Aging was not seen by the early Christians as a ‘problem’ to which some sort of religious solution was required. In the entire New Testament, particularly in the pastoral epistles, the respect due to older members of the community is emphasised. The exhortations imply and speak explicitly of dutifully caring for widows, honouring the elderly, imitating their faith, and faithfulness.
For example, “Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as you would a father…” (1 Timothy 5:1). Later, in the same chapter, we find also specific directives that the community should provide assistance to widows over the age of sixty and that women recognised by the church as widows should devote their energies to prayer, hospitality and to service to the afflicted. (1 Timothy 5:3-16)
In our youth-obsessed culture, the elderly are strongly tempted to act youthful. They are expected to get a workout to remain in shape, get beauty treatments to rejuvenate themselves and to dress in youth fashions. Should seniors long to be young again? I don’t think so. For Christians today, old age is not a dead-end street. As we age, we can still grow spiritually. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).
Paul said to the Ephesians that we can progressively succeed in putting off the old self and putting on the new self and, “be made new in the attitude of our minds” (Ephesians 4:22-24). This renewal through the Holy Spirit impacts our mental attitude, state of mind and disposition with respect to God and his world throughout our life. In other words, we continue to develop our walk with God. So, it’s helpful to know we are never too old to serve the Lord.
The Riches of Old Age
Dr Viktor E. Frankl, who suffered unspeakable horror in Nazi concentration camps, says that there is no reason to pity old people. And he adds this remarkable statement, “Instead, young people should envy them.” Why? Because seniors have something young people don’t possess. Frankl says that seniors have realities in the past—their plans and values that were realised—and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.
St Augustine in his Confessions calls memory a ‘vast court’ or ‘great receptacle’. The elderly have a rich storehouse of memories, and inner landscape to explore: times lost in idleness, opportunities well used, a fulfilling career, children grown up and suffering gone through with dignity and courage.
What an opportunity for our youth to tap into the memories of their grandparents! The Christian faith is passed on from one generation to the next. And what a wonderful thing that is. The church cannot be the church without the elderly. Where would the church be without them? There can be no substitute for some old people in the church passing on their wisdom to the younger generation.
The church cannot be the church without the elderly. They are the essential elements of the church’s story—according to scripture, old and young belong together. They are all part of the great family of God. Seniors can give to the youth the lessons and spiritual resources that have been harvested over a lifetime.
A Purpose-driven Old Age
Some seniors have a phobia about aging. They see their retirement years as a curse of boredom and uselessness. Others see them as an opportunity for the pursuit of leisure. During the winter some seek a warmer climate, away from their family, friends and their local church. Old age is not just a time to relax and play golf, nor is it a time only to reminiscence about the past. (Though relaxation and reminiscence surely have their rightful places in our lives.)
Instead, in old age, as throughout our lives, we must continue to pursue the way of serving others, conforming our own lives to the self-giving pattern of Jesus. The Christian practice of growing old is shaped by the example of Jesus, who emptied himself and became obedient, even to the point of death, for our sake. (Philippians 2:1-13) Our Lord never promised his followers an easy path to tread. The way of discipleship leads to the cross. (Mark 8:34-38; Luke 14:25-27)
Of course, not every senior is able to volunteer for mission or church work. Some have multiple health problems. Their physical disabilities limit them in their activities. But they can pray for others, and offer friendship.
The Best is Yet to Come
As we age, we become more aware of the swift passing of years. We can either let the fear of death put a mental stranglehold on us or look to the future with hope. The best is yet to come! Jesus Christ, the risen and ascended Lord is the ground of our hope and the promise of our deliverance. The hope of the resurrection lies at the heart of the way in which Christians embody the practices of growing old. We serve a faithful God who will never forget us!
We are strangers and pilgrims on earth—the older we become, the nearer we are to our eternal home. This truth encourages even the oldest individual to cherish each moment of life while preparing to relinquish it. Each day is a gift from God. We look to him for our daily bread while making sure that we seek first the kingdom of God rather than squandering our time and energy on secondary concerns.
With the prospect of a glorious future for all who are in Christ, we can identify with Martin Luther’s suggestions that,“in the purpose of God, this world is only a preparation and a scaffolding for the world to come.” I also think of John Calvin’s teaching in his Geneva Catechism that we are,“to learn to pass through this world as though it is a foreign country, treating all things lightly and declining to set our hearts on them.”