one-income family, if the working spouse dies, it is no bad thing if the other is not thrown into penury. And for those of us with children, it is a delight to be able to assist them now and know that if there are resources left after our deaths, these can benefit those we love, to help them be more secure and able to serve more freely. Parents are supposed to do this when they can.
To work until one dies is simply not possible for many. The physical realities of aging can make it imperative to slow down and do less. If I am not capable of doing my job well, it is not loving service to cling to it; love recognizes it’s time for someone else to do it better. And no one can depend on dying in the middle of a workday; many people decline in physical and/or mental health to the point where work is impossible and being cared for is imperative.
But slowing down before that point is not by definition stopping one’s service to God. There is always service to be done, and ways to use the wisdom we have – we hope – accumulated over the years, even if it is “only” to be an Anna praying faithfully in the temple. She, after all, was rewarded to see the Messiah enter the world and to have her praise and prophecy recorded for all time.
Some may retire with strength and be able to do much active service in the church, the community, the mission field. Some may retire with lesser strength and find a place in quieter and more isolated service – writing, mentoring an individual or two, being involved in the lives of extended family. Again, kinds of service cannot be mandated, nor can they be measured and compared. The invalid who prays faithfully may be doing more for the kingdom of God than the elderly Martha who insists on heading every activity in the church.
What, anyway, are we called to do? Love God and our neighbor. In every act we take, every thought we think, every word we speak or write, we are to love God and our neighbor. This call never varies and never ends, to the moment of our death. My career is not my life; it is only one small part of my life, however much time it may take of my day. I am teacher, yes, but I am also wife and mother and grandmother, daughter and sister, friend, neighbor, citizen of a community, a state, a country – and above all and permeating all, a believer in the Christ, in whose service all these things are to be lived.
Am I excusing myself here for the decision we have made that I will retire after one more year of teaching? I don’t believe so. It has become clear in many ways that I cannot continue full-time work much longer and do it well. I am grateful for the way in which God has allowed me to do what was required – to be the necessary sole financial support for my family – by being immersed in teaching the literature and the writing skills that I so love. And now it is time to withdraw from that work and move toward other works of service. I don’t know yet what that may look like – writing some of the pieces that have burdened me for years, I hope; serving the home school community in some way, perhaps; more energy to give to family, surely; who knows what may come my way?
But I know I desire one thing above all else, however imperfectly I live it, and that is to serve Him and honor Him to the day of my death, as I have been privileged to see my parents and others before me do. I will appreciate the prayers of my friends as we begin thinking through all the implications of this decision over the next year, and most of all that we will be good listeners to His Spirit, letting His voice guide us in it all.