This is a guest post from Jeannette Fackler. I appreciate how she internalizes a lot of what we’ve been talking about in Romans 8 and believe that this will bless you. Jeannette recently started a writing and editing business that you can find at this link. – Ben
Most adults would not say they are looking forward to getting older. Before the age of 21, each new birthday is exciting: a step towards independence, fulfillment of adulthood and all the privileges therein. After this milestone, however, the passage of time becomes less thrilling… each year the date is a little more ho-hum, a little less anticipated. Sure, a 26-year-old may still party and celebrate their birthday as if everything’s the same, but deep down they know that things are different somehow. The stubborn insistence on making a big show of the anniversary of their birth is a desperate clinging to yesterday’s eagerness for today’s arrival. As more and more days pass, we grow in awareness of our own finite nature – the big “I” will someday end. Death looms. Still, we think, we can acknowledge the reality of aging and death while finding significance in the interim. But each new birthday comes and goes, and the calendar ticks off the years: 1990, 2000, 2010. . . As they each fall away, the sense of our own importance wanes. We begin to search for meaning in things other than ourselves.
Some find it in work – labor, career, professional skill. Others discover it in serving – volunteering, community outreach. Or family – a spouse, children, a home. For those of us fortunate enough to have been touched by Christ, we begin to see our significance not in terms of the specifics of our lives, but in terms of how God views us. His deep and infinite love for us shown through His mind-boggling sacrifice.
Paradoxically, this ceasing to search for meaning in how we live transforms our lives into precious works of art. Suddenly, without the need to find meaning in the job we have, we begin to affect meaningful change in our workplace and colleagues. Without the demand for personal righteousness stemming from our humanitarian efforts, our time impacts the needy more profoundly. Without expecting validation from a satisfying marriage or well-rounded children, our homes become a rich place of growth and discovery. Believers call this paradox “dying to self” because Jesus said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:39 He mentioned the concept several times to his disciples, recorded in Matthew 16:25, Mark 8:35, and Luke 9:24 (among others), so we can rightly assume it to be important.
So what in the world does this have to do with birthdays, and aging, and death? Well, as I said earlier – most people are not looking forward to aging. Why is that? Because our bodies begin to die. Our brains begin to lose acuity, our energy flags, even our passions may fade. There is no real need for proof, but you can see our common aversion in songs like “Forever Young,” books about vampires (eternal beings), or commercials for anti-aging cosmetics and surgery. It’s everywhere. Even if you were neutral on the topic, culture would convince you otherwise.
But I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon in my own life. I’ve begun to actually look forward to growing older. Very unexpected, very strange, an excitement for the next stage of life has begun to grow. I enjoyed turning 40 even more than I enjoyed turning 30. “Well,” you may say, “she’s just one of those tiresome optimists. Those people who are happy all the time, whistling as they work and singing in the rain.” Not so – just ask my children (my biggest critics and greatest supporters). In fact, I fight against sins of anger and discontent daily. Yet, I still find growing anticipation for tomorrow’s adventures. . . even while shrinking from the inevitable decay and suffering that come with a life lived long enough.
I’ve noticed this in the lives of other believers, too. We most often express it in terms of actual death, and sometimes in terms of the second coming of Jesus. I have heard a sister say, “I’ve prayed often that Christ would return during my lifetime.” Not because she feared death, but because she wanted to see Jesus sooner rather than later. Or a brother will testify, “I look forward to the day when I’ll be released from sin and suffering.” Not from a man whose suffering is so great that death would be a mercy, but a man who recognizes the far greater reality awaiting him. As the apostle Paul put it, “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 1:23-24 This is not a morbid fascination with death itself, but a simple comparison of two stages and judgment of one as superior to the other.
But this eagerness for tomorrow may also be observed in the believer’s life, if not heard from his mouth. We see it in the way they invest time and money, as well as their favorite topics of discussion. A believer will excitedly recount a new friendship, one into which she will be pouring incalculable energy and prayers. Another may be seen tirelessly caring for the grounds of their church building. Someone else will donate without recognition or applause to serve the local homeless, even at the cost of their own financial desires. These people have a longing for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. They are “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” Hebrews 11:10
Although we may not realize it as such, Christians are all looking forward to aging: maybe not to the physical realities of it, but definitely to the spiritual realities. Paul said in Romans 8:22-23 “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” The “whole creation,” which includes the natural world and all of humanity, knows and grieves the brokenness of our current world. Every human is touched and repulsed by death. Every human is hurt by sickness, loss, and heartbreak. But for those in Christ, this groaning that began as a lament becomes ever more a longing for what comes next.
The phenomenon in my life, and those of my brothers and sisters is explained simply as this: we are longing for the redemption of our bodies and our world that is promised in scripture. God promises a future without sin, death, grief, or pain (Revelation 21:4). He promises a life lived with Him in joy and pleasure (Psalm 16:11). He promises work that is fulfilling, enjoyable, and worthwhile (Isaiah 65: 21-23). It is no wonder that we look forward with yearning and expectation when others shudder, avoid, and attempt to delay. I wonder, what do you yearn for – the bright hope of tomorrow or the fading glory of yesterday?