Worldliness in old age
Politicians today speak of the importance of ‘the grey vote’. We in the church must take that same section of the congregation into account. Those with grey hair (or none) make up an increasing proportion of our membership, those who have, in the words of the great Puritan theologian, John Owen, ‘made [a] long profession of walking in the ways of God and the gospel.’ Many regard Owen as a ‘dry-as-dust’ writer, but we need to heed his remedy for the ‘inward decays’ that may attend our ‘latter days’: ‘a steady spiritual view of the glory of Christ by faith’. This is especially relevant for a consideration of the dangers and temptations of worldliness in old age.
Today great stress is laid in our churches on ‘the youth’, whether male or female, with whom the future of the church is thought to lie. I would be the last to despise this concern, having spent many years ministering to ageing congregations. However, the church nowadays seems to be out of balance.We are told that our worship must appeal (in practice almost exclusively) to the younger generation, while church activities, especially evangelism, must be similarly directed.
Very often the response of ‘the grey vote’ is one of resentment: ‘They don’t bother with us old ones; we might as well stay at home’. Both extremes are expressions of worldliness; following the ways and standards of the ungodly world. Too often the church has just adopted the current and prevailing youth culture that surrounds us. Older people are said to be out of date or, more cruelly, ‘past their sell-by date’.
Of course, it may be true that some new ideas are rejected simply because they are new: ‘We’ve always done it this way (our way)’. There was reason for Paul to warn Timothy: ‘Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young’ (1 Tim. 4:12). To reject something only on the basis of age, irrespective of truth or quality, and ignore the value of wisdom and experience, is to be of the world. Proverbs 20:29 gives us a godly perspective on the subject: both youth and age have their advantages: ‘The glory of young men is their strength, grey hair the splendour of the old’.
C.H. Spurgeon tells of going away to preach for an aged minister, who was dismayed to discover the extreme youth of his visiting preacher and expressed this in no uncertain terms. ‘We get as preachers a parcel of boys who have not got their mother’s milk out of their mouths!’ After praying, the young preacher began by reading Proverbs 16 as far as verse 31, which reads, ‘The hoary head is a crown of glory’. There he stopped and commented, ‘I doubt it, for, this very morning, I met with a man who has a hoary head, yet he has not learnt common civility to his fellow-men’. He then finished the verse (from the AV), ‘if it be found in the way of righteousness’, adding, ‘Ah! That’s another thing’.
Older people may have their assumptions about worldliness, sniffing superciliously over the dress, speech and habits of the young. They assume that the words of 1 John 2:15-17 – ‘the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life’ (AV) – apply only to the young. This is especially true if we limit the reference of ‘lust’ to sex, and assume that this no longer applies to old people. Granted, Ecclesiastes 12:5 includes in its description of old age that ‘desire no longer is stirred’, but judging by scandals in the press, even about the church, this is by no means absolute. There are, of course, other desires that don’t lessen with age: food and drink, money, fame and reputation, comfort. In fact, old people may be even more caught up in their pleasures, especially if they have retired, for Satan increasingly ‘finds work for idle hands’ and minds. Or, increasing ill-health may lead to an over-concentration on comfort and other amenities.
Older people need to focus on the God-given remedy for sinful worldly desires in 1 John 2:15. The apostle warns us that, ‘If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him’. So the way to avoid excessive love for the things of the world is not to become ascetics who spend their days in morose despondency, but to love the Father more. ‘The expulsive power of a new affection’ does not only apply to new converts, but to those also who find themselves in a new situation. All through life, every new stage – leaving home, marriage, the advent of children, the losing of children, moving jobs – demands a new assessment of duties and priorities. Even retirement does not end this sequence and in every relationship the Father must have the first place, right to the end.
Looking to the future
It would be a mistake to limit this to the very last days, for who knows when they will be? However, the world has its own way of preparing for dying, which is not spiritual or truly wise. I recently came across the expression ‘a bucket list’. It is a list of all the things that an old or not so old person, wants to see or do before he or she dies (in the popular expression, ‘kicks the bucket’). These may include the obvious and natural ones of seeing one’s children married and thus having grandchildren. More materialistic ones can include going on a round-the-world cruise or visiting relatives in a distant country. All these, while relatively harmless, lack one thing. Not only may we die before we can achieve our aims, but, just as devastating, what if our spouse dies? Wanting to live longer, whatever the price, is also foolish.
The great American preacher and philosopher, Jonathan Edwards, made a list of seventy Resolutions, which have stirred many to greater zeal for God and for holiness. One which is particularly relevant to our subject was this: ‘That I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age’. All of these were written before he reached his twentieth birthday. The young man, ‘being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help,’ entreated God for his grace to enable him to keep the resolutions. Spurgeon also recognised his and our frailty when he wrote, ‘Every aged Christian is a letter of commendation to the immutable fidelity of Jehovah’. This was part of his commentary on Psalm 92. ‘The righteous’, wrote the psalmist (v.14), ‘will still bear fruit in old age’.
The Puritan, John Owen, wrote that the dangers of old age, ‘are countermanded by God’s faithfulness and grace’. Also referring to Psalm 92, ‘A song, for the Sabbath Day’, he commented that being ‘planted in the house of the Lord’, so as to ‘flourish in the courts of our God’ (v.13) meant to ‘be fixed and rooted in the grace communicated by the ordinances of divine worship’. How sad that some older Christians feel able to say that they have attended church all their life, so find no need in their last days to continue their attendance on the means of grace. The only final cure for worldliness is other-worldliness, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.
Now we must put this into practice.
John Legg is a member of the editorial board of The Evangelical Magazine.