If you read your Bible in the morning and see an encouraging promise of God’s help, but then, ten minutes after you have put the Bible away, you have no memory of what that promise was, your battle for hope and holiness will be seriously compromised. This happens to most of us from time to time — no matter our age — but for those of us who are in our seventies, the problem is more acute. What’s to be done?
Matter of Life and Death
You may not feel with me how urgent and serious this is. So let me remind you that there is a holiness (a “sanctification”) without which we don’t get to heaven. “Strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). John puts it like this: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). And Paul says, “If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13).
So, practical holiness, which includes love for people and mortification of the body’s sinful bent, is not marginal. Hebrews and John and Paul say it’s a matter of life and death.
Besides the New Testament estimation of holiness as a necessary mark of spiritual life (old or young), there is the plain biblical fact that practical holiness is how God is glorified and people are loved and joy is sustained. We do good deeds, Jesus said, that people may see them “and give glory to our Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). And Paul made clear that such love is the radiance of holiness (1 Thessalonians 3:12–13). And Nehemiah added that the joy of the Lord is our strength and should mark the holy day (Nehemiah 8:9–10).
“Practical holiness, which includes love for people and mortification of the body’s sinful bent, is not marginal.”
In sum, holiness is the path to final salvation, glorifying God, loving people, and experiencing joy. This means that if this is harder as we get older, we need serious spiritual help, not theologies that minimize the importance of holiness.
Stockpiled Faith Is No Substitute for War
But perhaps you have the notion of sanctification that the longer a person has walked with the Lord, the less vulnerable that person is to sin. Perhaps you see sixty years of spiritual discipline as stockpiling faith so that the fight for faith is not as crucial as it once was. Or perhaps your view of sanctification is that it happens subconsciously so that the loss of conscious memory is not a liability.
There is some truth in each of those three notions.
Long familiarity with Jesus in sweet fellowship habituates the heart to his reality and presence (Philippians 3:10).
And there is a sense in which faith does grow with exercise over time (2 Thessalonians 1:3).
And it is true that the subconscious is altered by God’s word and prayer and persevering obedience. “Out of the abundance of the heart [subconscious] the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).
However, no length of fellowship with Jesus, no degree of growth in faith, no subconscious renewal of the inner person ever replaces the need for conscious, daily acts of the mind and the heart recalling and embracing and believing the promises of God in fighting for hope and holiness. Listen to Paul as he comes to the end of his life:
I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Timothy 4:6–7)
Wouldn’t you agree that those last three clauses imply “right up to the end”? “I have fought the good fight, fighting right up to the end. I have finished the race, running hard right up to the end. I have kept the faith, holding fast, right up to the end.” Paul does not give us the impression that his long familiarity with Jesus, or his ongoing growth in faith, or the depth of his subconscious renewal in Christ diminish his need to fight and run and hold on.
Sanctification Through Conscious Faith
I think the main reason for this is that God intends for us to live in conscious reliance on Christ. While it is true that a huge percentage of our daily acts are instinctive — with little or no extended premeditation on the word of God as our guide, or the promises of God as our conscious motive — nevertheless, God’s ideal for us is not that we become increasingly oblivious of his presence, and increasingly unconscious of his word while our sanctified subconscious completely takes over. That would make us increasingly robot-like, and strip our behavior of conscious volition to trust Christ and glorify God. Our experienced, personal relationship with the Lord would vanish.
No length of fellowship with Jesus ever replaces the daily acts of the mind and heart to believe God’s promises.
In other words, God’s will for us is not merely that we increase in the subconscious renewal of the inner person, but also that we live increasingly in mindful reliance on his revealed word. He does not intend that we ever outgrow the need to hear his word, and by trusting it consciously, get victory over temptation and get motivation for love.
Paul said that Christian love for all the saints was owing to our hope laid up for us in heaven (Colossians 1:4–5). And he said that his aim was that we love people “from a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). He had been told by the Lord Jesus, in his commissioning, that people “are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).
Two Examples of Sanctification by Conscious Faith
I think these texts point to a way of life in which conscious hope and conscious faith in the promises of God are the daily means by which the luring promises of sin are negated by the power of the superior promises of God. I think Paul is pointing to the fact that acts of practical love are unleashed by conscious faith in the promised care and reward of God.
An example from Hebrews: “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5). Would you not agree that the writer is calling us to a way of life that is joyfully conscious of the promise, “I will never leave you nor forsake you”? And that he intends for that conscious faith to keep us free, day by day, from the love of money? Another example from the teaching of Jesus:
“When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:13–14)
Here is a directive and a promise, a path of holiness and a motive of happiness. Invite people to dinner who cannot repay you. If your old, selfish nature objects that it’s not worth it, defeat that sinful thought by faith in this promise: “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Doesn’t Jesus mean that we should pursue such difficult acts of holiness by means of conscious reliance on specific promises?
How Can I Fight When My Memory Fails?
This brings us back to the problem of senility. One of the effects of the “wasting away of our outer nature” (2 Corinthians 4:16) is that short-term memory weakens. The mind simply will not hold on to things like it used to. This is why all Medicare checkups at the doctor require the nurse to test your memory loss by telling you three words (chair, banana, tree), and then asking you one minute later (after you have drawn a clock and proved you can still tell time) if you can remember the three words.
“We do not know what small miracles God might work for us if we just ask him.”
So what am I to do if I read my Bible in the morning, spot a promise that I know will be of great help in sustaining my faith at a moment of testing later in the day, but when the Bible reading is over, I have no recollection of the promise? How am I to defeat temptation by faith in God’s promise if I can’t remember the needed promise?
1. Do not underestimate what God might do when you ask him for help.
Ask the Lord — be urgent and sincere — to strengthen your memory of his promises. I know this sounds naïve in the face of real, physical brain deterioration. But I do not think we should be so fatalistic that we think God would not give us some help. We do not know what small miracles he might work for us. God was not happy with King Asa when he was old and neglected to ask the Lord for help but only sought help from physicians.
In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became severe. Yet even in his disease he did not seek the Lord, but sought help from physicians. And Asa slept with his fathers, dying in the forty-first year of his reign. (2 Chronicles 16:12–13)
By all means, seek help from physicians, exercise, eat right, do your crossword puzzle, play Sudoku, and get lots of sleep. But don’t be a practical atheist and neglect to ask God to do what only he can do. God does not promise escape from aging and senility. In fact, he says it will come (Romans 8:23; 2 Corinthians 4:16). But who knows what help he may give in the process! We have not because we ask not (James 4:2). Ask him.
2. Work even harder at memorizing God’s promises.
Disability demands greater effort. If we stop doing things because they get harder with age, we will stop living long before we are dead. Disabled people have always had to work harder to do what non-disabled people do. And we admire them for it. Senility is a disability. Are we just going to give in? No. We work harder to make up for the disability.
So, if you once repeated a promise to yourself ten times in the morning and could remember it easily all during the day in any situation, you might need to repeat it twenty or thirty times to achieve the same effect. This will change over time. Know yourself. I could run eight-minute miles when I was in my thirties. Today I can only run twelve-minute miles. (Which most people would not call running!) It takes longer. It hurts more. It leaves me more tired. All because I am forty years older. So why do it? Same reason I’ve run for fifty years. I don’t want to be depressed, I don’t want to be fat, and I don’t want to be dead (yet).
It’s the same with memorizing promises. Once upon a time, I memorized a verse every morning from four different places in the Bible. Today, alongside constant review of large portions once memorized, I focus on one word from the Lord to carry with me through the day, and I must work two or three times as hard to make that word stick. I want that word with me all day, especially for use against temptation, and to motivate hard obedience.
3. Spite the devil with your smartphone.
When the memory simply will not hold on to the promises you want with you during the day, spite the devil and dementia with pieces of paper and iPhone reminders. I am totally serious. When you find the promise in the morning that you want to enjoy all day, write it on a little piece of paper and put it in your pocket. Take it out and read it again and again during the day, especially in the hour of trial.
I am part of the first wave of baby boomers who got in on the era of mobile devices soon enough to take them with us into senility. So, take your smartphone, push the button, and say to Siri or Bixby, “Remind me at 10:00am that I should cast all my cares on God because he cares for me.” Then do the same for as many times during the day you find helpful.
“If we stop doing things because they get harder with age, we will stop living long before we are dead.”
If you have the mindset that this kind of spiritual warfare is superfluous, and that God somehow automatically makes up for our increasing weakness apart from the fight of faith, you are not paying attention, either to aging Christians or to the word of God. He comes. And he helps. But he does it in and through our resolves and efforts of faith. “We always pray for you, that our God may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:11). It is God’s gift. But we act the miracle by “resolves” and “work.”
4. Let a companion become your eyes and memory.
Stay close to caring members of the body of Christ. The senile member cannot say to the strong, “I have no need of you.” The non-reading eye, with glaucoma and macular degeneration, cannot say to the members with reading mouths, “I have no need of you.” Nor can those with good eyes say, “I have this gift for myself alone.”
When the eyes and the memory of one member go, the other members pick up the missing strategy of spiritual war. If I cannot remind myself of the promises of God, I will need you to remind me. With aging, it is truer than ever that we must “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).
Let’s Be God’s Voice for Each Other
Until the day we die, sanctification remains a divine work through human means. It began that way. It ends that way. The means might change as our weaknesses increase. But sanctification never ceases to be a divine summons to fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith.
Even in the last hours, it is a summons to the body of Christ to lean down close to the ashen face and say with a loud voice:
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)