Four things the Holy Spirit wants you to remember about growing old

A dear saint of Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church died last night. She was 98 years old. I had the privilege of meeting her this past December, and she was filled with a joy in Christ and a yearning for heaven. I hope that I live 98 years or longer, and I hope that my trust in Christ is as deep and firm as this sweet lady’s was. Yet I know that if the Lord sustains me physically for that long, it will not be painless. Growing old is not easy. Yet post-fall, it is a reality. So how are we to think Biblically about aging? What does the Holy Spirit say through His Word about growing old?

I. The Spirit says that old age is not something to be denied. We tend to tiptoe around the question of age, fearing to ask how old people are, acting like the world in thinking that growing older is categorically a bad thing. Yet in Titus 2:2ff., Paul doesn’t shy away from calling some people in the congregation “older men”, and calling some “older women.” He clearly has no qualms about calling some people “older,” and indeed he affirms that God has a special calling in their lives. But when do you become “older”? We could say that old is as old feels and does; we can speak of aging chronologically or functionally; it’s a matter not only of the body’s aging but also of a person’s attitude and abilities. But the word used in Titus was in common use among the Greeks, and had a chronological reference – Hippocrates, of the Hippocratic Oath fame, used it refer to age 50-56, Philo used it to refer to those over the ago of 60. I suppose, in a sense, it’s a bit arbitrary, and relative to the specific culture or specific congregation. I am 39 years old: to my children and their peers, I am an older man; to some churches I would be either a peer or a younger man. At my first church, where we had several saints in their late eighties, brothers and sisters in their sixties were viewed as spring chickens! The point is that at some time, you will fall into this category of “older,” and you shouldn’t deny it. Don’t get offended by Paul’s use of language. Older men and older women should embrace the title and to be about the business that Paul sets forth for them in Titus 2:2ff. If everyone is trying to stay in the young category, then the church loses something invaluable from its corporate life.

II. The Spirit says that old age is something to be thankful for. Throughout the Bible, length of days is seen as God’s reward, God’s blessing. “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you” (Prov. 3:1-2). “A gray head is a crown of glory; it is found in the way of righteousness” (Prov. 16:31). “The glory of young men is their strength, and the honor of old men is their gray hair” (Prov. 20:29). To Eli, God’s curse was that an old man would not be in his house forever (I Sam. 2:32). And to David in Psalm 34, life and length of days was a reward of God, His blessing upon a life lived in the fear of Him. Of course, dying young is not automatically a sign of God’s curse, and the unrighteous often live long and prosper (see Job 21:7; Psalm 73:3-4). And yes, the Bible balances the goodness of old age with the difficulty of old age because of the fall. Indeed, the only reason we “age” at all, in a qualitative sense, is because sin brought death into the world (Rom. 8). But don’t let the hardness of old age prevent you from seeing the blessing of old age; don’t let the supreme goodness of departing this body to be with Christ keep you from seeing the goodness of life on this earth. You see something of this tension in the book of Genesis. When Joseph brought his father Jacob before Pharaoh, Pharaoh asked him, “How old are you?” Jacob replied, “The years of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty; few and unpleasant have been the years of my life, nor have they attained the years that my fathers lived during the days of their sojourning” (Gen. 47:9). Joseph is referring to Abraham, who lived to be 175; when Abraham died Moses recorded, “He died in a good old age, an old man and satisfied with life” (Gen. 25:8). Be thankful for old age, for the privilege of seeing your children’s children’s children, of having more time to get to know God and get to serve others.

III. The Spirit says that old age is something to be respected. The fifth commandment doesn’t merely refer to one’s biological parents; the ten commandments are pegs for a whole variety of duties, they contain within them a whole lot of other commands. In the case of the fifth commandment, as the Westminster Larger Catechism 124 so helpfully reminds us: “By father and mother are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.” And so we read in Leviticus, “You shall rise up before the grayheaded and honor the aged, and you shall revere your God; I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:32). Paul tells Timothy (and by implication Titus as well, since he seems to be a younger man like Timothy), “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father… to the older women as mothers…” (I Tim. 5:1-2). Fearing God means respecting those who are older than we are, even by a tangible sign of respect like standing up when they enter the room. Speak respectfully to those who are older and about those who are older; seek the counsel of those who are older; cultivate a culture in your home of giving honor to those who are older. It is not merely a coincidence that the promised reward of keeping the fifth commandment is that your days will be prolonged in the earth. God blesses those who respect old age with old age.

IV. The Spirit says that old age is something to be prepared for. As the saying goes, “Growing Old is Not for Sissies.” There are difficulties and trials that are peculiar to old age – go read Ecclesiastes 12! These difficulties are especially physical and mental. Jay Adams, in his excellent little book, Wrinkled But Not Ruined: Counsel for the Elderly, gives a great definition of aging: it is a process of loss.

  1. A loss of strength (Ps. 71:9) and health – decay is already happening (II Cor. 4); we fear future decaying; there is increased frailty, feebleness, clumsiness, loss of muscle, loss of skills/abilities, fatigue, bad decisions, falling, more easily injured, slow healing, aches and pains, sleepless nights, incontinence, sleeping more during day, hearing loss.
  2. A loss of stamina – we experience weariness, temptation to give up, no desire to undertake or complete projects, no energy for ministry, loss of alertness.
  3. A loss of companions and friends – our spouse dies, we move away from friends, it’s hard to make new friends.
  4. A loss of independence – we can’t do the little things, we become embarrassed to ask for help, it may be hard to hear the telephone, we may lose the ability to drive, we may be in a wheelchair, we may be a burden to family, we may be a financial burden.
  5. A loss of a job – we were made to work, so when we all of a sudden get lots of time on our hands, we may struggle to be productive; we do little with our lives or just sit around watching TV or surfing the web.
  6. A loss of finances – there is an uncertainty about future, a fear of catastrophic illness or chronic illness, medical bills.
  7. Loss of life – we may become preoccupied with though of death but not know how to prepare for it.

And in the face of all these losses, sin is still indwelling the believer; new temptations arise. The tendency is to hang up the gloves when you hit a certain age, to either feel like you’re useless, or to feel like you can retire from discipleship and ministry. Yet as we grow old, we can and we must still grow in grace, and we can and we must still be one of God’s tools in His toolbox. Now, you might not feel like the sharpest chisel in the set, but a dull chisel has just as many uses, if not more, than a sharp one! I love Psalm 92:12ff. “The righteous man will flourish like the palm tree, he will grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still yield fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and very green, to declare that the LORD is upright; He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in Him.” That is what we should be aiming for as we grow older, still to bear fruit in our old age. And by God’s mercy, that is what we will experience. May the Lord enable us to grow old with grace and in grace.

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