The challenge of Growing Old
Tom Watt, Cowdenbeath, Fife, Scotland [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
‘Now also when I am old and grey- headed, O God, forsake me not’, Ps. 71. 18. ‘When I remember these things . . . for I had gone with the multitude . . . to the house of God’, 42. 4. ‘Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth’, 71. 9.
We frequently read and hear in the news of new laws and advice given by writers and politicians to people of all ages. Youth and children have never been better cared for, yet the biblical concept of family life has been eroded and its purpose has been practically destroyed; in many places it is non-existent. Age and the aged are a source of problems, difficulties, and even embarrassment to many families. The idea of caring for aged parents at home is seen as a burden too far, interfering with life’s enjoyment.
Yet, age with all its challenges comes to many of us and the scripture speaks volumes about this time of life, giving help, advice and wisdom to elderly saints. Old age is usually accompanied by physical decline – that is a fact, yet there are exceptions.
Older people cannot do what they once did and cannot always do what they would like to do. Memory fades, some find it difficult to concentrate to read the word, and for others it is difficult to get out to meetings because of tiredness or frailty. Many tend to live in the past and some can be a bit crotchety. Again, age brings loneliness, friends die, circumstances change, families move, assemblies close, and sometimes disagreements bring disruption and loss. What a prospect! This is not what was hoped for, yet in the midst of these difficulties comes a challenge.
These may be the sunset years – the autumn of life – but they can be the golden years. Many of us do not fear the dark spectre of death, for there is a hope, a home, a Father’s house. What we do fear is the darkness of a failing spiritual life – a bitter and mean-spirited old age – only a memory of past glories. We may become a person to be avoided because of bitterness or fretfulness. How do we face this prospect of old age and bring about the fruitful golden years?
In the Old Testament there are five poetic books: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon. At the end of each book there is a record of men that have things in common. They have experienced life with all its changes, they are all engaged fully within their capacities for God, and they are fulfilling a function which benefits their fellowmen. They are like the woman with the alabaster box who ‘did what she could’, Mark 14. 8 NIV.
- The book of Job ends with a man praying.
- Psalms ends with a man praising. Proverbs ends with a man prophesying.
- Ecclesiastes ends with a man preaching.
- The Song of Songs ends with a man pledging.
In Job’s case he had no knowledge of the reasons behind his loss of health or family; his friends misunderstood him and said, ‘Job must have sinned’. He must have been lonely, and sometimes downcast, but at the end ‘he kept praying’ and because he prayed his friends were forgiven.
The golden years bring with them time. What we do with this time is our responsibility. We could waste it, fritter it away, or we could set aside each day a time to pray, not casually as a form to feel good but specifically – not clichéd, but to lay hold on God with persistence. Make the lonely hours a sanctuary! Then, old hurts can be healed, wrongs can be righted, circumstances can be seen from Heaven’s stand point. Age brings time to pray.
Age also brings time to praise yet so many of we older saints are full of groans, rather than praise. From Psalm 145 to Psalm 150 the psalmist is full of praise. In Psalm 145 we have the reasons for praise – five times the psalmist mentions God’s greatness, vv. 3-7; ’the Lord is gracious’, v. 8. Note, too, the regularity of praise, ’every day’, v. 2; ‘for ever and ever’, vv. 1, 2, 21.
Psalm 146 brings us praise for God’s activities and work: in creation, government, providence, restoration, continuity. In Psalm 148 we have praise for the stability of the unchanging law and in Psalm 149, praise for the assembly of His saints. Finally, in Psalm 150 there is praise for His person. It is not possible to remember all we should praise Him for, but a time of praise mellows the day and sweetens the life.
Later years also bring time for reflection and thought regarding decisions made. In Proverbs we have a man prophesying – bringing wisdom. Age should bring the wisdom of experience! Titus writes that aged men should be sober – balanced, like the sons of Issachar, who knew ‘what Israel ought to do’, 1 Chr. 12. 32. In this age of change and difficulty, men and women of wisdom are at a premium. Not all old people are wise. When Samuel was old he made his sons judges over Israel – an unwise decision. When Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart from the Lord. It is possible to ruin a lifetime of service and testimony in old age by bad decisions in families, bitterness over seeming slights or wrongs, or even regret over past sins, missed opportunities or even jealousy. Wise older believers, out of a lifetime of experience, should warn about morals, about self-seeking satisfaction, and commend the care of the needy, and the bonds of love and unity. They should encourage Bible study and seek to encourage younger believers in every way. It is so easy to be critical but this is a deterrent to spiritual growth. Wise men and women are able to help unobtrusively.
At the end of the fourth poetic book we have a delightful picture of an old man preaching – not so much in public, but speaking to youth, or even his grandchildren, in a way they would remember. He speaks in three couplets and at the centre, in the heady exciting days of youth, Eccles. 12. 1, is a call to remember their creator, because youth will change, years will pass. Earthly ambition and philosophy is transient and physical strength will decay.
In beautiful language he speaks of not being able to walk far, ‘the keepers of the house shall tremble’, of failing eyesight ’those that look out of the windows be darkened’,– of a failing appetite for food and music, ’when . . . the grinders cease because they are few’. But, because he was wise, he spoke with clarity, and sought acceptable words of knowledge. In wisdom he did not decry youthful exuberance, but used a method that would stick like nails fastened by the ‘master of assemblies’, v. 11. The real content of his speaking was simple – fear God, keep His word. At the end the totality of life will be brought to light and judgement. The final words of older people will be long remembered, whether they be of praise and encouragement, or grumbling and bitterness.
Lastly, the final choice for older saints with all the problems of age is a man pledging in Solomon’s song of love. Whatever we think of this book – the who, the where, the when – it is a love story. It is a man remembering, looking back, reminiscing. He speaks of early days of first love – a reminder to us of when we were first attracted to the Saviour. He sees her under a tree. Equally, all who love Christ have pledged their love for Him under a tree – at Calvary. There, under the apple tree, He gave his love two things to remember him by, ’a seal upon thine heart . . . a seal upon thine arm’, S. of S. 8. 6. There is a special privilege for old people to speak of a lifetime experience of walking with God.
The ancient rabbis said the seal upon her heart was a locket filled with myrrh – and all the time he was away the odour of the myrrh would remind her of him. All through the book, in the wilderness days, in all the circumstances of shadowed days, days of communion, and night scenes, the myrrh reminded her of her love when he was far away. For these ‘wilderness days’ when our Lord is away, He gave us two things to remind us of Him – a loaf and a cup. What greater privilege is given to aged saints than to bring our experience, distilled by time and years, in worship to Him? These moments will be remembered by a generation growing up around us, if only we can grasp them and leave a legacy of prayer, praise, and worship. This is the challenge of old age! Can we grasp it and leave a golden, cherished legacy?