At 99 pages, J. I. Packer’s Finishing Our Course with Joy: Guidance from God for Engaging with Our Aging is not a total treatise on aging. Its main thrust is that modern society tends to put older people on the shelf for a life of indulgence and idleness, but Christians should continue growing in our relationship with God as well as our ministry to others. Our ministry may look different from what it did in our youth, but God still has a purpose for us being here. He acknowledges that one fourth of the “oldest old” (over 85) will have some degree of dementia, but:
These pages address those who, by God’s grace, still have their faculties intact; who recognize that, as is often and truly said, aging is not for wimps; and who want to learn, in a straightforward way, how we may continue living for God’s glory (p. 14).
He says that for years, people have viewed older age as a state of decline, but we should view it as what he calls “ripeness” or maturity.
We know the difference between ripe and unripe fruit: the latter is sharp, acid, hard, without much flavor, and sets teeth on edge; the former is relatively soft and sweet, juicy, mellow, flavorful, leaving a pleasant taste in the mouth” (p. 18).
The Bible’s view is that aging, under God and by grace, will bring wisdom, that is, an enlarged capacity for discerning, choosing, and encouraging (p. 19).
[Racers] always try to keep something in reserve for a final sprint…so far as our bodily health allows, we should aim to be found running the last lap of our Christian life, as we would say, flat out. The final sprint, so I urge, should be a sprint indeed (pp. 21-22).
He discusses various ways to do that, living one day at a time as if it truly might be our last, with glorifying God as our “constant goal,” avoiding excessive daydreaming and nostalgia, ready to go whenever God calls us home.
The fact that one is no longer under any pressure to use one’s mind in learning things, solving problems, or strategizing for benefits either to oneself or to anybody else, will allow intelligence to lie permanently fallow, and this, so they tell us, may very well hasten the onset of dementia. The agenda as a whole turns out to be a recipe for isolating oneself and trivializing one’s life, with apathetic boredom becoming one’s default mood day after day (p. 30).
He discusses some of the temptations of old age, such as “going with the flow” of everything declining, even spiritually, or not acknowledging any decline due to pride and becoming “tyrannical” with family and friends after having to leave one’s sphere of work (pp 45-46).
He discusses how the church’s view too often mimics the world’s views of retirement:
Yet the common expectation, undiscussed but unchallenged, is that retirees will not continue the learning and leading that were big in their lives while they were at work. The most that the church will expect of them now is that they will continue to support from the sidelines, as it were, the modes of ministry in which others engage (pp. 62-63).
By moving us to think this way, however, Satan undermines, diminishes, and deflates our discipleship, reducing us from laborers in Christ’s kingdom to sympathetic spectators…(p. 63).
Still taking their cue from the world around, modern Western churches organize occupations, trips, parties, and so forth for their seniors and make pastoral provision for the shut-ins, but they no longer look to these folks as they do to the rest of the congregation to find, feed, and use their spiritual gifts. In this they behave as though spiritual gifts and ministry skills whither with age. But they don’t; what happens, rather, is that they atrophy with disuse (pp 63-64).
He encourages churches to balance acknowledging that there is bodily decline and ministering as needed to seniors with seeking to “cherish and continue to harness the ministering capacities” of older saints (p. 64). “And elderly Christian themselves should press on in the worship and service of God and in pastoral care for others, up to the limit of what they can still handle…” (p. 64).
“The challenge that faces us is not to let that fact [that our bodies are slowing down] slow us down spiritually, but to cultivate the maximum zeal for the closing phase of our earthly lives” (p. 72). He then spends several pages discussing zeal and quotes J. C. Ryle as saying that “Zeal in religion is a burning desire to do his will, and to advance his glory in every possible way” (pp. 74-75).
He urges balance in families as well, encouraging seniors not to be “dictatorial” or “invade family circles unasked,” remembering that “loyalty to one’s spouse should trump the claims of parents,” and encouraging families not to “ignore mature wisdom that is available…in [their] older relatives and friends” (p. 97).
He also discusses nurturing the hope of heaven, letting that be a guide and inspiration as well as a testimony, and remembering that we will give account at the judgment seat of Christ that Christians will face (different from the judgment that unbelievers face).
There is a lot packed in this short little book, and it’s encouraging to be reminded that God still has things for us to do for His glory as we age.