Aging and death are realities of life on planet earth, and those realities are viewed by virtually all of us as negative, usually very negative. From the perspective of 1 Corinthians 15:26, death is the last enemy to be destroyed at the general resurrection of the dead. The term “enemy” pretty well sums up how we view death, right? Aging is a necessary part of the process that culminates in death. We humans don’t enjoy aging with its attendant strains and pains, and we don’t enjoy thinking about our demise. Those are facts. Yet, is there another perspective that can change how we view those facts, making them seem less negative for sure and possibly even positive? That’s a very good question to ponder, don’t you think?
In 2016, Jeanie Shaw served as an author and editor of an amazing book entitled “An Aging Grace.” Using a number of older authors, important topics related to aging are covered in very biblical and practical ways. Younger people should read the book to help them deal with their older friends and relatives, and older people should read it to help prepare themselves for the inevitabilities coming their way. In my opinion, this book should be a “must-read” for all followers of Christ.
I wrote two chapters for the book and in the first of these, here were two sentences describing my initial reaction to the request to write them. “Jeanie Shaw, whose brainchild this book is, asked me to write two chapters: one about getting old and the other about dying. (She says the topic was “heaven,” but I heard “dying.”)… My initial reaction was “What? Why me? How did I get those two articles anyway? I hate getting old and I’m afraid to die!” I think the chapters ended up being good ones and it helped me to write them. But I have continued to think about aging and death as a person now in my upper 70’s. This present article describes my most profound thoughts on the subject at this point in my life.
Our Attachment to the Physical
We are attached to this physical world and we are attached because God made us to be. We were created to enjoy life on this earth. It offers amazing possibilities – some amazingly bad and some amazingly good. David described the good part in this way:
Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. 12 Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, 13 keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. 4 Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.”
Peter quoted this passage in 1 Peter 3:10-12. Loving life in this physical body and desiring to see good days, many of them, is not wrong. In fact, it would be wrong to feel otherwise. James said that “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17) and that includes life in this physical world. That is why we should give thanks for every one of those good gifts that we enjoy while in this body. One of those obvious delights is food, created for our enjoyment and thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:3-5), just like all other physical things that we call good.
Further, God made us to want to remain alive as long as possible. The Bible is full of examples showing that his righteous people fought hard to remain alive. Finding anyone who wanted to die at the moment is nearly impossible to do. Those who can be found were looking for an escape from intense suffering, although Paul seemed to be an exception in Philippians 1:21-23. But a closer examination of that context shows that although he knew death was better because he could be with Christ, he went on to say that he wanted to remain alive in order to fulfil his purpose of helping others. Add to that the fact that he had seen both a resurrected Jesus and the spiritual world beyond (2 Corinthians 12:1-7). He thus was given a perspective that we have to work hard to develop and then keep – by faith, not sight.
Paul knew that his purpose was to use his life to help others know and love God. Life on earth is a preparation for heaven, and finding purpose is a large part of that preparation. Discovering the answers to the biggest questions in life is a part of the process. Three of the biggest questions are these: where did I come from; where am I going; and what am I doing here? Humans instinctively search for the answers to these questions because of our very nature. We are made in the image of God and this makes our searches for meaning inevitable, because they actually comprise our search for him.
He wants us to search for our origin, which is him. He wants us to search for our destiny, which is with him. He wants us to search for our purpose, because it is our way of having fellowship with him in his mission for saving the people on this earth. Having a purpose of representing him to those people means that we want to live and not die until he knows that our purpose has been fulfilled. Acts 13:36 nails it: “Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep…” Thus, wanting to stay alive and enjoy life is our designed nature. It is not necessarily a sign of being unspiritual or too attached to this world (although it can be).
That being said, a part of the right mixture is the anticipation of heaven and an “other-worldly” absence of the fear of death. Before Christ’s death and resurrection, even spiritual people in the Old Testament era were “held in slavery by their fear of death” for their entire lives (Hebrews 4:14-15). We should now view life and death differently than those who lived before the cross. Picture it this way – imagine a person who loves their job and has a very strong assurance of job security. Although they look forward and anticipate their retirement greatly, they put their heart into their job on a daily basis and do it excellently. The faith-filled disciple of Jesus is very similar in how they view life, their purpose in it and their future. They are comfortable both with the present and comfortable anticipating the future, including death. They are in all ways quite like the child described in Psalm 131:2: “But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.” Such a person ideally accepts both aging and death with peace and not with fear or mere perseverance with gritted teeth. But just how do we reach that ideal?
The Worst Story Ever Told
We reach it by really grasping the big picture, the biggest possible, as fully as is humanly possible – the greatest story ever told. Just what do you think is the great story ever told? Common answers are good but often incomplete, such as God’s love or Jesus on the cross bearing our sins, and other variations or additions to these two. The biggest picture goes much deeper and must start at the dawn of creation.
Adam and Eve were created perfect in just about every way, and they were certainly sinless. Once sin entered the world, a slowly developing whirlpool for humanity had begun and there was no stopping it. The rate of its swirling might have seemed to have paused at times in history, but not for long. Ultimately, it would pick up speed and pull every human being into its deadly vortex. The consequences of sin are many, but death is at the center – both spiritual death (separation from God) and physical death (separation from our own bodies). Once banned from the Garden that housed the Tree of Life, the original pair began to age and head toward physical death, and that sentence of death had to include all humans from that point forward (Genesis 3:22-24). We each die spiritually because of our own sins, but we die physically because of that first sin in the Garden and banishment from its Tree of Life.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
God by his nature is both all-knowing and timeless. He sees what we call time all at once – past, present and future. Before he created the world with humans as its apex, he knew exactly what was going to happen. He knew what the pain of rebellion was going to do to mankind and do to him. His plan was clearly in place long before it was implemented. That plan was destined to become the greatest story ever told. The Creator was going to take the form of a creature in order to die and save his creatures for eternity. Who could ever have imagined such a story?
It is true that other religions have mythology that includes gods taking human forms, as shown in Acts 14:8-18, but no other religion would dare imagine that a god would die for his sinful, rebellious creatures. All religions have this in common: they teach that we should be good and do good. Christianity is totally unique in teaching that we cannot do this without Divine intervention enabling us to do it, and that intervention began with God becoming human to die for all of the sins of all humans of all time. Mind-boggling! Unbelievable! The greatest story ever imagined and the greatest story ever told!
Christianity is absolutely unique. That uniqueness explains why these two statements are true of Christ’s religion and true only of his religion:
“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6).
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Once a group of theologians were discussing world religions and the question of whether Christianity was unique, and if so, why? C.S. Lewis, famous author and teacher of the last century, entered the group’s discussion late. Upon hearing the topic, he stated quickly that that the answer was simple: grace! The idea of grace is amazing, as the popular song puts it, but beyond amazing when you consider what made saving grace possible – God becoming man and dying for his creation that grace might abound! It was the only answer for the dilemma of sin and God knew it and did it.
Embracing the Near-Inconceivable!
Once I started grasping this big picture more fully, I would no longer want to eliminate my aging and death even if I somehow could. How could I possibly desire to rob the world of the greatest story ever told, which was the only way to save humanity spiritually? I believe I am now looking at that process differently than when I wrote those words in the book I mentioned back in 2016, saying that I hated aging and was afraid to die. I keep applying myself to understanding my purpose in this last part of life. I must still be alive for a reason. God is not yet done with me. A part of that reason is for me to keep trying to better understand and explain to others how to embrace life’s “end game” and all that it brings to us and to our friends and family whom we leave behind.
I have a deeper sense of peace about life’s final chapter, a sense that I could often best describe as a peace that “transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). In this article, I have tried to explain what simply must be considered the greatest story ever told. I pray that it helps your understanding of why aging and death are to be embraced, even joyfully. God knows that we need to help each other through that portal into an eternity that is quite literally inconceivable until we enter into it. The famous Christian song says, “I can only imagine,” but actually, you cannot. The Great Beyond is quite greatly beyond our wildest imagination. Near the end of the Aging Grace book, I wrote these words, providing an apt way to close this article:
Life in the womb of this earth is sometimes comfortable and peaceful, and the thought of leaving it might still be a bit scary. But let’s allow it to be scary in the same way that astronauts must feel as the flames of rocket fuel start pushing them into a world they have heretofore only imagined.
With that, I close. I’ll see you there, maybe soon!