Every day, we are all building the house we will live in when old age comes. Some of us are building a beautiful palace. Some are building a dark prison. What are you building?
Perhaps you are building a house that will prove beautiful and comfortable through the long winter of your old age. You are decorating it tastefully, filling it with ornaments designed to bring pleasure and comfort in the days to come—deeds of gratitude and grace, acts of generosity and selfless love. On every wall, you are hanging pictures that are as meaningful as they are beautiful—warm friendships in Christ, mentoring and discipling relationships, children and grandchildren who know and love the Lord. They look down upon you to comfort, to cheer, to encourage. You have stockpiled supplies of godliness and grace to ensure you will be full and fed, faithful in the days of weariness. You have gathered great stores of God’s Word to fuel the fire, to keep it blazing brightly through the long winter days and nights. You have prepared a comfortable bed where you can lie and rest. As you draw your last breaths, you will be able to look from your bed to see those ornaments, those paintings, that lifetime of precious treasure, and you will know: You have lived a meaningful life.
Or perhaps you are building yourself a house that will prove little more than a cold, gloomy prison through the long winter of your old age. You are decorating it with ugliness and kitsch—meaningless achievements, evil deeds, self-righteous works. You are covering the walls with grotesque pictures—harmful friendships, broken relationships, children and grandchildren who are wanton and rebellious. They look down upon you to haunt you, to condemn you, to fill you with fear and sorrow. You have stocked sparse supplies to feed upon in the days of weariness, leaving you to chew on bitterness, regret, and a thousand empty vices. You have gathered little of God’s Word to fuel the fire, so it will burn low and extinguish, leaving you cold and miserable. You have prepared a bed of thorns where you will lie and desperately try to rest. As you draw your last breaths, you will look from your painful bed to see those awful ornaments, those dark paintings, that lifetime of piled regret, and you will know: You have wasted your life.
Which house are you building? Are you building a palace or a prison? Are you building a place of joy, comfort, and security, or a place of grief, sorrow and peril? Every day you are laying the bricks to your home. From childhood you have been decorating it. With each passing day you add new ornaments and you stock—or don’t stock—it for days to come. And as the winter of your life approaches, you will take up residence in the house you have built. So I ask again, which house are you building?
A Deep Fear, a Deep Longing
There are certain behaviors I have been conditioned to fear since childhood. I saw people act in certain ways, I saw the consequences of their actions, and I decided that I would never do those things. I decided I would not be like those people.
As a child I saw the abuse of alcohol. I saw full-out drunkenness in all its ugliness, all its shame. I saw it in people I loved, people in my extended family. I saw how they behaved, I saw how others treated them, I saw how their reputations crumbled. Even as a child and a teen, I found myself so wary of alcohol that it never was attractive to me. Even today I don’t drink, and it’s not because I have a biblical case against alcohol. It’s that I’m just not interested. I never have been.
Since childhood, I have also been conditioned to fear aging poorly. I saw elderly people who behaved shamefully, who displayed so little of the dignity that ought to be associated with age. I saw old women who were embittered, who seemed to have no real point or purpose to their lives. I saw old men who were drunks, who were perverts, who were full of resentment toward God. Of course, I saw positive examples as well, dear old men and women who loved one another, who loved Jesus more than anything, who exemplified godliness and grace. Some of them I knew and some I met in their books or their biographies. I developed a fear of aging poorly and a deep longing to age well.
When I was still young I resolved that I would age with grace. I would not be a dirty old man, an embittered old man, a drunken old man, a purposeless old man. I determined that in old age I would be dignified and godly, I would exemplify character and purposeful living to the end. Even then, I understood that this resolution would need to shape my entire life. I could not live a dissolute life and expect God to grant me a gift of godliness on my 65th birthday. I could not live an apathetic or lukewarm life and expect a purposeful, meaningful old age. If I wanted to be godly then, I’d need to learn to be godly now. If I wanted to live those days with purpose, I would first need to live these days with purpose. For these reasons and many more, the subject of aging is especially precious to me.
Aging and Old Age
It is important to distinguish here between aging and old age. While old age is the position, aging is the process—the process of hard-fought, small investments made over time that determine our final position. My aim in this article and a few to follow is to bring attention to aging: the universal and lifelong reality that from the moment of birth we are growing older, that from our first breath we are progressing toward our last breath, that our every decision is culminating into the old man or old woman we’ll be. Aging is the dash on the tombstone, the little line that in its progress from left to right, from the joy of birth to the sorrow of death, encapsulates a whole life. Aging comes with many sorrows and many joys, and in between them are the responsibilities we can choose to embrace or ignore.
I have written this with many tears—tears enough to surprise me and to show how deeply I feel this subject, how much it has been a track playing in the background of my life, how much it remains a deep desire. These are tears of sorrow for wasted opportunities, tears of joy for evidences of undeserved grace, tears of hope that God will grant my prayers. For there are few longings in my heart deeper than this: that God would let me live a godly, purposeful, dignified old age.
Through a few articles, I mean to explore what the Bible says about aging. Ultimately, I want to encourage both you and me to age gracefully, to age wisely, to age resolutely to the glory of God.
* Inspired by Week-day Religion by J.R. Miller.