If you're young, the most critical retirement risk you face right now is that you may be hoping to retire someday, but you haven't given much thought to retirement planning. Or maybe you're counting on Social Security and Medicare for your financial security in retirement; after all, you're paying taxes, right?
In fact, not saving enough or not starting early enough is a significant risk. In that case, you could face difficulties funding your retirement and the possibility of running out of money before you run out of life.
For those nearing or in retirement, however, the risks are different. We may or may not run out of money, but whatever we have is vulnerable to multiple risk factors. In addition, there are many critical decisions to be made, and one wrong one could be detrimental or even catastrophic to our financial well-being.
This is true for Christians and non-Christians alike, as nowhere in Scripture are we promised hazard-free lives devoid of difficulty or even disaster. The Bible teaches the opposite. Matt. 5:45 says God "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." Although we should expect to endure various difficulties, we have God's promises that they are for our good and that he will strengthen us with his wisdom, grace, and power in the midst of them (1 Cor. 10:13).
"Longevity risk" is a term that the financial community has come up with to describe the risk that you could outlive your savings in retirement. According to the Social Security Administration, the life expectancy for a 65-year-old male in 2020 was 82. But keep in mind that's the mid-point. Some will live much longer. If you retire at 65 and live to age 90, you'll have to figure out how to fund 25 years in retirement!
Longevity risk is often considered retirees' greatest one, but is it? It's a critical concern for sure. Financial firms and media regularly remind us how generally unprepared most people are to fund a long retirement and the need to take action while there's still time. However, some go over the top in terms of using doubt and fear to motivate people to save and invest.
In this blog, I try to apply biblical principles to guide and motivate Christians to take the appropriate steps to plan for later life. I stress responsible, God-honoring retirement stewardship, not fear-induced actions of any kind. Although we need to be sober-minded about this topic, I don't think fear has any place in retirement stewardship. Remember: God has not given us a spirit of fear; through his Word and Holy Spirit, he has given us wisdom and a sound mind (2 Tim. 1:7).
That said, because people are generally living longer and individually might live a long life, "longevity risk" is real. Godly wisdom suggests we need money set aside to live in dignity as long as we are on this earth. We do that even as we trust God to meet our daily needs while setting aside something today for anticipated needs in the future (Prov. 21:20).
Longevity can also be viewed as an over-arching risk, but there are other subtending risks that retirees need to understand and deal with, and we'll look at them in detail in the next article. It's important to understand these risks because they can diminish our retirement savings in one way or another. But before I do, there's actually a more significant risk that we need to discuss, one that has virtually nothing to do with money.
A greater risk
In discussions about retirement and longevity, we can easily get overly focused on the financial aspects of stewardship (our "treasure") and much less concerned about the "time, talents and testimony" aspects.
As I've stressed, the financial component certainly isn't something to be ignored. But could it be that if God grants us a long life (which isn't guaranteed, of course), it's for a reason and that our concerns need to go beyond just figuring out how we'll pay the bills over a long retirement?
Perhaps, instead of just focusing on the risk of outliving our money, it would be a good idea to also think about the risk of missing the wonderful opportunities a long life affords. What will we do with such a gift; how might God want to use us in our 60s, 70s, 80s, and perhaps even beyond?
If you read much about retirement planning beyond the financial aspects, you'll likely come across this statement: "you need to find your purpose in retirement." There's some wisdom in that, but we must remember that purpose is about you and the activities that make life meaningful to you—what "gets you out of bed in the morning." But a word that should perhaps have more weight and meaning for Christians is "calling."
The Puritans and, more recently, Os Guinness (who is not a Puritan but contemporized their thinking in his book, The Call) distinguished between two aspects of calling: our "primary" call and our "secondary" call.
The primary call refers to our high calling as followers of Christ, directed towards Him and for Him, rather than specific life tasks or situations. It's about being, not doing. Our primary calling is rooted in the transforming power of the gospel and our new identity in Christ as new creations brought into God's kingdom "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" (Matt. 6:33).
Thus, we want to live according to the will of God, according to God's purposes. This is our core reason for living as God's people, and it is expressed primarily by loving Him with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37). Our highest calling shapes our purpose and mission in life, influencing how we steward our time, talents, treasure, and testimony.
The secondary call, sometimes described as our "common calling," recognizes that God lays claim to our lives in our particular circumstances. We have a calling in common with all believers; to live entirely for Him in every aspect of life. The Puritans took the essence of this common calling to be the second great commandment: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:39). This is a calling to love and serve others in the love of Christ in all our spheres of life.
John Calvin further expanded on the idea of a secondary calling by emphasizing that each individual has specific callings in life and the responsibility to discover their gifts and use them for the good of others and the glory of God to fulfill those callings. He referred to this as our "vocational callings."
Our specific callings will change, and in retirement, our specific callings may differ from the vocational call we lived out during our working years. In that context, it's the unique tasks and roles God has prepared for us in life, which includes later life (Ephesians 2:10). It's how we live out our primary and common callings practically using our time, talents, treasure, and testimony in the season of life we're calling retirement as individual disciples of Jesus, and communally as part of a family, church, local neighborhood and community, and the world.
This idea of finding your specific or "vocational" calling in retirement may sound a little strange since it's typically applied in a workplace context. But retirees still have a specific calling, even if primarily as grandparents, concerned citizens, and elders in the church (I'm referring to the elder as broadly defined in the Bible, not an ordained role based on church polity).
I've stressed the importance of stewarding our gifts well because calling is partially a function of the particular gifts that God has given us. But we can't discern our calling by only looking inwardly and taking inventory of them. We must also look outside ourselves, first to God and then to the world around us, to see what doors of need and opportunity may open. God can use other people and the ordinary circumstances of everyday life to guide us to our calling.
To discover your specific calling(s) in retirement, consider how you can align your skills, gifts, abilities, experience, and material resources with the needs around you. You might ask yourself questions such as:
- What unique talents and skills could you use in your vocation that could be "repurposed" in retirement?
- Which "people needs" resonate with you? What kinds of problems or ministry needs to move you?
- What are the most pressing volunteer needs in your church? Your community? In what way does your family need you?
- When have you felt the most compassion and concern for others?
- What activities do you enjoy, and how can you use your talents and abilities to meet needs while doing something you like?
- What are you good at (you don't think so, but others tell you you are)?
- Do you have surplus possessions or resources that can be used to serve others?
- In what way have you felt God nudging you to take a step of faith?
- What kind of work—for pay or not—might you do as a specific calling in retirement?
Calling and purpose
Calling is about God and what he wants us to do with our lives. Therefore, finding your "purpose" is about using your wisdom and experience to find work that fits your life in retirement but also fulfills the specific calling God has given you. For example, with a common calling to love your neighbor, you may sense a particular calling to help people experiencing homelessness, and the work you choose is to serve meals at a homeless shelter once a week where you can meet an urgent need while looking for opportunities to share the gospel.
Work can be a fulfilling and meaningful part of your life in retirement, complementing recreation, leisure, and rest. But even hiking a mountain trail is "work" (well, physical exertion), but it's not the same as serving at the local homeless shelter or food pantry. It allows you to continue participating in God's work and helping others while utilizing your skills, talents, and experiences. Christians can approach work in retirement with a heart and mindset of love and service and align with God's callings for their life.
The whole idea of life's purpose differs for Christians and non-Christians. For non-Christians, life may be a constant search for meaning and purpose. But Christians understand that God created them for a purpose, and life is an ever-deepening discovery and realization of that purpose and what God has called us to do.
We take on extraordinary risk if we retire with no real purpose or passion about how we want to live our lives. In an article about working in retirement, I quoted part of a blog post by Randy Alcorn, a well-known and respected author, who says that having no purpose in retirement is actually dangerous to our health:
When a man retires at sixty-five, studies show his chances of having a fatal heart attack immediately double. Our minds and bodies weren't made for an arbitrary day of shutdown. Nowhere in Scripture do we see God calling healthy people to stop working. Of course, it's perfectly legitimate to work without pay. You can give labor to ministry and volunteer work rather than your present job. But as long as God has us in this world, He has work for us to do. The hours may be shorter; the work is different. The pay is lower or nonexistent. But He doesn't want us to take still productive minds and bodies and permanently lay them on a beach, lose them on a golf course, or lock them in a dark living room watching game shows.
Similarly, an article in the Wall Street Journal, citing studies of 1,500 men and women by the Chicago-based Rush University Medical Center's Alzheimer's Disease Center, shows that having a purpose in life can help stave off cognitive decline and promote a broadly healthier, longer life.
Our longevity opportunity
No doubt, part of good stewardship is about making sure we have enough to provide for our families in our later years. And that may involve taking on and managing many challenges and risks. But good stewardship also means managing our longevity opportunity—being prepared to step into the area of impact and influence God has uniquely equipped us for and called us to in our later years – in other words, the "good works" he has called us to.
That means that your good works can include that which you do at work, with your children and grandchildren, in your hobbies, neighborhoods, and community associations. If you're a parent, your good works include loving, relating to, and guiding adult children and perhaps grandchildren. If you enjoy the outdoors, you will be just as aware of God's glory in his creation as you are of the enjoyment you get from the specific activity you're engaging in.
As we grow older, we have more opportunities to see ourselves as God's masterful creations and do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, by his grace, strength, authority, and for his purposes.
Thinking about retirement stewardship in this way may help us plan better and save more, and also better manage the "risks" in retirement, thereby turning what often feels like an onerous duty and obligation into the preparation for a grand future adventure by doing the things that God prepared for us beforehand so that we could walk in them, in this life and in the life to come.
What vision do you have of what God has prepared for you in your later years?