Aging

Mrs. Lubbers is a wife and mother in the Protestant Reformed Church of Grandville, Michigan.

“Now also when I am old and greyheaded, O God, forsake me not…” 

Psalm 71:18

One thing about life is certain: we all must die. Every single day brings each of us one step closer to the grave. None is immortal, although the great ones of Greece sought by epic and philosophy to cross the River Styx and achieve immortality, and Ponce de Leon scoured the New World for that elusive Fountain of Youth. Today, as well, scientists hunch over their lab dishes in the hope of prolonging life and isolating the gene that will stave off death. As some humorist put it: “Everyone wants to live a long time, but nobody wants to get old.” But, alas, man is vulnerable. The elixir of life has not yet been distilled. Though they live to be a hundred years old, the grave stands ready to receive all men. Every person, believer and unbeliever, knows and must reckon with this inescapable reality. Scripture speaks true: “It is appointed unto men once to die…” (Heb. 9:27).

By their tasting of the fruit of the forbidden tree, our first parents have plunged the daughters of Eve, the sons of Adam, and all creation into certain death. “Since by man came death…” (I Cor. 15:21). Although sometimes God greatly abbreviates life by taking to Himself a young child or teenager, the usual way of dying is through the aging process.

Before the flood and during its close subsequent years, there must have been some retarding of the aging process. (There are those who attribute man’s pre-diluvial longevity to the fact that the earth was not yet tilted on its axis and the sun’s rays were less direct, which is a thought worth thinking about for those who bask too long under its therapeutic rays.) Nevertheless, men remained vigorous and women fertile and beautiful for hundreds of years. One has only to read the genealogies in Genesis 5 to discover the strength and productivity of man prior to the flood. And, although we often refer to the beauty of Jacob’s wife Rachel (Gen. 29:17), what an exquisite woman Abraham’s wife Sarah must have been! She was nearly seventy years old when Egypt’s pharaoh entreated Abram for her (Gen. 12:16) and over ninety years old when Abimelech of Gerar desired her (Gen. 20:2). Caleb, one of the twelve spies, was as strong at eighty-five years of age as he was at forty (Josh. 14:10, 11). Moses, at a robust one hundred and twenty years, was singled out with “…his eye was not dim nor his natural force abated” (Deut. 34:7). We notice, however, the gradual shortening of man’s days, until Moses in Psalm 90 speaks of our expected life span as threescore years and ten; fourscore years if strength be great. He is quick to add that even if we achieve eighty years, our strength is labor and sorrow and is soon cut off in death.

Just as man expends funds and energies in his attempt scientifically to circumvent dying, so he is energetic in his pursuits to ward off and disguise aging. Walk into any popular department store and one’s senses are assailed with the creams, salves, balms, unguents, perfumes, and cosmetic helps available. Spas, once identified with the profligate Romans, flourish. Health and beauty clinics proliferate. Cosmetic surgery is routine. Nor are these luxuries limited to the rich and famous.

America is a youth-driven culture. Who, for instance, is setting the standards which dictate that a mature adult woman should look remarkably like an eleven-year old boy? In his commentary on the Psalms, Psalm 71, James M. Boice writes about being old in America: “At other times and in other cultures old age had advantages to offset its disadvantages. Elderly persons were honored and respected. Their wisdom was valued. That is no longer true in America or in the West generally. Here we value youth, and the culture is so oriented to youthful interests that many old people even try to dress and act like teenagers.”

There seem to be no hard and fast rules in Scripture governing the extent to which one may go to delay or disguise aging. May one dye his/her hair? Are lifts and tucks permissible? Is trowelling on heavier makeup the answer? May one indulge oneself in facials, manicures, pedicures, or Botox treatments? Should one exercise and run five miles each day to stay taut and firm? Will an all-organic diet extend my life? Should I “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative,” as an old song has it? The Bible simply does not give commandment here. Scripture does make reference to the scurrilous behavior of Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, that she painted her face—although it certainly didn’t help her any in the end (II Kings 9:30), and my own dad never tired of quoting that text to us teenage girls. Two other Old Testament references to painting one’s face (Jer. 4:30 and Ezek. 23:40) are clearly characteristic of harlots.

Again, as with most adiaphora, motive and one’s personal calling enter the equation. One’s purpose in this life, his raison d’être, is to glorify God and praise Him forever. Intent on that high calling, along with loving the neighbor as himself, one will have little occasion for “painting one’s face.” Indulging self will not be the consuming passion of my life. Short shrift will be given to “outward adorning” (I Pet. 3:3). The preoccupation of our culture with one’s outward appearance will assume its proper place. And what’s wrong with siding with C.S. Lewis when it comes to aging gracefully? He writes in a letter: “As for wrinkles—pshaw! Why shouldn’t we have wrinkles? Honorable insignia of long service in this warfare.”

Growing old is sobering. One cannot brush it aside lightly. Problems do not go away in old age, they intensify. In addition to serious ailments such as cancer and heart problems, there is that extra creak in one’s bones in the morning, the sagging jowls, the drooping eyelids, that fleshy torso, the thinning hair, the wrinkles (honorable insignia or no), the capped and false teeth, the thickened veins on hand and legs, those rumbling inner organs. If we have never understood the principle of gravity before, take a look in the mirror—gravity is inexorably pulling us down. There is no stemming its controlling force. And, although it is true that some people weather the vicissitudes of life better than others, for those over fifty who respond to that mirror image by imagining that they do not look a day over thirty, perhaps more is at stake than their eyesight.

Carefully read Ecclesiastes 12 to learn of the complete decay and dissolution of the body and its functions in aging. Eyes dimmed by cataracts; arms and hands trembling; knees unable to support the frame; teeth nearly gone; senses dulled; fear of heights; hair as white as the almond blossoms; faculties of soul, mind, will, and affection impaired; difficulty of speech; appetite lost; pleasure constricted; desire failed; body and soul disunited (the silver cord be loosed); the brain shattered (the golden bowl be broken); the heart, at last, stopped (the pitcher broken at the fountain). The wise man of Ecclesiastes does not exaggerate the pain of aging.

Ecclesiastes 12 does justice, too, in referring to the days of old age as “evil days.” Not evil days with respect to sin, but evil days of trouble and affliction. Days of gradual sapping of one’s productivity, desire, and interest in life. Days in which it becomes easy to be critical and peevish. Often a husband or wife has died, and an old person must shoulder the burden of life alone. Undoubtedly, the days are “evil days” to the citizens of nursing homes because we their fellow saints so often neglect them. Since the elderly seemingly contribute so little to the culture and society in which we live, they are not important anymore. The late Charles Westra wrote a poem (based on Psalm 71) about this subject in the March, 1962, issue of Beacon Lights:

Prayer of Mid-Life

Dear Lord,

I see old people;

Wrinkled, 

Gray,

Forgotten people.

When I am old

May I be 

Wrinkled,

And gray,

But not forgotten.

It is to be hoped that along with the hoary head depicted both in this passage and in Proverbs 16 comes wisdom. Like Caleb and Moses, may our determination to see and possess our promised inheritance be age defying. If anything in the latter years of aging keeps our step brisk, our interest piqued, and our focus sharp, may it be the causes of Jesus Christ and His kingdom. We must pattern David’s approach to old age: opportunity yet given to testify to the generations yet to come that God is righteous and faithful and His Word to be trusted. The psalmist puts it this way in Psalm 92:14, “They [the righteous] shall bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing.”

Aging, however, is not primarily about weakened bodily processes; it is not even about being, regrettably, forgotten by friends and relatives. It is all about subjecting my will to my Father’s will. This is the real difficulty in aging—”not my will, but thine be done.” Disease may ravage the body, eyesight may fail, joints stiffen, the important question remains, “Am I, by God’s grace, more and more sacrificing my desire and will to His will?” Subduing my will by His Word and Spirit takes a lifetime. I never win the battle of the dying of my will in my own strength. Even small, Pyrrhic victories are nearly impossible. Man’s will stays vigorous right to his last breath. “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:19, 24).

A new body. A restored life with Christ forever and ever. My will harmonized with His, at last. Old and gray, but never forsaken by God.

Beauty fades. Strength wanes. We age. So, remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth.