Insight slips in at unexpected moments and in unlikely places. It’s often when we least expect it that we discover the greatest truths in life.
Jeff and I were resting on a park bench watching gulls dart and dive over Lake Ontario. We had chaperoned our wives to a fortieth high school class reunion at Kingsway College in Oshawa, Ontario, and escaped for a bike ride down to the lake.
When Jeff grabbed his borrowed bike for the return ride, he discovered that his back tire was flat. In fact, it was so flat that part of the tire had popped off the rim. Since his bike couldn’t be ridden, we decided to walk the four miles back to Oshawa. The bike path ran through woods by a wild, clear stream; the sun was shining; wildflowers were blooming. As we walked, we almost forgot about the flat tire.
But I kept hearing a persistent rattle. The bike path had frost heaves, those annoying cracks and bumps caused by repeated cycles of freezing and warming. Something on my borrowed bike was loose, and every time I pushed the bike over a crack or bump it rattled. I checked the brakes, seat, chain, and water bottle cages, but I couldn’t find the source of the noise.
Finally, I pulled up on the handlebars and discovered to my horror that my front wheel was not clamped securely to the bicycle. Every time we went over a bump or crack the wheel rattled against the front fork dropouts.
At that unexpected moment and in that unlikely place I realized I had ridden the four miles to Lake Ontario with a front wheel that was not securely fastened to the fork. If we had ridden back over the frost heaves and the front fork of my bicycle had bounced off the front wheel, I would have pitched headfirst over the handlebars to possible paralysis or death.
Like many of us, I’ve listened with some skepticism to stories of miracles, healings, or direct angelic intervention in people’s lives. But if an angel didn’t save my life by letting the air out of Jeff’s bicycle tire, how did the tire not just go flat, but also pull itself away from the wheel?
Yet I still struggle with the idea of God’s power breaking through into our natural world. The longer I live, the more comfortable I am with scientific explanations or natural ways to account for apparent miracles.
Many of us struggle to believe that God’s power is real in today’s world. We claim the right promises; we pray the right prayers; we repeat the right phrases; but if our prayers were answered instantly, we would be shocked. Our doubts may increase rather than decrease as we age. Our faith can grow less, not more, secure. Why?
Most adults experience a sense of quest in midlife. This “midlife reevaluation,” as gerontologist Gene Cohen called it, comes from a variety of factors, including “a newfound comfort with who we are and the courage to express ourselves freely or to try new things.”1 Our liberation can include questioning past beliefs.
When the last member of a family generation dies, the responsibility to live up to that generation’s expectations dies also. There is something liberating about not having to live up to anyone’s expectations. After the last living sister of my mother died, I questioned every one of my core beliefs. Did I believe it because my parents believed it, or was it my belief? While my core faith survived and grew stronger, the questioning process was unexpected and difficult.
Another reason doubt may increase with age has to do with the nature of youthful faith. Faith in our own abilities often masquerades as faith in God and His abilities. We make God in our image. As we age, our own abilities disappear; and as our image fades, so fades our image of God.
How can we maintain faith in God and His supernatural presence in our lives as we age? The Bible provides an answer in two seemingly contradictory and incompatible definitions of aging. One definition appears after Adam and Eve ate fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Immediately they began to deteriorate and die. Our eyeglasses, hearing aids, and lack of energy remind us that aging for us brings deterioration and death.
But the Bible’s first definition of aging does not teach that aging results in deterioration and death. Instead, Genesis 1 and 2 pictures a world in which the passage of time during the Creation week is filled with God’s blessings, producing growth and fruitfulness. After God created humans, “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Gen. 1:28).
At the end of the sixth day, after completing His creation, God stepped back to inspect His work: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (verse 31). God’s creation was very good because God saw that everything He had created would be fruitful and would increase in number and in fullness as it aged.
Research has shown that much of the deterioration scientists thought was on account of old age can be retarded and reversed. When we sing in a choir, or learn a new skill that requires eye/hand coordination, or follow the Adventist healthful lifestyle we can retard or reverse the mental and physical deterioration associated with aging. The latest brain research shows its plasticity—the fact that we can continue to grow new brain cells and rewire our brain’s architecture until the day we die.
But no matter how we fight aging, we eventually experience the post-fall definition of aging: deterioration and death. How can we maintain our faith as we age? How can we continue to believe when our bodies and minds tell us, every day, that no miracle can ultimately reverse the aging process?
If our young faith was actually faith in our own abilities, if we were forming God in our image, then what we believed in the past was really no better than pagan idolatry. Is it possible that when our faith depends on our own efforts, we are really worshipping our own abilities? Could it be that the secret of aging well, of maintaining faith and hope, is a move from independence, from faith in our efforts to dependence on Jesus and His efforts?
Paul describes the experience of aging as both deterioration and death, and fruitfulness and growth: “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18, NASB).2
The aging process allows us to learn dependence on God’s power rather than our own power. A special promise for every generation as we age can be found in the Bible: “Listen to me, you descendants of Jacob, all the remnant of the people of Israel, you whom I have upheld since your birth, and have carried since you were born. Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you” (Isa. 46:3, 4).
Old Testament scholar J. N. Oswalt comments, “There will never come a time when we outgrow our dependence on God. We are as dependent on God in old age as we were when we were infants. . . . Nor will there ever be a time when a doddering old grandfather-God will somehow need to lean on us, and we will need to find a young, virile god for a new age. He is not subject to history; in every age he is the unchanging I am he.”3
As we age it is good to be reminded that God does not age; as we lose our strength, to remember that God is still all-powerful
; and as we face an uncertain future, to reclaim His promise to sustain and rescue us.
I’m thankful for a God I can depend on, a creative God who must have smiled as He asked an angel to slip behind a park bench on the shore of Lake Ontario and pull a bicycle tire off its rim to keep me from possible injury or death.
Douglas Jacobs serves as research professor of the School of Religion at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.