Even though on the outside it often looks as though things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace.
2 Corinthians 4:16 (MESSAGE)
As character directs aging, aging reveals character.
James Hillman, The Force of Character
Most of us are in denial about growing old. At forty or fifty life is so full of responsibilities and fulfilling relationships that we find it easy to ignore the passing years. But when we reach sixty or seventy, even though we don’t feel old, our birthdays tell us we are! High school or college years seem but yesterday, and before we know it, retirement looms before us.
All too soon we reach the psalmist’s outer limits, which prompted him to write, “The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (Ps. 90:10).
Why does God allow our bodies—these complex and matchless creations—to deteriorate? (Of course we know the answer— that debacle in the garden!) We see the hunched backs, the shuffling gaits, the thinning hair, and we deny that we will ever look like that. But we very likely will! Can we prepare for this time of life so it has value, meaning, and joy?
What does the Bible say about aging—to us as we age and as we watch others age? Scripture does not provide a systematic theology of aging, or detailed instructions about how to face growing old, or what to do when we get there. But precious promises encourage us that good things lie ahead when we walk with God. David experienced this as he reveled in God’s promise: “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you” (Isa. 46:4).
As we pass through the disappointments, the losses, and the difficult decisions of life, we gain experience and hopefully wisdom. To his accusers Job declared, “Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?” (Job 12:12).
In his suffering and confusion Job must have thought a lot about life’s end. Even in his darkest hours he was comforted to know: “The days of mortals are determined. You [God] have decreed the number of their months and have set limits they cannot exceed” (Job 14:5 NIVI ). So whether God decrees a long life with its possible loneliness, illness, or dementia, or on the other hand, its vigor, strength, and creativity, we should be prepared to live life to his fullest purpose for us.
The Bible gives us models of women who found God’s purpose for them through a long life. They lived in a patriarchal society where women were deemed possessions with roles defined basically as prolific producers of children (primarily sons) and sources of labor; they were viewed as a valuable asset but with few rights or even opportunities for self-development. Yet consider the character and strength of some of these women through their long lives.
Known for her physical beauty, Sarah emerges as the first elderly woman we read of in the Bible. She lived with her husband, Abraham, until she was 127 years old, most of that time unfulfilled and barren.
Both Abraham and Sarah longed to have a child and grieved over her empty womb. God had promised, “A son coming from your own body will be your heir” (Gen. 15:4). They must have wondered many times if they had misheard his voice. Miraculously for both of them, at ninety years of age, Sarah became pregnant and delivered a son, Isaac.
Only God’s intervention could bring about Sarah’s miraculous pregnancy, but we can apply her fruitfulness in old age as a model in other ways.
Sarah’s life was difficult enough—getting along with her servant Hagar, who bore Abraham a son, Ishmael, and treating Ishmael fairly must have been trying. No doubt strained relationships developed with their nephew Lot and his family, which eventually resulted in the two families separating over property disputes. None of these stressed her like God’s call upon Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. We’ll never know how Sarah reacted and if she had the faith to believe, as Abraham did, that God would provide the ram for the burnt offering.
Jewish Talmudic resources say Sarah refused to live with Abraham from this point on because of shock and grief, which eventually caused her death.
As the years go by, life becomes more difficult for all of us, both physically and emotionally. We will face pain and suffering, death of loved ones, disappointments, and loneliness. God will ask us to trust him even when he seems to be asking the impossible. But he wants us, like Sarah, to continue to fulfill his purpose for us to the very end.
God longs that his children produce fruit as long as he gives them life. The psalmist promises, “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; . . . They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green” (Ps. 92:12, 14). This is his desire and should be ours.
Deborah grew up during a time of political uncertainty and enemy oppression. The Canaanites, who had ruled over Israel for twenty years, controlled the economy and the roads, extorting money from travelers and killing any who resisted.
Deborah must have had a softhearted dad, for he named her “honey-bee.” Perhaps like most Jewish girls of that time, she married young, and she and her husband Lappidoth settled in Bethel in the relatively safe hills north of Judea, where no doubt they began raising their family. Deborah would later refer to herself as a “mother in Israel,” which meant either her motherhood or her position in the land.
Over the years the Israelites began to recognize that Deborah had great wisdom and the ability to resolve conflicts. In spite of he dangers on the road of Canaanite ambush, people came from every part of the country, sneaking along the rugged trails to avoid the main roads where the militant occupiers waited to attack, to ask Deborah for her advice and counsel. Deborah set up her “office” under the Palm of Deborah, acting as counselor, prophetess, and judge—virtually the prime minister. God had chosen her, a woman, as Israel’s deliverer. She did not arrive at this high place of leadership by accident, or because God could not find a suitable man, but because he wanted to use her and the extraordinary gifts he had given her.
God spoke directly to Deborah, instructing her to call Barak—a general without troops or weapons—to recruit an army and attack the Canaanites. Barak must have thought the idea ridiculous. How could he defeat the Canaanites? They had more than nine hundred chariots and hundreds of spears, while the Israelites were unarmed and unorganized.
Barak was smart enough to recognize that Deborah was a prophetess of God, a leader endowed with wisdom and spiritual insight. He insisted that she accompany him to the northern part of the country to help recruit ten thousand men and guide him in the difficult decisions he would have to make.
Deborah left her home (and presumably her family) and traveled sixty miles north with Barak. When the army was recruited, she instructed Barak when and how to attack, confident in God’s promise that they would win the battle. In turn, God sent a flood that swept Sisera’s chariots away, routing the enemy.
God graciously responded to the repentant cry of the Israelites who finally came to their senses. He rescued them from their oppressors—as he would do thirteen times in the Book of Judges. Each time they repented he raised up a judge to deliver them. As long as the judge ruled, the Israelites obeyed God’s commands and the land was peaceful.
During Deborah’s incumbency, the land had peace for forty years (Judges 5:31). She continued to serve God and his people well into old age—a challenge we should not ignore.
Naomi experienced great sorrow and disappointment throughout her life only to find God’s extraordinary blessing and comfort in her later years.
Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, had moved his wife and two sons across the border to Moab to escape the famine devastating Judea. It was not easy to leave family and friends, home and comfort to go to a foreign country. Naomi had to learn to accommodate herself to the strange customs of the Moabites and accept their angry looks and derogatory comments about these “Jewish intruders.” Though she clung to the love of Yahweh, she was surrounded by pagans who worshipped Chemosh, the Moabite god.
After a few years in Moab Elimelech died. By now Naomi’s sons were old enough for marriage. She would have preferred that they go home and choose Jewish girls, but the boys married Moabite women, so she stayed on to be near them. She was comforted, however, that her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, loved and accepted her. Before they could bear children however, both their husbands died. Naomi was now a widow, childless and with no hope of grandchildren, living in a foreign land without any source of income.
One would expect to read of a depressed, hopeless woman shrinking into her home, alienated from her neighbors, nursing her grief in anger against God. But Naomi had not lost her faith in God nor her spirit of independence. Instead, hearing that the Judean famine was over, she announced to her daughtersin-law that she was returning home. She urged them to find some nice Moabite boys, marry, and have children, since she could not bear more sons to become their husbands.
In the end Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth insisted on returning with her to Judea in a beautiful story of “in-law love.” Once back in Bethlehem with her old friends Naomi seemed to crash briefly, succumbing to self-pity. “Don’t call me Naomi,” she declared. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter” (Ruth 1:20).
But God had planned a sweet ending. In his providential care Ruth met Boaz, her kinsman-redeemer, who under Jewish law took responsibility to marry the widow and continue the bloodline. Their marriage produced for Naomi a precious grandson, Obed, a direct ancestor of King David and ultimately Jesus. Her spirits lifted, Naomi became the doting grandmother; her friends rejoiced with her in a daughterin- law who loved her more than seven sons and a son-in-law who provided for her in her old age.
Many women like Naomi have been battered by life, facing disappointment and hurt. Solutions seem impossible; the future looks hopeless. But they make decisions to take steps toward healing and a new life. They may falter and succumb to self-pity or even bitterness. But God in his faithfulness (for he’s been there all along) provides the solace and comfort needed, often through the encouragement and love of old friends or family. They know, as Naomi did, that “he will . . .sustain you in your old age” (Ruth 4:15) and they praise God for his faithfulness to the very end.
Jesus told the story of a widow—defenseless, helpless, and unprotected. Had she had a male relative, that person would no doubt have advocated for her. Alone, she bravely persisted in pleading with the local judge for justice. In this parable Jesus didn’t explain what the woman was advocating for, but he recognized her courage and persistence before the heartless judge who finally relented just to get her off his back.
Today this valiant woman might be advocating for racial justice, for life for the unborn, or for overturning corruption.
It is not her dependency or age that strikes us, nor the fact that she is helpless and alone. Rather, we see a woman determined to make a difference in spite of the hard knocks life has given her.
The widow’s role in Jewish culture proved difficult if she had no relatives to provide for her. The Old Testament made provision for her care by other family members (Deut. 25:5), but the New Testament put the responsibility ultimately on the church.
“If any woman who is a believer has widows in her family, she should help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need” (1 Tim. 5:16). Paul laid out strict guidelines as to how to help widows (who obviously had no social security).
“No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well-known for her good deeds,” he instructed Timothy (1 Tim. 5:9–10a).
At the time of Paul’s writing, sixty represented an advanced stage in life. Frequent pregnancies and primitive medical care limited a woman’s life span. Paul taught that widows should continue serving others (e.g., washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble, devoting themselves to all kinds of good deeds) until they were unable to care for themselves. The persistent widow seemed to fulfill these expectations.
She reminds us of our responsibility to advocate for justice.
In our senior years we hopefully will have gained credibility experience, and wisdom to be compassionate spokeswomen for issues of injustice in our world—girls caught in sexual slavery, child pornography on the Internet, and religious intolerance, to name a few.
Jesus taught respect and concern for older women by his deeds rather than his words. Remember the bent-over woman who had suffered from a spinal disease (possibly osteoporosis) for eighteen years? She was probably considered a non-person by the “righteous” worshippers in the synagogue that morning. They didn’t give her lonely suffering a second thought.
Standing at the back of the synagogue where women belonged, the woman couldn’t see what was happening at the front. Bent over from her waist, she could barely raise her head. Out in the streets her eyes could only see a narrow world of feet and dirt and sometimes children’s faces staring into hers as they hurled taunts.
We don’t know why she came to the synagogue, for as a woman it was unlikely that she’d been taught the Scriptures or had received encouragement from its leaders. Perhaps she’d heard that this day the healer would be there. Yes! She heard a deep gentle voice reading comforting words from the prophet Isaiah, and she closed her eyes, imagining that they were meant for her.
To her surprise the voice grew louder. “Woman, come up here.” Her head swung from one side to the other. What woman was he talking about? There was no other woman around her. Did he mean her? Slowly she shuffled forward, feeling conspicuous, the gnarled walking stick she’d carried these eighteen years steadying her progress. She could imagine the synagogue ruler’s look of disdain and displeasure.
A face appeared in her line of vision—a warm, strong face with compassion in his eyes and a hint of a smile around his expressive mouth. He had knelt down before her so she could look into his eyes, and he spoke more softly now, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity” (Luke 13:12b).
With a firm grip he took her hand and slowly raised her to a standing position. Freed! She was free of the frozen spine and the aching muscles; she could straighten her neck and lift her arms. She stood tall and regal in her ragged robe, her stick clattering to the ground.
Those around began to murmur, and the ruler pontificated, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath” (Luke 13:14b). As if healing were a common occurrence in his life! Jesus suddenly turned in anger to the crowd: “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Luke 13:15–16).
Jesus is still freeing women today from many kinds of bondage that cripples them. Is something causing you to shuffle bent over and self-effacing? Are you frozen by a lack of self-worth? Have past sins burdened you with shame? Are you taunted by insignificance? Does increasing age weaken your self-image? No matter what deforms our personality or body; no matter our weakness or hopelessness, Jesus will continue to love and care for us until the day he calls us home.