Is retirement biblically acceptable? What are the retirement verses? Is retirement in the Bible? In 1 Timothy 5:1-10 Paul discusses what older, retired people can do. Read this chapter from Your Finances God’s Way to learn about Christian retirement.
Table of Contents
- A History Lesson on Retirement
- Retire Into Christian Service
- Combine Faith and Wisdom When Planning for Retirement
Katie and I were part of a wedding reception that took place on a golf course in a retirement community. We saw a room next to the restaurant filled with elderly people. They went there each morning to drink Bloody Marys for breakfast and then spend their day golfing and socializing.
While this might seem like a dream come true to many people, I suspect you recognize this is not the most honorable way to retire. While God doesn’t prohibit retired people (or any people for that matter) from enjoying golf, social functions, or other pleasurable pursuits, these activities shouldn’t be the focus of our lives. As 1 Corinthians 6:12 says, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” Many hobbies are “lawful,” but when are we being “brought under the power of [them]”? I can’t answer this for you as it’s an issue of discernment, but I can say the Holy Spirit will be faithful to convict you when you’re spending too much time in unprofitable ways.
The Bible never talks about people reaching a point when they can stop working and start living selfishly. It’s tragic when older people who have run most of the race and now have more freedom than ever to serve the Lord simply squander the time they have left on meaningless activities with no eternal value.
Take your mind back to the parable of the rich fool. Luke 12:19 says, “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.’” Sadly, this captures what comes to mind for some people when they think of retirement, but this shouldn’t be the desire for Christians. If our view resembles that of someone Jesus calls a fool, then we should repent and change our thinking.
There is nothing wrong with retiring from a secular profession, but there are right and wrong ways to retire. We should view retirement similarly to the way we view money: it is amoral but just as people can use money morally and immorally, people can use retirement morally and immorally. Before we go any further, let’s understand how the world’s idea of retirement developed so we can avoid this approach.
A History Lesson on Retirement
Retirement began as an inappropriate response to social issues. Before the Industrial Revolution, people’s jobs could change more easily as they got older. For example, an aging farmer could let his sons do the harvesting while he performed fewer and less-intensive chores, and a businessman could hire out the more difficult work and act as a mentor to those under him.
When the Industrial Revolution took place, an obsession with productivity and economic growth arose. There were machine-based jobs that could do the work of multiple people at a faster pace and a cheaper price. This was the one moment in history to pinpoint when elderly employees became viewed as liabilities. They couldn’t work as quickly as younger people, and they were prone to more mistakes. This slowed production, increased expenses, and made younger employees more attractive. In response, corporations pushed the government to enforce retirement to remove an aging workforce in favor of a younger one.
Because the elderly were viewed as being useless, when they retired, they did nothing. They had been told they had little to contribute and it was best if they simply got out of the way, so they spent their remaining years in unproductive ways.
Dr. William Osler and “The Fixed Period”
A prominent man in all of this was Dr. William Osler. He was an expert in the field of gerontology (the scientific study of aging). On February 22, 1905, he delivered a speech titled “The Fixed Period.” He said,
The effective, moving, vitalizing work of the world is done between the ages of twenty-five and forty, when [people] are energetic and creative. Workers from age forty to sixty are tolerable. Workers over age sixty are useless.
Dr. Osler said people should be forced to retire. They should have one year to settle their affairs, and then be “peacefully extinguished by chloroform.” Osler’s speech made headlines, with reports claiming, “Dr. Osler recommends chloroform at sixty.” The concept of mandatory euthanasia for humans after a certain age, often 60, became a recurring theme in twentieth-century literature. For example, Isaac Asimov’s 1950 novel, Pebble in the Sky, called pneumonia “the old man’s friend” because it allowed elderly people a quick and painless death.1 The important point to notice is the concept of retirement came from a worldly, and even somewhat morbid, view of elderly people.
The Great Depression worsened the situation. Younger men needed jobs to support their families, so eventually President Franklin Roosevelt developed Social Security. Workers could pay into a fund that they could draw on once they turned 60, encouraging them to retire and leave employment for the younger generation. To convince older people that retirement benefitted them as well as the nation, the government joined with labor interest groups to sell the idea that work was for the young, and the old “deserved” to relax. Retirement became an expectation—something people felt, and still feel, entitled to have.
Considering the origin of the concept of retirement should discourage us from seeing it as an acceptable Christian pursuit, at least the way it’s engaged in by unbelievers. Looking at what the world does often gives us a good idea of what not to do.
So how should Christians retire? The Bible doesn’t mention 401(k) plans or IRAs, but there are principles that direct us.
Retire Into Christian Service
One reason it is so important to retire well is Luke 12:48 says, “To whom much is given, from him much is required.” If we have been able to retire, then God has blessed us, and we must be good stewards of that blessing. We can do so by keeping this truth in mind: We retire from secular professions and retire into Christian service. God has simply given us more time to serve Him! We might retire from an earthly job, but we never retire from serving Christ. God changes the address of our workplace, and He changes our role, but He doesn’t change our need to be faithful servants. John Piper said,
Finishing life to the glory of Christ means resolutely resisting the typical American dream of retirement. It means being so satisfied with all that God promises to be for us in Christ that we are set free from the cravings that create so much emptiness and uselessness in retirement. Instead, 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.John Piper, Rethinking Retirement: Finishing Life for the Glory of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 6.
What does Christian service look like during retirement? Scripture provides three recommendations that are found in 1 Timothy 5 and supported elsewhere in the Bible.
Retired People Can Mentor (1 Timothy 5:1-2 and Titus 2:3-5)
Retired people can serve well by mentoring others, in particular, the younger generation. Titus 2:3-5 says, “Older women…are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands.” Older women are told to teach young women, and they’re told what kinds of guidance they should pass along.
First Timothy 5:1-2 says, “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.” Young men should look up to older men the way they look up to their father, which implies older men should see themselves as fathers to young men. Young ladies should look up to older women the way they look up to their mothers, which implies what Titus 2 instructs: Older women should see themselves as mothers to young ladies. And what do fathers and mothers do? They teach, train, disciple, and mentor.
We’ve all heard, “You should respect your elders,” and according to Scripture, that’s true! If any older people are reading this, I can imagine them saying, “Amen! Preach it! These younger people should look up to us!” Yes, they should, but the older people should also take on mentoring roles.
Psalm 71:18 makes this clear: “Even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.” This reveals the desire godly, elderly people should have: telling the younger generation about the Lord. Mentoring and instructing younger people is one of the primary ministries God has given to older people. Often it is older, retired saints who, after a lifetime of walking with God, can convey the truths of God’s Word by relating to younger people how God has worked in their lives.
Second Corinthians 12:14 states, “Children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children.” This is speaking financially, but if adults should pass along earthly riches, how much more should they pass along the “riches of the glory of…Christ” (Colossians 1:27). By far, the greatest riches are found in a spiritual heritage: “the riches of the glory of [Christ’s] inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18). This heritage should be passed down from the older generation to the younger one.
When Katie was a young mother, she benefited greatly from the investment of older, godly women. They had gone before her and could share their wisdom and experience with her.
When I became a father, I was blessed by older men who had raised godly children and have helped me in my journey. As a father of nine, I have had many questions about parenting. I am thankful for each man who has taken the time to tell me what they did with their children.
I could provide many examples, but I will keep it to one that stands out. I was friends with a young man who impressed me, and he attributed his godly character to his father. Although I didn’t know his father, I contacted him and asked if we could speak so I could learn from him. On a long drive, he talked to me for more than three hours about the things he did with his three sons. I still remember and apply some of the teaching he shared with me.
Retired People Can Pray (1 Timothy 5:3-5)
Generations of people have been impacted by the faithful prayers of elderly people. Prayer is perhaps the most fruitful ministry outlet for those who have retired:
Honor widows who are really widows. But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents, for this is good and acceptable before God. Now she who is really a widow, and left alone, trusts in God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day (1 Timothy 5:3-5).
Paul says widows who have outlived their husbands can commit themselves to prayer. Anna the prophetess is a good example. These verses about her make it sound like she lived at the temple fasting and praying:
[Anna] was advanced in years, having lived with her husband… and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day (Luke 2:36-37).
The alternative to serving the Lord is serving self. If a widow chooses this, God says, “She who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives” (1 Timothy 5:6). There are two possible reasons for this language. First, it is as though she’s already dead because she’s not doing anything productive for the kingdom of God—as though God says, “Because she isn’t serving Me, she might as well be dead.” The other possibility is she is dead, not physically, but spiritually. She lives such a selfish lifestyle it’s evidence she’s unsaved.
Although this is about widows, it’s no stretch to say if this is how God views them for living for pleasure, this is how He views anyone who lives for pleasure. There is no reason to think widows would be held to a higher standard than anyone else.
Retired People Can Assist (1 Timothy 5:9-10)
Paul continues in 1 Timothy 5:9-10:
Let a widow be [supported by the church] if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.
God doesn’t prohibit Christians from living off pensions, or even living off support from the church, but they must meet three requirements: First, they have no family to support them, which is the point of verses 4 and 5. Second, they must be at least 60. Third, they must minister to the Lord and other believers. This reveals not just the possibility but the expectation that older people do not retire from Christian service.
Are older people expected to serve with the same vigor and energy they exhibited when they were younger? No. Let’s consider two examples from Scripture that are instructive because they show us the right and wrong ways to handle slowing down.
Slowing Down the Wrong Way (2 Samuel 21:15-17)
David’s terrible sins of adultery and murder took place when he failed to go to battle with his men. He learned his lesson, but later, he swung the pendulum the other way. He didn’t retire from fighting and went out to battle when he should have remained behind:
When the Philistines were at war again with Israel, David and his servants with him went down and fought against the Philistines; and David grew faint. Then Ishbi-Benob, who was one of the sons of the giant, the weight of whose bronze spear was three hundred shekels, who was bearing a new sword, thought he could kill David. But Abishai the son of Zeruiah came to his aid, and struck the Philistine and killed him. Then the men of David swore to him, saying, “You shall go out no more with us to battle, lest you quench the lamp of Israel” (2 Samuel 21:15-17).
David “grew faint” and one of Goliath’s sons almost killed him. Just as David should’ve retired from fighting, we should retire from certain things when we get older. Otherwise, we can end up hurting ourselves or someone else.
As we age, we can’t do everything we used to do when we were younger, but we can still find reasonable ways to serve God. We may lack the energy we had earlier in life, but we should still be as committed to using the energy we still have for God’s glory.
Slowing Down the Right Way (Numbers 8:23-26)
The Bible always does things better than the world. We find a great example of retiring well in the Mosaic law:
The Lord said to Moses, “This applies to the Levites: Men twentyfive 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. They may assist their brothers in performing their duties at the tent of meeting, but they themselves must not do the work. This, then, is how you are to assign the responsibilities of the Levites” (Numbers 8:23-26).
Levites started working in the tabernacle and later the temple when they were 25. At the age of 50, they retired from regular service because of the physical demands. Then the strenuous work could be given to younger men. When the older Levites retired, they would “assist” the younger Levites, but they never stopped working completely, nor did they live only for themselves. They continued serving, but in a way that was appropriate for their age.
If retired people in our day want to help, they should have no trouble finding ways. They can take meals, send cards, volunteer to lead ministries, visit the sick, and provide counseling. Older women can help younger women with their children. My mom takes one of our kids during the week for reading. Older men can find younger men to help with trades and skills.
In December 2019, two church members were murdered at a church in Texas before Jack Wilson, a 71-year-old man, prevented anyone else’s death by shooting the gunman. Mr. Wilson was a former reserve deputy sheriff who chose to spend his retirement providing security for his church. Whatever ability God has given you, more than likely there is a way to use it in your later years.
Combine Faith and Wisdom When Planning for Retirement
What about the financial side of retirement? Should we have faith that God will provide for us, or should we do some planning ourselves? Yes!
Let me explain by asking you to imagine parents who say, “We let our children play in the road because we have faith God will protect them,” or people who say, “I don’t lock my doors at night because I have faith God will keep us safe.” We wouldn’t say these people have faith. We would say they’re being foolish. Imagine people who say, “I need a job, but I just sit at home because I have faith God will provide one.” We wouldn’t say these people have faith. We would say they’re being foolish. And lazy.
Faith and wisdom are not mutually exclusive. Walking by faith doesn’t have to involve neglecting wisdom. Being wise doesn’t mean we are not trusting God. As Christians, we should always choose the path of faith and wisdom. Wisdom dictates we don’t let our children play in the road, we lock our doors at night, and if we don’t have a job, our full-time job is looking for a job. As a pastor, of course I love people coming to church on Sundays. But during the winter months, when the roads are icy, some people stay home and watch our service online. I don’t condemn them by saying, “They’re fearful, lacking faith, and disobeying God.” As much as I desire to have them with us in person, I recognize this is the path of faith and wisdom for them.
When it comes to retirement, we must also combine faith and wisdom. Imagine someone saying, “I trust God will provide for me, so I don’t plan for retirement.” This person might have faith, but he lacks wisdom. Imagine someone else saying, “I have taken matters into my own hands and am planning everything for my own retirement.” This person might have wisdom, but he lacks faith.
The balance is we should plan for retirement (wisdom) while trusting God (faith). Look at your bank accounts, examine your current spending patterns, and estimate your future financial needs. At the same time, pray for God to give you wisdom and direct your efforts.
Recognize that the goal of retirement is not pleasure and a lavish lifestyle. Work to have enough money saved to care for yourself and be generous toward others. Strive to keep your heart focused on heaven because that’s where your true treasure is stored. If you want to honor God later in life when you have been blessed with the opportunity to step back from an earthly profession, retire into Christian service and be a good steward of those years God has given you. Keep in mind that your days, like your money, belong to God.