J.I. Packer on Living to the End “Flat Out”

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

This week J.I. Packer turned 88. He has written a book on aging. It’s titled, Finishing Our Course with Joy: Guidance from God for Engaging with Our Aging. At age 68 I found it riveting. It made me want to live “flat out” to the end. That was his goal. You could call it “Don’t Waste Your Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties.” It’s worth reading at any age.

He is not naïve. He is 88! There is no romantic idealization for the final years of this life. It will be hard. “Aging,” he says, “is not for wimps.” Some may paint a rosy picture of life after seventy. Even John Wesley, Packer observes, said that at eighty-five “the only sign of deterioration that he could see in himself was that he could not run as fast as he used to.” With characteristic understatement Packer says: “With all due deference to that wonderful, seemingly tireless little man, we may reasonably suspect that he was overlooking some things.”

Nevertheless Packer realizes that

the assumption that was general in my youth, that only a small minority would be fit and active after about seventy, has become a thing of the past. Churches, society, and seniors themselves are still adjusting to the likelihood that most Christians who hit seventy still have before them at least a decade in which some form of active service for Christ remains practicable.

So, what shall we do with these final years? Packer notes that “the image of running was central to Paul’s understanding of his own life [1 Corinthians 9:24–27; Galatians 2:2; Philippians 2:16], and I urge now that it ought to be the central focus in the minds and hearts of all aging Christians, who know and feel that their bodies are slowing down.”

And how should we run? “My contention is . . . that, so far as our bodily health allows, we should aim to be found running the last lap of the race of our Christian life, as we would say, flat out.” “The challenge that faces us is . . . to cultivate the maximum zeal for the closing phase of our earthly lives.”

A Wrongheaded Agenda

The world does not see it this way, and Packer is unsparing in his criticism of “worldliness” and “folly.”

Retirees are admonished, both explicitly and implicitly, in terms that boil down to this: Relax. Slow down. Take it easy. Amuse yourself. Do only what you enjoy. [It is] a warrant for taking it easy across the board and prioritizing self-indulgence for the rest of our lives.

This agenda, he says, “is wrongheaded in the extreme.”

The agenda as a whole turns out to be a recipe for isolating oneself and trivializing one’s life, with apathetic boredom becoming one’s default mood day after day. . . . Over time, [it] will generate a burdensome sense that one’s life is no longer significant, but has become, quite simply, useless. . . . “Wrong way!” That is what I affirm with regard to our culture’s agenda for aging. I think it is one of the huge follies of our time, about which some frank speaking is in order and indeed overdue.

“Whatever admonitions Paul might have addressed to aging Christians . . . recommending relaxation and taking things easy would not have been among them.”

Zeal Fed by Hope

When the world tells us to follow this pattern of self-indulgence, it is satanic: “By moving us to think this way Satan undermines, diminishes, and deflates our discipleship, reducing us from laborers in Christ’s kingdom to sympathetic spectators.”

No mature Christian of any age is

exempt from the twin tasks of learning and leading, just because they do not inhabit the world of wage and salary earning any longer, and for aging Christians to think of themselves in this way, as if they have no more to do now than have fun, is worldliness in a strikingly intense and, be it said, strikingly foolish form.

If we are to live “flat out” and full of zeal to the end, the key is hope. “Zeal should be unflagging every day, all day, and all the way. But if this is to happen, zeal must be fed by hope.”

The Roman Empire was a world that, like our world today, lacked any energizing hope of its own, which explains why so many listened hungrily to the Christian message. . . . Recovering and reappropriating this hope is a prime task for us who are aging today.

The hope he unpacks is the resurrection of the dead.

We know that the experience of moving into this upgraded accommodation, our resurrection body, linked as it will be in some way with the body we have now . . . will come to us as an enormous enrichment of the embodied life as we have known it up till now. . . . In heaven, clothed in our new bodies, we shall see and be at home with Jesus our Lord in a way that while we inhabit our present bodies is not possible.

You Won’t Regret It

“Paul’s knowledge of his hope in Christ had great invigorating, driving, and refreshing force.” This is the key to aging with undiminished zeal. And this is our calling: Maintaining zeal Godward as our bodies wear out is the special discipline to which we aging Christians are called.

Whatever it takes, you won’t regret it. This kind of “spiritual ripeness is worth far more than material wealth in any form.”