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When I retired after more than four decades of college teaching and administrating, I expected certain people to give me a hard time. “So, the author of three books on vocation is retiring,” I could imagine them saying. “I thought you said work is a calling from God. Unless God canceled His call, how can you retire?” Actually, my friends have been supportive and haven’t thrown this in my face. But I have had to ask myself that question. Surprisingly, my retirement has brought me to a deeper sense of vocation.
Retirement and the Bible
Some say that Christians should keep working as long as possible because the Bible says nothing about retirement. But this is not completely true.
Under the law of Moses, the Levites had to retire from their work in the tabernacle at age fifty. “From the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more” (Num. 8:25). After Christ, the Levitical priesthood has given way to “the priesthood of all believers.” Since the Old Testament priests could retire, some might argue, all Christians can retire, and the retirement age should be fifty. But this surely stretches the application.
The Bible commands us to work, but it also commands us to stop working. “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work,” the commandment says, “but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work” (Ex. 20:9–10). Under the Mosaic law, working when you should be resting could earn you the death penalty.
In addition to Sabbath days, there were Sabbath years. Every seventh year, no one was to work the land (Lev. 25:1–7). The people were to live on food saved up from the previous year, which God would bless with special abundance (vv. 19–22). An ancient Hebrew farmer would thus have a sort of retirement every seven years, distributed throughout his life, including when he was young.
There were also weeks of years. After seven seven-year periods—that is, every forty-nine years—there would be a Jubilee year. Debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and property reverted back to its original family owners (vv. 8–17).
The Year of Jubilee points ahead to the messianic age (Isa. 61; Luke 4:16–21). And the Sabbath rest points to the gospel, through which we are saved not by our work but by resting in the grace of God (Heb. 4:9–10).
But we can think of retirement as a sort of Sabbath. Or even as a Jubilee. In our case, before we retired, we paid off our debts. We moved away from the expensive suburbs of Washington, D.C., back to our ancestral homes in Oklahoma. And counting my high school jobs, I had been in the workforce for forty-nine years.
Retirement and Our Other Vocations
My deciding to retire was much like how I found my other vocations—a combination of opportunity, needs, and conviction that God was orchestrating it all.
A transition of leadership where I worked made for a good time to stand aside for new blood. The finances came together. After forty-nine years, our IRAs had grown to the point that we could live off the interest, at least in rural Oklahoma. The miracle of compound interest reminded me of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, whose jug of oil and jar of flour kept providing and never ran out.
Also, our families back in Oklahoma needed us. We became convinced that God was in this, that He was calling us.
Retirement underscores two important facets of the doctrine of vocation: the purpose of every vocation is loving and serving our neighbors. And the way we make our living is only one of our vocations and not even the most important one.
The great theologian of vocation, Martin Luther, taught that we have vocations in each of the three estates that God established for human life: the family, the church, and the state. Economic callings are classified with the family, how it makes its living, and the state, how the division of labor contributes to the common good. But even a person who is not working for pay—whether because of unemployment, inherited wealth, or retirement—has vocations in the family (as husband or wife, father, mother, son, daughter, and so on), the church (as a Christian having been called by the gospel), and the state (as citizens of the community and nation).
Retiring from the workplace is allowing me to pursue my other vocations and to love and serve my other neighbors in ways that I had neglected. My family vocations as husband, son, father, and grandfather are now central. I am more involved with our local congregation—where our son-in-law is our pastor—than I was before. I feel my citizenship more, our small town having a greater sense of community than the big cities and suburbs where we used to live.
I am still a “professor,” though of the “emeritus” variety. I am still writing. I am still teaching, with more time for speaking engagements, including multiple trips to Scandinavia, helping to bring back Christianity to those secularized lands.
I realize that our situation is better than that of many retirees. It might not last. A stock market collapse could make our IRAs worth as little as the shards of the widow’s jug of oil and jar of flour if they fell off the shelf. And at some point, our bodies will start falling apart. Trials and suffering are ahead, but those are part of our vocation too. Dr. R.C. Sproul has observed that the final calling is death. Retirement is a time to prepare for that, bringing us into our ultimate vocation, to be with God forever in an eternal Sabbath.