I remember my grandmother fondly. She was a faithful Christian, and a jovial, kind-hearted, matriarchal figure in our family. She worked hard constantly and in many different ways: in the church, in the local community, and with her large family. She was even the local mayor at one stage and has a child-care centre named after her!
But what I remember and love about her most is not her achievements or work ethic, as impressive as they were.
When I was 18 or 19, after I had quit university and was struggling to find work, she sat next to me at church one day. When the offering bag came around, she discreetly took $10 from her lowly means, stuffed it in my hand, and insisted: “Now don’t put that in the bag. That’s for you!”
$10 doesn’t get you very far of course, not unlike the poor widow’s last two copper coins in Mark 12. But, like the widow’s, her gift is far greater and is reaping far more than things that moth and rust destroy. Far more, I’m sure, than she would have ever thought.
Psalm 92 is a wonderful psalm that celebrates the works of God. God is working to turn back evil and destroy his enemies (vv5-9). He is establishing his people as holy and righteous before him (vv10-15). By his covenant love and faithfulness he is making his people thankful, glad and joyful (vv1-4).
Like a towering date palm tree or a cedar of Lebanon, or an old NZ Kauri tree, perhaps, as verse 14 says, “They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green …”
What’s the secret of their ongoing strength and vitality? Not a new miracle super-food diet or pain-relieving vitamin supplement. Not some celebrity’s yoga, Pilates or mindfulness routine, or even the latest edition of ‘What’s good for you’ magazine.
Verse 13: “They are planted in the house of the Lord.” And the purpose? “… to declare that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him” (v15).
The house of the Lord – the ministry of the temple with all its holy articles, priests, and sacrifices, the Old Testament dwelling place built for God’s name and glory – pictures and anticipates the wonderful sacrificial person and work of Christ on the cross. Being rooted and established in him by God’s grace through faith, we produce fruit that glorifies God and honours his name.
Christians flourish and bear fruit because of the gracious, loving and faithful work of our God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit – even in old age. For God’s people, producing fruit ceases when life ceases.
Producing fruit sounds a bit like hard work, though, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s even a younger person’s work? How can a believer bear fruit in old age when, instead of feeling like we’re full of sap and green, we increasingly feel like we’re full of aches, pains and, sometimes, complaints?
Our older years often come with significant and under-rated challenges: isolation, loneliness, limitations and impairments. People you’ve known and loved all your life are dying. The world around you has changed rapidly, and not always for the better. When we start feeling our age, we might even be inclined to question our usefulness.
I’m 43. Unless you’re my kids, that’s not that old. Yet I know already that I can’t do some of the things that I was doing 20 or 25 years ago. But then, those things aren’t necessarily what the Psalmist – and the Lord – meant by ‘fruit.’
What is ‘fruit’?
Fruit is not merely exhaustive and exhausting activity: working long hours, endlessly driving children around from place to place, attending meetings and Bible studies, and volunteering for every activity or ministry the church is running. And before I forget it, church cleaning.
Though we do have life-seasons of intense busyness and activity, don’t mistake these for fruit – that was Martha’s kind of thinking (Luke 10:38-42). Because life does slow down, eventually. And you will slow down eventually as well. That’s life in a fallen world with bodies that are limited, wear out and don’t last forever.
But slowing down in old age with the limitations that come with it, doesn’t translate to unfruitfulness. It’s actually a great opportunity.
Why is that?
Look again at Ps 92:15. Fruit is “… to declare that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”
Producing fruit is to testify to God’s great name and his gracious, loving and holy character especially as we see it in Jesus. Or as Galatians 5:21-22 puts it: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control …”
Fruit is Christ-likeness exhibited in word, deed and character. It is spoken, acted and radiated. Your activity changes over time, but your life is always a testimony to who your Lord is and what he has done for you.
After many years of life, especially as a follower of Jesus, you see and experience all manner of trials, adversity, controversies, fears and sorrows. You also see and hear plenty of occasions for thanks, praise and joy. And all of it is for God-dependant character-formation and is, therefore, fruit-inducing.
Having eyes to see God’s gracious and providential hand in each trial, and hearts that are willing and desire to be shaped, cultivated and taught by him, gives us ample opportunity for declaring and exhibiting the fruit God has called us for.
Don’t underestimate the power of your testimony to God’s work in your life, even as you age. It is he who works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil 2:13).
Your testimony is not about how wonderful you are and how great things were back in the day, but how great and wonderful God and his grace are – and continue to be.
And don’t underestimate the effect that a humble, godly example can have on others – especially the young.
Two golden oldies
Two examples may be helpful: Mr A and Mr B. These are actual men I knew some years ago who were godly, older brothers whose faith is now sight, though I think they were in their 80s at the time. In my mind, these men are up there with the ‘heroes’ of faith in Hebrews 11.
Mr A’s wife of many years gradually succumbed to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. When he could no longer care for her adequately at home and her instability of mind and character was increasingly becoming a danger to herself and others, she moved into specialised care. Mr A sold the family home and moved to within a short distance of his wife’s new place of residence.
He visited her daily. As time went on and her condition worsened to the point that she no longer recognised him at all and had little ability to function independently, he continued his daily visits. He would feed her, brush her hair, and read to her – every day. Mr A loved his wife as Christ loved his bride, and gave himself up for her.
But Mr A also loved people. He got to know the staff, other residents and some of their visitors. He used the opportunity to visit the lonely, to testify to God’s goodness and declare to them that God was his rock.
Whenever I asked Mr A how he was, his understated yet cheerful answer was always the same: “Oh, alright.” I’m thankful to have known him and for his example of bearing fruit in old age.
Mr B was a career farmer, a gentle giant of a man with a gammy leg and missing a finger or two if I recall correctly. As all farmers do, he knew the highs and lows of working on the land, including the devastating effects of bush fires. He also knew the grief and heartache of burying a child.
When his son-in-law was diagnosed with and treated for a brain tumour, he devoted most of his post-retirement hobby-farm to growing fresh produce for his son-in-law’s radically specialised diet. He also regularly provided fresh eggs, fruit and vegies for struggling families, including RTC student families.
When I had told my elder that our family was thinking of moving to NZ at some stage, Mr B called me the following day. In his beautifully measured yet direct manner, he said to me: “I don’t want you to go.” There’s little that encourages the believer’s soul more than knowing you are loved and cared for.
No one had to tell these men to do what they did. Their words, deeds and character were an out-working of God’s work in them. And I don’t look up to them because they were simply active. Nor do I sense the need to copy precisely what they did – I’m quite certain that I’ll never be much of a farmer!
They are, however, wonderful examples to me of older Christ-like men using what the Lord had given them for the purpose of bearing fruit. They were examples of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – all rooted in the sure knowledge that Christ was their Lord and Saviour.
Before we finish, it’s worth taking a quick look at what makes us unfruitful. Peter tells us in 2 Pet 1:3-9. Unfruitfulness is not caused by aging bodies. Verse 8 says that it is the lack of and the failure to increase in the qualities described in verses 5-7 – faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection and love – which leads to ineffectiveness and unfruitfulness in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Nothing is more unfruitful than forgetting our Lord and what he has done for us, and reverting to a self-driven, self-focused way of life.
What to remember
Remember that when Jesus said that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, he wasn’t lying. It’s still true even in old age. Coming to him in repentance and faith, learning and continuing to learn from him – that he is gentle and lowly in heart – gives rest for the soul and produces fruitful labour, character and testimony in life, for the glory of God.
The call to bear fruit in this life for God’s glory doesn’t end until you end. Because the wonder of God and his grace in Jesus doesn’t end.
Established in him, you will still bear fruit in old age.
Mr Ben McDonald is the minister of the Reformed Church in Wellington.