This article is part of the Help! series.
Approach Retirement Thoughtfully
Is retirement a scary prospect? Kind of! Welcome to the crowd, for typically it is with ambivalence that we approach retirement. As I approach full retirement, I feel the same tensions myself. Having practiced geriatric medicine for many years, I have seen too many retire poorly. I have learned I must approach retirement carefully. Let me share with you some of the issues I wrestle with and what I have learned from Scripture, my friend, and patients.
1. Clearly understand your goals and plan accordingly.
We need to have a definite plan for how we are going to spend retirment. The famed Yankee philosopher Yogi Berra said: “If you don’t know where you are going you might wind up someplace else.”1 How true!
We must first consider the age-old question: What is the purpose of life? For that is the purpose of retirement. It is best to have one overarching purpose that sets the direction for every area of our lives. As followers of Jesus our purpose should be that God is glorified in everything. Paul wrote, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36). So the question we must keep in mind becomes, How can God be glorified in retirement? Incidentally setting that as our goal will typically translate into our being happy and fulfilled.
Whereas we must keep our ultimate goal in clear focus, aging will require us to be flexible in the way we go about reaching it. Our abilities and our circumstances will change. It is unlikely that we will be able to do the same things through our retirement but if we can keep the ultimate goal of God’s glory in focus we will be able to adjust.
For years I have given my retiring patients two simple rules that can lead to God being glorified:
- Wake up every morning knowing what you are going to do.
- Go to bed every night knowing that someone else was helped.
Pretty straight forward, aren’t they? Retirement should not all be free, unscheduled time, nor is it time to focus on ourselves, our comfort, and our happiness. Successful retirement must be intentional and allow us to serve others. It will not happen automatically and unfortunately, it is not the default.
My wife and I started to carefully plan a strategy several years before we were to fully retire. Starting with listening to a series of talks about God’s guidance, we then sat down with one of our pastors and his wife to get their ideas. We spoke to our children, close friends, and the leaders of several local service organizations. We are now sorting through several options.
While it important to have a primary focus that keeps us busy, serves others, and brings glory to God there are several other practical essentials to consider. These include:
2. Retire at the right time.
In light of our ultimate goal the first question we must ask is, Can God be glorified more by my continuing to work or by other pursuits after retirement?
Beyond that we must consider pros and cons in order to choose the right time to retire. Here are some pros of retiring when younger:
- Retirement opens the door to a variety of new opportunities to serve the Lord. If we wait too long options may be limited.
- As we get older our productivity at work may be less. We should quit while our performance remains top notch.
- God has blessed us richly and he wants us to have time to enjoy his blessings (1 Tim. 6:17).
- Our work may have kept us apart from our spouses. Now may be time to learn to enjoy life and service together.
- There will come a time for all of us when we are just weary—even if it is in doing good things. We lack the joy and enthusiasm we used to have so it is time to make a change.
Here are some cons of early retirement:
- Many of us find our sense of identity in our work. When talking about retirement I will occasionally innocently ask, “And what do you do?” I find the answers come in two ways. Some will say. “I work for such and such a company.” But others say, “I am a teacher, doctor, pastor, etc.” The latter group who say “I am” and then tell me their profession can be so identified with their work that they will have a difficult time adjusting to retirement.
- Perhaps we are still at the top of our game. We have worked for years to gain our expertise and level of responsibility. There may be younger folk who continue to benefit and learn from us. We must be good stewards of the abilities God has blessed us with.
- Our best friends may be colleagues at work. It will be hard to maintain those relationships if we are not working and take a long time to rebuild others if we quit work.
- There may be some financial constraints that will compel us to keep working. Many have not been able to save enough money to allow them to retire with the lifestyle God calls them to.
Retirement may not need be all or nothing. It may be possible to have a staged retirement. Both my wife and I were able to reduce our work to three days a week for the final years of our careers. That allowed us to try other activities and have a better sense of what retirement could hold.
3. Spread God’s love by serving your community.
To be able to continue to serve others in your retirement it will be best to regularly commit to spend several days a week volunteering. Think about being at your local hospital, homeless shelter, mentoring program, or library several days a week on a regular basis. If you are the outdoors type volunteer your services at a local park. A regular commitment will make it more likely to happen than if you just do it when convenient. I would suggest you try several opportunities first and then focus on one that you can do long term. Wherever you are, be a representative of the Lord Jesus and show his love to others.
It is best to have one overarching purpose that sets the direction for every area of our lives. As followers of Jesus, our purpose should be that God is glorified in everything.
4. Invest in your health.
The older we get the more time it will take to simply stay healthy. There will be more medical visits, more tests, and more need for regular exercise, but these are a good investment for they will hopefully provide more energy and years to be productive.
5. Manage your estate.
Not as many of us have pensions or guaranteed retirement plans. Rather we have 401Ks or other retirement funds to manage. Working years frequently do not allow the time for careful estate planning and this is one of the first things to do in retirement. Take time to analyze your spending practices, be a good steward of your investments and make sure that upon your deaths your funds go to the place where they will have an impact for the kingdom of God. There may also be an opportunity to distribute some of your wealth now. Take the necessary time to do that carefully.
In this regard make sure you have advance directives for your future health care. You will need to execute a health care power of attorney to name who should make medical decisions if you are unable. Most of us will want a living will to free our power of attorney from the responsibility of making difficult end-of-life decisions. Most states have these documents online for you to do yourself, which you can find by searching “advance directives XX” (where XX is your state’s initials).
6. Emphasize your family.
Perhaps the greatest legacy you will leave when you die is your family. Now is the time to spend more time with children and grandchildren. Think about how you can encourage them to live Godly lives and to take time in prayer, the study of Scripture, and developing deep Christian fellowship. This may require a move to be geographically closer to family. It may require you to step out of your comfort zone and do things that may not be your favorite activities so that you can do them together.
7. Release your grip on worldly possessions and values.
Downsize, get rid of some of the things you have accumulated over the years. It will make it much easier on your survivors once you are gone. Develop a longing for God and to be in his presence. Allow this to replace your attachment to the things and values of this world. Do not try to be too independent and self-sufficient.
8. Develop a theology of suffering.
It is likely that difficult days lie ahead. Remember Paul’s words, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). We must be prepared for tough times in the confidence that the Lord is in control. That will allow the challenges to push us closer to the Lord and not push us away. Read some good books like D. A. Carson’s, How Long, O Lord?, or Timothy Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, or Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Estes’s When God Weeps.
9. Take more time for the spiritual disciplines.
Finally, make sure to commit ample time for prayer and the study of Scripture. For years you have wished you had more time to have a deeper walk with God. With discipline and planning, now may be the time to do that.
Pursuing these activities may be difficult, but unless you start making plans now before you retire, they will never happen. Furthermore, the earlier you start the more likely you will be to keep the practices throughout your later years and arrive in the Lord’s presence to hear him say “Well done.”
- Motivational Quotes.com, http://www.motivatingquotes.com/goalsq.htm. accessed Oct 27, 2011.
John Dunlop, MD is the author of Finishing Well for the Glory of God: Strategies from a Christian Physician.