Don’t Retire From Life

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Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest. – Mark 6:31

Don’t resent growing old. Many are denied the privilege. – Unknown

I recall the story about a couple yearning to retire after many grueling years of work. Every year they had gone to the same isolated seaside town along the northwestern coast of the United States for vacation. His career with a major airline had allowed them to travel extensively, but this was their refuge, the one place in the entire world where they felt they could truly relax.

Nothing, they found, renewed them more than a brisk walk along the beach or a quiet dinner watching the sun set over the Pacific. When a cottage overlooking the ocean became available, they bought it immediately, convinced they had found their future retirement haven.

Finally the day arrived. The airline duly honored the man for his long years of service. The couple put their house up for sale and began the twelve-hundred-mile trek to their new home. They lived it up: long walks beside the crashing waves, the easygoing life of a small town, the freedom to set their own schedules and do whatever they wanted. Everything was exactly the way they had always envisioned it. This was living at its best!

By the fifth week, however, unease began to creep over them, and they knew they had made a mistake. Watching the waves crash against the rocks wasn’t enough to fill the void left by their former lives twelve hundred miles away. After their few weeks of rest, frequenting all the restaurants, coffee shops, and stores began to lose its charm. “Is this all we’re going to be doing for the next twenty or thirty years?” they asked. “What were we thinking to leave our children and grandchildren?” They were fortunate that the home they had lived in for thirty years had not yet sold, so they packed their belongings and returned home. The airline executive took on a part-time consulting job with his former company and commented, “I thought I was ready for retirement, but I just didn’t think it through.”

Many people could tell similar stories.

The old saying is still true: the grass is always greener on the other side. Retirement is quite different from a two-week vacation, and change is an inevitable part of life, no matter how young or old we are.

As the years pass we move from childhood to adolescence, then on to young adulthood and a career, probably followed by marriage and children and – eventually – the empty nest. Some of life’s transitions are predictable although others may catch us by surprise.

Life is full of changes, but one of the greatest comes with retirement. Many look forward to it; others dread it. Sooner or later almost everyone who lives long enough will experience it. “I can’t wait until I retire,” a man in his early sixties wrote me not long ago – something I have heard hundreds of times over the years. Another told me, “My wife and I are still in our thirties, and our greatest ambition is to be able to retire when I hit fifty.”

In contrast someone said to me recently, “I’m dreading retirement. The company policy has mandatory retirement, and I’ll have to step aside in a few years. I enjoy my work, and I can’t imagine my life without it.”

Reactions are different because people are different; however, for most people the end of the working years is truly a watershed event – a major milestone, marking not only the end of their careers but also the beginning of their latter years. Retirement is only one of the changes most of us will encounter as we grow older, but it is a huge one. Even if our spouses haven’t worked outside the home, the transition may be just as jarring for them as it is for us.

We may picture the years following retirement as a time of rest and relaxation, and to some extent it is true. But they have another side to them: like every other stage of life, our latter years will be filled with repeated changes and transitions.

The decision to retire… adjusting to a different daily routine… declining health as the years pass… the loss of a spouse… the need to move or downsize… increasing dependence on others – these and other events during our retirement years bring their own difficulties and adjustments.

And yet many people are ill-prepared for the realities of retirement, either viewing it unrealistically through rose-tinted glasses or refusing to think about it at all. “I never thought much about retiring or growing older,” a retired businessman confessed to me once. “If I’d run my business with as little advance planning as I gave to my retirement years,” he added, “I’d have gone bankrupt.”

“I thought I was prepared for my senior years,” a woman wrote me. “As a single professional woman, I’d devoted a great deal of attention to being certain I’d be financially secure. But now I’m realizing I’m totally unprepared for the emotional and spiritual challenges I’m facing. Financial security isn’t the whole story, I’ve discovered – not at all.”

What Does the Bible Say About the Time to Retire?

Work is a part of God’s plan for our lives. Work is not something we do just to put food on the table; it is one of the major ways God has given us to bring glory to Him. The writer of Ecclesiastes declared,

A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God. – Ecclesiastes 2:24

Paul said,

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. – 1 Corinthians 10:31

For most of His life, Jesus worked with His hands. “Isn’t this the carpenter?” some of His enemies sneered, assuming (incorrectly) that an ordinary occupation such as carpentry surely disqualified Him from being the Messiah (Mark 6:3). The apostle Paul likewise worked with his hands, often earning his living as a tentmaker during his travels (Acts 18:3).

In God’s eyes every legitimate work has dignity and importance, which means we should do our work with pride and diligence and integrity.

But our work was never meant to become the center of our lives. That place belongs only to God, and when we allow our work to dominate and control us, then it has become an idol to us – and that is wrong. Someone who brags about working seventy or eighty hours (or more) a week probably thinks he is the master of his job – but in reality he has become its slave. In addition, because his life is so wrapped up in work, his identity or sense of self-worth – that is, his understanding of his value or significance as a person – often comes to depend on his ability to work. Unfortunately our materialistic society only reinforces this view. But God says you are greater than your work, and your work is only a part of His plan for you.

Does this mean it is wrong in God’s eyes to stop working and retire?

It’s true that the word retirement – especially as we use it today – isn’t found in the Bible. For the most part people in the ancient world worked as long as they were physically able. They had to because there were no social security plans or retirement savings schemes to help them in their latter years. In addition, many people worked for themselves as farmers or fishermen or artisans, and they had to keep working as long as possible in order to survive (as is still true in many parts of the world). If they were unable to work, they usually depended on their families to care for them. Sometimes that wasn’t possible, however, which is why the Bible commands us to have special concern for those who lack family support – widows, orphans, and people with disabilities. The psalmist wrote,

Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy. – Psalm 82:3-4

The only explicit reference to retirement in the Bible concerns the members of the tribe of Levi, who were given the responsibility of assisting the priests in the Tabernacle (or later, in the Temple), the center of Israel’s worship of God. This included the maintenance of the building and the care of the sacred objects used in worship. Their responsibilities began at the age of twenty-five, but the Bible says,

At the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer. – Numbers 8:25

The reason isn’t given, but presumably it was to minimize the danger (through physical weakness) of accidentally dropping something used in worship and thus damaging it or making it ceremonially unclean. It may also have been to give a new generation of Levites the opportunity to assume their responsibilities.

Today we live in a much different world, and the idea of retiring from our work and enjoying our latter years is very much a part of our thinking. Older people are often pressured into retirement in order to give employment opportunities to the young.

There isn’t anything wrong with retiring, and those years can be some of the best of our lives if we can see them as a gift from God. God rested on the seventh day after He had finished His work of creating the universe, and we shouldn’t feel guilty if He gives us the opportunity to rest once our work is done.

How Did I Know When to Retire?

The decision to step aside from my life’s work of preaching was not an easy one for me. For years I had told people I would retire only when God decided to retire me – but what exactly did I mean by that?

Slowly it dawned on me that I wasn’t sure how I would know if God wanted me to step aside, short of a major health crisis.

Somewhere I had heard of a well-known preacher who persisted in his work long after he should have retired until one day someone had to take him by the elbow and gently lead him out of the pulpit because he wasn’t speaking coherently. I certainly didn’t want that to happen to me.

But as the years went by, I began to realize that I no longer had the physical stamina to maintain the schedule I had once kept. After much prayer and consultation with people whose wisdom I respected, I began to shorten the length (and number) of our citywide crusades, moving from two weeks to ten days, then to a week, then eventually to three days. I also began limiting other engagements as much as possible to preserve my strength.

In time I turned over more day-to-day administrative responsibilities in our organization to my son Franklin, whose commitment to evangelism and extensive experience as president of a worldwide Christian relief and evangelism organization clearly qualified him to lead our work. In 2001 our board of directors unanimously elected him to take my place as president.

Still our crusade ministry continued, and although I found even a three-day crusade exhausting as the years passed, God continued to bless the preaching of His Word. How could I step aside in the face of this? Much as I feared holding on too long, I feared just as much stepping aside too soon.

My decision to retire from crusade ministry came gradually and, to be honest, somewhat reluctantly. But as I continued to pray and seek advice, I sensed God definitely was leading me to bring that part of my ministry to an end. No one is indispensable.

I knew that God would raise up others (including Franklin) to carry on the proclamation of the Gospel. As a result, after much prayer I concluded that our 2005 Greater New York Crusade would be my final crusade, and as it came to a close, I had a definite sense of peace, knowing I had made the right decision.

This didn’t mean I would never preach again; a year later I shared the pulpit with Franklin on the final night of his Baltimore festival. Even as I review this chapter, I am considering an opportunity to preach a brief message over the Internet (which some say could reach the largest audience in the history of our ministry).

I also have more time now to do some things I have always wanted to do, such as meet with young evangelists and encourage them in their ministries. From time to time I am able to visit our Bible training center at the Cove in Asheville or the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte. I have also been able to continue other parts of my ministry, such as writing books and articles from time to time. But nothing thrills me more than hearing from others who are on the front lines. It is encouraging to see what God continues to do through others.

As the older generation we should be mindful of our responsibility to pray for others. Retirement should not put us on the shelf. We should use this time in our lives to rest from our labors but lift up others who are carrying heavy loads.

Excerpted with permission from Nearing Home by Billy Graham, copyright Thomas Nelson, 2013.

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Your Turn

How does Billy Graham inspire and exhort you to work hard for Jesus well into your “golden years”? Are you approaching the time to retire? Has retirement been delayed due to the economy or other factors? Come share your story with us on our blog! We would love to hear from you about how to not retire from life! ~ Devotionals Daily

Billy Graham

Billy Graham, the world-renowned author, preacher, and evangelist has delivered the gospel message to more people face-to-face than anyone in history and has ministered on every continent of the world; millions have read his inspirational classics.

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