Finishing Our Course with Joy 

“Be that as it may, these pages address those who, by God’s grace, still have their faculties more or less 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 to God’s glory as we get older.”


How should we view the onset of old age? The common assumption is that it is mainly a process of loss, whereby strength is drained from both mind and body and the capacity to look forward and move forward in life’s various departments is reduced to nothing. More than four centuries ago, Shakespeare put this assessment into the mouth of the melancholy Jaques in As You Like It. Surveying the seven ages of man on the world stage, Jaques comes to 

Last scene of all That ends this strange eventful history Is second childishness and mere oblivion; Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

(act 2, scene 7)  

And in the Bible, two thousand years or more before Shakespeare, Ecclesiastes, the preacher-teacher- philosopher- wiseacre- pundit, not so much a pessimist as a realist who depicts everything as it appears “under the sun” to the thoughtful observer, urges the young to “remember … your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come … ; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened” (joy in being alive fades), “and the clouds return after the rain” (troubles recur), “in the day when the keepers of the house tremble” (arms weaken, hands shake), “and the strong men” (legs) “are bent, and the grinders” (teeth) “cease because they are few” (they drop out), “and those who look through the windows”(eyes) “are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut” (deafness develops) – “when the sound of the grinders is low” (chewing becomes an effort), “and one rises up at the sound of a bird” (sudden small noises, however sweet, upset one), “and all the daughters of song are brought low” (music, from being a delight, becomes a bore) – “they are afraid also of what is high” (balance goes, dizziness comes), “and terrors are in the way” (one frequently feels frightened); “the almond tree blossoms” (hair turns white), “the grasshopper drags itself along” (one’s walking grows erratic and unsteady), “and desire fails” (emotional numbness sets in) … (Ecclesiastes 12:1–5). 

The picture is of loss, weakness, and apathy, leading to death. That is Ecclesiastes’s story about aging.


But neither in the Bible nor in life is this the whole story. Listen again to Shakespeare. In his tragedy King Lear, one of the world’s classics on dysfunctional families, a dispossessed son who refuses to be embittered by the way he has been treated comments thus on his blinded father’s loss of the will to live: 

Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither; Ripeness is all.

(act 5, scene 2) 

“Ripeness” – what does that mean? The word carries the very positive meaning of maturity, corresponding to the ripeness of fruit. 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 aftertaste in the mouth. 

Between human beings in and beyond middle age a comparable difference appears. Some grow old gracefully, meaning, fully in the grip of the grace of God. Increasingly they display a well-developed understanding with a well-formed character: firm, resilient, and unyielding, with an unfailing sense of proportion and abundant resources for upholding and mentoring others. In Shakespeare’s play, however, “Ripeness is all” should be said with a certain gloominess, for the thought being expressed is that this personal ripeness will again and again be all that one has at the end of life, though one expected, and had a right to expect, much more. 

But here the Bible breaks in, highlighting the further thought that spiritual ripeness is worth far more than material wealth in any form, and that spiritual ripeness should continue to increase as one gets older. 

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. In Proverbs 1–7 an evidently elderly father teaches realistic moral and spiritual wisdom to his adult but immature son. In Psalm 71 an elderly preacher who has given the best years of his life to teaching the truth about God in the face of much opposition prays as follows:

You, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth … Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent. … But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more. My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all the day, for their number is past my knowledge. With the mighty deeds of the Lord God, I will come; I will remind them of your righteousness, yours alone.

O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and grey hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come. 

Psalm 71:5, 9, 14–18

And Psalm 92:12 and 14 declare:

The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. … They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green.

Last Lap

This biblical expectation and, indeed, promise of ripeness growing and service of others continuing as we age with God is the substance of the last-lap image of our closing years, in which we finish our course. Runners in a distance race, like jockeys in a horse race, always try to keep something in reserve for a final sprint. And my contention is going to be that, so far as our bodily health allows, we should aim to be found running the last lap of the race of our Christian life, as we would say, flat out. The final sprint, so I urge, should be a sprint indeed.

“Live each day as if thy last” is a wise word from a hymn written in 1674 by Thomas Ken. The older we get, the more needful its wisdom becomes, and if we have not already taken it to heart, we should do so now. When we unpack Ken’s admonition, three thoughts emerge.

First, live for God one day at a time. Whatever long-term plans we may have, we need to get into the habit of planning each day’s business in advance, either first thing each morning or (better, I think) the day before. Glorifying God should be our constant goal, and to that end we need to acquire the further habit of reviewing before God as each day closes how far we have done as we planned, or whether and why and how far we changed the plan to fit new circumstances and fresh insights, and in any case how far we did the best we could for our God, and how far we fell short of doing that. Surely it is increasingly important that we be doing this as we approach the end of life and the prospect of giving an account of ourselves to God.

Second, live in the present moment. Get into the way of practicing God’s presence—more specifically, Christ’s presence, according to his promise to be with us always (Matthew 28:20)—and cultivate the divine companionship. This, too, is an important and, I suspect, widely neglected spiritual discipline nowadays, and its importance also would seem to grow as we near life’s end.

Daydreaming and indulgence of nostalgia are unhappy habits, making for unrealism and discontent. Like all bad habits, they tighten their grip on us until we set ourselves against them and, with God’s help, break them. Elderly retirees are prone to find that a disciplined breaking of them is an increasingly necessary task in life’s last lap, in which steady looking ahead in each present moment becomes a bigger and bigger factor in inner spiritual health.

Third, live ready to go when Christ comes for you. Jesus’s words to the faithful eleven are in fact a promise to all his faithful disciples in every age:

In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.

John 14:2–3

The experience of dying varies from one to another. Some of us will be conscious and relatively alert right up to the moment of our going; some will sink into unconsciousness as our bodies progressively close down; some will die in a coma, or while asleep, or in a sudden accident or attack on our person, or from heart stoppage; and we cannot foresee how it will be for us. So the way of wisdom is to be ready for whatever comes, whenever it comes.

What does this involve? More than merely making a will, giving directions for one’s funeral, and arranging for the disposal of one’s property. First and foremost, it involves direct, sober dealing with the Lord Jesus Christ himself, who is not only the one who will come as our courier to take us through our transition from this world to the next, but also the one who at some point in that world will be our Judge. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). More about that later; here, I would only stress the urgency of entering, here and now, by faith, into a personal relation of discipleship to Christ, the invisibly present Savior and Lord, as in and through the gospel he himself invites everyone to do. This will banish all fears about our future.

A British professor of theology once described to me the world to which believers will go as “an unknown country with a well-known inhabitant.” When Jesus Christ the courier has already become well known to us through the Gospels and Pastoral Letters of the New Testament, the prospect of transitioning with him into a world in which we shall see him as he is and be constantly in his company will be something we find alluring rather than alarming.

Wrong Way

But now we must face the fact that all forms of this ideal of ripeness and increased focus in life in our old age stand in direct contrast to the advice for old age that our secular Western world currently gives. Retirees are admonished, both explicitly and implicitly, in terms that boil down to this: Relax. Slow down. Take it easy. Amuse yourself. Do only what you enjoy.

You are not required to run things anymore, or to exercise any form of creativity, or to take responsibility for guiding and sustaining goal-oriented enterprises. You are off the treadmill and out of the rat race. Now, at last, you are your own man (or woman) and can concentrate on having fun. You have your pension; health services are there to look after your body; and clubs, trips, outings, tours, competitions, games, parties, and entertainments are provided in abundance to help you pass the time.

So now go ahead and practice self-indulgence up to the limit. Fill your life with novelties and hobbies, anything and everything that will hold your interest. As far as society is concerned, you are now on the shelf; you have only yourself, with or without your spouse, to please and look after and worry about, so concentrate on that; and live as if your life of retirement, with enough health and strength for daily functioning, will go on forever, being constantly lengthened by modern medical magic. You are entitled to be cared for as long as your life can be made to last; so make the most of it! If your old age is dreary and boring, it will be entirely your own fault, and you don’t want that.

Road signs reading “Wrong Way” tell us that if we press forward, we shall find ourselves going against the traffic in a one-way street or following a road that peters out, leads nowhere, or has become impassable. Such signs are usually preceded by other signs indicating the right way to go. The phrase “Wrong Way” is a blunt verbal instrument, waking us up to the fact that we are ignoring something – missing it, as we would say. And that is just what I affirm with regard to our culture’s agenda for aging. I think it is one of the huge follies of our time, about which some frank speaking is in order and indeed overdue. I ask you to bear with me now as I share what I see with regard to the advice that I crystallized in the preceding paragraphs.

I see this agenda, well meant as it is, as wrongheaded in the extreme. I think it is ironically deceptive, calculated in effect to produce the precise opposite of the fullness of elderly life that it purports to promote. What is wrong with it? For the moment I leave aside its lack of Christian content and focus on the fact that it prescribes idleness, self-indulgence, and irresponsibility as the goal of one’s declining years. This, over time, will generate a burdensome sense that one’s life is no longer significant, but has become, quite simply, useless.

The experience of no longer working with colleagues in a team to achieve some worthwhile result is likely to bring on loneliness, restlessness, and depression. Having nothing of importance to look forward to will certainly breed a discontented narcissism, probably accompanied by a sustained displeasure at the way things are and an ongoing sense that one has a right to be better looked after than is currently the case. 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.

In my early years, one of my grandmothers lived with us in our home. When I recall the setup, I wince. She was, as far as I know, in fair health for a medium old. Daily she stayed in her room, eating breakfast and lunch off trays we took up to her, until evening mealtime drew near. She would then come downstairs and eat with us, after which she would sit in her chair and watch what we were doing, speaking when spoken to but not otherwise, until bedtime. Did she read the paper? I cannot recall, but she certainly read no books while she was downstairs. She left the house only once or twice a year, when a distant relative with a car would come and take her for a drive. Otherwise she remained housebound. She died at eighty-five, when I was eight.

Today I wonder whether she was depressed during those years, when we effectively excluded her from the to-ing and fro-ing of family life and thus, I imagine, made her feel she did not count as a member of the family itself. It is a bad memory that haunts me as I think about seniors in nuclear families today.

In my view, on which I shall say a bit more later, any ideology or social blueprint or behavior pattern that has the effect of detaching the elderly from the ongoing life of what today we call the nuclear family is misguided and inappropriate. 

This article by J. I. Packer is excerpted from Finishing Our Course with Joy: Guidance from God for Engaging with Our Aging, Chapter One, © 2014 by J.I. Packer, first published in 2013 by Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois USA, and published in 2014 by InterVarsity Press, Westmont, Illinois USA.

Top image credit: photo of a joyful elderly couple greeting two childen and their dad, from, © by nd3000, stock photo ID: 438241520. Used with permission. 

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