Just a century ago, the well-known psychologist Dr. Sigmund Freud wrote that those over the age of 50 were “no longer educable.” 1 Still today, new is in, old is out. Mass media and billboards plaster a cult of youth virtually everywhere. Let the good times roll without the weak, dependent elderly around! Freud’s view was not new. Some societies even abandoned their old people by exposing them to the elements or outright murdering them. Against the law for now, perhaps our society does better. The mercies of the wicked are cruel.
We Christians certainly do love the elderly in our midst. We value their godly fellowship and are willing to help them in their need. Perhaps we might joke about them as “over the hill” or “out to pasture,” but we do not really mean that they are going downhill spiritually, do we? We can help each other by reminding ourselves and our children to be respectful: “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the Lord” ().
It is good to direct our children’s focus on Christ’s work in older believers rather than on their physical limitations. The Scriptures teach, for example, that an older adult can continue to learn and grow. We know that unbelieving man will not use knowledge to come to truth, but the elderly believer will. Even though catechism instruction ended long ago for them, they are lifelong learners in the Scriptures. “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (). These are the elderly who never tire of hearing the preaching of His word, and who love reading and meditating upon the Scriptures. To them, there is always something new to learn and understand more deeply of our awesome, covenant God.
The godly elderly are productive: “They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing” (). A notable characteristic of them is this: an increased sense of duty, even an urgency to witness to the younger generations before they physically cannot. Children, grandchildren, friends in Christ, and anyone they happen to meet can hear their praise and testimony of God’s wondrous works and sovereign grace. “…When I am old and grayheaded, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come” ( ). Who says witnessing decreases with old age? Rather, those who see God’s mercy and power from womb to hoary head cannot help but “praise thee more and more” (v. 14). It is something to think about as we age, too.
The younger will greatly benefit from the older saints’ wisdom. Many years have they prayerfully studied God’s Word and applied its principles to everyday life. The older saints have experience. By God’s grace they have learned from toil and sweat, from relationships, from good decisions and bad, from the grief of sin and the “hard knocks” that follow, and from the liberating path of repentance. They are skilled problem-solvers and graced with contentment with the unsolvable, trusting in the Lord’s perfect will. It is good to bring this out to our children: Listen to the older saints and learn. Put away your texting and entertainment, and fellowship with them. Show them your love, respect, and express why they are valuable to you.
I wished an elderly sister-in-Christ a happy birthday the other day and said, “Happy birthday to the newer, stronger you!” Her eyebrows raised and then she burst into laughter. It was not the birthday greeting she expect ed. We enjoyed a chuckle as we spoke about the aging process and where desperation can lead. Do they really take fat from the seat and inject it into cheeks? Oh, the myriad of products, cosmetics, and surgeries to stave the inevitable! Like it or not, our outward man is perishing.
I put my hand on her hunched shoulder and reminded her that it really is true—she, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, is getting newer and stronger like Christ. If it were not for passages such as this in Scripture, we would not believe it ourselves: “…but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day” (). Legendary explorer Ponce de Leon sought a fountain of youth, so the story goes. Yet, the place he did not look is in Christ. For Jesus said, “…The water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” ( ).
The inward man is renewed day by day! Do not let the wrinkles and weakened body beguile you. There is fortitude, stability, and a going from strength to strength, with fresh graces and new mercies in the lives of His faithful, aged saints. How much better they know their God now than they did when they were 20 or 30. How much more they have learned to “lead a new, godly life,” as they solemnly promised at their public confession of faith so long ago.
According to Luke 2, aged Simeon and Anna at the temple were likewise unable to keep silent about God’s praises and marvelous works: “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation….” Yes, even in old age there is spiritual strength and vigor, perhaps even more than in youth. The result? Mary and Joseph were certainly strengthened in faith by Simeon and Anna’s words. Therefore, elderly saints can be such an encouragement to the younger.
Here are a few suggestions to help our children appreciate the fruit of God’s people in old age:
1. Listen to the elderly. They are living historians. Ask them questions such as, what was it like for you as a child at home, church, and school? What was important to your parents? How were children and young people in church different than today? How were they the same? What concerns do you have for the church today?
One elderly saint I know often brings up how much she loved catechism as a child. Even though she is nearly 90, what she learned as a child continues to bring her much peace and strength in her widowhood and failing health. Such conversations encourage our youth to study and pay attention to their catechetical instruction for its lasting value.
Perhaps our Christian schools, from time to time, can incorporate the elderly more into their lessons by having them speak to the students about historical events through which they lived. For example, what was it like during the PR church split in 1953? What was it like to go off to war as a believer? What was it like to live through the Depression Era? How did God use these events to mold you to be the person you are today?
2. Talk with the elderly. The older saints desire to get to know the younger, and would like more than a one-sided conversation of answering questions. Important for fellowship, they want to hear what is on the mind of the younger generation. Our children and young people should feel they can converse about the things that matter to them. The youth may be surprised to learn that the elderly have thought very similar thoughts as they have. If they cannot hear well, try sitting closer to them and ask if that is better.
3. Be attentive to the elderly. Our fast-paced society does not have time for old people. The Scriptures teach differently. The members in the body of Christ who are physically weaker, upon them “we [should] bestow more abundant honor” (). The elderly saints deserve special treatment for Christ’s sake. Do our children and young people remember to hold the door open for them when they walk in or out of the church building? What about after the church service when children and teens rush by, nearly knocking them dangerously off balance? Parental reminders and supervision can go a long way. More than that, our children might not realize how much it means to an older person if the youth would just stop to greet them.
Today, with young people preoccupied with electronic gadgets, giving older adults full attention cannot be stressed enough. Communicating on devices while visiting the elderly can be insulting. As parents, it is never too late to establish family rules that promote meaningful communion with one another. Turning off devices during visits may be a good step in the right direction.
4. Ask the older saints for advice. How easy it is for our teens to go exclusively to their peers when they want advice. King Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, refused to make use of the elders’ counsel, instead listening only to the advice of the young men. His reign bore the bitter fruit of that.
The elderly may not be able to keep up with all the new technologies, but when it comes to helping with real-life problems, their experience and biblical insight make them wise counselors. They want to be of service. Many prayers are offered by them to our heavenly Father on behalf of our children. They love the church and are concerned for her future, her holy worship, her faithful Bible study attendance, and her daily living.
Faithful, aged believers do not think they have perfect spiritual strength. They are the first to confess they battle sin, that their old man is completely corrupt and never improving. I knew a godly widow who asked to take home my laundry after I had a baby. When she brought it back, it was neatly folded in a basket and beautifully ironed on hangers. I thanked her and she replied, “I am such a self-righteous Pharisee.” This was not the response I expected. I was aware that she listened to good sermons while doing her ironing and chores. She delighted to study the Word. She loved and cared for the saints. She was a prime example to me of someone growing newer and stronger.
Yet, I think I know what my friend meant. The more God’s people mature, the more they see and abhor their sins. This includes those sins mixed in with good works. But what a joy God’s deliverance brings. By His sanctifying grace, we are renewed day by day. By the work of the Holy Spirit, it is a small beginning, but what a beginning it is!
Sometimes small beginnings receive an extra boost. In creation, fire can be beneficial for plant growth. For centuries, springtime on the American Midwest prairie meant fire. Just as the tender blades of grass appeared, the Indian hunters burned it down. By and by, a sea of tallgrass and native flowering plants emerged with astonishing redoubled growth. Big and Little Bluestem, hay-like Indian Grass, spikey Switchgrass—the herds of bison and other grazers feasted all summer long.
Elderly believers have had their faith tried by fire in times filled with great hardship and heartbreak. These have been the sanctifying fires that produced greater spiritual growth. Over the years, this has a strengthening effect upon those who walk in obedience: “…and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not” (). By faith the saints, these elderly especially, have tapped into the fountain of youth.
What a blessing the faithful elderly are to us! And what a promise we have that the inward man is renewed day by day! The elderly may not move as fast, nor see and hear as well as they once did, but in their spirit they have the strength of youth. May we show them much love and honor for Christ’s sake in the days ahead.
1 Sigmund Freud. “Selected Papers on Hysteria and Other Psychoneuroses.” Chapter VIII, 1912, accessed January 2, 2015, http:// www.bartleby.com/280/8.html.