I was recently surprised to see a couple of words being used together in an article that I might not have expected to see: retirement and grief.
You may be thinking, "What!? Grieving over retirement? No more daily commute, an unreasonable boss, or long hours and low pay? The freedom to do whatever I want? Are you kidding me?"
No, it wasn't referring to grief over the "loss" of those things – a retiree might understandably be happy to be free of them. It was about grief over the loss of something else.
In Forbes, in an article titled, Understanding Grief and Mourning the Loss of Your Work Life in Retirement, retirement writer Robert Laura wrote,
It's a heart-breaking situation that plays out time-and-time again when people retire and unknowingly are affected by grief as they transition into retirement.
"Grief" does seem an extreme word to use in this context. It implies sad and painful loss, such as the loss of a loved one. But when it comes to retirement, Laura suggests that retirees experience loss in many different ways that are similar to grief, one of which is a "loss of identity and a sense of purpose." And some experience it very intensely.
A recent Harvard University study looked into this retirement "identity crisis." The study started with two key questions that retirees may ask themselves: "Who am I now?" and "When people ask me what I do, what do I even tell them?". The study was based on this basic premise:
Work is such a huge part of our identity. Retirement untethers us from how we think of ourselves in a fundamental way.
If that is true, at least for many retirees, what are the implications for Christ-followers? Can retirement "cut us lose" from our fundamental identify? My short answer would be, "yes, possibly, but not if we truly comprehend, actively embrace, and fully live out our identity in Christ."
In this article, I want to look at some of the ways that Christians can form a biblical perspective on this so-called retirement "identity crisis" and get help in answering this question: "In light of our identity in Christ, how should that find expression in our lives in retirement?"
1. Identity can be a challenge in retirement, even for committed Christians.
We are Christians, but we are also teachers, business people, mechanics, etc. – we have vocations, which take up a significant part of our lives. And if we were blessed to have the opportunity to do work that we enjoyed – work that was challenging and interesting and that had productive value – then it would be natural to feel a sense of loss after we retire.
I recently retired after being employed for almost 30 years as an "IT professional." So, I understand this dynamic. I enjoyed my work and do miss it (sometimes – LOL). I liked the company I worked for, and I miss the people I worked with and the challenges my work offered.
And while I wouldn't say I am grieving over the loss of these things, I feel them as losses just the same.
Also, since I am retired, I can no longer identify myself as an "IT professional." In the six months since I left the workforce, there have probably been many changes in the IT industry, and in the company, I worked for, that I know nothing about.
My subject matter knowledge in many areas will be completely outdated in a year or two. My thirty or so years of experience may count for something, but mostly it's just extensive knowledge of the past. In spite of this, I haven't thought much about identity – the "who am I now" question, but I have thought about how to best answer the question, "what do you do," which I get asked occasionally and discussed in an earlier post.
I imagine that the "identity question" is on the minds of many new retirees, especially those who spent their lives in long, successful careers. And I also suspect that some may struggle with identity-related issues as a result. Although Christians aren't exempt from such struggles, we have a rock-solid, everlasting foundation upon which to establish our identity that has nothing to do with what we do for a living (Matt. 7:24).
Indeed, our fundamental identity – the essence of who we are – is founded on being created in God's image and having received God's saving mercy and grace through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As Tim Keller wrote in The Prodigal God:
All change comes from deepening your understanding of the salvation of Christ and living out of the changes that understanding creates in your heart. Faith in the gospel restructures our motivations, our self-understanding, our identity, and our view of the world.
2. Our fundamental identify as a Christian doesn't change just because we are "retired."
In many respects, the answer to the "who am I now?" question is that I am the same person I was before I retired, I just don't work-for-pay any longer. But in other ways, I'm not. I am no longer an employee or an IT professional. I no longer have a "job title." My Linked-in profile says "Retired at…." I no longer have "colleagues" as I once did – only ex-colleagues.
I am, however, still a husband, father, grandfather, and friend. And more importantly, I am still a Christian; I have brothers and sisters in Christ and co-laborers in my local church.
It is this single glorious fact that I am "in Christ" (2 Cor.5:17) that gives me my fundamental identity. And I don't just "identify" with Christ, I am actually in union with him; as Jesus himself said, praying to the Father: "I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me" (John 17:23, ESV).
So, I am not defined primarily by what I did or now do, or any role that I may fill at any given time. Nor am I defined by the fact that I am "retired." Such definitions originate from within me – from my internal self. No, I find my identity outside myself, in One much greater than me. I like how an article on the Desiring God blog described this:
Christian selfhood is not defined in terms of who we are in and of ourselves. It's defined in terms of what God does to us and the relationship he creates with us and the destiny he appoints for us. God made us who we are so we could make known who he is. Our identity is for the sake of making known his identity.
In many ways the identity we define for ourselves based on our work is a "false identify" – it is what we do, not who we truly are. Our true identity – the only one that will endure long after our careers are over – is what God has done for us through Christ and the relationship we have with him.
3. Our identity in Christ defines and drives our mission and purpose in retirement.
If you read much about the "new retirement," you may come across phrases like "finding meaning and purpose in late life."
Christians and non-Christian retirees intuitively know that the continual pursuit of leisure and recreation in retirement will leave them empty. Therefore, both may tend to seek out greater significance in their lives during retirement.
Simply stated, meaning is our sense of being connected to something bigger (and therefore, more important) than self. And purpose is the intention to accomplish things that are related to what is meaningful to us in ways that are inwardly fulfilling and outwardly beneficial to others. So, in a sense, meaning drives purpose and purpose can, in turn, provide meaning.
Many people look forward to having more "fun" in retirement, and I am among them. Having more time for recreational activities or perhaps some travel are certainly things my wife and I hope to enjoy. Such "fun" in the form of leisure and recreation provides us some fulfillment – these things were created by God for us to enjoy – but offer very little meaning and purpose.
For the Christian, our meaning is found in our relationship to our Creator; we are God's crowning creation, made in his image, to love and enjoy him forever. We have also been given a mission. Jesus reminds us in John 15:16 that we did not choose him, he chose us and ordained that we should go out into the world and bear much fruit. And in John 20:19 he said, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you" (ESV).
And this great mission gives us purpose, which is to preach the gospel and to serve God and others using the time, talents, and treasure he has entrusted to us – what I call "retirement stewardship."
Exactly what that looks like will vary from person to person because we all have different kinds (and amounts) of time, talents and treasure. And also, because we are all in different situations.
But our purpose is the same – to work for God's glory, for the good of others and for the sake of His kingdom – in other words, to fulfill the mission we are called to as Christ's disciples. Therefore, our whole life, from beginning to end, is an ever-deepening discovery and realization of that purpose and the things that God has called each of us to do.
4. Our purpose and mission can find expression through the different kinds of work we choose to do in retirement.
Retirement is "dangerous"; not because we are doing dangerous things, but because it typically signifies cessation of work, at least in the traditional sense. God created work, so work matters, and a person with no work to do is in a precarious state. As Paul reminds us in Eph. 2:10: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."
The Harvard University study I alluded to earlier was based on concerns over that very thing. The lead researcher, Teresa Amabile wrote,
My previous research discovered that people are happiest in their work on those days and those weeks and those months when they feel that they're making progress in meaningful work," she said. "And I wondered: What happens when you're leaving that meaningful work behind?
Precisely what happens in each person's unique situation will vary. Some will need some time to decompress; to get reconnected with their family and friends, and perhaps get reacquainted with their hobbies and interests. They may then start planning the next stage of their life.
Others will almost immediately dive into some alternate form of work, perhaps even a different "career." Many will try their hand at entrepreneurship – retirement can be an excellent time to launch a small business because you will have the time to do so and less demand (hopefully) for immediate income from it.
For Christians, retirement presents a wonderful opportunity to spend more time serving others in some capacity. This is consistent with what Paul says in 1 Peter 4:10: "As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace" (ESV).
Many will do so in the context of their local church, but there are other paths as well. They may volunteer in a local school or community outreach organization, such as a ministry to the homeless. Many non-profits are looking for help, or you could start one yourself. (There is nothing wrong with making money, even while doing good to others. But if you are doing something because you enjoy it, and because it benefits others, then the rewards are personal, not financial.)
Unfortunately, a lot of people will enter retirement without much of an idea of what they are doing to do (perhaps other than "take it easy" or "take a few trips"). But without a plan for productive activity in retirement – "work" that is both fulfilling and contributes to the good of others – we run the risk of finishing our lives without the meaning and purpose that work provides.
5. Our identity in Christ will take us through retirement and will bring us all the way home.
This discussion about identity and retirement has very temporally-focused. But it has implications that extend well beyond the relatively short duration of our lives, as important as those implications are.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God "…has made everything beautiful in time. Also, he put eternity into man's heart…" Therefore, we instinctively know that there is more to life than the 70, 80, or 90 years we will have on earth; we know deep inside our souls that we were created for something more.
As disciples of Jesus, our hearts are increasingly drawn to the spiritual – the eternal – not the things of this earth (Col. 3:2). Plus, the older we get, the more aware we are of our mortality and the eternal hope that our identity in Christ gives us. One of the most glorious aspects of our identity in Christ is that it is eternal. We are Gods' children and joint heirs with Christ of his eternal kingdom (Rom. 8:17, Gal. 3:29).
Living out our identity during this life, including retirement, does indeed have eternal implications. The Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:10 says that we were, "…created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand." This means that as we work for the glory of God and good of others, we are doing what God has pre-destined us to do.
We all know that one day our work on this earth – our mission, if you will – will come to an end. But because our identity is in Christ, not in our roles, careers, or occupations on this earth, our eternal destiny is in heaven to live with Jesus and all the redeemed, forever.
This understanding of our eternal destiny, which is a result of our perseverance in Christ – and which flows out of our identity and an understanding of who we truly are in Christ – will cause us to persevere in our faith to the end. The Bible often speaks to our eternal inheritance in Christ, but Heb. 6:12 reminds us that receiving that inheritance requires perseverance, which requires faith and patient endurance.
Faithful perseverance to the end has a great eternal reward: "Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised" (Heb. 10:35-36, ESV). The "great reward" being spoken of here is undoubtedly the eternal inheritance we will have in and through Christ – the glories of God's eternal kingdom and the indescribable joys we will experience there.
What about you?
At the end of his Forbes article on retirement and grief, Mr. Laura wrote:
Retirement is a major life transition that comes with endings as well as new beginnings. It means losing some things while gaining others and recognizing that the many thoughts and feelings you will experience during this time, are not only normal, but all part of the process.
We may lose our "career" or "job" identity, and there may be some strong feelings associated with that. But the identity we have as God's children and disciples of Jesus Christ and joint heirs with him of God's eternal kingdom is forever. In light of that truth, give some prayerful thought to how your understanding of your identity in Christ will affect how you spend your time in retirement. What will you do to fulfill your specific, God-given mission and purpose in retirement?