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Letters to a New Believer (4): The Generation Gap

D Newell, Glasgow

The other day I heard about a young professing Christian family which is shortly moving to Australia. Good for them, one might say. But wait - they leave behind a widowed mother living alone and now approaching her 80s. Emigration may bring them welcome material and social benefits but it also seriously downplays their filial responsibilities. The teaching of 1 Timothy 5 has not been rescinded: "But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God…But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel" (vv.4,8). And the doctrine is backed by the practical example of the Lord Jesus in John 19.26-27. Casual indifference to the elderly, alas, is the kind of thoughtlessness which marks our society. Youth culture, with its craving for instant gratification, its abandonment of traditional values and its casual contempt for the old, is the presiding ideology. And, sadly, it can influence the behaviour of believers. But it needn’t. One of the many socially valuable by-products of being in a local assembly is that it opens our eyes to both the strengths and the needs of young and old alike. Unlike non-scriptural organisations such as school or college Christian Unions, which by definition are restricted to a particular age or educational grouping, a real New Testament church ideally comprehends believers from all ages and all walks of life. Children raised in such a sphere have a distinct advantage over others in that they learn to interact respectfully with adults as well as with other children (Ps 148.11-13; Acts 21.5). They can discover how to help and venerate the old while profiting from their greater experience of life. Looking back on a relationship with my father, which was never permitted to come to its fullness as the Lord took him home when I was 24, I think I can see a general progression common to human experience. When we are young, we are impressionable, dependent children; once we enter into our first gainful employment we become as it were colleagues who can converse with our fathers and those of their generation on an equal footing; and finally, as the years pass by, we become carers, with the responsibility to nurture those who have in various ways nurtured us. The principle applies not only to the natural family but to the spiritual home of the assembly.

Let me then attempt a simple ABC of Biblical principles. First, what should be our attitude towards age? As we grow old our short-term memory fails but the long-term sharpens. That is why the elderly normally love to reminisce. I often wish I had spoken more to my mother about her childhood. When she was 80 we did have a last trip to London to visit her youthful haunts in the Old Kent Road. We found the family house in Upper Grange Road (with a tree growing through the roof), her primary school (still functioning), and the building in which her assembly met (by then, sadly, a small engineering works with "College Hall" still faintly visible over the front). She walked me off my feet, and she loved every minute of it. Scripture, by contrast with a modern secular Britain gradually edging towards euthanasia, invariably teaches a healthy respect for the old. Bearing in mind the extreme longevity of people before the flood, families in the patriarchal era must have been much larger and more extended than now. Yet long life was not seen as misery but as a distinction: David, for example, "died in a good old age, full of days" (1 Chr 29.28), and Eliphaz holds out to Job the expectation that "thou shalt come to thy grave in a full age, like as a shock of corn cometh in in his season" (Job 5.26). In the Old Testament old people were not to be marginalised or talked down to; rather, the instruction was to give them all reverence: "Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the Lord" (Lev 19.32). You will note that respect for the aged is linked to the fear of God. This certainly includes recognising their rights. Here’s a snippet of wisdom from Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs (one of her last novels, written when she was 78): "If anyone over the age of sixty-five finds fault with you, never argue. Never try to say you’re right. Apologise at once and say it was all your fault and you’re very sorry and you’ll never do it again". Incidentally, I’ll make sure I let you know when I reach that redoubtable age! But the idea is spot on – we inevitably become more fixed in our ways as we grow older and in many areas we just cannot change. Therefore, part of the courtesy the young should show the old is to allow them their little foibles without complaint. It is an aspect of their human dignity. In Emma Mr Knightley, you will recall, is always concerned to treat the elderly or disadvantaged with unpatronising and kindly respect. Miss Bates is not only impecunious – she is old, and therefore vulnerable. Christians, of all people, should have a consideration for the elderly, especially elderly saints.

Second, what are the benefits of age? Young people often fall into the trap of thinking that their superior education and technological expertise place them streets ahead of their elders. But nothing can make up for weight of experience. Mark Twain allegedly commented that when he was fourteen he considered his father the most ignorant person he knew, but when he reached twenty-one he was struck by how much the old man had improved during those years. "Life", he says in his autobiography, "would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen". Well, life is not like that – but God has given us the older generation for our mentors, because "With the ancient is wisdom; and in length of days understanding" (Job 12.12). "The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness" (Prov 16:31); but note the cautionary "if". The mere fact of advanced years is no automatic guarantee of wisdom, for "great men are not always wise: neither do the aged understand judgment" (Job 32.9). Nevertheless in the local assembly there will be godly aged saints from whom you can learn. In Acts 21.16 we read of one "Mnason…an old disciple" with whom Paul lodged. Matthew Henry aptly remarks: "It is an honourable thing to be an old disciple of Jesus Christ, to have been enabled by the grace of God to continue long in a course of duty, steadfast in the faith, and growing more and more prudent and experienced to a good old age. And with these old disciples one would choose to lodge; for the multitude of their years will teach wisdom". Amen to that. The same is true in the Old Testament. 2 Samuel 19.32 tells us about Barzillai, "a very aged man, even fourscore years old: and he had provided the king of sustenance while he lay at Mahanaim". Old he was, but not too old to be of service to King David. And today the Lord does not despise the ministry of those who have been long on the pathway. Nor should we.

Finally, what are the compensations of age? There is the glorious possibility of continuing fruitfulness for God: "They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing" (Ps 92.14). There is of course no retirement in the spiritual life, although advanced years may mean a man can no longer continue to do what he once did. But the godly man will not cling desperately onto his power; rather, he will seek to teach younger ones to take his place. After all, the fruit of the Spirit is of abiding value. Daniel "continued" for God during about 70 years in Babylonian captivity (Dan 1.21; 12.13). And God gives wonderful promises. The psalmist’s prayer, "Now also when I am old and grayheaded, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come" (Ps 71.18), is answered in Isaiah: "And even to your old age I am he; and even to hoar hairs will I carry you: I have made, and I will bear; even I will carry, and will deliver you" (Is 46.4). If God pledges Himself to care for elderly saints so should His people.

Affectionately as ever in Christ Jesus.

David

To be continued.

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