An advertisement for the BBC series, Waiting for God, asked, ‘Who said growing old had to be graceful?’ This implied that it is all right to complain: ‘It’s only natural after all. Everybody grumbles and moans. Does it really matter?’ It should matter to Christians who ought to be gracious to the glory of God.
In fact, many old people give Christianity a bad name. There are different kinds of grumpiness. Some old people sit on the back row and then complain that they can’t hear. They criticize the children for their noise, but never make them feel welcome. They view ‘the old days’ through rose-tinted spectacles, but find fault with the modern generation. They mutter about new hymn-tunes or new words, or both. Others of us complain about our aches and pains, our loneliness and uselessness. If nothing else, we spend the time after the service griping about the weather! Moaning about the state of the church or our lack of success in the gospel are seen almost as a hallmark of spirituality. And so on.
Am I describing you? Or me? If so, why are we like that? I hope not only old people will read this article (and not only men.). It is very hard for ingrained grumpiness to be removed. The best thing is to prevent it from starting. Make a mental note of the traits which you object to in old people and determine to avoid them when your turn comes! The biblical doctrine of sanctification, rightly understood and practised, will help prevent grumpiness and promote joyful service.
Sanctification is God’s work
The apostle Paul writes that we are ‘being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit’ (2 Cor. 3:18). Since this is so, we should go on being sanctified to the end of our lives. It does not depend ultimately on us, but on God. The ageing process does not necessarily mean that we can no longer live for God. It does, however, direct our attention to the end-product, the goal. It points us to what God is doing, conforming us ‘to the likeness of his Son’ (Rom. 8:29; 1 John 3:2). If we fix our gaze on this goal we shall have little cause to complain about our present state. This is our hope, our certainty. The older we get, the nearer this comes to fruition, the day when all sin is done away with.
Moreover, the promise includes the resurrection of the body, the final stage of our redemption (Rom. 8:23). I suspect that the almost total neglect of this doctrine is a major cause of the complaints of the elderly and infirm, who feel their bodies crumbling and their activities being sadly restricted. Far from being utterly depressed by our bodily aches and pains, and by our increasing physical limitations, we should rejoice at the prospect of renewed bodies in the new heavens and new earth. All this is true even for the young or middle-aged. How much more it should encourage and inspire those who are well-advanced in years!
Sanctification is also our work
God’s work takes precedence, since our working depends on his power (Eph. 3:20). Nevertheless, without our working nothing will be achieved, no progress will be made. This doctrine does not allow for slacking on our part. Some have wondered why sanctification does not progress steadily and smoothly on to perfection, if it’s God’s work The answer is not that our disobedience can frustrate God’s purpose; it can’t. Rather we learn that this is the way he works. Why he allows backsliding to happen is a mystery of his sovereign will, but it is not an excuse. Not only are we forbidden to be grumpy (‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ Phil. 4:4), we are forbidden to give up trying because we are old. Holiness and cheerfulness are linked. The less we progress in holiness, the more we shall fall into sinful complaint. How much better to rely on God’s promise: ‘The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day’ (Prov. 4:18) and then press on in righteousness. ‘The righteous’, we are assured, ‘will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green’ (Ps. 92:14). Do we wish to be grey and grumpy or ‘fresh and fruitful’?
Working this out in daily life
Old age differs according to the individual. It varies between those who struggle on to retirement, suffering from premature ageing, and others who are fit and lively at 90, in full possession of all their faculties. Many will have physical or psychological illnesses, which inevitably affect their moods. Some have a loving family while others are forced to live in a home or in lonely isolation. Those with these problems will find it much more difficult to maintain a cheerful countenance and an optimistic outlook. They and we must look to God for the necessary grace to triumph over these difficulties. This will increase our holiness and so tell the world that we do have a hope (1 Peter 3:15) and that it is a wonderful thing to be a Christian.
The Preacher in Ecclesiastes warns of the coming time when our faculties will fail. It is not only the young people who need to seek their Creator in the days of their youth. The middle-aged must seek him too, before old age robs them of their abilities (Eccles. 12:1-7). While we are healthy and active we must make use of our opportunities, before deafness robs us of the sermon, before pain means we find it hard to concentrate on prayer, before crippling arthritis makes it difficult to attend on the means of grace, before forgetfulness diminishes our appreciation of present fellowship and past experiences of God’s grace.
Gracious old men
Billy Bray, the godly Cornish preacher (1794-1868) came downstairs for the last time. A friend asked him if he was afraid to die or that he might be lost. ‘What, me fear death? Me, lost?’ he replied. ‘Why my Saviour conquered death. If I was to go down to hell, I would shout “Glory, glory, to my blessed Jesus”, until I made the bottomless pit ring again. And then miserable old Satan would say, “Billy, Billy, this is no place for thee. Get thee back!” Then up to heaven I would go, shouting, “Glory, glory, praise the Lord”.’ You may worry about some of the theology, but the spirit cannot be beaten.
The hymn-writer and ex-slave-trader, John Newton (1725-1807) famously and cheerfully compared himself to ‘a person going on a journey in a stage-coach, who expects its arrival every hour, and is frequently looking out at the window for it’. That kind of hope about death is shown by a refusal to be grumpy in life. It was Newton’s great friend, William Cowper, who had more to cope with than most, who had the right attitude when he complained, not about situations or other people, but his own lack of spiritual progress:
Lord, it is my chief complaint
That my love is weak and faint;
Yet I love Thee and adore;
O for grace to love Thee more!
 Chris Wright, Billy Bray in his own words, Highland Books, p.238.
 Brian Edwards, Through many dangers, Evangelical Press, p.347.