Jeff Haanen

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A Biblical Perspective on Retirement

“What am I going to do with my retirement?” 

The anxious question came from Anne Bell, a recently retired teacher at the University of Northern Colorado. Bright and soft-spoken, wearing dark-rimmed glasses and carrying a teacher’s bag, Anne came to our offices at the Denver Institute for Faith & Work one day with questions she wasn’t prepared to answer. “I’m really searching for what I’m called to,” she said with a quivering voice. “I need to know what’s next.”1

The first step in re-envisioning the connection between retirement and investing is to begin by answering Anne’s honest questions. That involves rethinking the idea of retirement itself. 

Rather than seeing retirement as a never-ending vacation, the Bible paints a picture of our later years as a laying down of past work-identities and entering a new season of rest, renewal, and reengagement as elders filled with wisdom and blessing for the coming generation(s)

Though the Bible doesn’t speak directly to our modern social construct of retirement, it does hint at the maturing of vocation over a lifetime. In the book of Numbers, the LORD said to Moses, “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,” (Numbers 8:24). Since hauling around the furniture of the tabernacle was physically demanding, God commanded older men to lay down the heavy work and give it to younger priests. 

Gordon Smith, author and president of Ambrose University, writes, “I am convinced that part of the essence of vocational identity during this period of our lives [the senior years] is that we let go of power and control: people listen to us because we are wise and because we bless, not because of our office or any formal structure of power.”2 In contrast to a vision of aging as either the ‘retirement dream’ or a ‘work-’til-you-drop’ alternative, Scripture is realistic about aging and the need to lay down past responsibilities, while still embracing loving service to our neighbor. 

Doing the hard work of disassociating our identity from work in early retirement requires an intentional space to rest, reflect, and seek renewal. 

I believe the first step in developing a better, more-biblical, vision for retirement is to invite men and women not into the complete cessation of work, but into a purposeful sabbatical. This is an intentional three, six, or twelve months of rest and interior renewal to heal from past wounds and re-orient the heart toward trust, worship, and justice.3 The Bible suggests that we all need not just days of rest, but seasons of rest (Leviticus 254). Early retirement is the perfect time for just such a period of healing and reflection. 

Sabbatical can also be a time to openly challenge secular notions of retirement by thinking about the different seasons of work over a lifetime. Work in the Bible is intrinsically about service, an activity from which we never retire (Matthew 20:285, Ephesians 2:106, Colossians 3:237). The opportunity here is for retirees — and their financial advisors — to embrace a vision of work (paid or unpaid) in later life as public contribution rather than as punishment for not having saved enough in one’s 401(k). 

The Bible portrays elders as those possessing wisdom, character, and leadership ability, the assumed fruit of experience and age (Lev. 19:328). Far from being an insult, the Hebrew term for elder (zaqen) is used as an indication of one’s nobility. The elder taught at the city gate, the ancient place for public dialogue (Job 32:6-109).

Today, we’d be wise to recover older traditions of honoring our elders, including the work they do later in life.

Rather than endless conversations about maximizing financial benefits for retirement, financial advisors could plant visions of elders as community leaders, giving generously their insight, money, time, talent, and prayers on behalf of the coming generation(s). 

The secular vision of retirement is weighed down with images of sail boats, gag retirement gifts, vacations to the tropics. But the Bible has a very different vision of aging.  “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar of Lebanon,” writes the Psalmist. “They are planted in the house of the LORD; the flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green,” (92:12-14, ESV). 

Redeeming the Motive for Investing

Take a sabbatical rest. Ask questions regarding calling later in life. Seek healing for our vision of work. Reemerge ready to offer your experience, talents, and wisdom to a coming generation. 

These simple activities could radically shift the motive we have for investing by shifting our narrative about retirement. 

The greed and fear driving so much investing today would give way to a simple trust in the provision of God over a lifetime (Matthew 6:25-3410). It would also temper the need for a huge buildup of assets by age 65, knowing that income can continue later in life. Also, health issues (and, hence, expenses) would lessen due to continued connection to community and purpose through work. It would also calm the endless drive and unhealthy work rhythms earlier in life by giving us a vision of work that continues over a lifetime, and hence, a deeper investment during our careers in our families and our emotional health. The myth of “financial freedom” would be replaced with a deeper freedom given by God alone and a contentment in our current life and current circumstances, thereby draining the retirement myth of its false promises (Gal. 5:111; Ps 23:112).

A healed vision of retirement embraces a vision of rest, renewal, and reengagement as elders. 

What, then, does this mean for investing? Stay tuned for Part 3: Reform Retirement, Redeem Investing.

This article first appeared at the Eventide Center for Faith & Investing. Subscribe to get more updates on topics related to faith, investing, and the economy. For references, please visit the ECFI website.

Politics

The American Bible

Check out my latest book review for The Gospel Coalition of Stephen Prothero’s The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation. (New York: Harper One, 20).  Here’s an excerpt:

America is not just a country; it’s a religion. The faithful sing her praises at baseball games, pay homage to her heroes in Washington, D.C., and recite her pledge of loyalty in schools. They remember the tale of her exodus from England, and fancy themselves as a chosen people. They chide themselves for the original sin of slavery, and praise redeemers like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. who shed their blood in atonement for the sins of a nation. They spread the gospel of freedom, equality, and democracy, and when doubts arise, they return to America’s most hallowed center to define themselves: their holy scriptures.

Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, has done us the favor of compiling these “holy scriptures” of American public life in his latest book, The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide and Define a Nation. This book is not a translation of the Bible, nor is it even about American religion per se. It is an anthology of classic American texts—legal documents, songs, books, speeches, and letters—that form what Prothero calls “The American Bible.” From the Constitution and “The Star-Spangled Banner” to Atlas Shrugged and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Prothero aims to assemble America’s “canonical works” in order to bring civil conversation back into a Washington characterized by caustic partisan bickering. But as one of America’s leading religion scholars, Prothero has given us much deeper insights than mere political wisdom. In unveiling America’s sacred texts, Prothero sheds light on an uncomfortable truth: America has indeed become a religion. (More...)