I first heard Dave Ramsey use the phrase “retire with dignity.” You may know Dave for the “baby steps” he teaches to help people get out of debt so they can save and give. He uses the phrase often to motivate students on their journey toward financial peace.
The idea behind the phrase is that by working hard, avoiding unnecessary debt (or paying off the debt we have), saving responsibly, investing wisely, while giving generously over our lifetime, we should eventually be able to retire if we want to with some level of financial independence—not entirely relying on the government, family members, or others for income. It also means entering retirement as a non-borrower—not using debt to fund it.
We’re talking about retiring with “financial dignity,” which is not about amassing so much wealth that you can live a life of luxury in retirement; that’s something else altogether. (Although, if you can afford an extravagance now and then, I say good for you.) It’s about average, middle-class (and some upper-middle-class) households having enough income in retirement to at least make ends meet—paying your bills. Hence, you are free to focus on serving your family, church, and community to further God’s kingdom (1 Cor. 15:58).
I Like the Phrase “Retire with Dignity”
I mentioned in a previous article that I’ll be publishing my third book later in April. I’ve titled it Redeeming Retirement: A Practical Guide to Catch Up. The book’s primary focus is providing hope and help in the form of practical guidance to help those who have “fallen behind” in planning for retirement, especially those who are middle-aged and older and find themselves with inadequate savings. (In other words, those who may not be able to “retire with [financial] dignity” unless their situation changes.)
I really like the phrase ”retire with dignity,” so much so that I originally wanted to title the book “Retire with Dignity” or ”Yes, You Can Retire with Dignity.” But I ran into a problem.
After searching the government’s trademark database, I discovered (much to my surprise) that the phrase is a registered trademark owned by a small financial advisory firm in California.
To be clear, that doesn’t mean you, and I can’t say or write the phrase “retire with dignity.” I use it all the time—in conversation and on this blog. Dave Ramsey and others also use it often. The (potential) problem comes when it involves a for-profit activity such as authoring and publishing a book. There’s a risk of “trademark infringement.”
According to Wikipedia, trademark infringement is…
a violation of the exclusive rights attached to a trademark without the authorization of the trademark owner or any licensees (provided that such authorization was within the scope of the license). Infringement may occur when one party, the “infringer,” uses a trademark that is identical or confusingly similar to a trademark owned by another party in relation to products or services which are identical or similar to the products or services which the registration covers.
I contacted the “retire with dignity” trademark owners (a couple) to ask their permission to use it as my book title. As it turned out, they weren’t using it as part of their products or branding, but they were unwilling to let me use it unconditionally. They put me in touch with their trademark attorney, at which time I said, “thanks, but no thanks.”
I went another direction, which was to re-title the book Redeeming Retirement.
“Redeem” and “redemption” are familiar words to Christians. Here’s a good definition:
Though closely allied to salvation, redemption is more specific, for it denotes the means by which salvation is achieved, namely by the payment of a ransom. It reminds the child of God this his salvation has been purchased at a great and personal cost, for the Lord has given himself for our sins in order to deliver us from them. 
But for my new book, I am using the word ”redeem” in a more general sense. I wrote this in the first chapter:
In its most basic form, to redeem something can be defined as the act of buying or gaining something back. It typically involves going from one condition to another, often by repairing or restoring what has been lost; or rescuing something threatened. . . I chose “redeeming retirement” for this book’s title as I wrote it for those who have fallen behind with their planning and preparations and find themselves ill-prepared for retirement. It’s about the things they can do to move from a less-than-desirable financial condition to a better one, so they can “retire with dignity.”
I’ll tell you more about the title, its meaning, and relevance to the topic of book in my next article. For now, let’s go back to this idea of retiring with dignity.
Financial dignity is essential, but retiring with dignity involves more than money. Even after you achieve a level of financial dignity, you may wonder, “Is this all there is to retirement?” Once in retirement, after experiencing some of the fun and relaxation that it brings, you may discover that the payoff isn’t all you thought it would be.
If we only focus on our financial well-being, as important as that is, we can miss what gives life meaning and purpose—real dignity. We will be left feeling empty and unsatisfied, perhaps because we were made for something more.
C. S. Lewis describes it this way:
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
Perhaps you can identify with such an insatiable desire. If so, it can point you to something beyond yourself, something that supersedes time, place, money, and material possessions.
As Christians, we believe that our intrinsic dignity as human beings that I alluded to earlier derives from the fact that we were created in God’s image. And God created us to be in a relationship with him. That is where real human dignity resides.
The finished work of Christ has secured our relationship to God—his birth, life, death, and resurrection (which we coincidently and joyfully commemorate and celebrate this coming Sunday).
By believing and trusting in the person and finished work of Jesus Christ, we experience God’s love and receive the gift of forgiveness, which restores our broken relationship with him—the relationship he originally intended us to have, which is the ultimate source of true human dignity. We receive this as God’s gracious gift of salvation with gratitude and joy and then enjoy God’s gift of an abundant life full of meaning and purpose.
That’s true of our lives before retirement as well as after.
Jesus himself says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). He came to give us a new, abundant life full of meaning and purpose, one that will be fruitful and satisfying. You can have such a life through him regardless of how much money you have in your retirement account.
What It Looks Like
The picture of retirement that the world paints looks something like this: You work hard, save as much as you can, give some of your time and money away to your family and your charity-of-choice (perhaps), stay as active and healthy as possible, and then when you’re finished working, live out your years engaging in whatever leisure activities you enjoy the most—golf, boating, gardening, travel, fishing, etc.
Now I want to pause here and inject that I don’t think it’s wrong to enjoy some times of recreation and leisure during the second half of life; they’re also good gifts from God. What I’m talking about is a life in which such things are not of greatest value or priority as compared to our life in Christ—a life that seeks to love, serve, honor, and glorify God.
So if selfish pursuits are not the things of greatest value that should characterize Christians’ lives in the second half of life, what are the things that give dignity to those who are “retired”?
Here’s a non-exhausted list of the things that may characterize the Christian who wants to “retire with dignity.” Notice that there are three main dimensions reflected in the list: The first is our vertical relationship with God; the second is our horizontal relationships with others, and the third is our perspective on ourselves.
- continually aware of the depth of our sin and the magnitude of the love and mercy of God in forgiving our sin through Christ’s sacrificial life, death, and resurrection;
- loving and worshiping Jesus Christ and finding our greatest joy and delight in him;
- loving and caring for our spouse and loving and enjoying our children and grandchildren if God has given them to us;
- consistent in prayer, Bible reading, meditation, and study (devotional life);
- teachable, responsive, humble, and obedient in spirit;
- keeping a biblical perspective on the vagaries of life’s circumstances (both blessing and hardships);
- aware of, and by grace endeavoring to fulfill, our purpose and calling, using whatever gifts God has given us for His glory by serving and engaging in ongoing ministry in the local church, our community, and beyond;
- generous with our love, our time, our belongings, and our money for the good of others;
- living in relationship and fellowship with other Christians, primarily within the context of the local church;
- ever-aware of our sinful hearts and the dangers of temptation, especially the sins of pride, lust, and greed;
- always prepared and ready to share the gospel with the lost and explain the great hope within us;
- joyfully expectant at the thought of “being absent with the body, and present with the Lord,” seeing Heaven as our ultimate and eternal home.
As you can see, these things are not different than how we are called to live our lives as Christians from the very beginning, long before we retire. Surprise, surprise!
As disciples of Jesus, retiring with dignity means that that we continue to “be” (and do) what we have always been (more or less), but with a heightened awareness of the challenges that mid-and later-life can present to us. Then, after overcoming many trials, when the end is nigh, we can say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7; Acts 20:24; 1 Cor. 9:24-27).
Dignity in, from, and through the Son
Our church just finished a Sunday preaching series on the Book of Ecclesiastes. Many scholars believe it was written by (or about) a king named Solomon, and we see what some call the world’s first “existential philosopher.” Solomon was very wealthy, and despite everything he possessed and experienced, he writes about the meaninglessness of things like wealth, possessions, power, knowledge, justice, creativity, and the like. Throughout Ecclesiastes, he repeatedly qualifies his statements with the phrase “under the sun,” which means living apart from God.
After emphasizing the hopelessness of life without God, Solomon adds the transcendent personal God to the equation, and in doing so, sees the pursuits of life for what they are—good gifts from God, which, although they may never fully satisfy us, point us to the One who can.
C. S. Lewis writes,
If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.
None of us knows how many days we will be given. We will not know which skills, talents, abilities, or resources we have today or will still be available tomorrow, next week, month, or year. Sooner or later, age takes its toll.
In this light, the pursuits of life—whether romance, beauty, pleasure, wealth, travel, knowledge, moral excellence—are a blessing, as they whisper to us of the One who stands behind all good things. Therefore, we earnestly pursue and enjoy them, despite their fleeting nature.
The book’s central premise is that Ecclesiastes’ key message is that we should live life today in light of our inevitable demise in the future. That sounds a little morbid, I admit. But there’s the wisdom of living each day that God has given us to the fullest throughout all the seasons of life since we don’t know when our lives will come to an end. As David Gibson wrote in Living Life Backwards,
Living like this is also what helps us to realize that so much of the time, we use our times to seek satisfaction rather than living in the times God has given and so receiving satisfaction from Him as a gift. Satisfaction comes when you know you are a time-bound creature and God is the eternal creator. Satisfaction lodges in my heart when I accept that the boundaries of my creaturely existence and accept the seasons of my life as coming from his good and wise hands. Accepting these things is the gift of God, for, left to our own devices, we accept neither.
Christians believe that the meaning and dignify of life is found in a relationship with God the Father through the experience and acceptance of his love for us because of what he has done for us through the Son, Jesus Christ. Once that unconditional love is found, it gives all of life a whole new meaning. We can live each day to the fullest, enjoying all of God’s good gifts with grateful and generous hearts and lives. Such is a life of real dignity.
You can read much more about retiring with both kinds of dignity in my first book, Reimagine Retirement: Planning and Living for the Glory of God.
 Walter A. Elwell, Editor, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology—Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 993, 994.