Our only experience of aging is within this sinful world. We don’t know what aging would have looked like if this world had remained unsullied by sin. We do know, however, that aging would have still occurred. Before God created people, God created time. So God created people to exist within time and pass through it. Thus, babies would have grown to be children and children would have matured into adulthood. Perhaps the benefits that come with aging would have continued ad infinitum without any of the negative effects we see and experience. We just don’t know.
(Did you read part one of this series? You can find it here: Aging Gracefully.)
What we do know is that in a world like this one, aging has a strong association with pain and sorrow. Though aging is not without its benefits, it is known first for its sorrows. We experience this sorrow because greater age brings greater exposure to sin and its consequences. As we pass through time, we see more and more of the sin that lies within our hearts. As we accumulate years of experience, we also accumulate a deeper knowledge of the sin that inhabits other people’s hearts and comes out through their words and actions. With every day, with every year, we see and experience in greater measure the consequences of sin in the world around us—death, destruction, disaster. It adds up to a great weight of sorrow.
This sorrow is universal. Even Christians experience sorrow in aging. They, too, find that greater age brings greater sorrow. It comes in many forms. Here are five of them.
The Sorrow of Weakness
As we age, we experience the sorrow of weakness. Of course, as we first begin to age, we grow stronger. As we pass from infancy into childhood and from childhood into adulthood, our bodies grow and strengthen. From his vantage point in old age, Solomon says, “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 11:9a). He goes so far as to say, “The glory of young men is their strength” (Proverbs 20:29).
But that strength does not last long, does it? There are a few years of growth followed by many years of decline, a few years of strength followed by many years of weakness. For men and women alike, physical strength peaks in their 20s or 30s before settling into a long decline. Muscle mass, bone density, metabolism, and even the senses begin to deteriorate. Most athletes retire by 37 or 38 years old, when they still have more than half their lives to live. They simply can’t keep up anymore.
One of the most sorrowful passages in all of the Bible talks about the sorrow of weakness.
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low—they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails… (Ecclesiastes 12:1-5a)
This is a poetic description of the body weakening and failing. Eyes dimming, hands shaking, feet shuffling, back bending, teeth missing, voice trembling. It is a pathetic contrast with the strength and vigor of youth. And the decline of our bodies only grows steeper with age. There is sorrow in seeing our bodies weaken and decay.
The Sorrow of Weariness
Added to the sorrow of weakness is the sorrow of weariness. Old Solomon knew this sorrow as well, for in Ecclesiastes 1:8 he exclaims: “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” A long hike brings deep fatigue; a long life brings deep weariness. How could it do anything else in a world so stained by sin and its consequences? The longer we live, the more of this weariness we experience, and this weariness presses down on our bodies, our minds, our souls.
A pastor once visited our church and told of the trials he and his congregation had been enduring. Most recently and most painfully, his dear friends had lost their unborn child. They had just one opportunity to carry a child and for eight-and-a-half months, the pregnancy had progressed normally. The day was fast approaching! Then, only two weeks from full-term, the child had died and been stillborn. What tragedy. What sorrow. Standing before us that day he said, “I hate this world right now. All it has done is break my heart. None of us want to stay here. All this world does is fool you and fail you. It over-promises and under-delivers.” He was expressing the weariness of living in this sinful, painful world—a world of death, destruction, and decay, a world that provides so little purpose and meaning to our suffering. Greater age leads to greater sorrow. It leads to the sorrow of weariness.
The Sorrow of Reaping
There is also the sorrow of reaping. Reaping is a farming term that refers to gathering a crop. What the farmer plants in spring he harvests in autumn. He reaps what he first sows. Galatians 6:7-8a warns, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption.” Ultimately and most significantly, this reaping happens after the final judgment when God “will render to each one according to his works” (Romans 2:6). But this reaping begins now, even for believers, for sowing and reaping are spiritual principles in both life and death.
Sowing to the flesh involves pursuing sin as well as failing to do good. It involves deepening in depravity as well as failing to grow in righteousness. It involves the natural consequences for our sin. The man who sows adultery reaps a wrecked marriage, he who sows fraud reaps imprisonment. The woman who sows discord reaps loneliness, she who sows self-gratification reaps addiction. On and on it goes. As more life is lived and more sin is sown, more corruption is reaped. Much sin that is sown in youth lies dormant in the soil until at last, it bursts forth and is reaped in old age. The farmer who sows weeds in the spring can’t be surprised when the autumn comes and all he has to harvest is weeds; the person who sows a lifetime of sin can’t be surprised when the autumn of his life comes and all he has to harvest is sin. “Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.”
The Sorrow of Mortality
Then, compounding all of this sorrow, comes the sorrow of mortality: the knowledge of death’s sure approach. As we have already seen, Ecclesiastes 12 speaks of the body’s decline, but it also speaks of its inevitable end: “Man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets—before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 12:5b-8). Solomon gives us a picture of a flaxen rope holding a clay pitcher, a means to draw up nourishment and refreshment. Over time, the rope wears with age and use. Strand by strand, it begins to fray. And then, it succumbs to the inevitable. The rope breaks, and the pitcher falls to the depths, smashing into pieces. That is the frailty of life and the inevitability of death.
Part of the sorrow of aging is the sorrow of knowing that we are closer to death now than we were before. We are one day closer to death than a day ago, one moment closer to death than a moment ago. That time has passed and we can never have it back. Dreams we had will go unfulfilled, missions we wanted to accomplish will go undone. Friends we’ve loved have gone on before and we both feel and mourn their absence. That’s the reality of life in this world, a world in which we all pass through time until we come to the end of our time.
The Sorrow of Fear
Finally, there is the sorrow of fear. With weakness, weariness, reaping, and the inevitability of death’s approach comes fear. It could not be any other way. In Psalm 71, King David voices some of this fear. Looking ahead to old age, he prays, “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent” (Psalm 71:9). He is expressing some of the fear that comes with age, fear that as he gets old he will find himself alone, without an ally, without anyone to care for him through his final days.
As bodies fade and minds diminish, fear increases. Of course it does. This world is scary enough when we are strong and able. How much scarier, then, when we are weak and vulnerable, when we are dependent upon others for our care, our sustenance, our protection. There is a reason so many people prey upon the elderly, which is why the elderly need our special care and protection. Age is fraught with many perils and together they lead to the sorrow of fear.
Five Sorrows, One Hope
Here, then, are five sorrows that come with aging, even to Christians: the sorrow of weakness, the sorrow of weariness, the sorrow of reaping, the sorrow of mortality, and the sorrow of fear. All five of these sorrows would be absent in a perfect, sinless world. All five of them are present and universal in a world like this. All five come with aging and only increase as time goes on.
When we look at aging this way we see that death is the crescendo of a million sorrows. We are dying from the moment we are born. As soon as we begin to move through time, we are moving toward the end of our time.
If these sorrows are inevitable, how can we prepare ourselves? How can we face them well without succumbing to despair, perversion, drunkenness, bitterness, or a hundred other vices? We need to arm ourselves with character that will strengthen and sustain us. We need to embrace the joys and the responsibilities that come with aging. But we can only do this if we first know Christ.
Christ’s life began with the very heights of joy, and it ended with sorrows so deep that he is rightly called the Man of Sorrows (Isaiah 53:3). As he lived, he experienced weakness and weariness, fear and the inevitability of death’s approach. And though he was unpolluted by sin, perfect in every thought, word, and deed, still he reaped the fearful consequences of sin—our sin. For on the cross he took our sin upon himself, suffering its full torment, paying its full price. But he rose. He rose! And now he offers forgiveness and life to all who will put their faith in him. Those who believe in Christ have hope that outlasts life and outlasts death. They have the sure hope of resurrection, of life renewed, life restored, life eternal. They are empowered by his grace to endure the sorrows, experience the joys, and embrace the responsibilities that come with aging.
I want to close with a word of encouragement to those who have a discouraging awareness of the sorrow of reaping or who are living in dread of it. Perhaps you came to Christ late in life after so much damage had already been done. Perhaps you came to Christ early but spent many years in apathy or disobedience. You need to know that God’s grace is sufficient to redeem your failures. Because of his grace, none of us experience all the reaping we could. Because of his grace, none of us have to fear even a moment of this life or the life to come. Yes, there may still be consequences for your sin. But even this will not be purposeless. Even this will be found to have been used by God for his good purposes. Take heart. “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” (Psalm 27:14).
Next time we will see that, even though greater age brings greater sorrow, it also brings greater joy.