Tim Challies recently highlighted an article published on the Gospel Coalition blog in the “A la carte Friday” daily feature on his blog. The GC article, titled “How John Piper’s Seashells Swept over a Generation,” is about a message that Dr. Piper gave back in May of 2000 to an outside audience of approximately 40,000 at the fourth Passion Conference.
I was not at the conference, but I certainly remember hearing and reading about it. I like to think of it as the day John Piper delivered his most famous message on “retirement stewardship.”
The now famous “seashells message” is about a couple who retires to Florida and spends their time cruising on their 30-foot boat, playing softball, and collecting seashells. Piper also wrote a book based on the message (“Don’t Waste Your Life“). Both were about our calling as Christians not to waste our lives on frivolous things; or more specifically, not making the frivolous glorious and the glorious frivolous and even superfluous in our lives.
Piper directed the original message at an audience of mostly college students with their whole lives in front of them. According to those who were there, it was truly impactful and challenged them to live a lifetime of sacrificial service to God instead of just living for themselves. But the message has also been provoking and inspiring to older Christians, which is why I think it resonates with those of us who desire to be more intentional about our retirement stewardship.
The folly of modern retirement
Speaking of the surprising response to his “seashells message” by both young and old, Piper remarked, “I think I have had as many 50-somethings [as young people] thank me for rescuing them from the folly of retirement.” What is the “folly of retirement” that Piper is referring to? I think it’s the media’s and financial services industry’s marketing campaign to get us to buy into a particular view of retirement that portrays it as a cessation of work and 20 or 30 years of leisure and recreation; a life lived mainly in the pursuit of personal comfort and pleasure.
That is not to say that there are some who recognize the inherent dangers in such a lifestyle and are encouraging retirees to find more productive ways to spend their time, whether for pay or not, that improves the lives of others in their community. But many still hold on to the retirement “dream” as portrayed in the popular media.
This “modern” social and cultural view of retirement is being fostered by improved health, longer life, and a generally more affluent population. However, it is certainly folly when viewed from a biblical perspective. It is foolish to think that our whole mission and purpose in life is to work 40 years in a job we may or may not like, save as much as we can, and then retire with enough money to buy a place at the beach or the lake or in the mountains and then live there peacefully enjoying various leisure and recreational activities for the rest of our lives.
It is foolish because it focuses on our individual comfort and pleasure and not on the things that God has called us to do with our lives. It’s also foolish because it ignores our basic need to work; to involve ourselves in meaningful activities using our God-given gifts and abilities as long as God allows. It can also be foolish because the vast majority of people won’t be able to fund the kind of retirement “dreams” they see in magazines and on TV anyway.
Speaking of his own “retirement,” Piper himself has said, “I’m probably never going to ‘retire,’…I want to do something with my life beyond 50, 60, 70 that makes a difference, whether that’s volunteering at a soup kitchen or mentoring kids or whatever that looks like.” In Rethinking Retirement, he goes on to say,
…Finishing life to the glory of Christ means resolutely resisting the typical American dream of retirement. It means being so satisfied with all that God promises to be for us in Christ that we are set free from the cravings that create so much emptiness and uselessness in retirement.
The battle for our retirement
In our media-driven culture, older Christians (mid-life and beyond) can be tempted to succumb to more worldly views of retirement. We are shown images of sunny beaches and golf courses as though they epitomize the “good life” in retirement – the things that we should earnestly desire and work and save for above all else.
Those things have their allure, no doubt. They represent the retirement dreams of millions of people. But as Christians, we need to guard our hearts and minds against becoming captivated by a less-than-biblical view of later life. As Randy Alcorn wrote,
When it comes to the ‘retirement dream,’ we must ask, ‘Whose dream is it?’ It may be the American dream—but is it God’s? For some people, retirement has replaced the return of Christ as the ‘blessed hope,’ the major future event that we anticipate.
In contrast to the culture’s view of retirement, Piper’s message challenged us to see that we are called to serve and glorify the Lord all the days of our lives, including so-called “retirement.” As Piper has also said,
The way I think about retirement—though I don’t believe in ‘retirement’ if you can avoid it—is that you should start doing different things for Jesus. And if you can do them without having to be paid by people because you’ve set it aside, then that’s all the more wonderful.
One of the things I write about on this blog is practicing wise “retirement stewardship” so that you can retire with dignity. That means that you have enough to at least pay your bills and can be freed from the necessity of working for pay unless you want to. (This is especially important for those who will be unable to work at some point in their lives.) Like Piper, Alcorn sees retirement as an opportunity to more fully engage in the Gospel work that God has called all of us to:
If you’ve saved for retirement and no longer need to work for pay, then donate your time working for the church, the poor or underprivileged children. And don’t forget the great opportunity you have to become a self-supported missionary for two or five or ten or twenty years. If you’re still here, God isn’t done with you. In fact, your most fruitful years of ministry may be ahead. That’s true whether you’re in a retirement home or anywhere else. God has a unique ministry for you here and now. Don’t kill time, any more than you would burn money. Instead, invest it in eternity.
I also like the way Jaime Munson sums this up in his book, Money: Gift or God:
The word ‘retirement’ is not in the Bible, but faithfully saving money over the course of a lifetime and reaching a point where you can quit your day job is not a bad thing, provided your post-career years are spent living for Jesus, not just comfort and ease. Such a transition could, in fact, be a great gift if the extra time is used to invest in family, serve others with your gifts, and help those God brings into your life.
Can’t I go to the beach (and maybe even pick up a few shells)?
Now, please don’t hear what I’m not saying here. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to enjoy things in retirement – things like the beach (or even collecting shells) or playing golf. I like the beach (especially fishing), and I like to golf (although I’m worse than bad – I’m dangerous). These things are blessings from God that He has given us to enjoy (except for golf if you’re playing with me). No, the problem comes when we deceive ourselves into believing that the active pursuit of these things as the primary focus of our lives will provide lasting joy and real fulfillment.
In another article on the Gospel Coalition blog, Trevin Wax reinforces this idea that Piper is actually not anti-beach or anti-seashells:
You see, those who are familiar with John Piper’s passionate call to ‘not waste one’s life’ might think he is anti-seashell and anti-leisure. But don’t assume ‘vacation’ and ‘retirement’ is the same thing for Piper. And don’t miss another great theme running throughout Piper’s teaching: the joys of this world are to be enjoyed precisely because they are designed to cause us lift our eyes and hearts toward the joy we find in the Creator of this world.
Wax is saying that he does not think Piper is against us going on vacation with our family to the beach and picking up some seashells. Nor is he opposed to owning a boat or playing softball. What he is challenging is the idea that such things should be what we most give ourselves to in retirement – making leisure and pleasure our priority instead of Jesus and his Church, the lost and hurting, etc.
The message of the shells
In case you don’t remember, here is the seashells story that Piper reference in the message and that he later included in his book. Early on, after describing the death of two women missionaries in their 80s and discussing whether that was a “tragedy,” he said:
I will tell you what a tragedy is. I will show you how to waste your life. Consider a story from the February 1998 edition of Reader’s Digest, which tells about a couple who “took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59, and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their 30-foot trawler, play softball and collect shells.
At first, when I read it I thought it might be a joke. A spoof on the American Dream. But it wasn’t. Tragically, this was the dream: Come to the end of your life—your one and only precious, God-given life—and let the last great work of your life, before you give an account to your Creator, be this: playing softball and collecting shells.
Picture them before Christ at the great Day of Judgment: ‘Look, Lord. See my shells.’ That is a tragedy. And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream. Over against that, I put my protest: Don’t buy it. Don’t waste your life.
“Don’t waste your life,” of course, would become the title of his book with the same theme. It would also be the mantra for what some have described as a movement that Piper began that caused people of all ages to think more biblically about their plans for retirement – what I like to call “retirement stewardship.”
According to Wax’s article which I cited earlier, many of the students were awestruck by the message. Some used the words “special” and “holy” and “weight of glory” to describe its impact.
But it affected another group as well: Christians in their 40s and 50s who were starting to think about retirement.
I was 52 years old in 2000 when Piper first preached this message. As a middle-aged baby boomer myself, I’m sure I was beginning to think about retirement. I didn’t have a lot of specific plans, and I am pretty sure I wasn’t thinking about it exactly the way John Piper was. Sure, I was trying to live for Jesus, serving in my local church and working hard to raise my family, etc., but I think that overall I had a somewhat limited view of what a distinctly Christian retirement might look like.
I can’t remember when I first heard the message, nor do I remember when I read the book, “Don’t Waste Your Life,” but I now realize that it was probably one of the things that most influenced my understanding of a biblical retirement. I decided that I wanted to cultivate a view of my own retirement that didn’t put excessive focus on leisure and recreation but rather shifted the focus to planning for how to serve God and others in greater ways, especially when I am no longer employed full-time earning a living.
I confess that I am not naturally inclined to think of retirement in this way. Like many boomers, I would occasionally dream about a cabin in the mountains or a condo on the beach, wiling away the hours doing things I enjoy, such as fishing and hiking. I even bought some mountain property on a river many years ago but sold it a few years later when I calculated the cost of building something there. Am I saying I would never buy a cabin on a river or that I think it is wrong to do so? No, I’m not, although I would say that it’s unlikely that I will – I’d rather just rent one once in a while.
I guess you could say that John Piper ruined my retirement, so to speak. In fact, as I have tried to find my path toward a God-honoring retirement, I created this blog to share my thoughts and hopefully help others and with these goals in mind:
- To inspire and encourage future retirees to pursue generous giving of their time, talents, and treasure in later life – the stage known as “retirement,” and in doing so, to find real joy and fulfillment during those years.
- To inform and educate folks of all ages on the principles of financial stewardship, and provide additional practical information, so that they can “retire with dignity” and achieve a level of financial freedom that allows them to do what I describe in number one when they no longer desire to work for pay, or for some reason are unable to.
Seashells and retirement stewardship
Piper’s seashells message addresses our hearts (what we feel in our souls – our passions), our minds (what we think about what God says), and our lives (how we live) regarding what we should do with our “one precious life” as Piper calls it. The message cuts deep because it deals with our dreams, desires, values, and emotions. And, it may even hit us in the pocketbook.
Instead of spending tons of money on an extended retirement “vacation,” perhaps we should consider a more conservative retirement so that we have more time and money to offer in service to God and others. That is really what the whole idea of “retirement stewardship” is all about. It’s stewarding (managing) all the resources that God gives us – time, talents, and treasure – for God’s glory, for as long as God gives us life on this earth.
In light of this, I think there are some valuable lessons we can learn from Piper’s message and how it relates to retirement stewardship:
A fundamental principle at the core of Piper’s message and “retirement stewardship” is that we are we have been bought with a price – we belong to God, and our lives are not our own. The Bible teaches that we have been purchased at a price, which was Christ’s own blood. By His sacrificial death, Christ paid our ransom, which was paid to God. Therefore, what we do with our lives – how we live before and during retirement – matters. Because we belong to God, our lives should honor and glorify Him, no matter what our age.
Because we belong to God, our lives can have real purpose and meaning – we can live out our lives for something much greater than ourselves. To be able to live for God’s glory is the greatest privilege we can have. It is higher than any material gain. Because God created everything, He gives purpose and meaning to all that we see, and He also gives us objective truth concerning it. Therefore, we can find real meaning and purpose for our lives. God created us for a reason and a purpose, and that single, great purpose is to glorify God throughout our lives and to enjoy him forever.
This message is not about guilt and condemnation over going to the beach and picking up shells – it’s about grace. In the article by Wax that I reference above, he said wrote that a friend, referring to Piper’s message, had said, “Oh man…now every time I go to the beach, I feel guilty about picking up seashells.” Isn’t it just like us to go right to the behavior instead of the heart? I assume he was kidding, but that can be our “go-to” response when we hear a message like that. If we think this is all about not going to the beach, or shell collecting, or playing golf or softball, or owning a boat, we have missed the whole point. It is about having a heart that desires to serve God and other rather than just ourselves. That desire flows out of a heart of gratitude, thanksgiving, and love for God because we have experienced the wonderful things that Christ has done for us; the grace and mercy that we have received in Him, by grace, through faith.
Retirement is a gift and a blessing – a time to serve, but also a time to savor and enjoy. Yes, you can pick up some shells. You can own a boat. I would say you can even own a beach house if you think God is leading you to do that. You can even play softball if you are able. There is much in this world that God has given us to enjoy and being “retired” can be a time to experience it because retirement is a gift from God. He gives us times to rest just as he gives us time to sleep as soon as we are born. In fact, even these things show the beauty and wonder of our Creator. Consider the amazing diversity and complexity of seashells. Consider that generous sharing of a beach house with family and friends who can’t afford to rent one would be a huge blessing. Consider that playing on a softball team or as part of a golf club may present opportunities to share the Gospel.
Retirement can be a time for some leisure and recreation, but we will find our greatest fulfillment by staying active and busy – especially by working in service to God and others. Many of us hope to enjoy a little more travel, leisure, and recreation in retirement. As stated above, these things are a blessing from God toward us. But the modern idea that retirement should mainly be a time to time to pull back and pursue personal leisure and pleasure is misplaced. If we’re physically able, retirement should be a time for engagement – greater involvement in certain things in some cases – and we can find much more joy and contentment in things other than just the pleasures and enjoyments of this world.
Planning and saving for retirement is important – but we can do it for the wrong reasons. Saving today for needs we know we will have in the future is biblical and wise. Also, if you can achieve some degree of financial independence later in life, especially when you may no longer be able to work for a living, the more flexibility you will have to serve God and others. But if we save out of fear and insecurity (which is hoarding), or primarily out of a desire to pleasure and comfort (which is self-centeredness), we need to Matthew 6:19–21. Jesus’ words will cause us to examine our motives for “storing up for ourselves.” Yes, we need to be able to meet our material needs, and there’s nothing wrong with having enough for some extras here and there. But we have to make sure our hearts are in the right place. Remember, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
God gives us many things to enjoy, and even in our enjoyment we glorify him – but God, not our money or material possessions, must be our greatest joy. John Piper has famously said that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. God has truly given us much in this life to enjoy, including the ocean, the beach, and seashells. He wants us to enjoy them to see his awesome creative power in them. But is it God Himself who must be the object of our greatest affection. If we set our affections elsewhere, we will ultimately be disappointed.
Generosity is a hallmark of good biblical stewardship — giving of our time, talents, and treasure in retirement for God’s glory and the good of others is by far the highest and best use of our lives. Generosity is the fundamental principle of retirement stewardship. It is also the best way to finish the race. The more we give our lives away, the greater the joy and fulfillment we will experience in our later years. As Randy Alcorn wrote in his book Treasure Principle, “When you leave this world, will you be known as one who accumulated treasures on earth that you couldn’t keep? Or will you be recognized as one who invested treasures in heaven that you couldn’t lose?”