Aging and Finishing Well
On June 9, 2018, I turned 66. Age, I am discovering, can be a powerful tool in your hands. It can motivate you to be more than you ever were before. The past is simply the beginning of the process of becoming better and becoming more in Christ. The concept of “finishing well” has been the center of my thought life for the past several years. Losing one’s spouse is difficult to say the least. Prior to Becky’s death four years ago, my life was going in one direction. Now it seems like everything has changed. There is a hole in your life that only one person can fill, and she’s not here. But here’s what I’ve been discovering: You are still the same person. You’re just traveling in a new direction. There’s a “new normal.” God still has a good plan for your life, but it’s different from the one you’ve been used to for so long.
My children have helped me to see this. Though they’ve never exactly put it into words, I can see it in their loving eyes: The God who took mom to heaven will fill your emptiness, dad. Let go and free yourself to move on. Yes, the homeward journey has been rerouted a bit, but one day you’ll say hello again. Mom just went to the banquet table before you, that’s all, dad.
Paul was committed to “the only thing that matters” (Phil. 1:27). That’s my goal too. To attain it, there are things I need to forget, and there are other things I need to reach toward. “We’d better get on with it,” says the author of Hebrews (12:1-2, The Message). “Strip down, start running – and never quit! No extra spiritual fact, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in.” At the age of 66, I suppose I qualify for the status of “older man” (Tit. 2:2) Aging is one of the conditions of our humanness and, in that sense, is incurable. I have found peace with my aging, not only through accepting it but by making it an offering to God, who can transform it into something for the good of others. The early fires of youth may be just embers in my life, but the God of the past is also the God of the future. In the words of Longfellow, “Something remains for us to do or dare/Even the oldest trees some fruit may bear.” The past is simply the beginning of the process of becoming better and becoming more in Christ. Click To Tweet
It is a high and holy privilege to serve Jesus as an older adult. God’s not through with me yet – or with you. I still enjoy my work immensely. However, work neither has any salvific value nor does it provide ultimate fulfillment. I am God’s son. Therein lies my identity. However, no task that glorifies Him, no matter how menial, is to be despised. Even my “creative” work (like writing) belongs first and foremost to God, who grants the inspiration. Work originates with God, is redeemed by Jesus Christ, and is empowered by the Holy Spirit. There is, therefore, no such thing as “private” work: “God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us” (1 Cor. 12:6). Work is satisfying, not because it is the source of our identity, but because it is grounded in God’s work in our lives. Having received God’s good gift of work, we then seek to share with others the fruits of our labor. Thus, as much as I enjoy teaching (this year I began my 42nd year of teaching), the last thing I want to do is to make it the core of my being.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve become better at taking care of the temple God has given me. By definition, health is total physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being. Sitting back and not taking control of the body God has given me is simply not an option for me anymore. In other words, healthy aging begins with taking care of yourself, as Paul assumes we all do with our bodies (Eph. 5:28-30). It has now been four years since I began this exciting journey, and not only do I feel great but I’m actually improving my physique. I am living proof that anybody at any age can become their own health advocate and take charge of their fitness and physical well-being (which are all gifts of the Lord to begin with). You are never too old to start weight-training or to begin your own exercise routine. Both the physical and the spiritual have something in common, and that is this principle: there is a world of difference between knowing what to do and actually doing it. Like the apostle Paul, we need to focus on our future goals (Phil. 3:17-21). Older people who are future-oriented are constantly taking on new and bigger challenges. In the past three years, God has allowed me to complete 14 half-marathons, 9 marathons, and 3 triathlons. In two months, I will attempt my first ultra-marathon. Exercise has become a priority with me. If your body is a temple where God lives, then it is also a tool that He desires to use. We are to utilize our bodies to honor and glorify God.
Exercise (both physical and spiritual) is hard work but it’s also rewarding. Paul’s “encouraging message” in Acts 14:22 was essentially, “Easy isn’t for the Christian.” As we age, building physical strength isn’t easy. Building spiritual strength is even harder. But in the process, we can learn to grow and get closer to God. The older I get, the more I realize just how much we are made out of dust and how we need God’s grace. And this grace is something that God supplies plenteously, sufficiently, and at times even abundantly. I know that grace. I’ve experienced it time and again. I, therefore, don’t mind getting older. The closer I get to glory, the better I can see the Unseen.
As I’ve aged, I’ve discovered new truths about life. I deeply believe that for those of us who are over 60 the most profound growth still lies ahead of us. I refuse to brood over the hardships that God has allowed to be woven into the fabric of my life. I feel optimistic and positive about the future. As Paul wrote in Phil. 1:21, “For me, going on living means opportunities for serving Christ. And dying – why that’s even better!”
None of us can avoid aging. But we can all cooperate with the process that God apparently intends to naturally happen to us. For models, we can look at Scripture. We can imitate people like the apostle Paul who was never content to sit on their laurels. Like a good runner, Paul forgot what lay behind him and stretched forward toward the prize. When adversity strikes, you’ve got to keep on going. Paul never complained about old age. So why should I?
Editor’s Note: Portions of this essay are taken from my book Running My Race: Reflections on Life, Loss, Aging, and Forty Years of Teaching (Gonzales, FL: Energion, 2016).