Even to Your Old Age
New Life for Christian Grandparents
What does the Bible say about grandparenting? Very little. Although past generations matter significantly to the biblical authors, the Bible does not give grandparents specific attention. The word grandparent does not even appear in the English Bible. Nevertheless, we know this role is essential to God, our extended families, and our local churches.
Most of today’s grandparents recognize that they face challenges previous generations did not. Old age is respected less, families are shrinking, and the desire to flee to permanent vacation tempts those with the resources.
Challenges of Old Age
My grandfather was born in 1891 and died in 1983. In 1951, when he was 60, youth culture did not exist. William Manchester dates the emergence of teen culture in North America to the 1950s (The Glory and the Dream, 720–25). The word teenager was first coined by Bill Hailey and the Comets, but not until 1957. That was only sixty years ago.
“We are sons and daughters of the living God. Whether old or young, that is our identity.”
The aged were esteemed and admired back then, but this is no longer the case. In his book Being Mortal, Atul Gawande notes that when people were asked their age in previous generations, they exaggerated upward. “The dignity of old age was something to which everyone aspired” (18). But, today, people exaggerate downward. No one wants to be old or admit to being so. Disrespect for the aged was not such a challenge in previous generations as it is in our own. So, today’s grandparents have great need to remember that we are sons and daughters of the living God. Whether old or young, that is our identity.
Another challenge is the falling fertility rate. Families used to be large. In 1955, the average Christian might have five to fifteen grandchildren. Today, it is not uncommon to have three or fewer. Our role in the lives of the next generation can feel especially thin.
A final challenge is our cultural wealth and life expectancy, which tempt many Christian seniors to go on permanent vacation. There is nothing wrong with travel or vacation in themselves, but spending our last decades on perpetual vacation is inconsistent with the gospel. In the words of Sam Storms,
The call to obedience, fruitfulness, holiness, witness, learning, leading, prayer, and worship is lifelong. It ends only when life does. . . . The call of Scripture . . . is to live as fully as possible for God’s glory until one’s dying breath. (Packer on the Christian Life, 195)
Despite the passing of decades, one challenge hasn’t changed. The world is fallen, relationships can be fractured, and extended family members can be selfish, greedy, insensitive, or uncaring. The world is not what it’s supposed to be.
Opportunities with Old Age
With these limitations in mind, what does it look like for grandparents to “live as fully as possible for God’s glory”? It means a heart-attitude to serve with grace and flexibility — a disposition that shouldn’t change with retirement. Consider a few of the opportunities in front of us.
Live as a Passionate Example
First, longer life expectancies provide us a golden opportunity to be personal examples to our grandchildren. Most importantly, this means exemplifying passion for Christ. A retired friend recently told me, “I want my children and grandchildren to see me reading God’s word and praying. I want my example to convince them that Christ is the Treasure buried in the field, the Pearl of Great Price.”
Grow Downward in Humility
Second, grandparenting is an opportunity to demonstrate humility. In the words of the late Dr. Packer, spiritual fruit in old age means growing “downward . . . into profounder humility, which in healthy souls will become more and more apparent as they age” (Finishing Our Course with Joy, 95). Humility means thinking more highly of God and less highly of yourself.
“Let your children and grandchildren watch you sacrificially loving the local church.”
Growing downward also means increasing in wisdom — a virtue inseparable from humility. Biblical wisdom pursues God’s great end (his glory) with God’s means (the laying down of our lives and egos). This pursuit does not cease at retirement. In fact, Psalm 92:14 promises that the righteous will “still bear fruit in old age . . . ever full of sap and green.”
Display Your Hope
Third, besides passion for Christ, humility, and wisdom, grandparenting is an opportunity to exemplify hope. Life is short. Decades of experience have taught you this in ways that your children and grandchildren do not yet understand. They need to see you not living in the past, but looking forward to “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1).
Our decades of experiences in the past will tempt us to live there, but God wants us to live in the present, for the future. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13–14).
Display Christ’s Sufficiency
Fourth, communicate with words and actions that, no matter how bad your circumstances, Christ is sufficient. Your children and grandchildren should remember you trusting God to work all things together for good (Romans 8:28). As your body breaks down, seek God for grace to radiate “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8).
I’m thinking of an 88-year-old wheelchair-bound Christian with oxygen tubes coming out of his nose. His halting speech was full of joy, hope, and praise. His whole demeanor proclaimed one simple message: “My God is big and all-sufficient.”
Love the Local Church
Fifth, love the local church. If you have lived long enough, a local church has probably hurt or disappointed you. The temptation is to withdraw. A friend recently told me that his parents, both professing Christians, had done this. He was deeply concerned, not only for them, but for the effect their example would have on his children. Please don’t drift away from the church. Yes, the bride is not yet what she is supposed to be, but let your children and grandchildren watch you sacrificially loving your local church, warts and all.
Pray, Pray, Pray
Sixth, pray resiliently. When we don’t see immediate results, it’s easy to get discouraged and quit praying for children and grandchildren. But that is a mistake. I met a young woman who recently became a Christian. “What brought you to Christ?” I asked.
“My parents are not Christians” she responded. “I did not grow up in the church. Still, for twenty years my paternal grandmother has consistently prayed for my conversion. I am convinced that this explains my faith in the gospel.”
Invest in Grandchildren
Last, take every opportunity to build a relationship with your grandchildren. Here family traditions and customs are crucial. Some take their grandchildren to lunch each year on their birthday. Others attend their concerts, games, and recitals. I know grandparents that contribute money to their grandchildren’s education. My great-grandparents hosted dinner for their extended family every Sunday afternoon.
Even to Old Age
Strive not to be intimidated by today’s emphasis on youth. Yes, you are slowing down. Yes, your memory isn’t what it used to be. But don’t forget that Noah began his life’s work past 500 years old, Abraham conceived Isaac at age 100, Caleb inherited Hebron at age 85, and the widow Anna, serving in the temple day and night, prophesied over baby Jesus at age 84.
The same God who sustained you in your mother’s womb, and has now sustained you for decades, is the same God who will “not cast [you] off in the time of old age.” He will forsake you not when your strength is spent (Psalm 71:9). Rather, he will walk with you “until [you] proclaim [his] might to another generation, [his] power to all those to come” (Psalm 71:18).
Even as old age and gray hairs point to our life on earth drawing to a close, in Christ we can appropriate this promise to ourselves: “Even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” (Isaiah 46:4). This is our hope.