Growing older can be scary. I frequently visit my mother in an assisted living residence nearby, and I see the possibilities of old age: strokes, senility, diminished sight and hearing, pain, boredom, and dependence on others for personal care. And of course, for those who cannot afford such care, there are other fears: poverty, loneliness, needing help but having no one to depend on. But when I read through Kings and Chronicles in the Bible, I see something truly scary that always sends me trembling to prayer, pleading that above all, God will not let that happen to me. What is “that”?
Solomon, who prayed his famous request for wisdom to rule God’s people, who prayed magnificently at the dedication of the temple, who received great wisdom and blessings from God, is the same man of whom we read, “For it came about when Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away after other gods, and his heart was not wholly devoted to the Lord his God…” (1 Kings 11:4).
Joash became king of Judah at age seven, and under the advice of the godly priest Jehoiada, he restored the neglected temple and the burnt offerings. “But after the death of Jehoiada the officials of Judah came and bowed down to the king, and the king listened to them. And they abandoned the house of the Lord, the God of their fathers, and served the Asherim and the idols…” (2 Chronicles 24:17-18).
Similarly, Uzziah “did right in the sight of the Lord… he continued to seek God in the days of Zechariah… and as long as he sought the Lord, God prospered him” (2 Chronicles 26:4-5). With God’s help, Uzziah successfully waged war. And apparently, he was a great planner and organizer. “But when he became strong, his heart was so proud that he acted corruptly, and he was unfaithful to the Lord his God…” (2 Chronicles 26:16).
Hezekiah was one of the great kings of Judah. My Bible has seven pages full of his great reforms in worship, his humility before God, and his faithful responses when Judah was attacked. But after all his faithfulness and after having experienced God’s salvation corporately and personally, “Hezekiah gave no return for the benefit he received, because his heart was proud…” (2 Chronicles 32:25).
I read these stories, and I pray, “Oh God, whatever else happens, don’t let me forsake You. Don’t let me become proud or strong if it will make me think I don’t need to depend on You. Don’t let me listen to the voices of my culture that say that the greatest thing to look forward to is retirement, a time to stop working and indulge oneself with leisure and play, because that is the good life. Lord, my sinful, lazy flesh wants a big, secure bank account so I won’t have to depend on You for any material needs, and it wants good doctors and good health so I won’t need Your strength and supply to get me through the basic routines of life. It wants comfort, convenience, relaxation, and the physical and material resources to do whatever I want to do, without feeling any need to serve You or others if that would require any great exertion or sacrifice on my part. Lord, I see within myself all the self-centeredness, pride, and tendency to listen to the pleasant siren songs of my culture rather than to You. Lord, forgive me, cleanse me, change me. Make me cling to you throughout my life, and make my desire to serve you increase rather than decrease with age, so that at the end, like Paul, I can say, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.’ And when I stray, make me like Hezekiah, who ‘humbled the pride of his heart'” (2 Chronicles 32:26).
From this perspective, I see that financial insecurity, ill health, forgetfulness, and the other problems of old age may be precisely what God uses to keep me humble and dependent on Him. In which case, they will be my friends.
My schnauzer, Fritz, has his own fears. Occasionally our walks take us on the sidewalk next to busy Coburg Road, passing under the Beltline overpass with traffic coming from behind us. Fritz does not like things coming from behind him, especially big noisy things. Large trucks and motorcycles make him jump sideways as they go by. And under the overpass, all sounds are magnified, so Fritz is totally distracted as we walk there, jumping this way and that and turning his head to see the “threatening” vehicles. I, however, know that the chances of one of those vehicles jumping the curb and hitting us are pretty minuscule. But I do see another danger: broken glass scattered across the sidewalk. So while Fritz is jumping in response to noisy cars, I’m trying to lead him safely around the real danger of which he is not even aware.
And I realize how much we are like my dog: the big “noisy” dangers (strokes, cancer, poverty, Alzheimer’s) that can’t really hurt us in our relationship with God and for eternity get all our attention, while the real but quiet dangers (like forsaking God by trusting in other things or by putting other goals above serving Him) go unnoticed.
When the inhabitants of Judah quaked at the expected attack of the Assyrians and looked to other countries and other gods for help, the Lord spoke to Isaiah (8:11-14) “with mighty power and instructed [him] not to walk in the way of [the] people”:
You are not to say, “It is a conspiracy!”
In regard to all that this people call a conspiracy,
And you are not to fear what they fear or be in dread of it.
It is the Lord of hosts whom you should regard as holy.
And He shall be your fear,
And He shall be your dread.
Then He shall become a sanctuary…
May the Lord our God be our fear, our love, our sanctuary, our passion, and the One we serve wholeheartedly until He takes us home.
The trees in Eugene can be beautiful. In the spring, they have the welcome green of new buds, and many have lovely white, pink, or yellow flowers as well. All summer long they give shade, and if you look up into them, almost all you can see are leaves. Then in the fall, many turn red, orange, and yellow and are glorious to see again. But those beautiful leaves eventually fall, and by December, most of the deciduous trees have only their bare trunks and branches to show.
These barren trees used to seem gloomy to me, but in the past couple of years, I’ve been struck by the beauty of these trees as well. Now, with all those distracting leaves gone, one can see their forms clearly, as they stand large, strong, and sculptured against the sky. Many are as majestic and awe-inspiring now as they are at other times of year, but in a different way.
In my pondering why some of these winter trees are more beautiful than others, I’ve realized it depends on a couple of things. One is the type of tree. Maples have a more rounded and graceful shape than flowering plums, for instance, even though the plums are much showier in the spring. But also, it dawned on me that a big difference is in their pruning. On a well-trimmed tree, the tiny branches, the suckers, and the tangled and dead branches have been removed, so the basic structure of the tree stands out, and even that basic structure has sometimes been rounded and lower limbs cut off.
Skillful pruning is what makes those trees beautiful when everything else has been stripped away. This, I thought, is a picture of people’s lives in their “winter” or older age, when many of the flowery beauties and abilities of their youth have been stripped away but the basic structure of their lives is more clearly seen. And the lives that will be most beautiful in that stage will be those who have been well-pruned by the Master Gardener.
And I thought of some older people (that is, older than I) who are truly beautiful because of God’s work and pruning in their lives: the Elaine Stedmans and the Bill and Ellie O’Briens, who exude warmth and love and grace and patience and joy and humility, and who have been pruned by pain and poverty and lost children and bereavement and many small difficulties I will never know about.
And I thought, as I have said to God before, “I want to be like that. Prune me, Lord. But be gentle and gracious, Lord. I really just want the results, not the process.”
No, I do not want the process—except in theory, when it is a vague notion. Whenever difficulties come, I do not want that pruning. That does not seem to be having good results; in fact, sometimes it seems to be having horrible results in the lives of people I love. Sometimes it seems to be keeping my husband and me from ministering as we would like (and surely, as God would like us to). And it always interferes with my plans, either my plans for the day or my plans for the lives of my family and me.
And yet, as I look back over my life so far, I know that I am more humble (because I have been humbled), more gracious (because I know more of my own failings and sin, and I have received grace), more patient (because I have needed others to be patient with me), more flexible (because I have seen that my plans are neither as perfect nor as important as I used to think), and more understanding of others’ pain (because I have known pain). And though I may be content with how I am now, just as I thought I was a pretty good person thirty years ago, I know that God is not finished with His work in me.
So, as I pray for God to prune me gently, I also pray that He will make me trust Him, remembering that though the Master Pruner and the tree may have different ideas about pruning, the Master knows what He is doing. And I pray that my winter years will glorify Him.