When the Emails Cease and the Phone Stops Ringing –
Finding Purpose in Retirement.
Dr. Jerry Nelson
Over lunch he spoke despondently of how different life was now compared to what it had been only a few short months earlier. Before, he couldn’t find time to do most of the things he thought he would like to do when he had the time. Now he has the time but those things don’t replace what he has lost. He spoke openly of feeling useless and irrelevant.
I have watched other men attempt to fill the void, formerly filled by their vocation, with travel, hobbies, games and even part-time jobs not for the money but to regain something of the worth and purpose they had lost. Why do some Christian men, after they retire, evidence a lack of purpose in life?
Many of us live life in stages:
• Years of education/training,
• Finding the career that fits,
• Many years in one’s major life’s work (job/vocation),
• Then “retirement.”
“Retirement” does not mean ceasing to be active but it usually means significantly fewer day-to-day responsibilities and greater flexibility in the use of one’s time (along with less income). The busyness of the “many years in one’s major life’s work” is often accompanied by child-rearing, church, civic and/or other responsibilities. But the major life’s work takes up the bulk of that time, usually 50 hours per week or more. Then when the job demands are greatly reduced or ended at “retirement,” a sense of aimlessness, uselessness can set in. Why?
I wonder if the reason for this is a misunderstanding of “calling” and “vocation” I realise the words can be used interchangeably but I am choosing to refer to “calling” as one’s overarching purpose in life and “vocation” as the most time-consuming activity/work in which one engages during the usual work years of life (ages 30-70). If, before and at “retirment,” we confuse those two ideas or disregard “calling” altogether we will more likely have the sense of uselessness referred to earlier.
The Christian’s “calling” is stated in many ways in Scripture: “Love the Lord God with all your heart, soul and mind.” Mt 22:37 We “proclaim (Jesus), warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” Col 1:28 “We live unto the Lord.” Romans 13:8 We are redeemed “so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.” “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Colossians 3:23-24 The Westminster Shorter Catechism states is as follows: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”
I wish to avoid suggesting that our “vocation” (life’s major work) is secular and our “calling” is sacred. Our “vocation” should contribute to our “calling,” in fact it should be one of the means by which we fulfill our “calling” and thus our “calling” does not cease when our “vocation” wanes; in fact it is more likely that as our vocational responsibilities lessen we may have greater opportunity (see the Apostle Paul’s comparison of the availability of married and single people in1 Corinthians 7:32ff). Is it possible then by making the right distinction between “vocation” and “calling” we come to understand that as our “vocational” responsibilities are lessened we are not “useless” but in fact have even more time to give to our larger overarching “calling?”
The seductive nature of our “vocation” is that because it consumes so much time and energy it seems to be THE reason for our existence when it is only a means to help us fulfill our calling. Our calling supersedes and often outlives our “vocation.”
It is possible that with some Christians the issue is not a misunderstanding of their “calling.” Instead, what they wrestle with is a radical change in the means by which they live out their “calling.” For example, they lived for the glory of God through their “vocation” and now their “vocation” is over. By what means will they continue to fulfill their calling? It seems to me, while this may cause a reevaluation of the allocation of time and energy, it shouldn’t precipitate a feeling of uselessness but simply (or not so simply) a redirection of one’s time and energy. Is constantly vacationing or golfing or a succession of part-time jobs really a search for the proper means to fulfill one’s “calling” or merely a way to fill the void left by the loss of “vocation?”
How do men come to understand the difference between vocation and calling and get their feelings to match reality? It starts with anticipating the change that will likely occur at “retirement.” It certainly includes an understanding of God’s calling which is fairly much the same for all of us who are Christ-followers (see above). It includes seeing my “temporary” 30-40 year vocation (job) as a means of fulfilling my calling and not the calling itself. It means making certain that my vocation doesn’t preclude investing in those “calling” activities that will outlast the vocation such as: building relationships with people especially my wife and children; beginning to invest in younger men around me whether on the job or otherwise; learning how to serve others around me; developing hobbies/activities that won’t detract from vocation or calling but do refresh me and can outlive vocation. When the vocation wanes, it is those other means of fulfilling our calling that appropriately take our time, advance God’s kingdom and enrich our lives.
“Christ must be the absolute Master of the saved soul; and the soul that is truly saved is willing either to go or stay, as may seem best to his Lord; for it is to the Lord that he has given himself; to one who henceforth is to rule and reign over his whole life. I trust that some to whom these words come will thus offer themselves, making no reserve as to what they shall do, and…when he grows grey, and others venture to think that he had better retire from active service, he might think it wise to give up some of his work, but never would he retire from the service of the Lord.” C.H. Spurgeon