Pastoral Perspectives

Retirement from Regular Service

Interestingly as Christians, we have a tendency to ask if retirement from regular service is biblical. In the same breath, we asked if retirement is biblical at all. My take is that it is both Yes and No. “YES” because the only passage in the Bible that states the age limit to work is in Numbers 8:23 – 26. The Levites entered their service as young men who would be strong enough to erect and transport the tabernacle with all of its sacred elements. Numbers 8:25 specifies that at age fifty Levites must retire from their duties. In addition to the heavy lifting of the tabernacle, Levites’ job also included inspecting skin diseases closely (Lev. 13). In a time before reading glasses, virtually no one over the age of fifty would be able to see anything at close range.

“NO”  in a sense that “From the age of fifty years they shall retire from the duty of the service and serve no more.” They were permitted, however, to “assist their [Levitical] brothers in the tent of meeting in carrying out their duties.” But the 50-and-over Levites “shall perform no service.” (Num. 8:26). By “assisting their brothers,” older Levites transitioned to different ways of serving their communities. Modern notions of retirement that consist of ceasing work and devoting time exclusively to leisure are not found in the Bible. The underlying principle is that when a Levite turned 50 years old their work responsibility did not end, but simply changed.

Retirement in a biblical perspective is a transition of work responsibilities, not an end to work. Nowhere in the Bible does it mention we should stop working. This doesn’t mean that you need to work until you die, but that the type of work you will do later in life is different. If the Lord gives you breath, it is because He still has work for you to do. Our goal should be to finish life well.

Retirement is a phase in life, where you can use your gifts, skills and abilities to glorify God differently than when you were working full-time. Some years ago, long before I even considered retirement, I was introduced this book “The Third Third of Life” by Walter C. Wright. It was an eye opener for me as I am now entering into retirement in  March 2023. The author gives insight for us to think about our life stages -thinking of life in thirds. The first third (1 – 30) where we spend  life in incubation, education, preparation, exploring identity and purpose, intimacy and relationships. The second third (30 – 60) is dominated by family and work: we define our core relationships and commit to a career path. The third third (60 – 90) encounters the unexplored terrain of life after the working career.

The final third of life is a good break point for us to reflect on the choices we have made and to consider what it means to finish well. In my early years of ministry, it has been my philosophy to work myself out of my job. And it is precisely on this note that I should hand over my baton when I am at the pinnacle of success in ministry. Looking back and looking forward will point us to ask “How do I finish strong with joy and meaning?” The world has changed and turning sixty is not necessary the beginning of decline. Just as the apostle Paul reminded us: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” (2 Cor.4:16) At 65 many are vigorous and hopeful, with energy to invest and contributions to make in mentoring the next generation.

CT Studd wrote: “Only one life, it will soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” We have only one life to live. We cannot change yesterday; we don’t know what will be happening tomorrow but we can choose how to live today. Our Ministry of Health is pushing for active ageing and to me this means lifelong learning. We do not finish education after we have formally acquired a paper qualification. Education is a life-long project. Every day we ask, “What ” am I learning? What do I want to learn next?” Such a mindset opens new doors to the future. I am sure Elder Alex who is involved in the life long learning platform will agree with me. You can ask him if you want to know more of adult life-long learning. In fact there is a Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI) and Institute for Adult Learning (IAL) in Singapore.

For me, it is just the beginning of the Third Third life. I told my family that the house is paid for; first time owning the “Title Deed” to our 4-room flat. The feeling of being debt free. With no more major financial commitment and if the Lord should bless my life like Moses shared in Psalms 90:10a,12: “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; … So teach us to number our day  that we may get a heart of wisdom.” how can the remaining days of my life be filled with joy and meaning?

I remember preaching my first sermon to seniors at age 60 on the topic “Thriving in your Golden Years” based on Joshua 14:6 – 15. At 85 when most people are looking for security and ease, Caleb is saying “I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming. So now give me this hill country…” (vs.11 &12) It’s not easy to grow old! Caleb was old, yet age did not hinder him! The disappointments of the past did not embitter him. And the giants in his future did not frighten him. How about you?

Retirement for me means to find activities that will engage you spiritually, mentally and physically in order to keep your faculties sharp. Remember, if you don’t use it, you will lose it. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” How will you fulfil that during retirement?

Wise planning can enable you to transition into retirement and volunteer your time and talents for kingdom work. Do you have a plan in place to do that? I can think of members like Geraldine Lee, a retiree who not only continue to support the needy financially but also getting a few other able-bodied members to visit the lock-ins, to either grab food or go out to have lunch to encourage other seniors. She also organized a visit to the Gardens by the Bay for a few wheelchair-bound seniors in 2 cars. I want to take this opportunity to also thank a group of volunteers (young people from church, retirees like Raymond & Linda Tan, Sim Beng and those from Faithful Fervent Followers DG) who recently came to help in CEF office. Even though we may retire from our vocations (even “full-time” Christian ministry), we should never retire from serving the Lord, although the way we serve Him may change. The Bible helps us see that retirement isn’t just about us. It’s also about others whom we can support, encourage and mentor.

Let this psalmist’s prayer be our prayer as we age: “So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.” (Psalm 71:18)

Rev Tan Cheng Huat (Non-resident missionary to SQ)

December 11, 2022