My church has started summer book study groups for men and women. Each group is doing one of three books:
- None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God by Matthew Barrett
- Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians by Bruce Ashford
- Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord by Michael Reeves.
I'm leading one of the men's groups, and we're studying Rejoice and Tremble. As you might conclude from the book's title, it's about "fear"—specifically, the fear of God. But Reeves also discusses other kinds of fears and begins the book by suggesting that we live in a "culture of fear" (pg. 17). He borrows from a work by a professor named Frank Furedi (who Reeves notes is an "ardent humanist") who wrote,
Why Americans fear more when they have far less to fear than in other moments in the past is a question that puzzles numerous scholars. One argument used to explain this 'paradox of a safe society' is that prosperity encourages people to become more risk and loss averse.
There may be something to this. We certainly are free to want more, have the chance to own more, and often feel the right to enjoy more. And the more you want something, the more you fear its loss. When your culture is hedonistic, your religion therapeutic, and your goal a feeling of personal well-being, fear will be the ever-present headache. For all that, though, Furedi argues that the "paradox of a safe society" actually has deeper roots. It is, he maintains, moral confusion in society that has led to an inability to deal with fear, a rise in anxiety, and so an increase in the number of protective fences erected around us.
I might paraphrase him this way: "The more we have, the more we want; and the more we want it, the more we fear losing it."
This kind of fear can be particularly true of us concerning our money and possessions, and every life stage brings its own set of temptations to fear when it comes to those things, among others.
Someone who is young and just starting out may struggle with having enough, leading to anxiety and fear. As their income and possessions grow in mid-life, they might struggle with wanting more (a la "keeping up with the Joneses")—discontentment and greed can set in. And then, in later life (which I would describe as aged 55 years plus), the fear can be stronger for those nearing, or already in, retirement when facing the challenge of generating an income when not working for a living.
Good and Bad Fear
In his book, Reeves contrasts two kinds of fear, which I will call "bad fear and good fear." He describes the bad fear as "sinful fear" and the good fear as "right (true) fear." For Reeves, bad (sinful) fear is a fear that drives us away from God, whereas good (right) fear draws us to him. In his words:
..sinful fear drives you away from God. This is the fear of the unbeliever who hates God, who remains a rebel at heart, who fears being exposed as a sinner and so runs from God.
True [right] fear of God is true love for God defined: it is the right response to God's full-orbed revelation of himself in all his grace and glory.
Reeves starts the book by discussing "natural fear," which can be good in some cases (such as when a bear is chasing you). And I admit it's a stretch to compare the good and bad fear that Reeves writes about with good and bad fear regarding retirement.
However, this concept of good and bad fear can translate into the realm of retirement in this way: bad fear repels and paralyzes while good fear inspires and motivates toward faith and action. As I wrote quoting Chris Hogan in chapter one of Redeeming Retirement,
Retire Inspired Author Chris Hogan wrote this about fear and finances in retirement: "Fear is a real thing. . . It is often the first sensation we feel when we take an honest look at our planning and dreams for retirement. We end up asking . . . what if we outlive our money in retirement?" The fear of running out of money before we run out of life is genuine for many, but it can also prompt us toward decisive action. "Bad fear" distracts and paralyzes; "good fear" motivates for action. . . Fear may be an effective motivator, but it's a terrible master." I agree.
Retirement planning can be a complicated and sometimes emotional issue. It seems that everywhere you turn, someone is sounding the alarm about a general lack of retirement preparedness of the U.S. population.
There's certainly nothing wrong with voicing concerns about the public's general lack of retirement planning and preparation. I devote a couple of chapters to just that in my latest book.
But the temptation to fear can be exacerbated by the financial services industry and media with what can amount to "scare tactics" intended to motivate people to pay for advice and/or buy investments and other financial services out of fear.
That said, I'm reasonably confident that most of it comes from genuine concern and a desire to increase awareness and help people (at least, I hope so).
If you have been tempted to become fearful, I would strongly caution you against making any financial decisions out of fear or in response to any strong emotion, for that matter. Remember, "…for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control" (2 Timothy 1:7, ESV).
Anxiety and fear are the enemies of wise retirement stewardship. They cause us to make decisions and take actions based on our emotions, not sound-mind thinking and reasoning. They can also cause us to look for quick, easy answers, which tends to end badly.
If you are fearful about any aspect of retirement or retirement planning, what can you do? Well, there are a variety of ways to deal with these fears:
- The "head in the sand" approach. We ignore them and hope they go away (or that the causes do).
- The "just let go and let God" approach. We take little or no action ourselves and instead trust God to remove our fears or the circumstances that cause them.
- The "man (or woman) up" approach. We make every effort, in our own strength, to overcome them.
- The "trust God, but row away from the rocks" approach. This comes from an old Indian proverb and combines trust in God with wise decisions and behaviors.
Number four is IMO, the best option because it's a pattern that I think can be supported by Scripture. So, it's the approach we will explore further in this article.
You may be concerned or even fearful about your financial future in retirement, and there may be good reasons why that's the case. If so, this may be the most important thing you need to hear: We can hope in the promises of our loving Heavenly Father.
One of the most important truths in the Bible—one that gives us great hope and assurance—is that, above all else, God has promised to take care of his children. That's not a possibly or a maybe; it's a promise! It's as certain as God's character is. Many scriptures in the Bible assure us of God's willingness and ability to care for us. Perhaps none are as familiar as these words from Jesus Himself:
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? Matthew 6:25-27 (ESV)
Financial worries and fears come from a misunderstanding about God and what he's promised to do for you. He's assumed responsibility for your needs. He says, "I'm your Heavenly Father; I'm going to take care of your needs. You're my child." We always get into trouble when we doubt the love of God and His willingness and desire to care for us.
If you find yourself fearful about retirement, you should first and foremost put your trust in God. The only real antidote for worry is faith and trust in God. That's true whether you have taken steps to prepare for your retirement or not. And if you haven't, or you need to…it's time to "row away from the rocks."
But row away from the rocks
The "rocks" in this old Indian proverb probably represent a threat or imminent danger, and "row away" admonishes us to take definitive steps to avoid it if possible while also exercising faith and seeking God for guidance and wisdom.
Sure, it can be scary to face your fears head-on, but it's the only way to biblically deal with them.
We begin by trusting God, but then we "row away from the rocks." This may prompt you to wonder whether God's care for us is somehow conditioned on, or despite, what we do or don't do for ourselves. Can we trust God only if we row away from the rocks?
We've all heard the oft-quoted so-called "Bible verse" that's not actually in the Bible: "God helps those who help themselves." In reality, the vast majority of God's promises are non-conditional, but that's not true in every case.
There are other promises in the Bible that are "conditional," but the majority are not and are based solely on God's love and grace. God's promises are a gift to us and not something we earn and deserve.
But in addition to His promises, God also offers us much wisdom in the Bible about managing the resources he has entrusted to us. Living under the wisdom that God has provided in Scripture is connected to material blessing. Speaking of "lady wisdom," Proverbs says:
My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold, and my yield than choice silver. I walk in the way of righteousness, in the paths of justice, granting an inheritance to those who love me, and filling their treasuries. Proverbs 8:19-21 (ESV)
Those who walk in the way of wisdom will have their treasuries filled? Really, everyone, all the time? Well, yes and no.
Please don't misunderstand what I am saying here. I am NOT suggesting some kind of "prosperity theology" whereby we can assume that God will provide a luxurious, worry-free retirement for us regardless of whether we have prepared or not as long as we have enough "faith" that He will. In my opinion, that isn't faith; it's presumption.
I am saying that learning and applying the wisdom that God has given us and then trusting Him for the result puts us in the best position to experience God's provision and, should He so will, prosperity beyond that. However, this is not a "promise,"; it isn't guaranteed. God is sovereign in how He distributes His blessings, and some wise people will not prosper greatly in this life. They may only truly experience that in the life to come.
While trusting God, we also need to take responsibility (and action) for our situation. If worrying is playing God (assuming responsibility for something God has said He would take care of), then passivity and inaction are presuming on God's kindness toward us and taking His grace and kindness for granted. Neither is part of good retirement stewardship.
God knows what's going on in your life and your checkbook. God knows all your needs even before you ask. He wants to help you and relieve your fears. But he also wants you to do everything you can to practice wise retirement stewardship.
You can't claim God's promises and then sit back passively and do nothing. We have to find a balance between trusting in God's sovereignty and providential care for us and our responsibility to do all we can to take care of ourselves.
But no matter what, God doesn't want you to succumb to fear and hopelessness: "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope." Romans 15:13 (ESV)
What are these "rocks" (dangers or fears)—either real or imagined—that we want to avoid or address?
Numerous surveys and studies have been conducted to ascertain the major fears of nearly or already retired folks. A recent Transamerica survey found that the leading fear is (surprise, surprise) running out of money:
Workers' most frequently cited retirement fears are outliving their savings/investments (40 percent), Social Security being reduced or ceasing to exist (39 percent), and declining health that requires long-term care (34 percent). Almost one in three workers fear not being able to meet the basic financial needs of their family (including: full-time 32 percent, part-time 31 percent).
Another survey found that what future retirees feared the most is retirement itself. They feared the loss of meaning, engagement, and satisfaction that they derive from their work. (There seems to me to be "you have nothing to fear in retirement except retirement itself.")
I have already mentioned these fears, which Reeves may call "natural fears," which he defines in his book as,
. . . since we live in a fallen world, we live surrounded by danger. The greatest of these dangers is death, "the king of terrors" (Job 18:14). But we also fear accidents, pain, and enemies. For the fall made the world a place full of fear. That does not mean, though, that our fears of these dangers are themselves sinful. . . These are natural fears that believers and unbelievers share. . .
In the context of retirement stewardship, we talk more about "risk" than "danger," but excessive risk can be dangerous. And having a reasonable apprehension about the risks inherent in retirement (market risk, inflation risk, longevity risk, sequence risk, health risk, etc., etc.) is not necessarily a bad thing IF it leads us to replace fear with wise, decisive action, doing what we can to mitigate the risks while trusting God for the outcome.
The best thing you can do to "row away from the rocks" is to have a plan which optimally leverages whatever resources you have (and you may have more "levers" to pull than you think).
Everyone needs a personal financial plan, and retirement is the time to have the best and most detailed financial plan possible. You can create your own spreadsheet, work with a financial advisor, or use a trusted online planning resource.
In my latest book, Redeeming Retirement, I cover in detail a long list of things you can do to help you "get away from rocks." Some will apply to your situation while others may not.
- Protect what you have – this mainly has to do with various types of insurance.
- Postpone your retirement – this has a powerful impact in multiple areas.
- Reduce your expenses – if you're already retired, this is worth considering.
- Pay off your debts – best done before you retire as it reduces your expenses in retirement.
- Increase your savings rate – also most impactful before you retire; the earlier, the better.
- Reassess your risk tolerance – this has to do with investing, focusing on preserving your limited resources instead of taking too much risk.
- Choose your investments wisely – different investment strategies based on your risk tolerance.
- Set up a sustainable income plan – how to generate retirement income that will last.
- Build a bigger safe income floor – related to #8 above; this is focused on pensions, annuities, and other forms of "guaranteed" income.
- Maximize social security benefits – one of the most impactful things you can do.
- Tap home equity – for many retirees, home equity is an "ace in the hole," but I recommend this only as a last resort.
- Make extra income in retirement – consider part-time work.
- Get sound advice – wise advice without conflict of interest can be valuable in putting together a plan and following it over the long haul.
For example, some can no longer work and save but will intentionally and dramatically reduce their spending in retirement if they know they have to make their money last. Others who are still working will decide to save more or will return to work (even if it's part-time) to generate income. Delaying retirement (and Social Security) can be a huge help. Tapping home equity through downsizing or a reverse mortgage is also an option.
For those who fear retirement itself, perhaps the antidote is not to retire at all, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Finding something productive to do in retirement is one of the best ways to address this fear. Seek wisdom and guidance from the Lord regarding what he has called you to do then do it with all your might for as long as he enables you to.
The key to overcoming retirement fears is to put together a plan that contains one or more of the strategies listed above to help you row away from the rocks of your retirement fears while also consistently trusting in your Heavenly Father, "Casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you." 1 Peter 5:7 (ESV)
 Reeves, Michael. Rejoice and Tremble (Union), p. 19, Crossway, 2021.
 Reeves, p. 31.
 Reeves, p. 53.
 Hogan, Chris, Retire Inspired: It's Not an Age, It's a Financial Number, p. 17, Ramsey Press, 2016.
 Reeves, p. 30.