Many assume that retirement is all about ticking off the bucket list of life’s great experiences. But for Christians, deep joy in our golden years is found elsewhere, says Dr John Wyatt
The Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard once wrote: “Life can only be understood backwards; but must be lived forwards.”
I recently celebrated my 70th birthday and I’ve been doing some reflection on my journey so far. The biblical metaphor of the long-distance race makes more sense to me now than it used to.
I can’t fail to recognise that I’m well over the halfway stage of life and those final laps are coming into view. I’ve never actually run a marathon, but I know that every serious runner needs to plan ahead for the final stages of the race. How are they going to survive when they hit the wall? How are they going to keep their energy reserves topped up all the way to the finishing line?
That picture of the long-distance race is found in Hebrews 12: “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (v1-2).
Many of us have been scarred by unexpected suffering, struggle, bereavements and loss over the years we have lived and the miles we have already covered. Perhaps your race has already taken you through “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4, NKJV). The passage in Hebrews tells us that each of us has a course marked out for us but, whatever that might look like, we’re not alone. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are in this together and we are here to encourage, support and even to carry one another along when we need to.
In the later stages of the race, there are two major transitions that most of us will experience. First, the transition from paid employment to what is laughingly called ‘retirement’ and, second, the transition from independent living to dependence on others. Both of these may involve loss, challenge and disruption but, at the same time, they offer wonderful and unexpected opportunities for growth. That passage from Hebrews demonstrates that Jesus endured the race with all its challenges and suffering “for the joy that was set before him”. Ultimately running this race is all about joy.
Not only is there joy to come when we finally complete the race; there is joy in each stage of the race as we discover the reality of Jesus in a new way at each phase of the journey.
We are living in a remarkable and unique period of world history. By the time we enter our 60s, many people are coming towards the end of paid employment. And yet the statistics say that many of us have another 25-30 years of active life ahead of us. That’s completely new. We are the first generation to face this reality – and it raises huge questions. What is all that time for?
In his helpful and encouraging book Finishing Well (SPCK), author Ian Knox has these inspiring words: “A long life is a gift, not a curse. It is full of possibilities. And the gift is the gift of time.” So what are you going to do with the gift of time, as you move from paid employment to retirement? Some older couples I have come across seem to be having a great time burning through the children’s inheritance! Exotic foreign holidays, restaurant meals, hobbies, cruises. Ticking off the items on their bucket list. But do you really want to spend the next 30 years in contented selfishness?
The truth is that we all need meaning in our lives. We need direction, goals and purpose. And while there is nothing wrong in making the most of the leisure opportunities that retirement may bring, the Christian faith teaches us that we find our true meaning and purpose in serving others and being there for them. This is where our deepest joy is to be found, in continuing to become the person we were made to be, right up to the end of our lives on earth.
Until this point in the race, many of us found our identity and meaning in our employment. And many people who are approaching retirement age find the prospect of stopping work absolutely terrifying.
do you really want to spend the next 30 years in contented selfishness?
If we place our entire identity, meaning and purpose in our employment, retirement can be a devastating blow. When I retired from the NHS, after more than 30 years’ continuous service, I was surprised by how destabilising and unsettling I found the process. I went through a period of questioning, seeking, exploring possibilities and talking to others, interspersed with times of deep internal uncertainty.
In her valuable course ‘Retiring Well’, Helen Calder advises people to start thinking and planning for their future one to two years before retirement. Looking back, I can certainly see the wisdom of this. I might have avoided some of that unsettled and painful period if I had started planning for retirement in advance.
As we make the transition from paid employment to retirement, we have to recognise that we all have shoulds, oughts and musts. We all have duties and responsibilities to others that we cannot and should not avoid. But the problem with the ‘shoulds’ and the ‘oughts’ is that they tend to drain us of energy. And if we spend too much of our time on the ‘shoulds’ and the ‘oughts’ we may find that we’re running on empty.
Instead, we need to be looking for those areas of service, creativity or reaching out to others where we say to ourselves: “I would just love to…” or: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if…” Because these are the areas, concerns and roles that energise and motivate us. These are the things that thrill our hearts, and give meaning and purpose to our lives.
Author Frederick Buechner writes: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In other words, our Christian vocation is a unique place where our joyful service can meet the world’s deep needs. Of course, this sounds pretty idealistic. There are times when our service and sense of doing what is right is not so much about joy as grit, determination and struggle. And yet, there’s something very profound in this thought, particularly for older people. As we transition from paid employment to the next phase of life, we need to find new energy, purpose and meaning.
Deep gladness can be found in many unspectacular but vital activities: prayerfulness, practising gratitude, offering friendship, passing on wisdom, leaving a spiritual legacy, investing in the next generation or sharing our faith with others. The different ways are endless.
The final lap
As we enter the final stages of the race, most of us will become dependent on other people for some or all of our personal care needs. Even in this difficult and challenging period, there can be a strange joy.
In 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (ESV), the apostle Paul talks honestly about his struggles. He describes himself as afflicted, crushed, perplexed and struck down, but he summarises his experience in these words: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal”.
As we think about the transition into dependence, Paul’s perspective is vital. He distinguishes between the “things that are seen”, which are transient, and the “things that are unseen”, which are eternal. So much of our modern culture is focused on surface appearance and, in particular, the way that our faces and bodies look. But the Christian faith teaches us something profoundly countercultural: that we need to look beyond immediate reality to the unseen realities that lie beneath the surface.
One of those unseen realities is that dependence is all part of the design. As software engineers like to say: “It’s a feature, not a bug!” In a society that prizes control, choice and independence above everything else, a Christian understanding of dependence is deeply countercultural. God chooses to create us out of dust – out of the same stuff as everything else. And so human beings are designed to be frail, to be dependent on others, to be limited and vulnerable.
We come into the world as helpless beings, totally dependent on another’s love and care. We go through a phase of our lives when other people depend on us. We protect them, care for them, feed them, pay for them. And then most of us will end our physical lives totally dependent on the love and care of others. We will need other people to feed us, protect us and care for us. And this is not a terrible, degrading, inhuman reality. It’s part of the narrative of a human life.
Many people approaching retirement age find the prospect of stopping work absolutely terrifying
That’s why the apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 6:2: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ”. So whenever you hear someone say: “I just don’t want to be a burden to anybody”, you should gently respond: “You are meant to be a burden. And I am meant to be a burden to you!”
Genuine practical caring – bearing one another’s burdens – is tough. It’s hard and it’s challenging. And I know that many older people worry about the possibility of becoming dependent in the future. Many Christian believers have deep anxieties about what the future might hold, and what would happen if they were unable to care for themselves. They know that they should be prepared to accept becoming dependent on others, but they are painfully aware of the inadequacies of the health and social care that is available.
So as we prepare for the final stages of our race, we need to discuss these questions in advance with our loved ones, friends and with professionals who can advise us about the options. It is easy to give way to fear. But even dependence can bring new possibilities – of internal growth, learning more about gratitude and joy, and letting go gracefully. And for those of us who are Christian believers, dependence can lead to a new closeness to Christ.
In his book Finishing Well to the Glory of God (Crossway), physician John Dunlop writes: “There is an essential humility that makes us willing to be served…Throughout life, a desire for self-sufficiency can impair spiritual growth. At the end of life, it’s good to be less self-sufficient, and trust God more fully.”
Those are profound and countercultural words. We have more to learn and more ways to grow as we come to the end of our lives. And prayerfulness, gratitude, passing on life-wisdom, leaving a spiritual legacy, investing in the next generation, sharing our faith – all these can continue even as we become increasingly dependent on others.
So let’s aim to run the race before us “with perseverance” to the very end. In secular thinking, life consists of growth to a peak in your 20s and 30s followed by a long, slow decline towards the nothingness of old age. But Christian thinking reverses this timeline.
As the writer of Proverbs put it: “The way of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, which shines ever brighter until the full light of day” (Proverbs 4:18, NLT).
John Wyatt is the author of The Final Lap