By T.R. Robertson
“I thought, ‘Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom.’ But it is the spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding. It is not only the old who are wise, not only the aged who understand what is right” (Job 32:7-9).
Many Scriptures speak about the wisdom of old age. But the truth is that for every wise old sage, there are a dozen who have grown older but not necessarily wiser.
Proverbs 16:31 states, “Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained in the way of righteousness.”
Simply growing older doesn’t turn us into wise elders. Growing older righteously is the key.
In the prison ministry I’m involved in I talk to many inmates who have allowed their mindset to be molded by prison life. They are suspicious of everyone, take offense at the smallest slights, and fear letting others see their true selves. When they leave prison and return to society, these learned behaviors can cause many problems in their readjustment to normal life.
Many of us are like those prisoners. We passively allow our character to be molded by the people around us and by the circumstances of our lives. We live our lives unintentionally, becoming an accidental person. And as we grow older, we lose the ability to see ourselves objectively. We move along through life, day by day, decade after decade, becoming someone we never intentionally set out to be.
Sometimes family and friends are surprised by the apparent personality change some older relatives undergo. While some of these changes can be caused by physical problems, some of those “new” behaviors have been a part of that person all along. When they were younger, they had the energy and focus to put on a more civilized face in public, while secretly harboring less pleasant thoughts and habits. Now that they’ve grown older, they no longer have the presence of mind to maintain the mask, and the hidden habits come to the forefront.
What if, instead, those people had intentionally practiced and developed godly behaviors? By living intentionally every day, they would have been transforming themselves into lifelong servants of God.
How can the young person, or the middle aged person, prepare to age with grace? And is it possible, in our later years of life, to change what we’ve unintentionally become?
Psalm 16:8-11 provides the key to transformation at any age.
I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
Last fall my 81-year-old mother became ill and was moved into a nursing home. Being a woman of lifelong faith and service to the Lord, she was not afraid of dying. She told me often during that time to tell friends that if they wanted to pray for her, they should pray that she would go quickly, like my father, who passed from diagnosis to death in a single month.
Mom’s fear was not of dying. Her fear was of continuing to live a life of restrictions, pain, and loneliness. She saw the nursing home as a place filled with people waiting to die.
Like the psalmist, she prayed that God “will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.” As I watched her shrink slowly into a ghost of the strong person she had once been, I understood the personal application she drew from this verse.
Billy Graham, in his excellent book, Nearing Home (Thomas Nelson, 2011), holds out this refreshing hope:
The fountain of life is real, friends. We can draw strength from its resources and stand strong in our resolve to be overcomers, looking forward to the inheritance and being in the presence of the Savior of our souls. Though the eyes of the tired, overworked, and aged may be dim, his light will pour into our hearts. While the lips of the elderly may be silenced, godly words will continue to flow through our beings. When hearing is a challenge, wise instruction can run through our innermost thoughts.
The secret to approaching old age and living our senior years with that kind of spiritual strength and vitality is to stop living accidentally and begin living intentionally. As the psalmist says, “I keep my eyes always on the Lord, with him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.”
My iPhone is always at my right hand. For something that didn’t exist just half a decade ago, and that I never knew I needed, I’ve become disturbingly dependent upon this little pocket-sized computer. When something comes up in my daily life—a question or an unfamiliar word—my automatic response is to take out my smart phone and look up the details. I am much more quickly and accurately informed on every little thing than I used to be. I never knew back then how out of touch I really was.
The same thing should be true of my dependence on God. My first thought in response to every little thing should be the Lord. As I interact with people, I should be seeing them as people God cares about. As I encounter strangers, I should view accidental meetings as opportunities to be God’s hands, feet, and voice in their lives. When I find myself alone with my thoughts, his thoughts should always be running alongside mine.
Whether your later years are still ahead of you, or you can already claim senior citizen status, the key is to develop a mindset, habit, and heart that hold the Lord continually close.
This intentional focus is developed through the practice of spiritual disciplines that train your heart to be like God’s heart.
The more we schedule times of prayer into our days, the more we will develop an intimacy with God that sustains us even when we are occupied in other things. A continual awareness of God’s presence in the midst of our daily activities can keep our thoughts and actions habitually righteous.
Time spent in the Word of God will keep our minds and hearts focused on his priorities and his ways. If our thoughts are trained to follow in the path of his thoughts, our words and actions will stay in line with his righteousness.
As we get older it may become more difficult to read for long periods of time. It’s important that we take time in our middle years to commit to memory those Scriptures we don’t want to forget when we can no longer quickly look them up. My wife has created a list of the Scriptures she expects to need the most when she is too old to focus her eyes on the pages of her Bible, and she is studiously hiding those words in her heart.
As we train ourselves to be immersed in God’s presence and in his thoughts, we need to turn our eyes toward his mission for us. We can train ourselves to view the events of our daily lives as opportunities to do what he would do in those circumstances.
We can develop the habit of seeing every person, friend, enemy, or stranger as a person loved by God—and learn to sieze every opportunity to share God’s blessings with them.
Training ourselves to have a missional approach to daily life will go a long way in assuring that when we are old we won’t be inwardly focused. Even as we struggle with a daily life that includes pain, limitations, and frustrations, the intentional senior can remain outwardly focused on opportunities to plant seeds of grace in what may seem a limited field of harvest.
T.R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.
Growing Older with Grace
Rethinking Retirement: Finishing Life for the Glory of Christ
by John Piper (Crossway Books, 2009)
99 Things to Do Between Here and Heaven
by Kathleen Long Bostrom, Peter Graystone (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009)
Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well
by Billy Graham (Thomas Nelson, 2011)
Living with Purpose in a Worn-Out Body: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults
by Missy Buchanan (Upper Room, 2008)
70 Ways to Beat 70: Keys to a Longer, Healthier Life
by David B. Biebel, James E. Dill, Roberta Dill (Revell, 2008)