Retirement is often looked at as a reward for a long working career, and an opportunity to do what we want, when we want.
But is retirement a cultural concept or a Biblical one? How should we view retirement in light of being a Christian?
Is Retirement Mentioned in the Bible?
The short answer is no. When 21st century Americans think of modern retirement, it is a relatively new concept, that the Bible doesn’t specifically address.
However, depending on which translation you use, the word retire is mentioned one time in the Bible, in Numbers 8:23-26 (NIV):
The Lord said to Moses, “This applies to the Levites: Men twenty-five years old or more shall come to take part in the work at the tent of meeting, but at the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer. They may assist their brothers in performing their duties at the tent of meeting, but they themselves must not do the work. This, then, is how you are to assign the responsibilities of the Levites.”
When you read the same verses in the ESV, the word retire does not appear, but the intent remains the same:
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.”
The Levites were responsible for all aspects of the worship of God at the Tent of Meeting (and later the Temple). From administering sacrifices, to maintenance and protection, they handled everything. As this passage states, from age 25 -50 a male could serve in the Tent of Meeting, but after age 50 they would transition to a different responsibility, serving outside the Tent of Meeting.
The underlying principle in both translations is that when a Levite turned 50 years old their work responsibility did not end, but simply changed. We will come back to this idea in a moment.
A Brief History of Retirement
Throughout much of world history (and even for many people today), people worked for as long as they could due to economic necessity. Several generations of the same family would often live together (or nearby) with the younger generations providing for the needs of the elderly when they reached the point they could no longer work. Since people didn’t live as long as they do today, if they were able to stop working, it was not long until they died.
The idea of our modern retirement came into being in the US during the 1950’s, and was a fairly American idea at the time. As the US became wealthier, with access to better food, medical care and transportation, family dynamics changed. Older generations lived longer than before and younger generations started living on their own.
As a result, people were able to have a longer period of retirement, which was a more active and pleasure focused phase of life than prior generations. But at that time, retirement was still a fairly short season (maybe 5-10 years long).
What Does Retirement Look Like Today?
Over the past 70 years, as diet and medical care have continued to improve, people are living much longer and are retired for a much longer period of time. In some cases people are retired almost as long as they have worked.
Currently, one of the fastest growing segments of American society are those over the age of 85.
Since people are healthier at an older age, modern retirement has come to focus on doing all the things one couldn’t do while working. It tends to mainly focus on leisure (golf, travel), family (grandchildren), hobbies and a period of relaxation as work ceases to be a main part of life.
Retirement From a Biblical Perspective
If the Bible was written before this modern concept of retirement came into existence, is there anything we can learn from it? Thinking back on the Numbers passage, it dealt with a transition of work responsibilities, not an end to work. Nowhere in the Bible does it mention we should stop working. This doesn’t mean that you need to work until you die, but that the type of work you will do later in life is different.
Retirement is not a Biblical concept, but a cultural concept. If the Lord gives you breath, it is because He still has work for you to do. Our goal should be to finish life well.
Retirement is a phase in life, where you can use your gifts, skills and abilities to glorify God differently than when you were working full-time.
This does not mean that you shouldn’t play golf, enjoy the grandchildren or travel. However, if the focus of this stage in your life is on you, your comfort and enjoyment, then you are missing out on the joy that God has planned.
Over the years I have had the privilege to work with many missionaries on their finances. During our many planning conversations, retirement is not a topic we discuss. Why? A missionary never truly retires, they adapt their ministry to their capabilities as they age. That is a tremendous challenge for all of us, to continue seeking opportunities to minister to those who the Lord has put in our path.
So, how do you do that?
Make A Plan
If God has provided for your financial needs such that you don’t need to work (or only need to work part-time), this is a privilege that historically very few people have had. Being a good steward of this phase of life (in all areas; time, talent and treasure) is important, and doesn’t happen without proper planning.
A plan can give you purpose and focus as you enter retirement. As this transition impacts everyone differently (some flourish, while others languish), it is important to seek out resources and counsel to help you work through this. Many have walked this path before, and can provide valuable assistance to you.
One area that can help with the transition to retirement is having a schedule established before you retire. Much like you have a schedule during your working years that plans your day, establishing one for your retirement will give you structure to your day. It also forces you to find activities to fill your available time.
It is important to find activities that will engage you spiritually, mentally and physically in order to keep your faculties sharp. Remember, if you don’t use it, you will lose it.
Be Willing To Serve
One of the greatest opportunities is to serve. You have accumulated many gifts and skills over your years of work or tending to children, and they are very valuable to share with others. There are many people and ministries who could benefit from your years of experience.
You could provide care for elderly neighbors or family members, volunteer at your church, a pregnancy center, homeless shelter, school, travel to encourage and help missionaries etc. The opportunities are endless, and are only limited by your creativity.
Here are a couple examples of ministries some retirees have served with:
The Sower Ministry connects married volunteers who have RV’s or travel trailers with service opportunities at Christian camps and other ministries throughout the US. These can be construction, maintenance and other service opportunities and are a tremendous help to ministry organizations.
TECH Team Advantage provides professional services (architectural, graphic design, accounting, vehicle maintenance etc) to churches and Christian ministries throughout the world. They are always in need of skilled volunteers to help them meet the needs of these organizations.
As you enter this season of life (or reevaluate it if you are already retired), I would encourage you to explore these opportunities and others, to make your retirement one that would glorify God.
1. Are you redeeming your retirement for God’s glory, or are you spending it on yourself and your enjoyment?
2. Are you looking more forward to retirement or heaven? As retirement is more tangible, it can be tempting to think that is what we have to look forward to. However, heaven is a whole lot better! Keeping that perspective can help you make wise decisions during retirement.
3. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” How will you fulfill that during retirement?
4. Wise planning can enable you to transition into retirement and volunteer your time and talents for kingdom work. Do you have a plan in place to do that?
5. Eventually, we will all stop working/serving due to physical limitations. Yet God still provides us an opportunity to impact caregivers etc. As our world decreases in size as we age, we can either lament what we lose or embrace the opportunities God provides to have an impact for eternity.