Lately I have been reading a book entitled, "Growing Old in Christ." It is a collection of essays on the topic of how to think and live biblically with regard to the topic of aging. What does it look like for a Christian to grow old? How does the Bible speak of old age? It is a worthwhile topic to consider, for most of us are likely to grow old, and all of us are in community with older people. More importantly, we live in a culture that has its own understanding of aging, and unless we intentionally shape a biblical view, we will uncritically accept our culture's view.
What's wrong with our culture's view of aging? For starters, the benefits of living in the 21st century West may have convinced us that old age is our right. My own father would have turned 69 years old today, but he died two weeks shy of his 57th birthday. Two years later, my mother died a few weeks before she turned 52. I have aunts and uncles who didn't see 50. I have cousins who didn't see 20. And in every case, part of our grieving process includes a sense of anger that people were not allowed to live "a full life."
Don't misunderstand me - we should grieve the loss of loved ones. Death is an enemy and an aberration. It doesn't belong in God's creation. But we are not promised a certain number of years in our life on earth. As one of the authors explains in Growing Old in Christ, "Length of years is a blessing (Prov 16:31; 20:29), but we should not presume that we have a right to a long life." And they also point out that Jesus did not grow old on earth - a fact that should help us reconsider what it means to live a full and meaningful life.
Another way in which Scripture might challenge our cultural view of aging is to push back against the youth-orientation of our world. We try to hide our age, we color our hair, we pay handsomely to have wrinkles removed, we imitate the way teenagers speak. I doubt this is what Scripture means in saying "A little child shall lead them." A Biblical view of aging sees it as a special gift that equips people for service. In Titus 2:2-5, we see the elderly as specially called to disciple others in the church. They are to be examples for God's people to follow.
There are many other ways in which we need to think more biblically (and less culturally) about aging. Scripture shows old age as a time of renewed service rather than leisure, even giving examples of fruitfulness and ministry in old age (Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah and Elizabeth are noteworthy examples, as are Simeon and Anna in Luke 2:25-38). Scripture calls elderly saints to be humble and teachable (1 Timothy 5:1, Nicodemus in John 3). And in a culture where so many of our older members are vulnerable to abandonment, 1 Timothy 5:2-8 warns us that failing to honor and care for our family is contrary to our faith.
And though Scripture is honest about the frustrations and difficulties of aging (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8), it still does not "characterize the aging process as an evil to be overcome. Thus, the New Testament offers us an alternative vision in which the modern, popular view of aging as a 'problem' might appear puzzling and unhealthy" (Growing Old in Christ, p11). And so, to the aging saints, the message of Scripture is to persevere in faithfulness, receiving with thankfulness not only the years you are given but also the role God has called you to during this time in your life. And to the church as a whole, the Word of God calls us to honor our senior brothers and sisters in the Lord, praising God for his faithfulness to them and his ministry to us through them.