By Mike Sunderland
It is hard to find instructions concerning retirement in the Bible. One example where we do see it, though, says a great deal. We can also infer what godly retirement should look like from biblical principles of godly living and from understanding who we are in Christ. A godly perspective of retirement begins with a biblical understanding of work. Knowing God’s purposes and instructions for work can help us to understand His purposes for us when our careers end or change.
The only mention of retirement in the Bible is for the Levites who were instructed to withdraw from service in the tent of meeting.
“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘This applies to the Levites: from 25 years old and upward they shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting. And from the age of 50 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.” (Numbers 8:23-26, ESV)
This passage includes instruction for the Levites in both service and retirement from their duties, and it captures the essence of instruction to retired Christians. Even after withdrawing from duty of service, “they minister to their brothers…by keeping guard.” Christians are called to be ministers of the gospel and guardians of our brothers throughout our lives, even if our duties in work change. The duties of our work include ministry, but our ministry exists independently of our work.
Work is a Gift of God
It can be helpful for us to understand that work is not the result of sin, but part of our Creator’s design for living. We know this because Adam was instructed to work in the garden before he and Eve sinned and brought corruption to the universe. “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15, ESV) The aspect of work that took on new meaning after Adam and Eve’s fall is that it became toilsome and hard because of God’s curse upon the land. As with many other things in creation, work itself is good, but sin has made it hard and painful.
Note that Adam’s original labor was not for money, nor an immediate requirement for food, nor clothing, nor shelter. Money did not exist. Adam had no need of clothing because he had no shame, and God provided food on the trees of the garden. We see that God supplied Adam’s every need apart from Adam’s work, including love and companionship. God’s purpose for Adam’s work was about more than meeting his physical needs. After sin, part of God’s curse upon the ground was that humanity would labor hard to provide for its physical needs. Even so, the other benefits and purposes of work remain, and we should remember them when considering retirement from a career that provided for those needs. While those other benefits are unclear from Genesis, we see them elsewhere in the Bible as well as through observation of people’s cognitive, emotional, and physical health relating to their work.
Work’s Purposes and Benefits Apart from Money
To capture both the purpose and benefits of godly work, read Colossians 3, 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12, and 1 Timothy 5:11-15.
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God…Put to death therefore what is earthly in you.” (Col. 3:1-5a, ESV)
“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Col. 3:23,24, ESV)
Our Purpose in This Life
Colossians 3 defines our earthly work by first defining who we are in Christ. Christians are called to set our minds on things above; eternal things. Our time on earth is short, we have died to ourselves and live for Christ, and we work for Christ instead of for people. This should radically shift our view of employment and why we work. If Christ is our boss and our primary work is for eternal purposes, then our missional work spans our lifetime, but it is not tied to any particular job. Our job becomes primarily a platform for ministry while supplying for our financial needs in the process. Consider the author of Colossians, Paul, who was a tentmaker by trade but was known for his ministry. His tent-making profession was simply a means to an end to cover his finances and allow him to carry out his greater calling without being a financial burden to others. Tent-making was a job, but it was not Paul’s true “work”.
Work Builds Character
The spirit and benefits of work are seen in 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12 and 1 Timothy 5:11-15 as well. Here we read that a lack of productive work encourages people toward idleness and gossip, and away from Christ. Work not only earns a living, but it builds character. We need something productive to do with our hands and time, so that we don’t have time to become involved with business that we should not be a part of.
“…If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” (2 Thess. 3:10b-12)
“But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander.” (1 Tim. 5:11-15, ESV)
1 Timothy 5 is speaking specifically to the care of widows by the church, but the principles behind its reasoning hinge on the effects of unproductive living. At the time of the writing, women were most often workers in the home. If they lost their husband and/or had no children to care for, they could be left with nothing productive to do, a dangerous position for both men and women. Paul encourages women to marry, bear children, and manage their households for the sake of their own character and the strength of their faith in Christ. Hence, Timothy was discouraged from providing for young widows from the church. While physical needs are important, strength of faith and character are more so.
Howard Dayton, founder of Compass Financial Ministries, writes well in his book Your Money Counts, “A primary purpose of work is to develop character. While the carpenter is building a house, the house is also building the carpenter. Skill, diligence, manual dexterity, and judgment are refined…A close friend has a sister who has been supported by her parents for more than 30 years. She has never had to face the responsibilities and hardships involved with a job. As a consequence, her character has not been properly developed and she is immature in many areas of her life.”
Work of many kinds has benefits. “In all labor, there is profit…” (Prov. 14:23a) Some of which are that it can build and sustain a humbling appreciation of the struggles of others because it often creates opportunities to interact with people we might not associate with otherwise. Whether as colleagues, managers, or interacting with customers, a professional relationship inspires respect and thoughtful behavior. Work forces us to maintain high levels of cognition and time management to complete tasks. It also provides a sense of fulfillment and purpose in society.
Jesus Condemns a Life of Hoarding for Self-Gratification
In Luke 12, Jesus tells the parable of a rich fool who shares a common perspective with many Americans today. “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” Part of the so-called “American Dream” is to work and save up ample money for a long retirement of recreation and relaxation.
For many Christians, this parable can be confusing. Should we save for retirement or not? Take heart, diligent savers! The point of this parable is not to condemn saving for the future. Rather, it is a condemnation of focusing on earthly pleasure and escaping from productive life; to him who “lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” We should save for the future so that:
- we are prepared for the season of life to come when we cannot work like we used to.
- we are prepared for the costs of medical needs that inevitably come with age.
- we avoid becoming a financial burden upon our children and families later in life.
- we prepare an inheritance for our children, grandchildren, or ministries after we die.
Meanwhile, we should try to mindful of our actual needs and not hoard money or possessions to seek riches. We should be aware of the needs of others and respond accordingly. We should not seek to retire to a life of unceasing leisure for the remainder of our days.
What Does Godly Retirement Look Like?
When Christians consider retirement, we should remember that our lives are ultimately meant to serve Christ throughout all of our days. Even when our paid career comes to an end or we pivot in a new direction, our ministry should carry on. The wisdom that comes with age is valuable in living out the faith and making disciples, and we are called to use it and share it.
Remember that financial compensation does not define dignified work. In retirement, we can volunteer, serve in the church, take a part-time job, or choose from any number of options that keep us active in the community and testifying to the gospel. The key is to stay mentally and physically active and serve in the manner that God calls you to. At some point, you may need to slow down, but don’t cash out to a life of self-seeking leisure. Work in all forms has important benefits and God wants His people to make the most of our days until He calls us home.