Will we live our latter years in the dark?
Despite his Christian faith, the older he gets, the more Randy complains. If it isn’t recurring back pain or declining energy, he gripes about every dip in the stock market, the latest election results, the weather, or he’s blaming his adult daughter for their estrangement. Though Randy once had a sweeter disposition, now it’s getting to the point where his wife dreads his impending retirement. She cringes at the prospect of being around him more, day in and day out.
Randy isn’t finishing well.
Ethan, 68, a local church senior pastor for decades, retired and moved out of state with his wife to be nearer their grown kids and grandchildren. A couple years after the move, seemingly out of the blue, he left his wife of 46 years, going back to the city where he had pastored for so long. There he moved in with his former church secretary. He stained his own reputation and that of Christ’s, destroyed his marriage, and did irreparable harm to his relationship with his children and grandkids.
Ethan isn’t finishing well.
From the world’s viewpoint, Bob and Sue’s last two decades–before their deaths a couple years apart–were to be envied. Thanks to ample retirement funds, they took multiple vacation cruises every year, to a different part of the world each time. Bob played lots of golf while Sue regularly enjoyed the social whirl of lunches at the country club.
When not traveling, they attended a conservative church. Yet they rarely involved themselves in ministry during retirement, either on the church campus or in the community. Not once did they participate in the annual short-term missions opportunities the church sponsored. When a staff member recruited them to teach Sunday School for kids, Bob said, “We can’t make any ongoing commitments at this stage of our lives. Besides, we paid our volunteer dues years ago.”
Bob and Sue bought into the American myth of retirement hook, line, and sinker: After decades of hard work, we deserve to pamper ourselves. Retirement is a time for ease and self-indulgence.
Bob and Sue finished poorly.
A Different Type of Darkness
“Few, they tell me, finish well.”
That’s a line from a free verse poem by Robertson McQuilkin, titled “Let Me Get Home Before Dark.“* Before the darkness of a bitter disposition annoys everyone around us. Before the darkness of moral erosion. Before the darkness of self-centered living during years when we have the health, funds, and freedom to make a significant ministry impact.
Soon I’ll turn 69. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’ll finish in life and ministry. I know that finishing well is patently not automatic, no matter how many years I’ve followed Christ and served Him. In this article and the next, I want to share beliefs and strategies that will increase the likelihood of putting a smile on God’s face in my latter years.
What will enable me–and you–to finish well?
Giving Gratitude to God
Cultivating a habit of thanksgiving and praise counteracts the tendency to complain more as we age, and results in a more winsome spirit.
No doubt things occur that frustrate us: the body slowly deteriorates; important relationships may sour; certain dreams and ambitions never materialize. But if we know Christ, we have reasons to express gratitude to Him because He offers benefits that no disappointment in this life can eclipse. It’s a matter of perspective, what we choose to concentrate on and view as most important.
Go to Psalm 103 and list the benefits of a child of God. Turn to Ephesians 1 and identify the spiritual blessings of God for people who have accepted Christ as their Savior. Memorize John 14:1-3 and meditate on the emphatic promise of our eternal destiny in heaven. Or identify the various mercies of God explained in Romans 3-8.
Few people suffered more after his conversion than the apostle Paul. (See the litany of trials he cited in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, which was part of his defense against critics of his ministry.) Yet after a brief testimony of his conversion and ministry calling in 1 Timothy 1:12-16, his heart erupted into praise through his pen: “Now to the king eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be glory and honor forever and ever, amen” (verse 17).
It’s hard to grumble when we keep reminding ourselves of what Christ has done for us, the secure identity He offers, and the eternal life that is ours. As John Piper put it, “We are as secure as the blood of Christ is precious.” If we catch ourselves slipping into a pattern of negativism, in addition to going over Bible passages like those I previously cited, let’s mull over responses to these questions:
*What direct answers to prayer can I recall from my years as a Christ-follower?
*During past trials, how did the Lord deepen my faith and sustain me?
*Who are the people He has brought into my life who’ve enriched me and caused joy to erupt in my soul?
*In what ways has He used me to help people or to advance the gospel?
*What specific reasons do I have right now for expressing gratitude to God? (Chances are the reasons for gratitude far exceed the reasons to complain!)
To help you cultivate the habit of gratitude, read the book Choosing Gratitude, by Nancy Demoss. I found the book helpful in combating depression, and I highly recommend it. She includes a series of devotionals to help the reader apply the book’s chapters.
Seeing Our Sinfulness
What seems like a negative approach to my second strategy is actually one of the most important, yet most neglected, doctrines of the Bible: the indwelling sin of the believer.
Thanks to Jesus’ substitutionary death for us on the cross, God has forgiven our sins. We won’t pay the penalty of eternal separation from God. I know that the Holy Spirt dwells in us, enabling us to overcome sin as a pattern of living, to obey the Lord consistently as a lifestyle. But the fact is that the potential for sin still resides within us. (Just ask the wife of the former pastor I mentioned.)
What Jeremiah said about our penchant for sin is not obsolete: “Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength” (Jer. 17:5). “The heart is more deceitful than all else, and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” Though it is no longer necessary that sin enslave us, being a Christian does not mitigate entirely the downward pull of sin.
In Romans 7–a text that most scholars believe referred to Paul’s present life as an apostle–he vividly describes the tug of war within himself, between the desire to do evil and the desire to please the Lord. Three times in these verses he directly mentions the sin or evil that indwelled him. (He followed those verses with a glorious chapter that emphasizes the inward work of the Holy Spirit, who enables us to win the tug of war when we tap into His power.)
Over 300 years ago, the man hailed as the greatest of the Puritan devotional writers, John Owen, continually warned people about the indwelling sin of the believer. He insisted that neglect of this truth causes laziness and carelessness that allow sin to get a foothold in our lives, and often results in sudden eruptions of gross sin. (See the book, Overcoming Sin and Temptation, an updated, edited version of his classic works on the topic of holiness.)
When we realize the potential for sin within us, we will apply Proverbs 4:23: “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.” We’ll realize that Christian living requires a wartime mentality, and we’ll wield the weapons of warfare God has provided (2 Cor. 10:3-5). We won’t take our spiritual growth for granted. (If the human heart were trustworthy, why would we need to guard it?)
My next blog on the topic of finishing well (Part 2) will explain a few concrete strategies for guarding our hearts. For now, let’s just acknowledge that only through ongoing intimacy with Christ and daily reliance on His strength can we avoid falling prey to the world’s values, and to the pull of the sin that indwells us.
Engaging the Enemy
To the enemy within–indwelling sin of the believer–add the threat of the enemy without: Satan. I don’t believe Satan can alter the eternal destiny of someone who has put his faith in Christ, but he can lure us into sinful choices that destroy relationships, siphon off joy, keep us from fruitful service, and worse yet, stain the Lord’s reputation in the minds of unbelievers who know us.
Never forget how one of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples described our enemy: “Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8, emphasis mine).
The persistent opposition implied in Peter’s analogy is illustrated in Matthew 4:1-11, which describes the temptations Jesus faced preceding the launch of His public ministry. Satan knew Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. When he tempted Jesus once, Jesus repelled him with a verse from Deuteronomy. Satan returned, fired another salvo, and Jesus used the truth of another verse to answer the temptation. A third time Satan approached Jesus, only to be resisted once again by a verse that matched the nature of the temptation.
Here’s my takeaway: if Satan persisted in his warfare against Jesus, he’ll persist in his effort to derail me (and you). In this life, we will never climb to a spiritual plateau high enough to be out of the reach of his lures. Combine the vulnerability to sin that still resides within us to the tempter who pursues us with dogged determination, and we grasp why guarding our hearts is so essential.
It’s encouraging to know that “greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Nonetheless, there’s a description for the person who takes Satan and his attacks for granted: cat food.
In my next post, I’ll describe battle strategies anchored in the truths conveyed in this article.
*Why is awareness of our potential to sin a prerequisite for finishing well?
*In our daily schedule, what difference should it make to know the truth of indwelling sin?
*How does expressing gratitude to God give proper perspective to the things we tend to complain about?
*In what areas are you most vulnerable to Satan’s temptations? How are you fighting back?
Here’s a link to Robertson McQuilkin’s poem on finishing well, titled “Let Me Get Home Before Dark.”