I remember watching the commercial as a child. A man dressed for work sprints after a moving bus, trying desperately to flag it down before it drives off without him. In a flash, he is transported to a beach where he meets his future self, jogging under the morning sun. His future self looks over and asks, “Still in the rat race?” “Hey, you’re me!,” he replies. His future self is retired, healthy, free. “Retirement agrees with me.” “Retirement? How can we afford that?” The answer? “Freedom 55.”
Freedom 55, a financial planning company, held out an attractive promise: Labor for 30 years, retire at 55, and then enjoy a long, comfortable retirement. But it also held out an entire philosophy of life: True freedom is found in leisure. The good life is the free life—free from children, expectation, vocation. Many live with this as their motivation, their destination, their heaven on earth. The Bible holds out something better—something far more challenging but far more satisfying.
Paul, the seasoned veteran, writes to young Timothy, “Train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7b-8). Godliness is the goal of every Christian’s life because it alone holds promise for this life and for the life to come. In some mysterious but sure way, the godliness we achieve in this life carries over to eternity. That is a promise no retirement plan can match. The retirement dream accounts for this life, but it gives us nothing when death comes. It stores up enough treasure for a carefree retirement, but it leaves us destitute for what follows. Only godliness accumulates treasure in an account that can’t be touched by death. The philosophy of Freedom 55 is worldliness, a way of thinking that is detached from the wisdom of God.
Godliness is to be our desire and our aim from the moment of conversion to the moment of death. All the while, worldliness will be our temptation. No matter our age, no matter how far we have traveled through time, we are to relentlessly pursue godliness and persistently avoid worldliness. Just as an athlete disciplines his body and mind, just as he dedicates himself to the pursuit of excellence, we Christians must apply discipline and dedication to our pursuit of godliness. We must train ourselves and push ourselves until we have completed our race. If we ever slow our pursuit of godliness, now or in old age, we deny the connection between now and forever. We deny the resurrection.
As we train ourselves in godliness, we will inevitably encounter temptations custom-crafted to each stage of life. Worldliness will manifest itself in different ways and we will have to make choices. As we come to this final article in the series, I mean to share wisdom to help us avoid the worldly temptations that come with aging. I haven’t run far enough in my race to have this wisdom, so I read a half-dozen books written by seasoned runners, by Christians who write from the perspective of old age. As I read I asked, What are the choices we will have to make as we age? What choices will lead us to age well? What decisions do we need to make right now? Here is what I learned.
Choose Zeal Over Apathy
As we age, we face a growing temptation toward apathy. When we are young we are zealous, easily enthused by ideas, desires, and causes. We have energy and enthusiasm in abundance. But as we age, as we accumulate responsibilities and experience sorrows, we may face growing apathy and waning passion for God. Romans 12:11 offers a life-long, all-consuming challenge: “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” In the words of J.C. Ryle, zeal is “a burning desire to please God, to do his will, to advance his glory in the world in every possible way.” It is single-minded devotion to God.
Zeal in old age begins with zeal today, for zeal stirs up a great fire that will never burn out. It generates the enthusiasm for the Lord that will sustain us through what Solomon refers to as the many “days of darkness” to come (Ecclesiastes 11:8). J.I. Packer says, “The challenge that faces us is not to let [declining health] slow us down spiritually, but to cultivate the maximum zeal for the closing phase of our earthly lives.” Complacency in our younger days will lead to apathy in our older days. Far better, spiritual enthusiasm in our younger days will promote zeal to the very end. The final leg of our race ought to be a full-out sprint in our pursuit of godliness. Piper offers this challenge: “Knowing that we have an infinitely satisfying and everlasting inheritance in God just over the horizon of life makes us zealous in our few remaining years here to spend ourselves in the sacrifices of love, not the accumulation of comforts.” Zeal in our later days begins with zeal in our earlier days. Choose zeal today.
Choose Discipline Over Complacency
If apathy and zeal speak to motivation, complacency and discipline speak to action. Specifically, they speak to the action of putting sin to death and coming alive to righteousness. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul turns to the metaphor of a race and warns of the high cost of inaction: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Paul fought complacency and pursued self-discipline, so that no sin would take root in his life and leave him ashamed.
The more we age, the more we need to resist the temptation of complacency and discipline ourselves to put off sin and put on righteousness. We need to discipline our bodies to ensure we behave with self-control rather than lust. We need to discipline our minds to ensure we do not welcome any evil thoughts. We need to discipline our imaginations to ensure we delight in what is good and refuse to fantasize about what God forbids. We need to discipline our mouths to ensure we only speak words that build up. We need to discipline our time to ensure we put every moment to effective use. In every way, we must be disciplined in our pursuit of God, we must build habits of holiness. We must not succumb to the ease of complacency.
Choose Learning Over Stagnation
A further temptation of aging is the temptation of stagnation, especially when it comes to learning. Young people are lacking in knowledge and wisdom, so their younger years are filled with learning. But as we age, we may come to believe we have learned enough to carry us to the end. Yet the Christian life is one of constant mind-renewal that depends upon accumulating the knowledge of God as contained in the Word of God. Until our minds have been completely purged of sin and filled with righteousness, we must continue to learn. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). The full and final transformation of our minds will come only in the presence of Christ. Until then, there is still sin to cleanse, wisdom to apply, truth to enjoy. Donald and George Sweeting point out that a characteristic of those who finish well is that they have a teachable spirit through life. “‘Teachable’ means that they maintain a humble posture and are open to receiving midcourse corrections. Those who finish well never stop doing this. They are lifelong learners. They learn from reading, from watching and listening to others, and from life itself. This keeps them from plateauing.”
We learn not only for our own sanctification, but also for others’ benefit. When we share what we learned with those around us, they are also built up in the faith. We cannot stop learning when there is still truth to teach. “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you” (Deuteronomy 32:7). What we have learned we must pass on. We must become learners now so that we will not slacken our pursuit of learning in our final days.
Choose Involvement Over Isolation
We must also resist the temptation of isolation, and especially isolation from church community. Instead, we must pursue and maintain church involvement as long as we are able and as much as we are able. In the midst of a society that honors youth and disparages age, we have God’s assurance that age gives us wisdom. And we also have God’s charge to bless others with that wisdom. There is a place for people of all ages in the local church. When Paul wrote to the congregation in Philippi, he addressed young and old alike when he said, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). In the community of Christians, we stand together as we resist the onslaught of the devil. The young need the old just as the old need the young.
Since God does not revoke our gifts in old age, he does not negate our responsibility to use them for the benefit of others. Perhaps Paul had an awareness of the temptation to isolation when he wrote, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). Of course we may have to slow down in our service or hand off our ministries. Instead of the public ministry of preaching, we may have to give ourselves to the quiet ministry of prayer. But to withdraw from Christian service altogether or to cease using the Spirit’s gifting is pure disobedience. Speaking to elderly Christians, Packer warns that spiritual gifts don’t wither with age, they atrophy with disuse. We need to exercise our gifts when we are young and continue to exercise them the best we can for as long as we can.
Choose Hope Over Despair
Finally, as we age we will experience the temptation to despair, the temptation to give up. We guard ourselves by pursuing hope. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he is aware of his increasing age and decreasing health. He knows his “outer self is wasting away” (2 Corinthians 4:16b), yet he remains confident and unbroken. He has not and is convinced he will not lose heart (16a). Packer shows how Paul grounds this hope in four great truths: He has a perfected body awaiting him beyond the grave (5:1); this perfected body will come to him in a perfected place that is far better (5:3-5); when he receives this body he will be at home with Christ (5:6-9); and he will be judged faithful by Christ and, by grace, receive a fitting reward (5:10-11). He is armed with truth and this truth gives him hope—hope enough to sustain him through all pain, all trauma, all temptation to despair. “It was always [God’s] plan,” says Packer, “that we, his embodied rational creatures, should live our lives in this world looking forward to, and preparing for, something even better than we have known already.”
As Christians, we can be confident we have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5). Our hope is a living hope because we serve a living Savior. And this Savior is guarding us through faith, keeping us from stumbling just as he is keeping our eternal inheritance from fading. Until then, we find hope in the God who promised Isaiah, “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you” (Isaiah 46:4). Even to old age.
We are all aging. We are passing through time until we reach the end of our time. We find that greater age brings greater sorrow, but that it also brings greater joy, especially to those who are in Christ. God tells us that greater age brings greater responsibility and that at every age we will need to flee the temptation of worldliness, choosing instead to do what honors and glorifies him. We learn that to age gracefully we need to age in Christ and for Christ.
As this series draws to its close, we do well to turn our attention to King David, who penned Psalm 92 in old age. He was weak, he was afflicted, he was full of sorrows. But still he proclaimed his hope:
The righteous flourish like the palm tree
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the LORD;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
They still bear fruit in old age;
they are ever full of sap and green,
to declare that the LORD is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him. (Psalm 92:12-15)
Will you bear fruit even to old age? In your final breaths, when you are as weak as you’ve ever been, will you be able to declare “The Lord is upright! He is my rock!”? I pray it is so.