Seeking the Kingdom First in Older Age
Our perspective changes a great deal depending on where we are standing. A mountain range might look like tiny triangles from a great distance yet seem an overwhelming mass from closer up. Likewise, our perspective on central teachings from the Bible can change as we grow older. It’s not that the Bible teaches different principles; they just apply differently to older people instead of younger people.
One of the great blessings of the Bible is that it is useful for everyone, regardless of age. In this article, we will look at some fundamental Biblical principles that, while they are not written explicitly with older people in mind, have a lot to say to older people and should change how we think about retirement.
Seek the kingdom first
In the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5 to 7, Jesus outlines what it looks like to live as a disciple. Once we have understood how much Jesus has done for us, we should work hard to live a life worthy of one who has been saved. One of the most challenging passages in this section of Matthew is this:
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
A younger person reading this, full of enthusiasm, may aim to do great things for God with their lives. Perhaps this will inspire them to vocational ministry or a life focussed on God instead of other things. A person who has been a Christian for a long time may read the same verse and assume they already do this adequately, rather than thinking hard about how to apply it. That’s the problem with most familiar Bible passages; we get so used to them we don’t feel the impact that the dramatic counter-cultural instructions should have.
Seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness is a command for all times in our lives. There is no exemption clause in Matthew 6:33 for those who are retired. I argue that the challenge of seeking God first instead of what to eat or drink or wear is a more significant issue for those who are in the latter stages of life. You likely have more money and nicer things when you are older than when you were a young adult. The more things you have, the more comfort you enjoy, the harder it is to seek God first. We can withdraw into our comfortable houses, head off on regular pleasant holidays, and dream mainly of trying that new restaurant or enjoying an afternoon in the shed. That’s how everyone else who doesn’t know Jesus lives. Christians are called to more than that. We need to ask first how we can serve God first with our lives, not how we can serve ourselves first and possibly find some time for God if we have any left over.
Some retirees, of course, will not be wealthy. There will be many who live on a modest pension and need to be careful with the money they have. This passage also speaks to those in this situation. Don’t be anxious about tomorrow and don’t fall into the trap of being bitter if this is your situation. Riches in this life are not an expectation; we should focus on the riches awaiting us in heaven and praise God for his generosity to us. Even if there is reason to be anxious, remember that you have a God who loves you. You need to look to serve Jesus first. Finances can take as prominent a position in the minds of those who are poor as it does in those who are rich; the poor worry about having enough, and the rich worry about keeping it. Whether wealthy or struggling, the command to seek Jesus first applies to all Christians. Don’t live for other things. Jesus matters more.
Don’t add caveats to clear Bible teaching
The Bible is full of radical commands. We are told to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Matt. 22:37, quoting Deut. 6:5). We are called to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matt. 22:39). Christians cannot serve God and money (Matt. 6:24). Husbands are to love their wives more than their own bodies (Eph. 5:28). Believers are told to take radical action to deal with anything that leads them into sin (Matt. 18:8-9). We are to love Jesus more than our physical families (Matt. 10:37). We are to hold to following Jesus even if persecution and death are possibilities (Rev. 2:10).
It is tempting to add some kind of caveat or ‘escape clause’ to these commands to soften the impact and make it easier on us. This is not just a problem for older people! We know we cannot serve both God and money, but most of us give it a try anyway. We know we should love our wives, but if they are not easy to love right now, well then, we think we can ignore that one unless they change their attitude.
God requires obedience. If you are a retiree or someone who is getting older, there is a strong temptation to use your age or limitations as an easy excuse to avoid these commands. We start to think to ourselves: “Yes, I know I should love my neighbour as myself. But I don’t have the energy I once did. Frankly, it is hard enough looking after myself and surely someone else can do it”. We can talk ourselves out of radical service. In the end, we run the danger of looking like everyone else who does not know Jesus.
A Christian life should be a life that is radically different from the life of someone who is not Christian. We should be like salt that is readily noticeable as present in even a large meal. God does not expect those who are seventy to serve him in the same way as someone who is twenty-one! But God does expect radical faithfulness that is appropriate to whatever stage of life you are currently in. For an older person, loving your neighbour might mean offering prayer and a phone call rather than rushing over with a hot meal. Choosing to serve God instead of money might mean intentionally having one less holiday in order to support that young ministry apprentice at your church. There is always a way you can make decisions that are different from non-Christians for the sake of the gospel.
Don’t use your age as an excuse. Look honestly at your circumstances and choose to live a life that looks different from other retirees for the sake of the gospel.
Your identity in Christ is the same whether old or young
We often measure someone’s worth by what they can contribute to society. Young people usually have the energy to work, get involved in church, and keep up with friends or a young family. Those who are elderly can look at those active people with longing; they used to be able to do that. Age often brings limitations in energy and possibly health, and many start to think that they are worth less because of this.
If that’s you, the gospel is excellent news indeed! Paul puts it this way:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
I think it would be fair to extend this to include: there is neither young nor old, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. This doesn’t mean that there are no differences between young people and older people. It means that every Christian is equal in Christ Jesus. None of us is saved by what we do. Young, energetic people are saved by Jesus’ death in their place. Older people are also saved by Jesus’ death in their place. God doesn’t rank people based on what they can contribute to society or the church. Every Christian is of infinite value to God; he sent his own Son to die in their place.
Society might well imply that older people are worth less than young people. God doesn’t measure people that way. If you are a Christian, you are immensely valuable. You are part of God’s family. You are perfect in God’s sight.
Understanding this can change your whole outlook on the world. You don’t need to live up to what the younger people around you do. You are already deeply loved by God. That gives you security and worth that no one can take away.
But I am no-one special!
The obvious examples of older believers are the great leaders in Biblical times. As helpful as those examples are, perhaps you think that these people belong in a different category to yourself. You might not be a senior Christian leader or pastor. You most likely have not been tasked by God to defeat some country or breach an enemy city’s defences. I would be somewhat surprised if three strange men had promised that you would have a child when aged in your nineties! If we are just ordinary people, no-one special, how can we be examples for others or be used mightily by God in our latter years?
Most of us won’t fill stadiums like Billy Graham. And that’s fine. We read about people like Moses and Samuel and Caleb, and we think that all faithful believers have to be prominent leaders. That’s not true. In the time of these great leaders, there were also a great many faithful ordinary people, serving God and obeying his commandments as best they could in their circumstances. Their stories are generally not recorded for us in the Bible, but we can be sure they were there. Even in the dark days of King Ahab, God told the prophet Elijah that there were seven thousand people who were faithful and had not bowed down to Baal (1 Kings 19:18). Many people simply strived to serve God through ethical business practices, an attempt at a godly family life, and through serving others in their local community. God’s world doesn’t just need pastors; it needs faithful workers, godly young mothers, and even retirees who seek the kingdom of God first.
Don’t compare yourself to the most prominent Christian leader you know. That can make us a little defeatist, thinking that we cannot do anything if we cannot be like them. Think about how you can serve Jesus in your context. The question facing all of us is: “How can I serve Jesus best today?” Maybe the best way to use your time today is to spend time in prayer. Perhaps a visit to someone stuck at home or hospital will be a great encouragement. There is always something that can be done to serve Jesus better.
Redeeming the Time
Time is a limited resource. At various times, the Biblical writers encourage us to redeem the time (Ps. 90:2; Eph. 5:16). We should be careful how we use the time we have.
A significant advantage of being retired or working less is that you do have more time. Young people are pushed hard in their education, young people are often juggling a job and the challenges of young children, and those in middle age often have an all-encompassing career together with raising teenagers and helping elderly relatives. Almost everyone you will ever meet will tell you that they are busy.
The difference with those who are retired is that they have more control over their time. Sure, most retirees I know are busy too. Retirees can always find things to do, but they are not beholden to a boss like they once were. They get to choose what to do and who to do it with. With this freedom comes responsibility. What is a good way to spend time if you are a retired person? How can you best structure your week?
Again, the best way to frame this is to ask how your use of time honours King Jesus. If all of your time and effort is spent on hobbies and friends, don’t even pagans do that? Christians should be distinctive in how they spend their extra time in retirement. It has to include more time in prayer. It should involve using gifts to serve the local church. There may be all kinds of opportunities to serve Jesus, some of which we will explore later in this book.
Don’t just let your time fill up without thinking. If you do that, your time will naturally fill up only with self-satisfying activities. Christians need to be more strategic than this. God has given you extra time; what will you do with what you have been given? When you stand before God in glory, will you be pleased to present what you have done with your talents to him? If all you have to show for a few decades of time you control is a low golf handicap, stamps in a passport, and beautiful paintings you have made, is that enough?
Please don’t mishear me here. There is nothing wrong with attending a craft group if you enjoy craft. Playing golf and going on a cruise are not sins! There is a time for rest, and God didn’t make us to work non-stop. What I am suggesting here is that retirement must be more than just hobbies and recreation for Christians. Actively plan to serve Jesus, else you might wake up one day and realise you have spent all the time you have been given only on serving yourself.
Conclusion: The honest application of the Bible
God calls us all, young and old, to radical discipleship in the pages of the Bible. We are to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. We are to love our neighbours as ourselves. We are to use whatever God gives us for the work of his kingdom, as explained in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30). None of these commands is restricted to the young. We must not add in our own loopholes, assuming only younger people can do these things while we end up living selfish lives like those who don’t know Jesus.
Whatever our age and limitations, we should ask how we can best serve God with what he has given to us. Retirement gives people unique opportunities in terms of time and experience to serve Jesus with. Let’s use our time well. We all look forward to the day when the Father welcomes us with “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into your master’s happiness” (Matt. 25:21). Even if that day seems closer than it once did, let’s keep on striving to finish well.
Simon van Bruchem is a pastor of All Nations Presbyterian Church in Perth, Western Australia, where he has served since 2007. He completed his Master of Divinity at Trinity Theological College after a previous career as an industrial chemist. He is married to Andrea, and together they parent three boys, ensuring life is consistently interesting and busy. He blogs regularly at www.writtenforourinstruction.com.
This article has been excerpted and adapted from Simon van Bruchem’s Distinctively Christian Retirement: A Biblical Call to Serve Jesus well in Older Age. You can find out more about the book at writtenforourinstruction.com. You can purchase the ebook from Amazon,Kobo, Apple Books, or anywhere ebooks are sold. The print book is available in many places including Book Depository and Amazon. The audiobook is also available on Audible.