“Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you” (Isaiah 46:4).
“Life is so short!” This statement was recorded by the writer Julien Green in his journal, who attributed it to a local elderly woman. This was the last thing she said on her deathbed at the age of 94. The painful brevity of life becomes much clearer to those who have reached the end of their days, just as the discomforts of old age are felt most intensely when they begin to gnaw at our flesh.
Although it may seem like a recent concern, the fear of ageing has existed to some extent throughout history. Its dimensions seem to have grown, amplified and numbed simultaneously by the promises of the anti-aging industry, with its irresistible offerings tailored to all budgets and the fears generated by the process of decline.
In his journal, Green occasionally notes his thoughts on death and ageing. At the age of 58, he is moved by Chateaubriand’s words about reminiscing scenes from one’s youth: it’s like “visiting ruins by the light of a torch.” At 69, he records his impressions of a book about old age by Simone de Beauvoir, which he finds dreadful. He writes about how clearly you can read the verdict of ageing in the eyes of passersby, who hardly notice you anymore. Three years later, he confesses that only now does he vividly understand the fears of death described by the writer François Mauriac. He talks about the desire to die that overtakes him when he reminisces about the happy days of yesteryear when he was surrounded by family members who now live only in his memories.
Fifty years later, writer Mircea Mihăieș paints a similarly grim (or perhaps just realistic) picture of old age. In the postmodern world, old age is an affliction, a shameful one, a state of physical and mental frailty, a true burden, a tragic season because an individual can no longer reinvent themselves before slipping into the sleep of death.
If old age is a succession of losses and separations, how can we prepare for it, live it rather than endure it, or even embrace it? We can approach the challenging years of old age from various angles. We have a plethora of treatments and preventive measures at our disposal to delay or mitigate the onset of ailments and disabilities that accompany this stage of life. Perhaps we have the chance to savour our past achievements and cherish the moments of the present in the company of loved ones.
However, hope and joy amidst the inevitable adversities, especially in the latter part of life, spring from beyond us, as is the case in all seasons of our lives.
How we deal with our fears of ageing
Pastor John Piper takes stock of a series of fears associated with old age, admitting that he grapples with them himself, and examines the remedies that Scripture offers for each of these fears.
The Christian can be grateful for how they’ve been guided in the past, but they also have robust reasons to look to the future with faith. Whether it’s the next few minutes or contemplating what will happen months and years from now, what sustains us is the “faith in future grace,” says Piper, expressing his belief that God’s grace will uphold us moment by moment until our last breath.
The fear of the unknown is etched in our souls in a world where most of the gifts we have are as ephemeral as soap bubbles. Nevertheless, God Himself promises that He will support us into our old age (Isaiah 46:4), and His everlasting arms will always be our refuge (Deuteronomy 33:27).
Piper emphasises that the Bible is a treasure trove of promises that support us in any moment of difficulty. Perhaps we fear the decisions we’ll have to make in our years of weakness, but God assures us that He won’t leave us to face the choices ahead on our own (“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you” — Psalm 32:8).
Or perhaps we worry that our savings won’t be sufficient to cover medical treatments or other needs in old age, but the Apostle Paul reminds us that God was willing to give us the costliest gift in the universe: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).
If we fear loneliness, we have Someone who will be with us “always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). If the fear of suffering haunts us, the Bible assures us that pain will work something magnificent in us (Romans 5:3-5) and that our sufferings, which last only a moment from the perspective of eternity, bring us “an eternal glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17). When doubts about our ability to trust in Him to the end creep in, we can hold on to the assurance that He who began the work of saving our souls will also bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6).
But what about the fear of insignificance, especially in a society where it seems our worth is determined by what we can produce?
Fruit in old age
“Planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green” (Psalm 92:13-14).
Even though we don’t expect every elderly person to exhibit the wisdom we associate with their years, there is something irreplaceable about the older generation—only they can pass down values and knowledge accumulated and tested over a lifetime, Pastor Johan D. Tangelder says. “You are never too old to serve God,” says Tangelder, emphasizing that the way faith is passed from one generation to another requires a close relationship between the elderly and the young.
For those who fear that old age means irrelevance and uselessness, the Bible presents characters who served God with enthusiasm as they grew old. One might think of Sarah, Naomi, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna, who joyfully greeted the birth of the Messiah.
For Christians, old age carries different connotations than those emphasised by our culture. Christians don’t strive to hide their age through anti-aging treatments and strenuous workouts, they don’t immerse themselves entirely in the past, and they don’t live only to enjoy the relaxation and hobbies neglected in youth, Tangelder says. A true Christian will serve in any way permitted by their abilities, resources, and degree of autonomy, following the example of Jesus.
And if physical limitations no longer allow for volunteer activities or various other forms of active service, there is always the possibility of serving others through prayer, the pastor says.
The most painful form of age-based discrimination is when the elderly themselves come to perceive themselves as useless, unimportant, or easily replaceable, says Professor George C. Fuller in an article that lists forms of service accessible to seniors. Christians live for others, so at the heart of service are not the needs (however pressing) of others, but our motivation—our love for God leads us to love our fellow human beings. Starting from the fundamental role of service in the lives of Christians of all ages, Fuller observes that encouraging the elderly to remain servants dismantles the myth of the unproductiveness of the elderly, gives them a sense of usefulness and desirability, and breaks down the unbiblical barriers between generations.
Writing about the changes that those of his generation have experienced in a life that has not resembled the experience of any other generation from this perspective, Pastor Adolf Troester notes that the last decades of someone’s life could be the best of all. At least that’s what happened with Moses or Caleb. Our willingness to let God shine through us is the great gift we can give to Him, but also to ourselves, because our later years could be golden, Troester says.
Death and the ageing that often precedes it were not part of God’s plan for humanity but are the effects of humanity’s rebellion against its Creator, says Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, who argues that Scripture is where we should turn to find answers to life’s big questions.
After reviewing some explanations that scientists are attempting to formulate regarding the causes (and possible remedies) of ageing, Mitchell confesses her belief that no discovery will reverse ageing, even though medicine has made progress that has extended life expectancy.
Despite the discomfort and anxiety with which many view old age, there are many blessings that accompany this age, the doctor says. One of them is that, being unable to avoid the decline and suffering associated with ageing, we become aware of the vanity of life and our deep need for the One who created us.
In a world scared of old age, which fights against it and tries to camouflage it, Christians are tempted to adopt the same narrow vision, but God has a much better perspective on ageing, Christian author Jason Thacker says.
Our value lies not in how long we manage to maintain our youth—or its illusion—nor in our productivity, in what we still have to offer to society. Even when a person can no longer offer anything, their value remains infinite because they bear the image of God within them, Thacker says. Therefore, if we believe with all our being that God is alive and that we will live in His presence one day, untouched by death or suffering, we can embrace old age because everything we experience with Him is gain (Philippians 1:21).
At the age of 80, questions about how to manage loss and decline or how to reconcile realism about ageing with hope, meaning, and respect for life take on increasing significance, theology professor Harvey H. Potthoff says. In an article that explores the ageing process from various, yet complementary, perspectives of many Christian authors, Potthoff concludes that each day is a mini lifetime—one that deserves to be lived to the fullest because God is present in both our moments of joy and flourishing and those of regression and twilight.
One day, the professor recounts, John Quincy Adams, former President of the United States, at a venerable age, meets a younger friend who, out of politeness or perhaps genuine interest, asks how he is feeling. The president’s answer reflects his faith that life should be experienced until the very last moments of beauty and blessing it still carries: “John Quincy Adams is very well, thank you. But the house he lives in is sadly dilapidated. It is tottering on its foundations. The walls are badly shattered and the roof is worn. The building trembles with every wind, and I think John Quincy Adams will have to move out before long. But he himself is very well, thank you.”