Growing older, reaching an age that is considered “senior,” can be quite disconcerting, and it feels like it is closing in on me. What could long be denied through the magical, invincibility delusions of youth become inescapably real. Aches and pains, dyspepsia, insomnia, memory failures, etc.—these are symptoms not entirely unique to older individuals, but they are certainly more common as the body and mind lose some of their youthful elasticity and resiliency. No one has an unconditional guarantee of long life, and no one gets out of being a human being alive. Some age well, and some not so well.
Erik Erikson, a developmental theorist and protegee of Sigmund Freud, differed from Freud in his assumption that identity and personality continue to develop throughout all stages of life. The final developmental stage, with its primary developmental “crisis,” Erikson labeled “Integrity vs. Despair.” This stage, which generally begins after age 60, requires that we reflect on the past, and make judgments about whether our life has been successful or not. My interpretation of success in this stage is that we are able to say, in effect, “I may not have completed everything I wanted to do (yet), but my life has been productive and meaningful, and I have made a difference. All in all, I have lived a life of integrity.” If we judge that our lives have been unproductive, guilt-ridden, or disappointing, we might experience despair and hopelessness. According to Erikson, successful navigation through this crisis will produce wisdom, and the ability to accept death without fear. Visit any nursing home, and you will recognize individuals in both categories.
Erikson was a smart fellow, but what does the Bible teach us about growing old from God’s perspective? A great deal, from beginning to end. I would contend that there are significant advantages in being a person of faith as one enters these later years. Here are a few ideas on the topic as represented in Scripture.
- Older members of family and community mentor and bless the next generations. This is seen with Moses and Joshua, Jacob with his sons, Eli with Samuel, David with Solomon, Paul with Timothy. As death approached the patriarchs, they solemnly spoke blessing and identity over their children. The Israelites were commanded to impart to their children all of the commandments of God, to “talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut . 6:7). The aged Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “Do not neglect the gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Tim 4:14). Imagine how precious were these words to Timothy from his spiritual father!
- Older saints encourage the younger saints with their testimonies. The psalmist declared of God’s faithfulness, “I was young and now am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread” (Ps 37:5). One of the most encouraging testimonies in the Old Testament was spoken by Caleb, as he laid claim to his piece of the Promised Land. He glorified God for keeping him alive for forty-five years after Moses sent him as a spy into the land, and further claimed that he was still strong and vigorous at 85 years old, a reward for his wholehearted obedience to the Lord (Josh 14:6-14). The young soldiers must have been astonished and inspired by Caleb’s courage and faithfulness. Paul declared to Timothy his confidence that because he had “finished the race” and “kept the faith,” he would receive the crown of righteousness the Lord promises to the faithful (2 Tim. 4:7-8).
- Older believers model steadfast faith and sacrificial giving. Abraham is the most prominent biblical example. Paul writes about Abraham, that “without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:19-21). Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice this promised son shows the extent of his faith in God, making him the father of all who believe. Younger believers are without excuse for quitting or losing heart.
- Spirit-filled elders intercede and prophesy to the church. The prophet Joel made clear that when the Spirit comes upon “as many as the Lord our God shall call,” young and old, male and female, will dream dreams and prophesy. Prophets Simeon and Anna, both quite aged physically and in the Lord, were God’s servants who recognized the presence of the promised king when Mary and Joseph brought their child to the temple (Luke 2:25-38). Those with long experience in life are the ideal ones to pray with and prophesy to younger generations.
There is much more that could be added to this list, but this should be enough to compel us to consider whether the church at large takes full advantage of the integrity and wisdom found in her older members. It seems that many leaders, wanting to attract younger people, often ignore the treasures to be mined in their more seasoned brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers. If we truly want to cultivate a culture of honor, this is one of the chief ingredients.