What Responsibility Do Christians Have as They Approach Retirement?

Contributing Writer
What Responsibility Do Christians Have as They Approach Retirement?

Jeff Haanen commented: “Across the developed world, the dominant paradigm for retirement is about how to afford it and then how to make the most of it.” That is the attitude of so many men and women in the West; it is what they long for, and what they believe they deserve. “Yet,” Haanen continues, “older Christians are sounding the alarm that retirement as a never-ending vacation promises more than it can ever deliver.”

Not only is it financially impractical for many, but also unfulfilling for those who can afford to relax indefinitely. Moreover, there is nothing Scripturally to suggest that the life of a senior citizen should resemble extended summer holidays. In fact, one does not retire from loving and praising God, and loving one’s neighbors.

But when it comes to earthly employment, turning 65 (or, more realistically, 70) will herald some kind of change. How does the Christian perceive retirement?

Biblical Examples of Retirement

Although Scripture commands God’s people to look after their relatives (1 Timothy 5:8), this could mean anything from looking after a disabled child to caring for elderly parents. There is nothing in Scripture to suggest that a Christ follower will relinquish all of his or her responsibilities after the age of 65 (or any other age). Countless retirees are looking after disabled children, siblings, or spouses. Elders are to be respected, as they continue participating in society. Scripture points to changing roles, not a period of lounging before one dies.

Haanen highlights one example in Numbers, where Levite priests are instructed to stop moving heavy furniture in the tabernacle after the age of 50. From that age forward, their jobs were to change, but not cease entirely. In 2 Samuel, David tried to fight the Philistines with his soldiers, but he “grew weary.” Just as one of the giants was ready to skewer him, “Abishai the son of Zeruiah came to his aid and attacked the Philistine and killed him. Then David’s men swore to him, ‘you shall no longer go out with us to battle, lest you quench the lamp of Israel’” (2 Samuel 21:15-17).

Forced retirement from active military duty did not relieve David of other kingly responsibilities. While it was potentially humiliating to be sidelined, and certainly frustrating, there was still a nation to care for. Solomon’s reign provides insight into the judicial element of the King’s role (1 Kings 3). This would have been a facet of David’s job also, one to which he perhaps grew even more suited as age and experience provided wisdom and maturity.

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). The Holy Spirit sanctifies the believer, a lifelong process leading to greater wisdom, patience, contentment, etc. These qualities are useful in emergencies at a practical level (such as, during wartime or disaster), and they also set an example for the younger generations to witness and follow.

Responsibilities Towards Retirees

One major problem concerning attitudes towards retirees comes from the modern family structure. Alvin Powell, discussing the way Americans regard aging and retirement, explained how the changing shape of “family” has impacted the elderly. “People have fewer children and multigenerational living arrangements grow less common. This has led to an increasing tendency to segregate society by age and worsened the problem of isolation among the elderly.” Older generations feel uncared for, disrespected, invisible, and burdensome. Caregivers in senior homes often lament the lack of family visits to certain clients, the loneliness which leads to despair, and the poor health which follows depression.

Yet, the Bible says that seniors have a lot to offer, and that society has a responsibility towards them. There is direct instruction to care for older generations, and to honor them. “Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:32). God knew that the young would be apt to treat their grandparents with disdain. As an elder’s body weakens, children and grandchildren potentially assume that the mind is also weakening.

The Bible instructs: “remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you” (Deuteronomy 32:7). With age comes wisdom and knowledge which are important gifts passed on to younger family members. All that an elder needs is an opportunity to tell his or her stories.

Biblical Attitudes towards Work

Powell’s article, taken from a discussion with a panel of experts at Harvard University, indicated that part of the problem is internal: older adults tell themselves that they are getting old, and their usefulness is limited. “We do a lot of internalized ageism with self-talk like ‘Oh, I feel so old today,’ or ‘I can’t do that,’ ‘I’m too old for that,’ or ‘I can’t stay up late.’ I think if we start to engage people in thinking about how they talk about aging outwardly — and also how they think about aging internally — we can really start to shift the societal narrative.”

In other words, there is a responsibility on the part of retirees to decide if they want to talk and act like “old people” who are somewhat helpless, or to acknowledge and embrace their abilities.

Janet Thompson opined that, as a Christian enters this new part of life, when the kids have left home and work responsibilities have ceased, “we have more time to do the Lord’s work. Living for God and helping further his earthly kingdom helps us to end well.” Besides providing  instruction on how to treat elders, the Bible encourages God’s servants in their elder years to persevere in service. Their lives are prolonged for a purpose: to love and glorify God.

“So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come” (Psalm 71:18).

This is an encouragement to pursue the Lord and spread his fame for a lifetime, however long that might be. The righteous “still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the Lord is upright” (Psalm 92:14-15).

How Can Senior Citizens Serve?

Haanen observed that, “for many, retirement is a new season to ‘use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms’ (1 Pet. 4:10), yet from a heart being ever renewed by the gospel (2 Cor. 4:16).” After a short break from employment, with distance from work and time to evaluate, many Americans return to work because they like it and they feel useful and energized. They can make a difference at several levels, including mentoring Christians and promoting strong ethics within a given industry.

Any number of Americans will have to continue working indefinitely owing to the financial landscape. Such individuals are given an opportunity to promote the “peace that surpasses understanding” (Philippians 4:7) and a worldview that understands: God owes us nothing. John Ritenbaugh, discussing Job, explained that Job’s righteousness had not earned him special privileges. “Will we claim that God owes us anything because of our good works? God does not owe us a thing, even if we do obey Him perfectly! Our covenant with Him is not made on that basis. The covenant is made knowing that we owe Him everything.”

We even owe him those longed-for years of rest; they belong to the Lord. One’s attitude to employment can serve as a testimony while work itself is a potential mission field. A person who is grateful, joyful, and praises God, even as he or she continues to put on the same uniform every day, is uniquely situated to declare the hope that Christians can only find in Jesus Christ. While an extended holiday would be great, heaven will be greater.

What about those seniors who cannot handle the physical demands of their previous employment? Now is the time to enter a new phase of work in step with a growing maturity in Christ. If they continue in the workforce, this could be in a consultancy role or in management: somewhere patience and wisdom will be highly prized.

Besides paid work, there are always volunteer opportunities, a wide variety of which are low-impact, perfect for someone who is forced to slow down. Schools need people to read with students; libraries look for tech-savvy individuals to tutor others in computer skills; crisis centers want compassionate people to comfort survivors of natural disasters and to distribute care packages. There are both secular and Christian organizations established to feed the hungry, support refugees, hold babies, teach water safety, and more.

Run the Race

One important adjustment one can make to his or her perspective on retirement is to remember that Jesus gave no age limit to service, he did not provide a retirement plan, and he did not promise earthly prosperity and rest for the obedient believer. Even in Heaven, although there will be no more pain and suffering, “the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.” Service to the Lord will continue eternally.

Hebrews 12:1 exhorts Christians, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Endurance seems impossible if one tries to take it all in at once, from the first day of retirement to that last; but taken one day at a time, these years can be fulfilling and joyful. The angels declare “holy, holy, holy” and will do so for all eternity (Revelation 4:8). This is always the Christian’s primary work, so even the retiree whose physical abilities are limited can continue to serve the Lord to the very end if he or she can sing “holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.”



Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Ridofranz

Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.