Honor Thy Father and Mother: Why Elderly Populations Have Value
All life is created in the image of God and worth our greatest efforts to preserve and protect, and He alone is the one who should order the length of our days.
— Joni Erickson Tada
When I pastored my first church, I was not yet thirty. The church was full of people much older than me. Scripture, of course, is chock full of instruction for young pastors and their respect for their more senior brothers and sisters in Christ, but I experienced this fully during my six years at that church.
I sat at bedsides, reading Scripture and praying with sweet saints on their way to glory. I held the hand of people as they breathed their final breath before entering Heaven. And I presided over quite a few funerals for both young and old after their lives on earth expired. As my friend Casey Hough says,
“It is in situations like these that a pastor’s theological mettle really gets tested. Pastoral care beside the deathbed is holy ground. For, it is here, in the face of certain death, that all of our white ivory tower theorizing about eschatology looks us in the eyes and asks, ‘Are the dead really raised?’”
The Christian story both acknowledges the reality of illness, pain, and death and offers the most radical rebellion against this fierce and cruel enemy. The world was once good and beautiful, created by the intricate design of a loving Creator. But sin has pervaded every aspect of human existence and is the source of disease and pain and death—not specific sins by those who suffer, but sin as the cause of the corrupting decay of a beautiful world. Disease and death don’t diminish our dignity, but they are realities that we must contend with.
But this same Christian story tells us that the perfect image-bearer, Jesus Christ, conquered sin and death and grave and is renewing and restoring the world. Instead of a desperate and inevitably temporary staving off of ageing and death, Christ offers a completely new world, a new creation, and yes, new and uncorrupted bodies.
In Jesus we have a friend who wept in bitter anger at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11 v 35). Jesus wasn’t flippant about death—death, after all, was the greatest and last enemy that Jesus came to defeat. Death is an assault on the dignity of God’s image-bearers. Jesus as the eternal Son of God, the Creator, reverses the curse and raises the dead to new life.
It is this future hope that enables Christians to endure the pangs of death in this corrupted world, and to walk through hard times with joy rather than seeking to escape them or buckling under them. In our present, broken humanity, we are “jars of clay,” says Paul: but we “do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4 v 7, 16). Our mourning over death is met by resurrection hope—with the knowledge that one day we will rise with Christ, body and soul. Knowing our present dignity and that changes the way we look at the brokenness we and those we love now endure, and the way we think about the journey we are all on—the journey toward the end of this life.
A Christian View of Death (and Age)
Sitting at the deathbed of a friend or loved one forces us to confront serious, existential questions. What is humanity, really? What is eternity, really?
Remember, the Bible teaches that our dignity is bestowed on us by our Creator, not earned or maintained or measured by us through our capacity, or given to us by society.
God gives us our dignity because God is our Maker. Moses wrote that it is God who determines our beginnings and our endings: “I kill and I make alive” (Deuteronomy 32 v 39) and Paul reminds us that it is God who gives man “breath” (Acts 17 v 25). In him, we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17 v 28). So every life, even a life peering over the precipice of death, has value, measured not by our own sense of dignity, but by God.
This is why we cannot view life— even a life that feels useless, or a life that cannot escape pain, or a life that is dependent on the care and feeding of others—as disposable. God looks at a human in a vegetative state or a human diagnosed with terminal cancer, or a human with severe and debilitating pain, as completely human and just as precious as someone who is fit, healthy, and happy. In God’s economy, the most helpless resident of an assisted living facility has as much value as the most virile athlete performing at peak performance. Our dignity doesn’t leave us when we age, when we grow old and helpless and near death. Death, the last and often most difficult of all trials we face, has been defeated by Christ for those who trust in him. Every life is valuable, and every life is eternal.
So we must conclude that the choice about life and death lies in the hands of the Maker, the dignity-giver. My life, whatever stage it is at and however I feel about it, is not my own to take. I am not my own.
This is why Paul could write, from a jail cell, about his peace with God’s ownership of his last breath:
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. (Philippians 1 v 21–24)
For the Christian, as for Paul, death is not a disaster, but a doorway to a better life with Christ. Christians will lean towards eternity. But equally, for the Christian, as for Paul, there is work to do in this life until the moment God calls time on it and calls them home. Our life is not our own, and in death we will not be on our own. The Christian is in one sense always keen to die and “depart and be with Christ,” and also more determined to live, in “fruitful labor.”
Dignity and Euthanasia
We need to recapture this view of death and of life, and insist that it is the Maker and the Maker alone who begins and ends life, because we live in a utilitarian culture that increasingly marginalizes the elderly. Aging populations, with diminishing capacity and diminishing perceived social utility, are easy pretty for powerful interests.
Philosopher Miroslav Volf warns of the problems with a state that sanctions and encourages this practice: “A society in which physician-assisted suicide is legal would likely become one in which physician-assisted suicide is expected. Those diagnosed with terminal medical conditions would be seen as selfishly burdening others (the medical system and their families, in particular) if they didn’t request it.”
Christians oppose euthanasia for several reasons. We oppose it because we believe, as the Scriptures remind us, that every human life has unique value and worth, regardless of its utility. We oppose it because so often the “death with dignity” industry preys on the vulnerable. We oppose it because it offers cheap promises of hope that are empty, and because we find in the gospel’s beautiful story of cosmic and bodily redemption a richer, more real hope.
Knowing every person bears God’s image not only informs our approach to euthanasia, but how we treat the elderly in our midst. God doesn’t measure value the way we are so often tempted to measure it—by youth, attractiveness, and physical abilities. There is no season of life that erases the image of God in humans.
The truth is that even those who reject euthanasia are often unwitting evangelists for its arguments. When we prioritize youth and attractiveness and marginalize the elderly, we are communicating a message far different than the Christian gospel.
I recently heard of a church that asked a lead guitarist to stop playing with its main worship team. It wasn’t because the guitarist’s skills had diminished—he is very good—but because his gray hair wasn’t “the look we are going for.” This church is probably very pro-life and would, if you asked their leaders, be steadfastly opposed to euthanasia. They likely have a robust ministry to the elderly. But they are sending a message that youth is better and that gray hair is the wrong look. But the “look” that the King of God’s kingdom is after is one in which young and old, rich and poor, feeble and virile worship together in weakness. It is, Paul says, often not the impressive who are called, but the weak and the frail (1 Corinthians 1 v 26).
In seeking to reach the next generation, Christian organizations can often project a Darwinian anti-gospel that says only the young, the virile, the slender, the beautiful are wanted. I’m deeply worried about my own generation of leaders. I wonder if, in our zeal to change the world and lead differently, we are guilty of disrespecting those who have gone before. In our desire to take the stage, are we guilty of sweeping our elders off the stage? And for all of us, in our personal, individual interactions, do we dismiss someone because of their gray hair or write off their perspective because it is embedded in experience from a time period before we were born? Yes, “the glory of young men is their strength”—but “the splendor of old men is their gray hair” (Proverbs 20 v 29). For the Christian, age brings experience, and experience buys wisdom, and wisdom needs a hearing.
Even infirmity brings opportunities. Once virile and independent, we can learn a fresh dependence on others, and supremely upon Christ.. And those around them can learn to serve the older generation, sacrificing their own comforts and time to give to another. That is also a state closer to the way we were created to exist.
I saw this first hand in my own family. My grandfather, once a healthy and robust army veteran who sacrificed for others and regaled us grandchildren with tales from his time in World War II, spent the last years of his life in an assisted living facility. I saw my mother visit my grandfather every day of his life until he passed away, caring for him, bringing him what he needed, and talking to him as if he had full, rational capacity. She lived out the meaning of the command to honor our parents in their old age (Exodus 20 v 12).
This should be our expectation, not an exception. But sadly, as a pastor I’ve often seen Christian children show little regard for elderly parents. At times I’ve had to literally beg adult children to visit the bedside of their aging parents, to come and help make critical decisions.
Caring for the elderly isn’t an option for us. It’s a requirement. The Bible has a strong word for those who neglect aging family members: You are worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5 v 8). We follow a Lord who, as he hung on a cross, bleeding and dying, made sure his mother, Mary, would be cared for after he left the earth (John 19 v 25).
To care for those in their final stages of life is to recognize their dignity. It is to say that while their bodies or minds are failing, they are no less people, with no less dignity. It is to see what Paul sees in 2 Corinthians 4—a full person, though body fragile and broken—awaiting full redemption, inwardly being renewed.
Of course, care-giving can often be repetitive, inglorious, and wearying, requiring difficult and complex choices about the end of life. This is where Christian communities must come alongside those who care for their elderly loved ones, providing respite and encouragement during these difficult seasons of life. The aging give us opportunities to serve, to live out our mission as the people of God. It is a beautiful cycle of life: we are dependent on our parents as children and they are dependent on us at the end of their lives. We are to value care-giving as care-givers value those who need caring for. They say it takes a village to raise a child. And it takes a church to care for our elderly.