How (and How Not) to Think about Retirement

This article is part of the How (and How Not) series.

Reflecting on a Good Retirement

A good retirement is far from a given. Due reflection must be given to how you will take advantage of the new opportunities available and how bad choices can easily disappoint. In my years practicing geriatrics, I am grateful for the many friends and patients I have seen retire well. But I have also seen many who regretted some decisions they made after they retired. Both groups have taught me helpful lessons as I approached my own retirement. Allow me to share some of these key lessons with you.

1. Take time to plan.

The overarching principle is that a good retirement for Christians starts with prayerful, deliberate planning. It is not automatic or guaranteed. You cannot approach it haphazardly and do what just comes naturally. Though some will be pushed into retirement unexpectedly by disease, either their own or that of a loved one, other unplanned circumstances may force you to retire without time to prepare. But, thankfully, many will retire electively. Even for these elective retirements the pace and pressures of the job will not likely allow the luxury of leisurely planning prior to retirement. Most will need a fair amount of time after they retire to change gears, slow down, decide what their retirement priorities will be, and reprogram themselves before they jump into the business of their new way of life.

Retiring Well

John Dunlop, MD

Drawing from his work with geriatric patients and his own retirement, Dr. John Dunlop shares practical strategies for Christians as they approach retirement, equipping readers to make decisions for their future that bring glory to God.

Some have referred to this transition time as a sabbatical. This may require a few months or even up to a year. It allows a clean break from the working days. This is time well invested and should not be discounted. It may be done initially by taking a trip to see a new part of the world or reconnecting with friends and family. Your sabbatical may provide relaxed time to make new friends since retirement often disrupts the close relationships you had while working. Make sure your friends include both Christians and non-Christians and include people diverse from yourself. Some will want to move to a smaller home or a new community, and your sabbatical is the ideal time to do that. You may also be able to pick up a new hobby to enjoy with new friends and take advantage of your new spare time. Perhaps, most importantly, it may provide time to establish new ways to spend with Jesus every day. Your working days may have undercut daily time reading, studying, and meditating on Scripture. Now is the time to recommit to a regular time in the word. Perhaps you would benefit from a more disciplined prayer life. You have heard about spiritual disciplines since you came to Christ but maybe have never been able to practice them. Now you may want to commit to some of them like fasting, solitude, silence, or others.

2. Prayerfully determine your priorities.

If you have not already done so, it is essential that you establish your list of priorities before your sabbatical is finished. Working years have placed so many demands on your time and energy that you have not been able to live according to your true values. No longer will the job determine your priorities. Now you are on your own. Start by modeling your activities after the apostle Paul who said “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). The two big ones are spending more time with Jesus and serving him by serving others. The experience of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus and friends of Jesus, is instructive. Jesus had been invited to have a meal with them, and Martha was busy preparing what I am sure was delicious food. Mary was sitting, listening to Jesus. When Martha complained to Jesus that she was stuck with all the work, Jesus answered that Mary was doing the best thing by spending time with him. Clearly, since they needed to eat, it was not one or the other, serving vs. savoring, but keeping the two in balance. It is that balance we should seek in retirement.

As you embark on retirement, remember it is a precious gift our Lord allows us. Accept it gratefully, steward it well, and enjoy it as you glorify God.

Now, of course, there are many ways our retirements can glorify God. These may include family, friends, community, church, or even a different (less intense) job. But, we must never lose sight of that one overall goal of glorifying God. This should be the most important question we ask as we approach retirement. When should I retire? How can I best glorify God? Where is it best to live? How can I best glorify God? What should I do all day? How can I best glorify God? How much time should I spend with children and grandchildren? How can I best glorify God? How can I serve my church? How can I best glorify God? This one question applies to all.

3. Spend your time in meaningful activities that will pay eternal dividends.

You have come to the time when your sabbatical is over, have determined your priorities, and have arrived at a comfortable amount of time each day to spend with Jesus, so now it is time to prayerfully consider how you will serve. Here, I would share some principles that I have found useful.

First, get involved in activities that are genuinely good and that contribute to the well-being and moral purity of others. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2:10 that we were created for good works. There is a world of difference between doing a round of golf by yourself just to have something to do and spending time helping at a homeless shelter. Second, do things of eternal benefit. Moses, in Psalm 90, asked God to establish the work of his hands. He did not want to get to the end of a day without something done of eternal value. That is what he meant by “establish the work of our hands” (Ps. 90:17). Third, something to which I personally feel God’s call, is to spend time with younger people. So many young people want and need older friends to encourage and pray for them. What a privilege to spend time with younger folk.

How Not to Think about Retirement

Now, as promised in the title of this essay, we need to consider how not to think about retirement. Put briefly, retirement is not the time to focus on yourself, your comfort, and your happiness. The reason is simple: it rarely works. I have too often seen people retire with a primary goal of being happy. Perhaps they spent their time doing things for the sheer joy of them when they first retired. For a while they were content, but it was not long until they became bored, unhappy, and made life miserable for those around them. The same was true of those who viewed retirement as a time to be totally free to do exactly as they chose each day. That may have worked for a while, but soon they ran out of things to do and became bored, unfulfilled, and depressed. Finally, as a physician, I must warn you of those who destroy their retirement with alcohol or other substance abuse.

As you embark on retirement, remember it is a precious gift our Lord allows us. Accept it gratefully, steward it well, and enjoy it as you glorify God.

John Dunlop, MD is the author of Retiring Well: Strategies for Finding Balance, Setting Priorities, and Glorifying God.

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