The gospel and ageing

What is the most polite way to refer to an old person? Have you noticed how the words we collectively use to refer to old people in the media and in private conversation keep changing? It’s a strange process. We start using a word or phrase, for example, ‘old man’, ‘old woman’. After a while, we decide that this phrase is really a little derogatory, and so we change to another, more neutral phrase, such as ‘senior citizen’. But after a while, ‘senior citizen’ sounds condescending and slightly offensive. So we try another, more neutral, word—like ‘elderly’. But the same thing happens: after we use the word ‘elderly’ for a while, it starts to sound a bit insulting. So we try ‘aged’. Then ‘ageing’. And so on. The reason this keeps happening is that our underlying concept of ageing itself is negative. It doesn’t matter what word we choose to express it; that word will start to take on the negative connotations that we associate with the underlying concept.

Ageing, for us, is a terrible thing. Nobody wants to be old. We have created an entire cosmetic industry dedicated to covering up the disastrous effects of ageing. We don’t want to be look old because we don’t want to be old. Why are we so negative about ageing? It’s because ageing represents the opposite of our core values. We live in a society that puts a huge value on freedom, choice, fulfilment of desires, strength and independence. All these values are far more obtainable by the young than by the old. Increasing age means diminishing freedom, limited choice, lower potential for fulfilment, increasing weakness and growing dependence.

Furthermore, we believe that old people actually limit the potential of the young people around them. Old people are a ‘burden’, a challenge, an increasing demand on an economy that is ‘driven’ by the young. Or at least, this is the way we often talk about ageing.

What light does the gospel of Jesus Christ shed on ageing? The doctrine of creation remind us that God has created a good and ordered world for humans to rule under his loving oversight. Old people, by virtue of their greater experience in this world, have invaluable wisdom to offer the young. Young people need the presence, experience and wisdom of godly old people in our communities, in our homes (e.g. Prov 23:22) and in our churches (e.g. Titus 1:5, 2:3). Old people are not a burden. In fact, we can’t do without them.

Nevertheless, ageing is a reminder that our world is under a curse. The increasing weakness, futility and numbness of old age (Eccl 12:1-6) is merely the forerunner to death (Eccl 12:7), which all stems from God’s judgement for our rebellion against him (Gen 3:19). The debilitating effects of ageing remind us that there is something terribly wrong with our world and our relationship with God, and that should make us turn to him for salvation.

The fact that Jesus came as a servant to die as a ransom for our sins and to help those who cannot help themselves (Mark 10:45, Romans 5:6) teaches us that God cares for the weak, the feeble, the vulnerable. Following the crucified saviour means caring for those who need our care (Mark 10:43-44, Phil 2:4-11), including the aged among us (1 Tim 5:8). We all need to acknowledge the great value of aged care, and support those individuals and professionals who care for old people.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ shows us that mortality, frailty and death are not God’s final plan for humanity. Jesus’ body didn’t see decay (Acts 13:37); likewise, all those who trust in him look forward to receiving renewed, immortal bodies from God (1 Cor 15:42-44). In Christ, old people, as much as young people, are created in the image of an imperishable, immortal saviour (1 Cor 15:49) and share equally in that massive potential for freedom, glory and fulfilment in the new creation.

But the gospel demands faith and repentance. Do we trust in God’s promises enough to also entrust him with our fears and anxieties about our own ageing? Do we need to change our attitudes and our actions so that we properly value and love the old people in our midst?

10 thoughts on “The gospel and ageing

  1. Hey Lionel, great post! Thanks for bringing up such an important issue.
    John Chapman said in a recent interview that he believes there are great opportunities for ministry to ‘seniors’ (yes, that’s the latest pc term) in our community. He says, ‘Yes, they have special needs … I don’t think they are any more, or less, important than any other group … older people often need to be persuaded to change their minds. They tend to like things as they are, and the way they are used to. When you work with children and teenagers, they keep changing their minds, and that is part and parcel of working with them. Part and parcel of working with the elderly is that they need to be persuaded.’

    When we age we all move into a season of loss. My parents go to many more funerals these days, my father’s losing his eyesight and so it goes. One book I read recently asserted that for this very reason older Christians need much MORE care – not less. They might have been Christian for a long time and know their Bibles well, but they still need help to negotiate the challenges of ageing. I’m not convinced that our church families always respond positively to this need, perhaps from fear or lack of understanding.

    In this same book there’s a moving anecdote about Sir Cliff Richard when his beloved mum was in the final debilitating stages of dementia. Above her bed (in the home where she was being cared for) he positioned a photo of her, from years before, when she was bright-eyed and vibrant. He wanted visitors and staff to understand that THIS was the woman they were spending time with – still a person of value, who had a history and had made a contribution to so many others.

    Don’t you think that loving and respecting our senior church family members is one way we can demonstrate the reality of the counter-cultural gospel in our age-phobic Western society?

  2. Hi Lee, I certainly do think that loving and respecting our seniors (thanks for providing the current PC word) is one important way to obey John 13:34-35. And as for John Chapman’s quote – this doesn’t just show the value of ministry ‘to’ seniors, but also the value of ministry ‘by’ seniors. John Chapman is an example of a senior who is continuing to share his godly wisdom and experience in his ‘retirement’. The young should heed his words and value his insight; the old should follow his example!

  3. PS 71:9 Do not cast me away when I am old;
    do not forsake me when my strength is gone.

  4. Lionel, thanks for this article.

    A few thoughts.

    A couple of places which really invite you to spend close to a whole sermon addressing the topic are Psalms 71 and 90, and 1 Tim 5:1-10 (or 16).

    In regards to the latter, which you referenced briefly, I think it important to note that in our welfare-based society in the west, with multiplying aged services such as retirement villages and nursing homes, it is easy for people to almost entirely outsource the care of the frailer aged, with little more than an occasional weekly or monthly visit.

    1 Timothy 5:3ff is all about caring for your own family, but the verses make it clear it’s talking directly about your parents and grandparents, not your kids (which is what we all think of in terms of providing for your family).

    There will be various legitimate reasons why you cannot always care for aging parents in your own home or neighbourhood. But I suspect our welfare culture means Christians, like others, are all too quick to grab those opportunities to outsource this obligation.

    At the risk of embarrassment, I can say to any readers that Lionel’s parents have been a tremendous example to me personally of caring for elderly and infirm parents on two separate occasions, modifying their home and lifestyle to do so.

  5. One further comment. As I have mentioned previously, I think the way Paul places praying for people in their gospel ministry right alongside his own preaching in the frontline of mission can be a tremendous encouragement to those among the elderly whose lack of mobility and energy means they can do little else but pray!

    To quote my previous article…

    My conclusion from this is that prayer—especially prayer for gospel preaching and believing—places a person right on the frontline of ministry.

    I believe this has an especially powerful application to the frail, aged and others who are physically incapable of doing very much. Some of them often feel useless, and wonder why God still leaves them on the earth. But they are right at the frontline of the spiritual battle, even though they are physically inactive and hundreds of miles away from the people and places they are praying for.

    I know their prayers are helping me in my preaching and many people in their believing, and I am thankful for it.

    Remind them of this regularly!

  6. This thought might need a whole post to itself, but is anyone else feeling the absence of teaching of younger women by older women?  I do; I’m happy to go to conferences to hear my contemporaries preach, but I would love to hear from people who’ve lived a bit longer!  How can we encourage older ladies in our churches to be a bit more explicit about their walk with Christ?

  7. Hi Ellen,

    I assume you’re thinking of Titus 2:3-5:

    Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.

    You’re right, this verse isn’t just about running conferences, but about day-to-day personal training in God’s word.

    Perhaps we could phrase it negatively: what do you think inhibits older ladies in our churches from being more explicit about their walk with Christ and so teaching younger women?

  8. Lionel, I certainily was, but deleted the verse from the comment somehow.  I think there are a lot of things going on.  ‘It’s not polite to talk too much religion’ is probably a big one—and as some of them probably had families with sectarian splits, perhaps it’s not surprising.  Corraling them in an 8am Fuddy Duddy Service doesn’t help.  As a (somewhat!) younger woman, I’m pretty sure they find my education level intimidating.  Absence of training isn’t such an issue; possibly the absence of exhortation to do it?  I’m sure there’s more…

  9. Lionel,
    thankyou so much for beginning to engage us on this issue. It’s a topic I have longed to be addressed by us as a church community and I greatly enjoyed your piece, would love to hear more.

    There’s so much I would like to say on this topic, but will confine myself to some very brief responses to the question you raised -<cite>“what do you think inhibits older ladies in our churches from being more explicit about their walk with Christ and so teaching younger women?”

    Some thoughts…

    1. The lack of ready & regular accessibility between the generations within our church families. Older Saints in the early congregations, families mid morning, younger women in the evening. Only trusting relationships foster the sort of ‘life godliness training’ that the Titus 2 passage envisages. That takes time, accessibility & grace demonstrated through relationships.

    2. For many, there’s a sense of feeling of they’ve become ‘irrelevant’ to the active life and mission of the church. And I must admit, sometimes we fail to continue to ‘caste’ a vision’ of what they can still be, & need to be for Christ for as long he has them here. We need to keep casting a ‘life long vision’ to the whole church & not just the young and seemingly more able.

    3. Women in particular lack confidence. They need more active encouragement to see how they can use their time, gifts & abilities for the gospel. We need to help them see what they have to offer, & to actively urge them not be intimidated to use those abilities and opportunities and to keep taking initiative.

    4. We need to recognize there may be differences of language & expression regarding the Christian walk. Our Senior Saints ‘are’ often being explicit about their walk with Christ, they often just express it differently, or they take longer to say it than the time we are prepared to give them…

    these are just a few thoughts…I’m interested in others…

    ps. a lovely quote from a faithful Senior Saint recently to other Senior Saints, she said…<cite> ” remember ladies, we are not fading out, but moving onwards and upwards to our Lord”…(thanks Dorothy!)

  10. ps.
    5. Often these women have never themselves been discipled, and therefore are unsure ‘how’ to help others along that track….we can easily help them learn simple skills/confidence in that process.

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