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Empty Nest: Finishing Well

Empty Nest: Finishing Well

Editor's note: As the old saying goes, "The days are long, but the years are short." Every day we prepare for the finish line and it goes by much quicker than we think it will. Starting strong is easy; continuing that way takes planning and preparation, especially for faithful Christians who want to hear "Well done." Enjoy this excerpt from noted author Jim Burns' new book Finding Joy in the Empty Nest.


Principle 7: Do whatever it takes to make your top priorities your top priority.

“Significance and a well-lived life are not accidental.”

My friend Paul, who is in his late sixties, told me he once had a leader say to him, “I hope you are doing well as we sprint toward the finish line of life.” Sprint? Really? Isn’t life more like a marathon than a sprint? No one has ever suggested that I would make a good sprinter, ever. I wasn’t fast in high school, and now that I’m in the empty nest, I’m even slower. But one of the biggest issues of life doesn’t usually cross our minds until we hit the empty nest, and that is to finish the race well.

I’m not an expert at running marathons. I’ve run only one in my life. I finished it, but let’s just say that my time was not going to take me to the Olympics — or even the Senior Olympics. When people asked about the marathon, they didn’t ask about my time; they asked me, “Did you finish?” My pat answer was, “Yes, and standing up.”

Most runners sometimes experience tough times in a race, blisters, aches and pains, maybe a sprain or some other setback, but still their goal is to finish the race well. So it is in life.

  • Since the game of life is usually won or lost in the second half, there may not be a more important goal than to finish well.

The apostle Paul sums it up best:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. — 2 Timothy 4:7

What does finishing well mean to you in your marriage, if you are married? Or in your relationships with your adult children or with your grandkids? In your faith? In your work?

Saint Augustine suggested that the most important question regarding our legacy is, “What do I wish to be remembered for?”1 He implied that when you can answer that question, you have achieved the beginning of adulthood. When we are on our deathbeds, we won’t be asking about our retirement funds or the work we left undone. We will be asking questions like, “Was I faithful with the gifts God gave me? Was I faithful to my values, my faith, my family?”

  • Finishing well is not about results but about faithfulness.

Living a life of faithful significance is not accidental. To live well is to live with purpose, mindful of a goal. For me, that goal centers much more on who I am than on what I do. But that was not always the case. So much of my self-esteem was wrapped up in my vocation, success, and recognition until I finally concluded that I wanted to make my goal to be able to say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” This doesn’t mean we lose our drive or work ethic. It simply means that we have a higher purpose than our vocation or kids’ success. This past year a few “superstars” of Christian leadership have stumbled in such huge ways as they neared the finish line. They had success in their careers, but they will be remembered for their lack of virtue and their failures rather than their life’s work in ministry. That is not what you want for yourself.

How will you spend the productive years remaining to you to finish well in the important areas of your life? The path to finishing well is not found. It’s most often made.

You must create the most effective path to get you to the finish line with excellence. One of the greatest byproducts of finishing well is that your family and those closest to you can benefit from your good decisions. What do you dream of accomplishing in those twenty-five to thirty-five years you have left? Even if you don’t have that many productive years left, what do you hope can happen with your life? This is where I lean into Scripture.2 I love to read the books of Proverbs and Psalms for guidance on living productively.

These two books are part of what is called the Wisdom Literature of the Bible. Some people have been greatly inspired by reading one chapter of Proverbs and five psalms each day for a month for wisdom and direction. Since there are thirty-one chapters in Proverbs and 150 psalms, you can finish both books in a month.

The Scripture that has helped me most as I think about finishing well is in the New Testament, written by the author of Hebrews:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. — Hebrews 12:1–3

This is what those few sentences have profoundly taught me about finishing well:

  • Learn from other runners. The writer of Hebrews mentions a “great cloud of witnesses.” It’s so important to learn from others. Are there people who positively influence you on a regular basis? If not, you are missing out on great opportunities to gain wisdom. The group of four men that I have met with every Tuesday morning for the last eighteen years has given me such great wisdom and knowledge. These men help me with my judgment. I’m a better husband, father, and leader because of those Tuesday mornings. Find your group of men or women who are your replenishing relationships. Do you have mentors? Mentors are effective in business, but I find that mentors for marriage, parenting, and spiritual focus can make you a better person. Some of my mentors are younger than me, and others I “met” after they died, by reading the wisdom in their books.
  • Run light. The writer of Hebrews also talks about throwing off everything that hinders us and the sin that so easily entangles us. Peter Drucker says, “First things first, last things not at all.” As you run toward the finish line, is there anything you can do to run lighter and to remove obstacles that would keep you from finishing well? Stuff happens. Sometimes it’s issues with our families, health, or circumstances over which we have no control. That’s why we need to run light, saving the energy to have the right attitude about draining things that come our way, that sway us from our callings. I have a psychologist friend who always says, “Live your life at 80 percent.” Doing so creates some margin in your life when tough times come your way.
  • Run with perseverance. Perseverance and grit help us overcome so many of our obstacles. Perseverance, endurance, grit, and courage are characteristics of people who have successful marriages, businesses, and relationships. I don’t know anyone finishing well who doesn’t possess these traits. Psychologist Angela Duckworth, in both her book and her Ted Talk about grit,3 says her studies on high achievers in business and education reveal that success has almost nothing to do with talent but much more to do with a never- give-up attitude. She calls that attitude grit. Nobody said life would be easy, but the healthiest way to walk the path marked out for us is to combine our perseverance and passion with pure grit.
  • Keep your eyes on the prize. The prize for me goes back to the word faithful. That’s what I want more than anything else—to remain faithful to God, my wife, my family, and my calling. The key to my being faithful is focusing on the foundation of my faith, which is trusting in Jesus. This is a simple but not easy decision. When I keep my eyes fixed on Jesus, things fall into place. I can handle the difficult circumstances life brings my way. But when I take my eyes off the prize, my focus becomes dim, and I can easily lose my way. I once asked a mentor who was nearing the end of his exemplary life, “What are you doing to finish well?” He answered, “It doesn’t start with my outside life; finishing well is an inside job.” He quoted a great thinker, Dallas Willard: “If your soul is healthy, no external circumstance can destroy your life. If your soul is unhealthy, no external circumstance can redeem your life.”

1. Quoted in Buford, Halftime, 18.

2. I realize many of my readers do not share my biblical worldview. I’m always so honored that you would read my thoughts anyway.

3. Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (New York: Scribner, 2016).

Excerpted with permission from Finding Joy in the Empty Nest by Jim Burns, copyright Jim Burns.

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Your Turn

Let's finish well. Let's prepare for it by learning from people who've gone before us and done well, running light, and keeping our eyes on Jesus. Come share your thoughts with us. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily