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  • Writer's pictureBill Wichterman

Retirement Shouldn’t Mean We Stop Working

I’ve been working since I was 15 years old when I got my first job as a dishwasher. I remember the thrill of going into the Billy Penn Restaurant in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and donning my white apron—and the joy of receiving my paycheck. I enjoyed the sense of dignity in holding a job and earning money. I still do, 44 years later.

Eventually, I graduated to busboy, then waiter and lifeguard, then missionary, then public policy advisor in the White House and Congress, and now a corporate consultant in a law firm. I have no plans to retire, but my health may someday force me to stop working for pay.

I have friends who are beginning to retire. They’ve run the numbers, and they believe they have enough money to live out their lives without paid work. Good for them . . . maybe.

I say “maybe” because if retirement means a time to kick back and pursue a life of leisure, that’s contrary to the scriptural mandate to work. This may sound like sacrilege to the “American Dream,” but our current retirement culture seems to often be out of step with the biblical mandate.

I come from German stock, and work is in my blood. I work hard, and I work long. The busier I am, the happier I am. But that’s not why I believe retirement can be an unholy choice. There’s something more fundamental: work is our calling—not just for workaholics or people who love their jobs, but for everyone. We were made to work. In Genesis, God commands the first humans to maintain the garden and have dominion over creation—and this was before humanity’s rebellion and fall. Work is at the heart of creation.

The rebellion brought the thorns—metaphorical and literal—that made work more arduous, but that didn’t relieve us of our call to work. Paul wrote in Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

Recall Jesus’ story about the rich man who built bigger barns to accommodate his bumper crop. There’s nothing wrong with bigger barns in themselves; the problem was the farmer did it so he could stop working and take it easy. But the Lord said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” The sin was in both his sloth and his hoarding.

I think these verses should be scary to some people who view their retirement as the end of the race. Our rest comes in Heaven, not in retirement. Until then, we are commanded to work.

Even in Heaven, we will work. Author Randy Alcorn writes, “Because work began before sin and the Curse, and because God, who is without sin, is a worker, we should assume human beings will work on the New Earth. We’ll have satisfying and enriching work that we can’t wait to get back to, work that’ll never be drudgery.” If you’re in a job that you hate, it might sound great to be without work. But if you think of the most satisfying work you’ve ever done, you’ll get a glimpse of what it will be like in Heaven.

There is a danger is idolizing work and ignoring God’s command that we rest. Too many Christians seem to think there are only nine commandments that still apply, and the Sabbath was an Old Testament thing. Not so. Jesus sought to reform anti-human Sabbath observance, but not Sabbath rest. We shouldn’t be workaholics. Sabbath observance has been a part of my Christian life since my first job as a dishwasher—a job from which I was fired because I said I couldn’t work Sunday mornings. I observed the Sabbath through my college and graduate school years—and even in the White House. It can be hard to do, but the Lord knows we need rest.

But the rest is so we can work, not the other way around. People who work hard for their career so they can enjoy “golden years” of golf, sunning, more golf, and a perfect lawn (“get off my lawn, you kids!”) have perverted the relationship between rest and work. Rest is a cessation of our usual work, precisely so we are better equipped to work again. That’s part of the reason why a sedentary office worker’s Sabbath may look different than a carpenter’s—what constitutes rest may look different for each of us. The key is that we’re stopping to focus on God and recharge our batteries. Think of the Sabbath as a time to stop to sharpen the saw.

Work need not be paid. Perhaps you’ve spent your career in the classroom, and your retirement is doing volunteer work at your church or hospital or civic center. The key is that we are serving others through our work, paid or not.

In the last year of my father’s life, he lived in assisted living during Covid. He told me he wondered why he was still alive at 88 years old with little discernible purpose, but I told him that every one who entered his room was another person to whom he could minister. Plus, he could do work via email in the lives of many other people. Our words of encouragement and admonition and instruction are a form of work, pleasing to the Lord when done for Him. “Retirement” should not be the cessation of work but the redeployment of our resources.

There are also practical reasons why too much rest can be bad for us. The Lord commanded that we rest one day and work six days. Too much rest can make us self-centered, self-indulgent, and cranky. We may develop a tendency to gripe about little things that mostly escaped our attention during our years of paid work. We can become connoisseurs of the frivolous when our job becomes our next leisure activity. There is a fine line between feasting and gluttony, resting and sloth. Counter-intuitively, we actually enjoy rest far more when it’s only a punctuation between work. When it becomes our main thing, it loses its luster.

My life is more my responsibility to steward well than a gift to be enjoyed. God made me to serve Him and serve others, and not so I could have a happy life. Whether or not we’re happy is far less important than whether we are responsible with the resources—time, talent, and treasure—with which we’ve been entrusted. None of it is ours to own; it belongs to God, and we will be called to give account for how we used the Lord’s resources. “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)

For those who have concluded they no longer need to work for pay because they have saved up enough money, why not continue to earn money and then just give it all away? The worldwide median income is $850. If you’re making the U.S. median household income of $71,000, imagine what your after-tax earnings could do in the lives of the world’s poor! If your net pay is about $53,000, you could literally double the median income for 62 families. Or consider how that money could be used to scale small- and medium-sized businesses in the developing world, creating a perpetual motion machine of wealth creation for middle-class jobs that transform economies. And then do that for five years—years when you could have been lowering your golf handicap, but instead, you are transforming the lives of thousands of people for generations to come. We in the developed world are uniquely equipped to reduce poverty through our paid work. And for high net-worth people, that power increases exponentially.

It may be the Lord’s call for you to stop earning money to give your time to a ministry. But have you considered whether the Lord wants you to continue in your high-paying job so you can equip several people to do the work you’d otherwise volunteer for? Because earning money comes so easily to Americans, we may be neglecting our unique super-power just because we want to do something new.

At this point, you might be thinking I’ve become a bit too “judgy.” But I’m just raising questions for you to take to the Lord. It’s between you and Him; He’s your judge, and I am not. The question is whether the assumed course of retiring and spending a couple decades in pursuit of leisure is the Lord’s call for you. When Paul was facing the prospect of his execution at the hands of Roman authorities, he relished the thought of finishing his life and being with the Lord. But then he went on to revel in the thought that if he continues living “this will mean fruitful labor for me.” (Philippians 1:22) We are called to fruitful labor always, whether in chains, in a job we don’t love, or in retirement from paid work.

There’s also the question of whether we’ve earned enough money to stop working. This requires careful planning, including for the unexpected. My father was fantastic in almost every way, but when it came to planning for his financial future, not so much. He presumed the state or his family would care for him in later years, so he stopped working at age 62. When he ran out of money, my siblings and I did step in. We were grateful for his years of faithful parenting with our mom, but he could have done a better job planning so he wouldn’t need our financial support.

Hoarding is wrong. James inveighed against the rich who “hoarded wealth in the last days,” living “on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.” (James 5) Yet Proverbs 6 adjures us to emulate the ant which stores up provisions for the future. The line between hoarding and responsible saving may not be crystal clear, but it’s one we should aim for.

On a practical level, if you’re unsure whether you’re bordering on hoarding, you can be sure to cap the wealth you’re passing on to your family upon your death and designate non-profits that will receive your posthumous gifts. This way, you can avoid becoming a financial burden to your family without hoarding wealth. We use the National Christian Foundation’s “succession planning” tool. We’ve capped how much money goes to our kids (on an inflation-adjusted basis). The balance will go to NCF, and we’ve designated several charities that will receive funds upon our death.

By God’s grace, we’re nearing our finish line—the time at which we no longer need to earn money for ourselves. After hitting our prayed-over number, we’ll be exponentially increasing our giving to our donor advised fund. I daydream about how much money will go to ministries for every day I work. When I’m having a bad day due to tensions at work, I think about the good my earnings are doing for a poor family in East Africa—and how much more I’ll soon be doing when we reach our finish line—and it helps alleviate the stress of the moment. I could be making bricks 12 hours a day seven days a week just to feed my family. Instead, I’m in a good-paying job that is empowering me to transform the lives of thousands of people through my earnings. That puts a spring in my step!

As you’re considering whether you should retire from paid work, below are some practical questions to ask:

1. Why do I want to leave my paid work? To get away from an unpleasant job or to enhance my service to the Lord in a new chapter?

2. Have I saved enough money to responsibly stop earning money?

3. Is my spouse in agreement? The Lord often directs us through our spouses.

4. What will my new work be? Will it occupy most of my week in fruitful labor?

5. Would I serve better by continuing my paid work and giving away my net income?

6. How will I maintain my self-discipline without an employer? How will I fight sloth and self-indulgence?

7. Who will hold me accountable for the use of my time?

We were made to work, whether paid or unpaid. Even when we rest, it’s principally to equip us to work. Work done to the Lord—from trash collection to accounting to software design—pleases Him, blesses others, and blesses us. Before we fall into the well-worn retirement trap and become grumpy, self-indulgent old cranks, we should bear in mind Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:24–27)

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