How to Avoid a Wonderful Retirement: Four Obstacles to Ending Well

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Retirement planners call my stage of life “the red zone,” the five years before and after retirement. It’s easy to get caught up in the messages that society offers up, like, “You can have the retirement you deserve,” or, “Retire to the life of your dreams.” Older Christians like me can be slowly and subtly confused and influenced by worldly ideas about our last years.

As a stewardship deacon and financial counselor in my church, I have witnessed this in others firsthand. Previously fruitful disciples have slowly disengaged and become lukewarm as they pursued a common, comfortable, but ultimately bankrupt retirement.

It used to be that retirement was brought on by a person’s inability to work; either they were physically unable to work anymore, or their skills had become obsolete making them unemployable. However, more recently, there has been a shift to an early, more active and healthy retirement that maximizes recreation, often making fun and relaxation the ultimate aim late in life. Retirement is seen as an endless vacation, and we’re all trying to get there as soon as possible.

But what does an endless vacation in our sixties and seventies say about God?

Folly of Retirement

Do you want to enjoy a God-centered, God-enjoying, and God-glorifying life beyond your career? John Piper’s Rethinking Retirement has deeply affected me and reshaped how I’m thinking about my last chapter in life.

Instead of embracing what he calls “the folly of retirement,” he exhorts us to finish life to the glory of Christ by resisting a retirement filled with the “emptiness and uselessness” of selfish pursuits. “Instead,” he writes, “knowing that we have an infinitely satisfying and everlasting inheritance in God just over the horizon of life makes us zealous in our few remaining years here to spend ourselves in the sacrifices of love, not the accumulation of comforts.”

“I’m probably never going to ‘retire,’” Piper says. “I want to do something with my life beyond 50, 60, 70 that makes a difference, whether that’s volunteering at a soup kitchen or mentoring kids or whatever that looks like.”

He challenges our generation to reject the modern concept of retirement as an endless vacation and instead focus on serving God and others in love (Galatians 5:13), while continually finding our delight in the Lord. Rather than squandering the gifts we have been given on selfish pleasures, he calls us to use them for as long as we are able to bring glory to God. As the apostle Peter instructed us, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). Finally, we are called to persevere to the end and finish the race that God has given us to run (Hebrews 12:1–2).

Four Challenges and Obstacles

To pursue a God-glorifying retirement we need to be aware of the difficulties and temptations that mid- and later-life can present. We want to make every effort to prepare for them and appropriate God’s grace to overcome the obstacles that get in our way.

If we don’t take deliberate steps of prevention, we could soon end up succumbing to retirement temptations. Instead of sacrificially serving and giving our lives away for the sake of the gospel, we could become like “those who shrink back and are destroyed,” instead of “those who have faith and preserve their souls” (Hebrews 10:39).

1. When financial resources begin to run out

We must wisely plan for a time when we will no longer work for pay, like the ant, who “prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest” (Proverbs 6:8). The primary purpose of our saving is not to ensure our individual comfort and pleasure. It is to position us to serve God and others. Again Piper writes, “The way I think about retirement — though I don’t believe in ‘retirement’ if you can avoid it — is that you should start doing different things for Jesus. And if you can do them without having to be paid by people because you’ve set it aside, then that’s all the more wonderful.”

Some may still come up short. That may necessitate working longer, downsizing, and asking for help from friends and family. But no matter what, we can trust in our gracious heavenly Father’s goodness and the assurance of his provision for us according to his word, for surely the one who was willing to sacrifice his own Son for our salvation will also “graciously give us all things” that we need in this life to love and serve him (Romans 8:32; Philippians 4:19).

2. When health and vitality diminish

Some of our gifts, especially those tied to more youthful strength and energy, will start to wane as we age. But in spite of our lessening capacities, we must not fall prey to the temptation to become detached and disengaged; we must not shrink back from our calling to persevere (Hebrews 10:39). Although our physical capabilities will diminish, our spirits can be renewed by the Holy Spirit each day (2 Corinthians 4:16).

We do what we can to maintain our health through wise living and medical care, but we are ultimately dependent on God for strength and help each day. We seek God’s grace to receive the strength we need to face each day; for though we are weak, the power of Christ is perfected in our weakness so that we may boast in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).

3. When we feel weary from doing good

There can be an inclination among older believers who have labored at work, family, and the church for a lifetime to view retirement as a time to pull back and take it easy. Retirement can be a time for some rest, relaxation, and fun — these are all gifts from God — but it is not a time to give in to weariness and leave the work of the gospel to others (Galatians 6:9).

Mature believers still have much to give, so it is a mistake to marginalize ourselves by backing away from the mainstream of church life. Far better to stay engaged as long as you can and continue using your gifts, however you can, in service to others (1 Peter 4:10).

4. When disappointment and regret come

Some older people struggle due to difficult circumstances and relationships, or simply due to failures and regrets or unrealized hopes, dreams, and expectations. We may become cynical, bitter, resentful, apathetic, discouraged, and perhaps even hard-hearted toward God and others. The Bible often warns us about this, nowhere more directly than in Colossians 3:12–13, where God challenges his children of all ages to put on “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

We are called, to the very end, to care for and exhort one another daily to persevere in faithfulness and in fulfilling our lifelong calling as disciples of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 3:12–14). The battle against cynicism, resentment, and hard-heartedness is won by remembering the merciful forgiveness that we have received through Christ.

How to Grow Old

As we age, we are getting ever closer to the day when we will leave this life and enter the eternal life in heaven that God has promised us. Far too many of us are too focused on the here and now. Eternity in heaven is our ultimate and final destiny in Christ, not a wonderful retirement on this earth. This great hope helps us face trials and tribulations as we age, realizing that they will be temporary and merely the glide path in this life toward our final, eternal home (Romans 8:18).

To echo John Piper, may God help us to “grow old in a way that makes God look glorious by living and dying in a way that shows God to be the all-satisfying treasure that he is, and by not living in ways that make this world look like our treasure.”

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