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Do Not Cast Me Off in the Time of Old Age

It was just about a year ago that I was invited to submit an article for publication in a small periodical that reaches a couple of Reformed denominations. The editor told me that they were planning an issue dealing with “-isms” and I decided to write about “ageism,” something I feel is becoming an increasing concern both within the church and without. I posted an expanded version of the article (which for the magazine had a limit of 800 words) on this site.

This morning, as I was in the midst of my quiet time, I began to think about the article. I’m not entirely sure why, but I decided that I would revisit the article today, add a bit of information to it, and post it again. I subsequently decided not to do that as there was another topic that came to occupy my mind. But then, as I was browsing headlines in my RSS reader I noticed that Al Mohler has decided to tackle the subject of the elderly in his daily commentary. His article from this morning is entitled (rather verbosely) “ ‘Do Not Cast Me Off in the Time of Old Age’—The Christian Worldview and the Challenge of the Aged, Part One.” It seems that Mohler’s interest in the subject was created by reading an article by Eric Cohen and Leon R. Kass published in the January 2006 edition of Commentary. “Cohen, director of the program in biotechnology and American democracy at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Kass, the former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, have combined to write a most compelling essay on the challenge represented by millions of the aged among us.”

In the first article of this series, Mohler provides a brief summary of the authors’ main points. They show that life expectancy has been rising since the early twentieth century, meaning that many elderly people now experience many years or even decades of infirmity and often dementia. Mohler says:

Cohen and Kass see a coming “perfect social storm” represented by a fast-growing proportion of the elderly and a shrinking number of younger adults who will be able to care for family members, loved ones, and others. Americans are living longer, but the process of death now often involves an extended period of enfeeblement and, in all too many cases, dementia. The authors cite a recent Rand study that indicated that approximately forty percent of current deaths in the United States are now preceded by a period of physical, and often mental, debility that may last as long as a decade. Of course, this may include the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. At present, an estimated four million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s. Cohen and Kass report that the number is expected to rise to over thirteen million by the middle of this century, “all of them requiring many years of extensive, expensive, and exhausting full-time care.”

Mohler will continue to discuss this “mass geriatric society” tomorrow and the role of a Christian worldview in explaining and reacting to it. Having read this article, I decided I would, after all, revisit the article I first published last year. It somehow seems timely. At the time I was researching a conference that was coming to Toronto later in the year. In the literature describing the event I noted the following statement which was in the short biography of one of the keynote speakers. “St. Thomas Church in Sheffield, England has grown to be one of the largest churches in England with 2,000+ in weekly worship, 70% of which are under the age of 35.” I was struck by the emphasis on youth, as if this person was a more credible minister of the Word because he appeals to youth rather than to the elderly.

As I thought about this, I remembered an article R.C. Sproul Jr. had posted as he reflected on passing another milestone in life. He said, “When I last crossed a decade barrier in my own aging process, God was good enough to grant me this small bit of wisdom - the Bible honors age, not youth. I came to understand that the disappearance of my youth was something God thought a good thing, and if I were wise, I would agree. Now a decade later and I have been given this bit of wisdom - easier said than done.” Sproul is correct that the Bible honors age above youth. This is not to say that the Bible marginalizes young people, but that it sees them in their proper perspective - as people who are far less wise than the aged. Each year I attempt to complete a study of Proverbs and this is always made abundantly clear throughout the book of Divine wisdom. These verses are typical of the wisdom of Solomon. “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him (Proverbs 22:15).” We can compare that verse with Proverbs 16:31 which tells us that “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.”

Only a cursory search through the other 65 books of the Bible will reveal the common theme that God honors age rather than youth. Allow me to provide just a few examples of the Bible mandate to honor the elderly.

Leviticus 19:32 “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.” God commanded that we are to stand in the presence of the eldery to render to them the honor due to them. In Deuteronomy 28:50 God told the Israelites that a curse would come upon them for their disobedience. “A hard-faced nation who shall not respect the old or show mercy to the young.” A hard-faced nation is one that does not respect the old. Perhaps one of the clearest endorsements of God’s commands towards the aged comes from Job 12:12. “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days.” True wisdom comes from length of days lived walking with the Lord, not with the arrogant impulses of youth. In the story of Job we also see Elihu, who was the youngest of Job’s friends, wait to speak until the older men had spoken their part. He treated Job with both admiration and respect as his elder. Turning to the New Testament, Paul cautioned Timothy that he must “…not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father (1 Timothy 5:1).” He also tells him to treat elderly women like mothers.

The Bible also has much to say about youth. “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die (Proverbs 23:13).” “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother (Proverbs 29:15).” Hebrews 12:6-7 compares new believers, who are immature in their beliefs, to children. “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?”

A clear picture emerges from the pages of Scripture. That God honors age above youth does not mean that God despises youth and that He honors all elderly people. But a person who has lived a long life of dedicated service to God, walking in the paths of wisdom, is surely worthy of higher honor than the youth who has only just begun.

And so we need to ask a question about the church. Does the church honor the Bible in honoring age, or does the church instead honor youth? Or are we a hard-faced church that does not respect the elderly?

In our day many are fearing the aging of the Baby Boomers, worrying that they will become a burden on society that will empty the coffers of pension plans and overrun the health care systems. A new word I have begun to hear increasingly lately is “ageism”, a term which has been defined as “any attitude, action, or institutional structure which subordinates a person or group because of age or any assignment of roles in society purely on the basis of age.” We are all familiar, of course, with racism which subordinates people based on their skin color or ethnicity. While this is surely sinful, we can understand how it comes to happen. One ethnic group outnumbers another, and treat the other group as somehow inferior to themselves. But this makes little sense with age, for, as C.S. Lewis said, “The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.” We will all be old some day. Ageism is not only unbiblical and destructive to a well-ordered society, but it is also selfish and foolish.

I remind you again of what spurred this article. “St. Thomas Church in Sheffield, England has grown to be one of the largest churches in England with 2,000+ in weekly worship, 70% of which are under the age of 35.” Is this something to boast about? Are we to be proud that we have built a church for the young? Is it boastworthy that the majority of the people who admire the pastor may be in the midst of their youthful folly? Has this church been built at the expense of the aged? Have we built a church that would rather have pews filled with youth than with the elderly? Have we built an institution that subordinates a group on the basis of their age?

It seems to me that the church has forgotten or perhaps deliberately overlooked Scripture’s focus on the value and importance of the aged. While I have read of hundreds of churches that boast about how young their median age is, I have heard of none that boast in the number of elderly members. While new churches are being planted on a daily basis to reach twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings, I do not know of any that emphasize reaching the elderly. And while many churches are transitioning to new models of “doing church,” none seem to be doing so at the expense of youth. Surely we have missed the Bible’s emphasis on honoring age.

Many years ago I listed to a memorable sermon dealing with Ecclesiastes chapter twelve. Much of the wisdom of that message, preached in a church that boasted many grey heads, has stuck with me to this day. The chapter begins with the words, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth.” That is God’s call to those of us who have not yet earned our grey hair. When we are young, we are to heed the call of Wisdom, who cries, “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge” (Proverbs 1:22)? We must seek after wisdom so that when we are elderly, we can share our wisdom with the young and foolish.

Until then, let us honor the aged. Let us give double-honor to those with grey hair. Let us stand in their presence and give them the honor God requires. Let our hope and confidence be in the words of the Psalmist who says, “Those who are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bear fruit in old age; they shall be fresh and flourishing (Psalm 92:13,14).”