The Responsibility of Growing Old
Arthur J. Fox
It is a blessed thing to grow old. That is an incredible thought, but it is a true one. It is truly blessed to grow old, because it is a sign of God's covenant goodness. It also gives some experience to the praise of God that the older saint has to offer. Finally, it is blessed to grow old because it means continued growth in Christ and usefulness.
But we must not minimize the difficulties that come with the package. The body and the mind are sometimes affected by the onset of later years. Some people are more affected by this than others, and that makes it a challenge. Remaining sin still affects us in various ways.
I want to give you a principle to guide you in coping with the effects that remaining sin have on our bodies as we grow older. Let me sum up this principle like this: Use good sense and be reasonable. That is what Romans 12:3 says to every believer. I want to show how this text teaches that principle, and then apply it specifically to the older saints and to those of us who will one day be older saints.
In the context of Romans 12:3, Paul applies all he has said to the Christian in chapters 1-11. In 12:1-2, he says that there are two things we should do in view of the mercy of God in justifying and sanctifying us, and even in electing us to this glorious salvation, choosing us out of the mass of sinful humanity.
First (12:1), we should surrender ourselves, physically and mentally, to the service of God as a living sacrifice. We should consider that our bodies and minds are not our own any longer, that we are not free to do as we please any more. Rather, we are to consider service to God to be our first order of business. Paul calls this a sacrifice because a sacrifice in Old Testament terms was a devotion of something to Godin the case of animals, that meant putting them to death. Even so, the Bible teaches us to consider ourselves deadto sin and to the worldand alive to God (Rom. 6:11; Gal. 6:14). So, in view of our salvation by the grace of God, we are to devote our lives to God's service.
Second (12:2), we are not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the progressive renewing of our lives, beginning with our minds, into what best pleases God, what most effectively represents his will. We are to live in such a way that God will be pleased that we are doing his will.
To summarize the context, then, we are to devote our lives, body and soul, heart and mind, to pleasing God by doing his will. In sum: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
That connects us with what follows our text, namely, that we are to live as members of the body of Christ. None of us is an island; we do not, or should not, live lives that do not take into account the way our life will affect those around us. If the first two verses of this chapter have to do with loving service to God, the rest of this chapter has to do with loving service to those around us. Verses 4-8 teach us to use our gifts to build up the church. Verses 9-15 tell us to be useful to those around us, out of love for them, with sympathy for where they are in life. Verses 16-21 instruct us not to be proud or vindictive, but rather to overcome evil by doing good to those who are not so good to us. While there is more to these verses than that, this is essentially the point: love your neighbor as yourself by serving him.
This brings us to verse 3, where Paul speaks of the grace of God given him and offers instruction based upon it. When he speaks of the grace of God given him, he has in mind the all-seeing eye of God upon him and perhaps also his authority as an apostle. He is pointing out that he speaks for God here, knowing that he will be accountable to God for what he says. In other words, he is speaking very carefully about our responsibility to live lives that show love for God and neighbor. This provides a good insight into Paul's thoughts as a ministerin fact, he gives an example of his instruction in verse 3.
His instruction is to be humble in our self-image. Every man is to be careful that he does not think more highly of himself than he ought to think. Paul is about to talk about gifts for service in the next several verses. He has also been writing to Jews who may, in spite of their conversion to Christianity, think they are superior Christians by virtue of being Jewish. The temptation would be strong in such cases to get full of oneself, to think of oneself as more important than one actually is. Therefore, Paul gives a negative instruction: literally, "let not any man think higher of himself than is proper. Have lower thoughts about yourself than your remaining pride would move you to have. Be humble.
Positively, Paul tells us the right way to think. Instead of thinking you are really important, think sensibly and reasonably. You are still a sinner, albeit saved by grace. And others have gifts, just as you do. And even if you are a Jew by birth, you are still born of Adam and still need God's grace as much as any Gentile. Be sensible and reasonable in your thinking about the way you will live in light of your humble state as a sinner saved and useful only by the grace of God. At the cross, all of us are equally paupers, dependent upon the mercy and grace of God to make something of us, because by nature we are nothing but vessels of the wrath of God.
This has practical implications for us all. There is no place for pride, even if we manage to do something useful or even remarkable. Perhaps we are taking the gospel to distant lands. Perhaps we are prayer warriors. Perhaps we are vital to a youth ministry of the church. But even if we have smaller and less noticeable abilities, pride can still tear us downif we think that we deserve more attention, or that we should get a larger share of life's good things.
What Scripture says here is that we are to think reasonably about ourselves and our abilities. It is all of grace, all God's gift. What this verse says to all of us is that we are to live humble lives, based on a humble view of ourselves.
It might be best to illustrate this from Psalm 131. Do not be proud, do not try to do too much or reach beyond God's calling in your life. Rather, be still and at rest in your God, and place your hope for life's best in the Lord and his wisdom. Keep your eyes on Jesus, and follow him wherever he leads you. That way you, relying upon what Jesus thinks of you, no more and no less, will be kept safe from thinking more highly of yourself than you ought to think. And notice with me, please, that Paul speaks of thinking according to the measure of faith that God has given. The way we think should be based upon our trust in God.
Application to Seniors
Now, let us finally apply this to the senior saint. There are three things that the senior saint should do to be sensible and reasonable.
First, listen to God. You are to offer your bodies, the whole of your life, to God's service and do his will out of love for him. That means studying your Bible to know what God's will is and obeying what he teaches you. It is much too easy to go astray here. You have lived a long time and you have collected a lot of wisdom over the years. So it is tempting to rely on that wisdom without first checking to see if what you think is right is what God says is right.
For example, perhaps you think that you should stop working when you reach the age of sixty-five. But God never gives us an age of retirement. Remember Psalm 92:14. There is nothing wrong with retiring from your job, but be sure you don't retire from serving the Lord. The world may say that it is OK to stop earning a living at a certain age, but we are to continue growing and being fruitful in God's service.
Then there is that old idea that you cannot learn new things after a certain age. But the Bible says that you are to be renewed in your mind, and that means you should keep on exposing your mind to the truths of Scripture. Open up a new book and learn something new. Seek out subjects you never thought you would be interested insuch as the Old Testament sacrifices, the prophecy of Micah, the life of a Puritan like Thomas Boston, or the life of a founder of the OPC like Machen or Murray. Listen to what God says in his Word and in the works and lives of his saints, and never stop listening to God until the day you die. Be sensible, be reasonable. Listen to God.
Second, listen to your body. There is a sense in which Paul's words in Romans 12:1 should be taken literally. Listen to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. Your body belongs to God, for he bought it and now it is his. Now you no longer have a right to do what you want with it. There are two ways in which senior saints, in my experience, fall short here.
One is that they do not take care of themselves physically. They forget that remaining sin does do damage to the body, that increasingly they are growing weaker and frailer. We live in a day when many of the ravages of old age can be held off under good medical care, yet the senior saint may stubbornly refuse to see a doctor, or may rest content when a doctor gives up and says, "You are just growing old. Sometimes that is true, but have you thought of getting a second or even a third opinion? Not to do all you can to take care of yourself physically is to destroy the temple of the Holy Spirit, in effect violating the sixth commandment ("Thou shalt not kill) by killing yourself.
And then there are saints who refuse to obey their doctor's instructions. They will not rest, will not take their medication, will not restrict their activities, will not accept assistance from others, will not do basic things that will add useful days to their lives. This is sin, my older brothers and sisters, and you must not do this.
When your body really does slow down or begin to fail, that is God's way of telling you that it is time to do less than you used to do. And do not think you are disappointing God if you do slow down! God is sovereign, and he is the one slowing you down. You are not sinning, therefore, if you take on less because you simply cannot do as much as you used to do. Be sensible, be reasonable. Trust God and listen to your body.
Third, listen to your family. I assume here that the family is more interested in the good of the senior saint than in its own comfort and convenience. Counsel and assistance that is based upon selfish motives is tainted, and, note it well, the senior saint knows the difference, will resent false motives, and will not listen to advice so motivatedor, if he or she does, will do so with grief.
Having said that, and assuming the family's motives are loving and not selfish, the directive to the senior saint is that you must not be selfish either. You must love and respect your family enough to listen when they tell you things you do not want to hear. Remember that, when your children were little, you did the same for them. "Mom/Dad, you need to take it easy.... You need to stop driving.... You need to go to the doctor.... You need to take your medicine.... You can't do everything you used to do. When they say these things, listen to them.
I am not saying that you have to be mindless and cannot discuss things with your family, but you may not be able to see things as clearly as they do. You ought to listen to the advice and counsel of those who care the most about you and can best access your situation. Do not let sinful pride stop you from listening to their godly wisdom. Be sensible, be reasonable. Listen to your family.
I remember a gracious elder in upstate New York who had nearly reached seventy-five years of age. He attended a session meeting at which I was present. To my amazement, he told the session that he was going to stop being so active. I can only paraphrase him here. "I'm nearly seventy-five, he said, "and I cannot do all that I used to do. My mind and my body don't work as well as they used to. So, before I start making a mess of my testimony to Christ, I will stop doing thus and so." When he was done, he smiled and looked at me and winked. And he went home as happy as he came, delayed only by the prayers of his grateful pastor, as the rest of us prayed silently with tears in our eyes. This man simply and cheerfully did what was sensible and reasonable.
If we live sensibly and reasonably, God will be pleased. In the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:31, "Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God." And in that "whatever you do," let us include growing old responsibly, for the glory of God.
Mr. Fox is the pastor of Calvary OPC in Middletown, Pa. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2000.