This article is part of the Open Letters series.
So, you are finally getting near that fabled stage of life called retirement. Exhilarating? Yes! Scary? Kind of! Welcome to the crowd, for all of us typically approach retirement with ambivalence. As I approached full retirement, I felt the same tensions. Having practiced geriatric medicine for many years, I had seen too many retire poorly and learned I would have to approach it cautiously. Let me share with you some of the issues I wrestle with and what I have learned from Scripture, friends, patients, and helpful books.
Clearly understand your goals, then plan accordingly.
We need to have a clear understanding of our priorities in retirement and have a plan to implement them that can be flexible enough to adapt to changes in our abilities and life situations over the coming years. 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! Time spent before or soon after retirement to carefully lay out priorities is well invested.
For years I have given my retiring patients two simple rules for retiring well:
- Wake up every morning knowing what you are going to do that day.
- 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 like a permanent vacation, nor is it time to focus on ourselves, our comfort, and our happiness. Successful retirement must allow us to serve others intentionally. It will not happen automatically, and unfortunately it is not the default of our culture.
Dorothy 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 and their wives, close friends, and the leaders of several local service organizations. I read as much as I could in both the secular and Christian literature, and we are now sorting through several options.
Deciding on priorities must start by answering the age-old question: What is the purpose of life? That, then, becomes the purpose of retirement. We need one overarching purpose that sets the direction for every area of life. As followers of Jesus, our purpose is to glorify God 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).” Thus, the first question we must keep in mind becomes, How can God be glorified in my retirement? Jesus taught two basic ways to love and thus to glorify God. First is loving God with all our beings while loving and serving others. These two loves must be kept in balance if we are going to retire well. Let’s take a closer look at them.
Love God; grow closer to Jesus.
Over the years I have often heard people complain that their working lives were off-balance. That frequently meant they spent too much time on the job to have the time or energy to fulfill their other priorities. For Christians, that often translated into not having sufficient time to spend with Jesus. Retirement is the ideal time to remedy that. Remember the experience Jesus had when visiting the home of his friends Mary and Martha. Martha was very busy preparing what I am sure was a delicious meal. Mary was sitting with Jesus enjoying his presence and soaking up his teaching. When Martha complained about having to do all the work, Jesus responded by saying that Mary had chosen the better thing.
One of the first things we must do when we retire is to begin to spend ample time daily with Jesus and recapture the balance we may have been missing. We need to re-look at the time we have in Scripture. No longer will we want to get by with reading a few verses each day, but will, with the Spirit’s help, plan to add time to study and meditate on the Scripture. We will organize our prayer lives, setting aside time each day for confession, worship, thanksgiving, and then bring our requests to the heavenly Father. We will find new ways to serve in our church and larger Christian community.
Love your neighbor; serve your community.
Once we have established new patterns of loving God, it will be time to get busy loving and serving others. Most will find it best to regularly commit several days a week to this. Consider volunteering with your church, local hospitals, schools, homeless shelters, mentoring programs, service organizations, or libraries several days a week on a regular basis. If you are the outdoors type, volunteer at a local park. A regular commitment will make it more likely to happen than if you serve others only when convenient. I would suggest you try out several opportunities for service first and then focus on one that you choose to do long-term. Wherever you are serving, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus while intentionally showing his love to others.
In addition, there are numerous other ways you can bring glory to God in your retirement. Here are some to consider.
Invest in your health.
Retirement offers new opportunities to enhance your health. This will hopefully improve your productivity and perhaps even lengthen your life. A preventable death that shortens your ability to bring glory to God is tragic. The psalmist reminds us that: “In Sheol who will give you praise (Ps. 6:5)”? This may lead to changes in your diet, a commitment to regular exercise, or more medical visits.
Successful retirement must allow us to serve others intentionally.
Early retirement may provide the ideal opportunity to declutter your life and get rid of things you have accumulated that you don’t need and will likely never use. This may involve selling the family home and moving to a smaller place that requires less time and expense to care for. It is also a wonderful gift to those who will be responsible for your things when the Lord calls you home.
Manage your estate.
Not as many of us have pensions or guaranteed retirement plans as were available in prior years. Rather, we have 401(k) plans or other retirement funds we need to manage. Working years frequently do not allow the time for careful estate planning, so we need to add this to our “to do list” early in retirement. Be careful to be a good steward of your money and make sure that upon your death your funds go to the place where they will have an impact for the kingdom of God. There may also be an opportunity to carefully distribute some of your wealth now. And, while you are thinking about finances, take another look at your budget.
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.
Emphasize your family.
Perhaps the greatest legacy you will leave when you die is your family. If you are blessed to have them, now is the time to spend more time with children and grandchildren. Think how you can encourage them to live godly lives, taking time in prayer, studying Scripture, and developing deep Christian fellowship. This may require a move to be geographically closer to family.
Develop a theology of suffering.
It is possible that difficult days lie ahead. Remember Paul’s words: “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). We must prepare for tough times with a biblical understanding that the Lord is in control. This will allow the challenges we face to push us closer to the Lord and not push us away from him. Three books I find particularly helpful are D. A. Carson’s, How Long, O Lord?, Timothy Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, and Steve Estes and Joni Tada’s When God Weeps.
Pursuing these activities may be difficult, but unless you start making plans now, before you retire, or soon after, they may never happen. Furthermore, the earlier you start the more likely you will retire well and arrive in the Lord’s presence to hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant (Matt. 25:23).”
Your fellow sojourner,
- Motivational Quotes.com, http://www.motivatingquotes.com/goalsq.htm. accessed Oct 27, 2011.
John Dunlop, MD is the author of Retiring Well: Strategies for Finding Balance, Setting Priorities, and Glorifying God.
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