John Chapman, the gifted evangelist now with the Lord, would often say two things as he moved into his senior years: (i) Getting old is the pits, and (ii) Another year, another specialist.
He was no fan on the ageing process and, as an active man, found the breaking-down of his body frustrating and he refused to ennoble it. I don’t mean he complained about it. He remained thankful and faithful to the end. Chappo was only doing what Ecclesiastes does in chapter 12—being honest about the brevity of life and the pain of drawing closer to the end of it.
The Lessons of Age
I want to focus on the spiritual dangers of ageing that I’ve learned by observing myself and talking to others. I remember Don Carson quoting his own father’s diary, “Good Lord, deliver me from the sins of old men.” There were so many issues that I thought I would turn them into a list:
1. Gospel Cowardice
You lose your nerve to clearly proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified. This can occur whether from the pulpit or personal witness.
2. Gospel Indifference
You stop caring about the lost souls beyond your church walls and God’s right to be glorified by the nations. You reduce loving your neighbour to everything but sharing Christ.
3. Theological Compromise
Growing old doesn’t always make you wiser and more nuanced—sometimes it makes you wishy-washy on issues you would have died for in your younger days. It is a warning to us when, at the end of their lives, some of the great ones go soft on hell, the exclusiveness of Christ, sex and gender.
Growing old doesn’t always make you wiser —sometimes it makes you wishy-washy on issues you would have died for in your younger days.
You become slow to listen and quick to speak. You love to hear the sound of your own voice. You tell pointless stories.
5. People Pleasing
You take the line of least resistance and become a socially acceptable people-pleasers—Mr or Mrs Likeable—who avoids the hard conversations and hard decisions. Sometimes this hides under a claim to be becoming more mature and less blunt.
Once you hit the half-way mark, the temptation is to continually look back. You can easily become sentimental, and waste time lingering on memories of the “good old days” when you should be praying, planning and acting on behalf of the next generation.
7. Stop Learning
Experience naturally gives us a quota of confidence in our ministry but we can easily stop growing and refuse to learn new insights especially from younger people and other traditions. We often live by the theory you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. It’s a dumb theory!
It is easy to be intimidated by the next generation of young men and women God is raising up. Rather than celebrate and invest in them you reflexively dismiss their enthusiasm as arrogance and judge their ministry motives. Sometimes you might dismiss a whole generation (of millennials, for example) as entitled. But the fact remains—they are the next generation and we must invest in them and rejoice with them.
I’m mindful that there is a natural hardening of the frontal lobes makes you a bit more blunt as you age. But this mustn’t be used as an excuse to be impatient and rude. You have to see it as a call to foster the Spiritual fruit of long-suffering.
In the course of a long life/ministry/marriage it is easy to forget to thank God for his daily blessings. It is also easy to forget to be thankful for and toward other people.
You can think that the present generation has given up the gospel because they aren’t engaging in the same theological fights in the same way as you and your cohort did. You can develop a bit of a messiah complex as you think about how your generation fought and bled for battles that the young ones take for granted. (This may still be true, by the way!)
12. Entitlement and Self Pity.
You expect respect and a platform and become despondent, self-pitying or dismissive when they aren’t offered. You have trouble accepting that there are seasons of fruitfulness and seasons of public ministry. John Piper wisely warns that pride can is both the domain of the successful—who think of themselves more highly than they should—but also the domain of the weak, who feel hard-done-by. You need to regularly remind yourself who you are apart from Christ and what you have become in Christ.
13. Hobby Horses.
I remember Peter Adam once saying to a group of experienced preachers that they should write down a list of their top ten 10 hobby horses and then vow to not preach on them for a whole year. Those are wise words.
14. Rigidity and Irrelevance
If theological compromise is one error then theological rigidity is the other. It’s too easy to get lost in past debates, unable to engage in present issues and new challenges. The world has changed but you aren’t ready to meet it with the same timeless Word.
15. Familiarity Breeds Contempt
If you’ve been preaching for over 30 years, it’s easy to stop being consciously aware that that you are handling God’s eternal and final word, and that— as a preacher and teacher—you will be judged more severely.
You need to remember the command to rightly handle the scriptures … and the account you will have to give to the Lord Jesus on the last day. I remember a stretch of six weeks where I lost my conscious awareness that the Bible is God’s perfect word.
16. Sloppy Preparation
You probably have enough biblical knowledge and experience to go on flying by the seat of our theological pants. But this is not a good pattern for yourself or for your congregation. They should be able to see you continuing to make progress in your life and doctrine at 60 as much as 30.
You probably have enough biblical knowledge and experience to go on flying by the seat of our theological pants. But this is not a good pattern.
17. Moral Compromise
Ageing can give a false sense of confidence. When you’ve been travelling steadily for 40-plus years as a faithful husband, it is tempting to think it will never happen to you. Yet older Christian leaders sometimes commit adultery; with people of the opposite sex—or even the same sex.
18. Boasting in Your Offspring
I gave this list to a friend my age who confessed:
I’m tempted in this stage of life to boast in my children and my grandchildren. The Christmas prayer letter that highlights my offspring’s successes is credited to me as their parent or grandparent.
It’s a fine line to rightly thank God for the blessings of our progeny without making it a defining badge of honor and an ugly boast.
19. Disappointment with God
One day you may find yourself saying something like this:
I didn’t think my life would turn out this way. My church has not grown, and my kids don’t believe. I think I did my bit, but it feels as if God didn’t do his bit.
In that moment it is critical that you tell God himself that you feel disappointed with him. You might even need to tell him that you are angry—really angry.
You know the “right” answer, of course: the gospel makes it okay—it’s going to be okay. But it is a lifetime struggle to really believe, and live by, that. An honest confession is what you need right here and right now.
20. The (False) God of Comfort
Your heart is an idol factory and, if you are a Baby Boomer, it is likely that one of those idols is comfort. You belong to a world of pain-avoidance.
Even though you know (at least theoretically) that the Lord disciplines those he loves, you are too tired to engage with that discipline at this stage of your life.
So you zone out on Netflix; treat your anxiety with food and drink; play with your toys; pursue trivialities and waste endless hours on your smartphone.
At this stage, I’ve realised that my anxiety is God’s gift and his loving discipline (not punishment) to get my attention and to turn to him in humble prayer and dependence.
A Final Exhortation
It is easy, as we get older to lose our zeal for the Lord; to think that our race is already run, or that the fight is won (or lost), or that it’s too late for much to change either in us or in our circumstances. But these are temptations to a disobedient and faithless life. We are commanded to maintain our zeal and to go on serving the Lord (Rom 12:11). If we are alive, God and his Spirit are not done with us. There are still sins that we need to be struggling with; still people who need to be prayed for; there are more things than ever for us to thank God for; and there are specific responsibilities that God is calling us to as we get older (e.g. Titus 2:2-4).
O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and grey hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come. (Ps 71:17-18)