Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90: 12
My age is turning me 40 here in a few days. I should be filled with excitement and celebration, for after all, 40 is a number not everyone gets to experience. For some, the prongs of death decimated their number in twos, threes, and even tens. The privilege of living—even into the 40s—should put music in my throat and joy in my heart. And yet, I can’t help the subtle sadness peeking under the fabric of my aging. I am not talking about the vanity of wrinkles, the rounding of my hips, or the weakening of my organs. There is a different kind of hurt that getting old stirs within me. The kind that comes with a true reflection of how weak I am and how short life is. Something akin to having numbered my days and getting wisdom in my heart as a result (Psalm 90:12).
The Psalmist is relentless in asking God to help him understand the length of his life and the reality of dying. I know of no birthday songs or celebration themes hanging this banner, “O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am” (Psalm 39:4). No Hallmark card has these lines artistically written on them, “Remember how short my time is! For what vanity you have created all the children of man! What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?” (Psalm 89:47-48).
I shared not too long ago with a group of ladies that aging distresses me for many reasons, including developing this acute realization that my body weakens my vigor even as my mind strengthens my wisdom. The matron of the group (well into the 70s) gently rebuked me for missing out on giving thanks in all (aging) circumstances and seeing the giftedness of life. Her words pierced me. Not only because they were all true—her hair is crowned, after all, with a much whiter and fuller mane and our church is quoting communally, every Sunday, 1 Thessalonians 5:18. How ridiculous I must have sounded! But her words reminded me of a much pervasive trend in the Western culture of choosing happiness over mourning overall. There is no doubt that Ecclesiastes 3:1-4 is known by many wise women, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens: a time to be born, and a time to die . . . a time to break down, and a time to build up . . . a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” But, in my experience, I hear more of dancing, birth celebrations, and building up, than mourning, breaking down, and dying. It’s as if there is more glorified honor in Christian living than in Christian dying. Embracing aging in the West is banishing death from our vocabulary. But is this the message of the Bible?
I heard it said that from the moment we are born, we begin our dying. As Christians, there is no better way to think of living well except through dying. Christ himself died on the cross to assure our eternal life. Aging for Christians shouldn’t avoid the realism of death, its affects, and damages on our bodies. Living well into our elderness is not avoiding or covering its marks on our bodies: but rather recognizing that even as we age, our weakening bodies cannot scurry away our faith in Christ. Aging then, from the gospel perspective, is the announcement that death is near but the assurance that Heaven awaits us. Embracing aging for every Christian should allow for a vocabulary for aging that reflects nothing less than that of the Bible: dimming eyesight (Genesis 27:1), well-stricken in age (Genesis 24:1), wasting away (2 Corinthians 4:16), spent (Psalm 71:7), failing body (Psalm 73:26), withering flesh (1 Peter 1:24), mere breath (Psalm 39:5).
Embracing aging means acknowledging its ravaging effects on our bodies even as we wait for our eternal rewards. Our eyesight is dimming, our body is weakening, our hair is greying and falling, our skin is wrinkling, our energy is waning, our breath is wasting away. These should bother us because they are symptoms of a fallen world. Our earthly tents have corroding pegs protruding them at every stage. They cry death in our earthly bodies and death shall come. But as Christians, we can die courageously knowing that even as our bodies waste away, our faith renews daily in Christ (2 Corinthians 4:16). Job concluded that “wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days.” Perhaps what Job really meant was that the greatest wisdom of the aged is not how stoically she lives in dying, but how faithful she dies in living.