When the Paychecks Stop Coming

Theological Reflections on Retirement
by Dan Steiner

I have to admit something. The reality of retirement is becoming less and less of a significant goal in my future plans. It’s not that those future years are so far down the road that I can’t yet grab hold of retirement as an approaching reality. And it’s not that my retirement account just isn’t where it should be at this stage of life in order to comfortably retire when I turn 60. But in recent months, retirement has distanced itself from my thinking in the sense that I’m not sure I believe in it any more. At least, that is, the form of retirement I have grown up believing is the norm for good working Americans.

There seems to be a pattern one is supposed to follow regarding their work endeavors in life: Learn a good work ethic as a kid doing chores around the house, get a job in high school to pay for a car, go to college in order to get a good job, try to find a job once done with college, hope that you find the right job which might even turn into a career, and try to save and invest enough money along the way so that when you want to stop working you can retire and enjoy all the things of life you didn’t have time for when you were working. This may be an oversimplification of the process and isn’t the case for every person. But growing up as a middle class American kid, this is what I considered to be the work-track people were supposed to follow.

Is this idea of retirement described above even a biblical principle? I don’t think it is. If something isn’t biblical, does that make it wrong for Christians to pursue? Is there a way we can best steward our time, talents, and resources in the latter stages of life to continue accomplishing God’s Kingdom purposes through our work even when the paychecks stop coming? What if retiring from gainful employment isn’t even an economic reality for us? These are questions I cannot fully answer in this context. But I offer some thoughts for consideration, with the hope that this idea of retirement doesn’t hit the cutting room floor in those areas of life we must take time to reflect upon theologically.

First, all activity in this life should be considered work and has the potential to build into the greater narrative story of God’s overall Kingdom work. We must be careful not to limit our thinking about work to only those activities and endeavors for which we are compensated with a paycheck. Ask a stay-at-home parent if what they do is significant work. What about those that volunteer at churches, non-profits, schools, and fire departments? Are these not worthwhile and important places of work whether or not the tasks one performs are monetarily compensated? These are endeavors that should be considered sacred, and capable of building towards the greater good in God’s Kingdom purposes. If that is the case, then why wouldn’t we also consider retirement from gainful employment as an undefined period, capable of being filled with sacred work? This implies that the Christian should never actually retire from work.

Second, retirement from gainful employment should in and of itself be seen as a vocation. Within the idea of vocational calling, humanity is reminded that all its work is intended to have meaning and purpose. Keller reminds us that the Latin word vocare is the root of our English word vocation and means “to call.”¹ Humanity’s call to work goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden where God gave the Kingdom Mandate to rule and subdue creation. He also gave the command to work in the garden. This all happened before the fall. Work therefore is not a result of sin; it is a central part of what it means to be human and created in the image of God. With this understanding, one’s vocational calling does not end after stepping away from gainful employment, but rather it continues into the next season of life. Retirement should therefore be seen as vocation in and of itself as one continues to use their time, talents, and resources to work towards God’s Kingdom purposes even after the paychecks stop coming.

Third, however one perceives work in the prime of their life will lay a foundation for how they perceive work during retirement. This may seem like a discussion for those who are already retired. I would argue this is a discussion that needs to be had as early as possible in one’s life. Youth pastors and parents should be talking with their teens about how choices in the high school and college years have the ability to set them on a trajectory for the rest of their life. These shouldn’t just be conversations about how to avoid dangerous, immoral, and immature decisions; these should be conversations about how to be motivated to see all work and activity as potentially building into God’s Kingdom purposes. If this is the perspective one has growing up, consider what the possibilities are for their career and retirement years. This third point also brings up the question about how much leisure should fill one’s latter years. This discussion shouldn’t lead us towards a conclusion that there be no form of leisure or personal enjoyment later in life. The rhythms of rest and leisure should be built into the “retired” years no differently than they should be built into the “working” years.

How do these thoughts and questions strike you? I hope some spark has been lit that leads you to consider how you will best prepare for and spend the latter years of life pursuing God’s Kingdom purposes. Matthew 6:33 is just as important for the retirement years as it is for all other seasons of life: “But seek first the Kingdom of God.”

 

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Dan Steiner

Dan Steiner Serves as Mentoring Director at Denver Seminary and leads one of Denver Institute’s 5280 Fellowship cohorts. With 13 years of ministry experience, he’s an expert at leadership development, personal growth, and spiritual formation. He’s passionate about equipping people to live their calling in the marketplace or local church. Dan received his BA in Youth Ministry from Western Baptist College (now Corban University) and his MDiv from Denver Seminary.