Growing old as a calling

Published January 9, 2024

WORLD Opinions

The personal and cultural significance of recovering a Christian perspective on aging

Americans are conflicted about aging. On the one hand there’s an aspiration to longevity. “Age-friendly” regions known as “Blue Zones” around the globe, where living to age 100 is not uncommon, have captured the imagination of many. On the other hand there’s a fixation with youthfulness. Messages about products and plans to fight aging bombard us daily. Billionaire Bryan Johnson’s $2 million per year reverse-aging experiment is only the most extreme such venture to date. The average person may avoid that kind of eccentric project, but we still have our coping mechanisms. Typically, coping involves ignoring life’s inexorable limit as long as possible to stave off dread and despair.

Is there a constructive Christian outlook on aging that can help? Is it possible to navigate purposefully and not just drift anxiously toward the looming reality of life’s end? The answer is yes, and none of us is too young to contemplate a Biblical outlook on growing old. Our perspective on aging will shape our own life paths, our relationships with our elders, and our outlook on public policy questions about the value of human life.

The book of Hebrews refers to a “Sabbath rest” that goes beyond the concept of a weekly reverential respite from work. This Sabbath rest is the object of all our living, whether in Sunday worship or weekday work, and the fulfillment of all our striving. It is eternal life in communion with God. The early church father Augustine reflected on growing old as preparation for eternal Sabbath rest. More recently, theologian Autumn Alcott Ridenour expands on that idea to address our contemporary context in her book Sabbath Rest as Vocation: Aging Toward Death.

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Jennifer Patterson is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her work focuses on projects related to religious freedom and overcoming poverty, drawing on her more than 25 years of experience in public policy.

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