Starring Roles Late in Life

Biblical perspectives on aging

by Robin Gallaher Branch

In her poem “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” That’s a good question.

The Bible answers in ways emphasizing both communal and individual responsibilities. Aging takes place singly but within a group. Progressively developing a theology of aging throughout its 66 books, the Bible showcases lives lived well or wickedly. Martin Luther, highlighting individuality, says, “Every man must do two things alone: his own believing and his own dying.” Indeed, aging is not one thing but a thousand little things, like patterns set and kept, choices made and fulfilled.

The Bible gives a broad framework for living and aging well. The book of Proverbs offers guidelines to parents in training their children and to children in obeying their parents. It seems all must first “stand under” authority before fully “understanding” it. Those who follow a pattern of wickedness find it hard to change. Those whose feet walk a righteous path must keep to the disciplines and choices it requires throughout life.

The Bible advocates an early profession of faith. The story of young David armed with a sling, five smooth stones, and an energetic faith fascinates with each retelling. He faced mega-warrior Goliath, felled him, and beheaded him with that giant’s own sword (1 Samuel 17)! Although he made mistakes, David served God throughout his long life (1 Kings 14:8).
As we age through life’s stages, we see wisdom in the Bible about:

  • Life’s seasons. Ecclesiastes 3:1–8 lists 28, among them a time to be born and a time to die.
  • General assessments. Life is summed up in two ways. For example, Jehoshaphat of Judah did “what was right in the sight of the LORD” and Ahaziah of Israel did “evil in the sight of the LORD” (1 Kings 22:43, 52).
  • Honoring relationships. The fifth of the Ten Commandments states, “Honor your father and your mother”; it explains why with this promise, “that your days may be long” (Exodus 20:12).
  • Life’s limits. A long life is 70 years, maybe 80 with strength, but all years come with labor and sorrow and we finish with a sigh (Psalm 90:9–10).
  • Death, sin, and eternal life. Death is the consequence of sin (Genesis 2:17; Romans 5:12) and comes to all (Ecclesiastes 8:8). However, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

Communal Wisdom or Contemporary Culture?

The Bible often runs counter to contemporary culture. While American society idolizes youth, energy, and individualism, the Bible promotes the communal wisdom of those who have found the Lord faithful over multiple decades.

In contrast to the prevailing culture, the Bible doesn’t fight aging. It not only accepts wrinkles and gray hair but also honors those earning them. It addresses our natural fear of death by pointing to Jesus, who conquered death by destroying the one having the power of death, the devil (Hebrews 2:14). For those doing all they can not to appear old, the Bible encourages acknowledging a season’s end and facing the future boldly. Instead of seeing an elderly person as unwanted and to be avoided, the Bible, looking through love’s prism, sees beauty (Proverbs 16:31). Instead of fleeing emotionally and physically from those afflicted (Psalm 22:24), the Bible stresses the loving, faithful presence of the Lord. “Do not fear, for I am with you” resonates from both testaments (Isaiah 41:10; Matthew 28:20). The Bible clearly encourages us—as church and individuals—to assess our attitudes toward aging.

According to the US Census Bureau, those 65 and older in the United States on July 1, 2015 numbered 47.8 million and accounted for 14.9 percent of the total population. Paul Neal, a counselor at Christian Psychological Center in Memphis, Tennessee, states, “If older people live their lives well, they grow in wisdom. Unfortunately, younger people neglect the wisdom of our seniors. They are too busy to spend time with their aging parents and grandparents, so they neglect them instead of honoring them.”

Success in the Latter Years

Gerry Peak, minister to senior adults at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, notes the Bible never sugarcoats age-related difficulties. For instance, Ecclesiastes 12:1–5 outlines a time when a person takes no pleasure in daily life. Vision blurs, the body trembles, a back stoops, and teeth cannot grind because they are few. Such a life dwindles to isolation. However, the Bible also presents successful aging. The latter years allow chances “to try on the rest of ourselves.”1 Consider these examples.

Starring roles happen late in life. At 75, Abram hears God’s command to go somewhere and obeys. Adventures like a daring rescue, goofs, family separations, and name changes abound. Abraham and his wife Sarah become parents at ages 100 and 90 respectively (Genesis 12–25).

Resilience blooms after loss, anger, and change. Naomi (the book of Ruth) experiences the deaths of her husband and sons. She expresses anger toward the Lord. Ruth, her Moabite daughter-in-law, works to provide for them. Once assured of provision, Naomi begins to live again and does what she’s good at: matchmaking! Her suggestions help Ruth and Boaz, a wealthy landowner, marry. Their union produces Obed; Naomi cares for him avidly. Naomi has changed. Arguably, she now views her life “with a reasonable amount of satisfaction.”2

Productivity endures as a choice. Describing himself as a servant, the apostle Paul worked for the Lord up to his last moments. For example, while confined in prison or perhaps under house arrest, he busied himself writing letters. Despite his circumstances, his letter to the believers in Philippi exudes joy throughout.

After suffering comes the ministry of prayer. The book of Job chronicles Job’s losses of family, wealth, status, and health. Job defends himself against the prevailing opinions that he sinned greatly and is receiving appropriate punishment. Arriving in a whirlwind, the Lord does not address Job’s specific questions and instead takes him on a tour of creation. Job probably receives more face-to-face time than anybody except Moses. Job repents, acknowledges the Lord’s wonderful sovereignty, and receives an assignment: prayer for his accusers. Job’s suffering probably left him with “a new sense of eternity.”3

Steadfast character serves well. Barzillai, a very wealthy 80-year-old Gileadite, intercepts David when David flees for his life from his son Absalom. Although Absalom has the popular backing to usurp the kingship, Barzillai favors David. He brings supplies and food for David and his followers because “the people are hungry and weary and thirsty in the wilderness” (2 Samuel 17:27–29; 19:35).

Long-term issues find resolution. Miriam and Aaron speak against their brother, Moses (Numbers 12). Miriam seems to lead the jealous altercation. The Lord rebukes the two. When God departs, Miriam is stricken with leprosy. Moses cries out for her healing. The Lord banishes her for seven days from the camp. The Bible remains silent on what she thought about for a week, but she must have repented. Miriam returns, healed, to the camp. The Lord later honors her equally with her brothers (Micah 6:4).

Aging provides models of lives of worship. Anna represents the Bible’s most succinct model for aging. At least 84 and possibly 105 years old, she exemplifies the prophecy given to Asher, her tribe: “As your days, so is your strength” (Deuteronomy 33:25). Anna lives on the Temple compound and actively participates in its day-to-day operations. Her disciplined life incorporates fasting, prayer, worship. Acknowledged as a prophetess, she completes the elderly foursome of righteous Israelites who bridge the old covenant and usher in the new (Luke 1:1–2:38).4 Perhaps John Wesley remembered Anna when he wrote that God does nothing except in response to believing prayer.

Hopeful Aging

Research shows that older adults who practice their faith have less depression, a more positive mental outlook, and less fear of death, Neal notes. Habits preventing or slowing dementia and memory loss are physical activity, mental activity, and positive social interaction, he adds.
The elderly often face sudden, multiple losses like health, spouse, home, and car. How they handle them determines their quality of life for their remaining years. Neal shares two stories from his practice. “I worked with an older, divorced woman living in a retirement home. She would not leave her apartment and eat in the dining hall. She isolated herself almost completely and stayed very depressed and alone.”
A much more hopeful story concerns a widower who moved into a retirement home. “He felt lost and isolated. I encouraged him to look up people he knew and work at making new friends. He did. He took leadership in organizing chapel services. He’s not depressed now but is vibrant and encourages others.”
The Bible emphasizes life’s preciousness, as Mary Oliver calls it, from the gift of life’s first breath (Genesis 2:7) to these sweet words describing life’s end: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones” (Psalm 116:15). And in between, Psalm 23 describes the faithful care of the Lord.

Notes

  1. Joan Chittister, The Gift of Years: Growing Old Gracefully (Katonah: BlueBridge, 2008), 47.
  2. Ruth Fowler, As We Grow Old: How Adult Children and Their Parents Can Face Aging with Candor and Grace (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1998), 151.
  3. Chittister, 120.
  4. Robin Gallaher Branch, “Anna in the Bible: Luke reveals the prophetess as a model for aging,” Bible History Daily,
    https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/anna-in-the-bible/, 2018.

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