This article is part of the Open Letters series.
I feel your pain. Our anti-aging culture shouts louder and louder: Aging is bad. Old people can’t contribute. Use this cream, get botox treatments before the age of thirty and stop the ravages of time. A friend showed me drawers full of expensive cosmetic products, all promising to stop the aging process. She looked at me and said, “Not long ago men took notice of me. Though I would never consider an affair, their looks boosted my self-esteem. I guess it’s all downhill from here.”
If you’re like most women, fear about your changing physical appearance is just the beginning of aging anxiety. Many of us struggle with aging because we know it is often a season of loss: loss of independence, declining health, death of a spouse, our own death, isolation and loneliness, loss of identity, fear of worthlessness. Yet others look forward to growing old, retiring and enjoying the fruit of hard work with little thought that life might not turn out as they expect.
I am now seventy-three years old. I began thinking about aging when I was in my twenties, but I was forty-five years old when growing older loomed as a sentence of sorrow rather than a time of flourishing. Our sixteen-year-old son Mark and his friend Kelly were in a fatal car accident. The thought of growing old with a shattered heart held no appeal. But, at some point in my grief, I knew Mark’s death faced me with a choice. I could be a bitter old woman or I could surrender to God’s purposes and experience joy and meaning in this abyss of sorrow.
Perhaps you are struggling with similar challenges. Life isn’t turning out as you expected and aging amplifies your fears about the future.
How can we flourish in an anti-aging culture with so many unknowns?
Whether you are twenty, forty, or seventy, in a good place or a scary place, today is a good day to embrace aging as God’s good plan for his people as described in Psalm 92:12-15:
The righteous flourish like the palm tree
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
They still bear fruit in old age;
they are ever full of sap and green,
to declare that the Lord is upright;
he is my rock,
and there is no unrighteousness in him.—Psalm 92:12–15
When I struggle with any aspect of life, I often look for women ahead of me in life’s journey to help me untangle fearful thoughts. Their lives demonstrate that God keeps his promises, even the promise that his children will flourish and still bear fruit in old age.
The elderly prophetess Anna is one of those women. We learn about Anna from Dr. Luke (Luke 2:25-35). Older Mary, the mother of Jesus, is Luke’s source for this story, so every detail is significant. Luke introduces us to Anna when she is at least eighty-four years old, some think 105. Anna was a young married woman with the same dreams of many women. But instead of raising a family in a close-knit Jewish community, Anna’s husband dies after only seven years of marriage. Young Anna’s expectations fall to the ground and life confronts her with a choice. Will she age into a bitter old woman or find a way to age with grace in the middle of loss? The choices Anna made as a young woman helped shape her into the old woman who would leave an indelible mark on the heart of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Through Anna and a devout priest, Simeon, God encourages Mary and Joseph with more confirmation of the deity of their baby boy. The Holy Spirit moved Simeon to go to the temple courts at just the right moment where he recognized Jesus as the one “promised” to bring salvation to God’s people. But Simeon also warned the young Mary: “a sword will pierce your soul.” At that very moment, eighty-four-year old Anna steps into this scene and gives thanks to God for this child. Imagine the comfort elderly Anna’s words offered to this young mother. But that’s not all. Then she “spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” Luke lets us know the independent arrival of Anna and Simeon is not a coincidence when he describes how they show up at just the right moments. Their habits of prayer sensitized them to the nudges of the Holy Spirit who moved them to go to the exact spot where Mary and Joseph stood with baby Jesus.
How does Anna’s story help guide us through the maze of aging? Let’s consider two of her choices.
Anna’s husband’s death takes her to a crossroads in her pilgrimage. One road leads to death, the other to life. Tears and grief cover both roads, but there is a difference in the outcome of each. Bitterness, anger, and disappointment pave the Death Road. Purpose, joy, and life-giving opportunities (though experienced in the context of loss) pave the Life Road. Anna chose life and in so doing she chose communion with God—to love the Lord her God, to obey his voice, to hold fast to Him (Deut. 30:19-20). Though broken, she learned to trust what she knew about her God. Anna’s theology shaped her life. In time, this choice opened up unexpected opportunities to be a life-giver to anyone who crossed her path. Friends, as you struggle with aging, which road do you choose? Are you a life-giver or life-taker? Are you on the Life Road or the Death Road?
Second, by choosing life, Anna embraced widowhood as her platform for glorifying God. I suspect young Anna’s journey into a life of prayer, fasting, and service started slowly as she processed the loss of her husband and how to live as a single woman. We can’t minimize how her choice required dying to self again and again as she offered her life as a living sacrifice. After the death of her husband, Anna lived in the temple, the center of activity for the Jewish people where she prayed and worshiped God all day and night. As Anna aged from a young woman to middle-aged to elderly, I suspect service to her community flowed from worship and prayer. I imagine older Anna coming alongside women just when they needed encouragement to go the extra mile in loving their husbands or to give an added dose of patience while parenting a strong-willed child. It’s likely Anna did not hold back if a young mother needed an extra pair of hands to settle an unruly child or comfort a tired baby. When tempted to expect others to serve her because of her losses, we can conclude Anna, also called a Prophetess, brought those expectations to the Lord and he enabled her to reflect his character instead of her hurt. Friends, Anna’s intimacy with her God equipped her to extend grace to others when she felt ignored. Psalm 92:12-15 promises we will flourish in old age—not because of our doing, but because of our being, because of whose we are. God promises that as we are planted in the “house of the Lord” we will be ever growing evergreen in our old age. Elderly Anna is in full bloom.
How will embracing your circumstances and aging as your platform for glorifying God change your responses to the big and little events in your life?
For most of her life, Anna longed for the coming of Messiah. Her life of faithful service flowed from intimacy with God. Think of it. All those hours spent praying and offering others the same grace given to her actually drew her to Jesus. She recognized this baby as the Promised One. She could not keep such profound, joyful news to herself and immediately told others about his arrival. As older women, we still have a voice and message of hope. We, too, can declare to others the faithfulness and mercy we experience through Jesus. We cannot keep such profound, joyful news to ourselves.
A final word about aging with grace. I’m seventy-three years old and Anna’s story acts as a fence to help bring me back to remembering God’s view of aging when I’m struggling with the losses that come with growing older. Her story demonstrates that the challenges of aging are an opportunity to know, enjoy, and glorify God as we are planted in the house of the Lord. When you struggle with all the ramifications of growing old, let Anna’s story encourage you to embrace God’s good plan for aging. Trust his promise that because of his love and your love for him, you will flourish and be ever-growing, evergreen.
This article is by Sharon Betters and is adapted from Aging with Grace: Flourishing in an Anti-Aging Culture.
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