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On Retirement and Vocation

By Dr. Douglas Groothuis


On Retirement and Vocation

 

About five years ago, people started asking me if I was thinking of retirement. (I am now sixty-seven but am told I don’t look a day over sixty-five.) My response is always the same, “It’s not in my vocabulary. I have too much fire in my bones to stop teaching, writing, and mentoring—as long as I can still do it well.”


I then speak of the great jazz pianist, composer, and big-band leader Duke Ellington (1899-1974). Later in life, Duke was asked if he wanted to retire, since he had accomplished so much over so long. He would reply, “Retire to what? I don’t want to play golf. Music is my life.” In fact, his autography is called, Music is My Mistress.


The late philosopher Roger Scruton remarked that he didn’t enjoy vacations very much since he had arranged the general pattern of his to be fulfilling. I resonate with this as well.


My Calling


“Philosopher” is my title. To be a philosopher is God’s calling on my life, and it is my career. My precocious young friend Liam asked me a few years ago if I was a philosopher. “Yes,” I replied. He continued, “What do philosophers do?” “We think a lot about arguments,” I said. That seemed to satisfy him, and it satisfied me. Of course, we also write and teach about arguments. My work as a philosopher has focused on apologetics, ethics, and cultural criticism, and I thrive on my work.


But philosophy is deeper than arguments since it also summons reflection on the grisly vicissitudes of life—what breaks the heart and binds it back together. Philosophy originally was a discipline for finding out how to live well with wisdom, not just how to think well. And that is the biblical view incarnated in Jesus.


I am that rare person who has found my vocation and avocation to be one. I need not escape into trivial diversions to compensate for my day job. As Robert Frost put it in “Two Tramps in Mud Time” (1934):


My object in living is to unite My avocation and my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight.

Only where love and need are one,

And the work is play for mortal stakes,

Is the deed ever really done

For Heaven and the future’s sakes


I do what I love, and it usually benefits others. It may offend others, since I write and speak on controversial topics, but that is unavoidable. As Jesus said, “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26; see also 16:15). There is no need to escape my job, since research, teaching, preaching, and mentoring is where I flourish.[1] Of course, I need rest, as does everyone.


Retirement?


The idea of retirement is not found in the Bible. Nor is it consistent with a biblical ethic or worldview. We never retire from serving God or being productive if it is within our capacity. Rather, we should serve God with all our being while we can. As Moses, the man of God, wrote in his only Psalm:


Teach us to number our days,    that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

   Relent, Lord! How long will it be?    Have compassion on your servants.   Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,    that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.   Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,    for as many years as we have seen trouble.   May your deeds be shown to your servants,    your splendor to their children.

   May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;    establish the work of our hands for us—    yes, establish the work of our hands (Psalm 90:12-17; see also Ephesians 5:16).

 

We should yearn that God will “establish the work of our hands” so that we can use our short time on earth to carry on the biblical message to the next generation and to serve God in every way with all our strength (Matthew 22:37-40). There is nothing wrong in making a transition from a full-time paying job to other endeavors as one ages. That may be necessary. And if one retires in this sense, more time can be spent on relationships that might have been hindered because of full-time work. In fact, we should financially prepare for that outcome long before we reach “retirement age” (1 Timothy 5:8). However, we should not retire from serving God nor dedicate our latter years to simply recreating full time. God placed us on earth to work in some capacity (Genesis 1-2; Psalm 8).[2] There is a balance of work and rest in the Bible: six days of work, one day of rest is the pattern (Genesis 2:1-2; Exodus 20:8-11; Mark 2:27). God gave us the Sabbath to remind us of our finitude and dependency on our Creator. As we age, we may need to rest more (Ecclesiastes 12:1-7), but we should not swear off work as such, as this is our human vocation under God and for his glory (Matthew 6:33; 1 Corinthians 10:31). It makes sense that we will continue to work even in the New Heavens and New Earth, since that is intrinsic to our nature (Revelation 21-22). But there will be no more “sweat of our brow” involved since the curse will be lifted.

I will never retire, although at some point I may not be able to work full-time for pay. Nevertheless, I want to use my gifts to their fullest until the end, God helping me. May you do so as well.

 


[1] The last two paragraphs are adapted from Groothuis, Douglas. Walking Through Twilight: A Wife's Illness—A Philosopher's Lament (pp. 137-138). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] On the meaning of work, see Timothy Keller with Katherine Leary Alsdorf, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work with God’s Work (New York: Penguin, 2014).

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