One can start well in a race, but things can go wrong along the way, so much so that he may not even end the race. Or he may end badly.
It was perhaps with this in mind that renowned Bible teacher Dr Harry Ironside was once heard praying, “Lord, keep me from turning out to be a mean old man.” Ironside was evidently aware of how the difficulties and complexities of ageing could make one deteriorate into irritability and meanness.
God obviously answered Ironside’s prayer because not only was he a kind and gracious man, he steadily remained so as he advanced in years. Instead of prickliness, he was noted for his love and gentleness even as he grew old.
We can start well, with lots of zeal and enthusiasm. But as we age, we can lose much of that early zeal for various reasons. I am not here referring to loss of physical vigour and a slowing down that come with age. Rather what I have in mind is spiritual zeal, commitment and faithfulness.
There are many lessons from Scripture with regard to such sad loss and deterioration in old age. For example, we could look carefully at the biographies of the kings of Judah. While all the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel were judged to be wicked and unfaithful, the southern kingdom of Judah was blessed with a number of good kings. Of the 20 Judean kings, 8 were considered faithful to God.
All of them—Asa, Jehoshaphat, Joash, Amaziah, Uzziah, Jotham, Hezekiah and Josiah—were commended at the beginning of their reigns for doing “what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 14:2). Well and good, and they should be commended for being good kings. However, all of them were like this only in their earlier years (16:1–9), or when their spiritual mentors were still around (24:2).
In most of them, as they grew powerful, pride replaced the humility and faith that once characterised their lives. The story of Uzziah is most telling and representative: “But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall” (26:16).
These kings lost their original passion as zealous reformers when they grew arrogant and started trusting in their own power, strategies, and alliances. Such a deterioration of faith and loyalty to God can happen not only to reforming kings but also in a revival. John Wesley noted this as he led the Methodist revival in the 18th century. He was concerned about the future of the revival movement and so studied the history of revivals. He noted that all revivals lasted only for brief moments in history. The reason was the decline of faith, fervour and faithfulness.
Wesley saw that Methodists, many of whom came from the working classes, were prospering due to their discipline and pious practices. But he saw imminent danger even amid spiritual success. He wrote in 1786 in Thoughts on Methodism: “The Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently they increase in goods. Hence, they proportionately increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away.”
Our churches have many members from the wealthy and middles classes. Many have seen originally poverty-marked lives transformed into comfortable ones, amply supplied by resources that are used for personal pleasure (like holiday trips and cruises) and to buy and consume luxuries and entertainment. It is important to think more deeply of the dangers of starting out well but ending disastrously, of beginning the Christian journey with a spiritual roar but ending it with a tame whimper.
It is good to be aware of the “vices of aging” (as Paul Stephens has pointed out in his book Aging Matters) and how old sins can reappear in new forms in our later years. The ancient kings of Judah became proud as they tasted power, privilege and possessions. Pride following successful accumulation of wealth and influence can become a millstone around the neck of an aging Christian. Other deadly sins, such as greed, rage, and lust may return with a vengeance.
When we read Paul’s command to Timothy to “flee the evil desires of youth” (2 Timothy 2:22), we may think that it is something that young Christians need to take note of. Indeed, but it can also equally apply to aging Christians who may suffer from new seasons of old desires threatening their spiritual health and progress.
We must be careful not to lose our spiritual passion as we age; it is so easy for that to happen. What Jesus told the church in Ephesus — “You have forsaken the love you had at first”— continues to challenge us (Revelation 2:4). We are reminded that true spiritual passion has to do with our love for the Lord. Old age should not see this love decreasing. Our physical energies may diminish, but we must never equate decreasing energy with decreasing zeal for the Lord.
Paul’s pastoral advice is most important in old age: “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11). We must do so right to the end. Perhaps spiritual writer James Houston was right in saying that retirement is “not in the language of the Christian”. Though we may be retired from gainful employment, we never really retire from walking with Christ and serving in His name—which we must do with undiminished passion. We would do well to remember that we do not retire from life but as Jane Marie Thibault and Richard Morgan indicate, “re-fire into new life.”
Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.