Five Fears of Old Age

Finishing Our Race by Future Grace

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Founder & Teacher,

Dear older saint, I need to join you in the fight against the fears of aging, and to do so by faith in future grace. There are five fears that we will likely walk through together. God has given us antidotes for each in his word. These antidotes work through faith, and without faith they won’t work. But by faith they will work, and fear will be overcome, and we will go to be with Jesus in due time without walking in fear during our last season. That’s my confidence.

Let me first give a word about future grace. I picture the Christian life as a stream of divine grace flowing to me from the future. I’m walking into it. It flows over the waterfall of the present into a reservoir of the past. The reservoir is getting bigger and bigger, which means our thankfulness as we look back should be getting bigger and bigger. So, what’s the disposition of our hearts as we look out over that stream toward the future and that reservoir in the past? The answer is gratitude as we look back and faith as we look forward. That’s why I’m calling it faith in future grace.

By future, I mean the future five minutes from now, when you finish reading this, and the future 5,000 years from now. Grace will be arriving moment by moment as the sustaining power from God — free and gracious. So, in the future of these next five minutes, you’re going to sit there reading, being held and sustained by grace. It’s coming to you moment by moment, and we’re called to bank on it — to trust that God will keep supplying it, forever.

1. The Fear of Being Alone

Maybe you’ve lost your spouse, or you’ve been single all your life. Maybe singleness has been fine, but singleness is not looking as great when you’re outliving all your friends. Maybe you start to wonder, “Is anybody going to remember me?” Jesus says, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). I think “always” is even more important than the phrase “to the end of the age.” It’s one thing to say he’ll be with us to the end of the age; it’s another for him to say, “I’ll be with you every minute of your life.”

John Paton was a missionary to what’s now Vanuatu. He was driven up into a tree as 1,300 aboriginal natives were trying to kill him. As they were beneath him, he laid hold of the promise of Matthew 28:18, 20, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. . . . I am with you always.” And here’s what he wrote later — because he survived:

Without that abiding consciousness of the presence and power of my dear Lord and Savior, nothing else in all the world could have preserved me from losing my reason and perishing miserably. His words, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world,” became to me so real that it would not have startled me to behold him, as Stephen did, gazing down upon the scene. I felt his supporting power. . . . It is the sober truth, and it comes back to me sweetly after 20 years, that I had my nearest and dearest glimpses of the face and smiles of my blessed Lord Jesus in those dread moments when musket, club, or spear was being leveled at my life. (John G. Paton, 342)

He will be there for you. I don’t want to create the impression that you should discount human people in your life. God made us a church. You shouldn’t have to live by yourself with nobody caring for you. That would be a failure of the community of Christians, and we should work at resisting that failure. So, I exhort you: While you can, look around, and see who’s alone. While you can, be there for others.

2. The Fear of Being Useless

I’m a man, so I am thinking mainly of men here. Ralph Winter said, “Men don’t die of old age in America. They die of retirement.” Built into men’s souls is the need to be productive. I’m sure that’s true of women in different ways, but I’m thinking of men right now. A man who loses his sense of productivity, usefulness, and accomplishment is running the risk of losing his entire identity and reason for being.

During the Olympics in 1992, I preached on “Olympic Spirituality,” comparing the Games with Paul’s language of running and fighting and boxing and wrestling. The next day, I was told that Elsie Viren, an aged member of our church, was in the hospital, dying. I had been saying, “Come on — let’s fight.” Realizing that Elsie would probably never get out of bed, I asked, “How does Elsie, probably ninety-plus years old and dying, do that?” I wrote an article called “How Can Elsie Run?” in the Bethlehem Star (our church’s newsletter), in which I asked, “What does her marathon look like right now?”

The key verses are 2 Timothy 4:6–7, “I am already being poured out as a drink offering” — yes, she was. She had served the church faithfully for 62 years. Then Paul says, “and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” When Paul ends by saying, “I have kept the faith,” he’s interpreting the first two phrases, about fighting and finishing. So, what does Elsie’s marathon look like? The answer is believe. Believe him. Trust him. Rest in him. Don’t let Satan win this battle to destroy your faith.

So, believing is the way to fight the fear of uselessness. Is it not amazing that Paul says in Ephesians 6:8, “[We know] that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord”? He says, “Whatever good . . .” Picture the smallest, most hidden good deed you can do this afternoon. It may be some simple good that nobody knows about. At the end of this age, you will receive your reward for every good deed. That’s useful. You’re useful. The smallest thing is eternally significant.

Or consider Philippians 1:20–21, “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Paul considers the possibility that his next appointment is death. Someone might say, “Are you telling me, pastor, that there’s usefulness in the next three days before I die? I can be useful? I have a tube down my throat.”

And the answer is that Paul said his aim was that Christ be magnified by his death. Over the next three days, there is a way for you to die that magnifies Jesus — or not. And here’s the way to do it: Die like Paul did. Die like death is gain.

3. The Fear of Affliction

Affliction, in the purposeful hand of God, has effects now in this life, and after death. It is never meaningless. It is never without God’s merciful design for our good. Romans 5:3–5 describes the effect of affliction while we live.

We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Our mindset with regard to suffering and affliction and pain should be this: “This affliction is doing something good in me and for me and through me. It’s making me a kind of person.” That’s what that text teaches.

But what about when the hour of death arrives and that doesn’t make sense anymore because there is no time left for me to grow in character building? My death is hours away. You might think, “I’m not going to be alive to show anybody my character tomorrow. I’m going to be dead at six o’clock, and it’s now noon. I’ve heard all these arguments for how suffering can be turned for good, but I don’t understand the point of the next six hours because I’ll be gone after that.”

Second Corinthians 4:16–17 is very precious to me at that very point. See if you see what I see: “We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction [by that he means a lifetime of affliction] is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” This affliction is preparing, bringing about, producing “for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” These last hours of suffering will have an effect for my good beyond the grave.

Let’s say I’m at a hospital bedside, and the sick person knows he has maybe one day at the most. He says, “Pastor, it hurts. It hurts. What’s the point?” I answer, “As God gives you the grace to endure to the end without cursing him, resting in him as much as you can, these next twenty hours are going to make a massive, precious difference in the weight of the glory you experience on the other side. These hours are not pointless.”

I really believe that. They are not pointless. True, they won’t make your character here shine because you are going to be gone. There will be no character on earth left to shine. But as soon as you cross that line between now and eternity, in some way God is going to show you why those twenty hours were what they were, and what they did for you. That’s good news.

4. The Fear of Failing Faith

By failing faith, I mean, “God, am I going to make it? I am so embattled, and doubts come. I have horrible thoughts.”

Consider one of the most magnificent ladies in Bethlehem Baptist Church when I became pastor there. She was a prayer warrior, and everybody probably would have said she was the most godly woman in the church. She is in heaven now.

I was with her as she was dying in the hospital. Her tongue was black like a cinder. I walked into the room, and she was trembling. She took my hand. She said, “Pastor John, they come, and they dance around my bed. They dance around my bed, and they’re taking their clothes off.” She was describing horrible things. It was so unlike her. She was being harassed by the devil. An old, godly saint was being harassed by the devil as she died. That taught me something as a young pastor: the battle is never over. I used to think that as you lived a faithful and godly life, you became more free from terrible attacks of the evil one. That’s not true.

So, in horrible moments like those, Philippians 3:12 has been a favorite verse for me: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Here I am, pressing on: “I want you, Jesus. I want to make it through death as a believer and not commit apostasy and throw you away. I want you, and I want to make it.” And he reminds me, “The only reason you’re reaching out for me is because I have hold of you.” The only reason you want Jesus is because he laid hold of you. You wouldn’t otherwise reach out so passionately for him.

One of the greatest doxologies in the Bible says, “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever” (Jude 24–25). That passage is all built on the fact that he keeps us. One of the more recent worship songs that speaks powerfully to this fear of failing faith is “He Will Hold Me Fast.” “He will hold me fast, for my Savior loves me so. He will hold me fast.” I love this song.

5. The Fear of Death

Here’s a little glimpse into my life. I sleep on my side because I can’t sleep on my back. I lie there on my back, saying, “Oh, this feels so good. I wish I could go to sleep like this,” but I never do. So I finally turn on my side, and I imagine the Lord saying to me as I dose off, “John Piper, I did not destine you for wrath, but to obtain salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for you so that whether you wake or sleep, you will live with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:9–10). Almost every night I say that. No wrath. No wrath! Whether I live or die.

Noël and I bought plots to be buried near our granddaughter. We’re not going back to South Carolina. We’re in Minnesota to die. So up on a hill, we have our plot, and we’ve chosen some stones, and we’ve chosen Bible verses for our stones. And 1 Thessalonians 5:9–10 — those are my verses.

For some reason, for me to have God look me in the eye and say, “I didn’t destine you for wrath. It’s not going to happen. Ever. No wrath. My Son bore the wrath you deserve. If I take your life tonight at 3 AM, it will not be a problem because my Son died for you.” That helps me fall asleep.

I know that in the context “whether you wake or sleep” means whether you are alive when the second coming happens or dead when the second coming happens. But the application to my sleeping or waking now works. He is saying, “Whether you’re awake or asleep (live or die, now or later), you’re going to be alive with me.” And I need that. I can’t go to sleep thinking, What if I die? What if I die? He says, “Not a problem. We’ve got that covered. We took care of that.”

What Would He Not Do?

To end, let me give you what I think is one of the most important verses in the Bible: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). This means that if God did the hardest thing in the universe — namely, giving his Son to be tortured and killed — what would he not do for you? That’s the logic, and he states it. He’ll do everything for you. He will give us “all things.” This applies to every promise that we’ve looked at. God’s giving Christ for us guarantees those promises.

Therefore, trust Christ. That’s the issue for us all right now. Do you trust Christ and his purchase of all these promises? Do you trust his word? Trust his promises of ever-arriving future grace. He’ll always be there. Be glad in him. Be freed by this gladness for service, not self. Glorify him by your gladness in him and your service to others. And along with those around you, pray for each other. Help each other to die well and to live well till then.