Is their Span but Toil and Trouble?

“All our days pass away under thy wrath, our years come to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are threescore and ten, or even by reason of strength four-score;
yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.
… So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” – Psalm 90

 

When we are young, we don’t worry or think much about growing old. Hemingway’s young Nick Adams boldly declares, even after watching his father perform a bloody caesarean birth, and then uncover the bloodier suicide of the woman’s husband, that “he felt quite sure he would never die.”

For those of us who are elderly, however, these words from Psalm 90 have the ring of authenticity. Medical care and technology have extended our lifespans beyond that of our ancestors, and the increased longevity has brought with it not only a bright but a dark side. Having more years in retirement years may bring joy and fulfillment. On the other hand, those years may take us, (in Ben Jonson’s phrase) to the “misery of age” – physical weakness, disease, pain, diminished senses, limited mobility. The so-called “golden years” might be so for the fortunate who avoid the ills of aging, but for many of us, the misery of age will be our lot.

When we are young, we don’t worry or think much about growing old.

A group discussing the problems of aging came up with a question: What does Jesus have to say about aging? After combing the gospels, they decided … not much. Jesus died young and never had to face the process of aging and its ills. Yet he must have seen in his ministry many elderly people and observed their problems. His request to John at the cross to care for Mary seems to acknowledge her coming needs in elderly years. There is one verse in the gospels in which Jesus speaks directly of what age will bring, when he says to Peter, “when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18). His words evoke images of our coming helpless dependence upon nursing home care and “assisted living,” and not merely what verse 19 interprets them to mean.

Aging is both a communal and individual problem. How shall we minister to this growing cloud of elderly members in the church? How will the rising ratio of old to young change the ethos of our churches? As individuals, how shall we deal with whatever misery age may bring? Although Jesus did not live to old age, he experienced himself comparable severe pain and suffering on the cross. He endured it with courage and faith that ended in resurrection. He has been there before us. Where he has been, we follow – not only with the comforting assurance in John 14: 1-2 of his promise of life beyond misery but also with the offer of support in our trials, stated well in this stanza from a hymn: “When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow; for I will be near thee, thy troubles to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”

Francis Fike is retired from teaching English at Hope College, Holland, Michigan. He is a contributing editor to Perspectives.