Gray Hair and Prayer
By David Feddes
Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation. (Psalm 71:18)
The old lady lay dead in her hospital bed. Soon her bed would be taken by someone else. As the hospital staff removed her body and gathered up her things, they found some paper, with a poem that the shrunken, gray-haired woman had scrawled on it. Here’s what it said:
What do you see, nurse, what do you see?
What are you thinking when you look at me?
A crabby old woman, not very wise,
Uncertain of habit, with faraway eyes,
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
When you say in a loud voice, “I do wish you’d try.”
Who seems not to notice the things that you do
and forever is losing a stocking or shoe.
Who, resisting or not lets you do as you will
With bathing and feeding, the long day to fill.
Is that what you’re thinking; is that what you see?
Then open your eyes; you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still,
As I move at your bidding, as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of ten with father and mother,
brothers and sisters who love one another.
A young girl at sixteen with wings on her feet,
Dreaming that soon now a lover she’ll meet.
A bride soon at twenty; my heart gives a leap,
Remembering the vows that I promised to keep.
At twenty-five, now I have young of my own
Who need me to build a secure, happy home.
A woman of thirty, my young now grown fast,
Bound to each other with ties that should last.
At forty, my young now will soon be gone,
But my man stays beside me to see I don’t mourn.
At fifty, once more babes play round my knee,
Again we know children, my loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me; my husband is dead.
I look to the future; I shudder in dread.
For my young are all busy rearing young of their own,
And I think of the years and the love that I’ve known.
I’m an old woman now, and nature seems cruel.
‘Tis her jest to make old age look like a fool.
The body it crumbles; grace and vigor depart.
Now it seems like a stone where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass a young girl still dwells,
And now and again my battered heart swells.
I remember the joys; I remember the pain,
And I’m loving and living life over again.
I think of the years, all too few—gone so fast—
And accept the stark fact that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, nurses, open and see
Not a crabby old woman; look closer—see me.
Senior in the Mirror
Old age can be hard. It’s especially hard for those who spend their last time on earth in a nursing home or hospital, cut off from home and ordinary life, unable to care for themselves, dependent on hired professionals who have lots of other people to look after. It’s hard when you feel alone, when you feel that others treat you as a crumbling old relic and never see the real you. It’s hard when it seems like everything happy is in the past, and the future holds only more deterioration and death.
But, like it or not, everybody gets old. Not everybody ends up in a nursing home or hospital, but we all get old—unless we die young. Doesn’t sound like much of a choice, does it? Get old, or die young. But those are our only options.
So how do you deal with the problem of growing old? Maybe you don’t deal with it at all. You try not to think about it. You may even avoid old people as much as you can. But you can’t avoid mirrors. And one day, when you look in the mirror, you can’t help noticing that your hair is thinner and grayer. Your skin is starting to wrinkle, your shoulders are starting to stoop, your flesh is starting to sag, your joints are starting to creak, and reality is starting to sink in: you’re not so young anymore. The senior in the mirror shows you that you can’t avoid old folks anymore—you are one!
To make matters worse, you’re part of a society in which old people often aren’t held in high esteem. The Bible says, “Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God” (Leviticus 19:32). “Gray hair is a crown of splendor” (Proverbs 16:31). But today gray hair is often seen as a sign of being out of touch, maybe even burdensome.
Sure, many retired persons still have lots of fun, and lots of money, and lots of political clout. But at some point, you’ll find that younger people are taking over. You’ll find yourself being relegated to the sidelines. You’ll find yourself attending more funerals for relatives and for friends your own age. You’ll start to feel more and more alone. You’ll actually be one of those old folks that younger people tend to avoid.
How are you going to handle that? If you find yourself growing old, how do you deal with it? The old woman in the geriatric ward wrote of how she was still young inside in her old body. She pleaded for people to recognize that she was not just a patient, but a person who had lived and loved and worked and cried. She tried to resign herself to her failing health and her impending death. She wrote “nature seems cruel,” and all she could do was “accept the stark fact that nothing can last.”
I feel sad for that woman. Her poem moves me deeply. It makes me ask about the way our society treats its elderly. It makes me ask how I treat older people. But the poem also makes me ask something else: Why did this woman take an approach that didn’t allow one ray of hope to pierce the gloom? Yes, her situation was hard, but was there really nobody who understood who she was or what she was feeling inside? Was this really just nature’s cruel joke? Was there really no future but death? There is no denying how hard it must have been to be in that geriatric ward, but I can’t help wondering if the reason she was so sad, so lonely, and so hopeless was that she left God out of the picture. Her poem didn’t mention God at all.
The Bible says, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them’” (Ecclesiastes 12:1). If you don’t trust God’s goodness when you are young and life is good, it’s even harder to trust him when the days are dark and death draws near. Without trust in your Creator, you may reach old age feeling all alone, living in the past, wishing people would take you seriously in the present, and resigning yourself to a bleak future. So “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,” and if you’re not a youth anymore, remember your Creator anyway, because you’re not getting any younger!
Calling for Help
This article began with a sad poem by an old person who never mentioned God. Now let’s look at the words of another old person facing hard times. This person did not write a poem without God but a prayer to God. Someone with gray hair wrote this prayer as an earnest call for God’s help, as a commitment to keep praising God and proclaiming him to others, and as a joyful song of confidence in God. The Bible records this prayer in Psalm 71. The prayer begins:
In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame. Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness; turn your ear to me and save me. Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go; give the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress. Deliver me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of evil and cruel men. For you have been my hope, O Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth. From birth I have relied on you; you brought me forth from my mother’s womb. I will ever praise you.
This person counted on God and praised him in the past, and he’s not about to stop now. Other people may reject him and treat him as if old age and bad health are signs of some terrible defect. But he still keeps trusting God. “I have become like a portent to many,” he prays, “but you are my strong refuge. My mouth is filled with your praise, declaring your splendor all day long.”
Throughout his prayer, the psalmist keeps one eye on God, even as he keeps the other eye on how hard his situation is. Isn’t prayer great? You can look squarely at your worst problems and express your deepest fears, and at the same time you can praise God and trust that he hears you and answers you.
It’s wonderful to trust God over the long haul and to know the Lord Jesus for many decades, from youth all the way into old age. But even after so many years, there are still times when even the most devout believer may struggle. Is God really going to be at my side all through the problems that come with old age? Does God really have any use for me yet? Wouldn’t it be horrible if God turned his back on me because I don’t deserve his love?
Questions like these can attack even the most seasoned saint. Strange thoughts and dreadful fears can pounce on you, especially when you’re in a weakened condition and are under attack, either from other people or from the devil himself. Satan loves to kick you when you’re down and make you even more miserable. What can you do then? Well, instead of pretending you don’t have those fears, just take them to God in prayer.
That’s what the writer of Psalm 71 does. He prays, “Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone. For my enemies… say, ‘God has forsaken him; pursue him and seize him, for no one will rescue him.’ Be not far from me, O God; come quickly, O my God, to help me” (v.9-12).
This old man is doing what he’s done so many times before. Looking at his troubles and looking to God, he finds himself lifted up into faith and courage and joy and hope. Faith is doubt that has said its prayers. Joy is sadness that has said its prayers. Courage is fear that has said its prayers. Hope is despair that has said its prayers.
Commitment to Praise and Proclaim
“As for me,” he continues, “I will always have hope; I will praise you more and more. My mouth will tell of your righteousness, of your salvation all day long, though I know not its measure. I will come and proclaim your mighty acts, O Sovereign Lord; I will proclaim your righteousness, yours alone.” God’s salvation is too great to figure out or put within any boundaries, so the best this man can do is praise the Lord and tell others what he knows of God’s mighty acts.
“Since my youth, O God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come” (7:17-18). He has seen God at work over and over in his past, and now he’s counting on God to stick with him once again. Notice that although he remembers the past thankfully, he doesn’t live in the past. He’s counting on God right now, praising him right now, and committed to proclaiming God’s power to the next generation.
It’s amazing how the wings of prayer lift you up and help you soar above your sense of helplessness and into a higher realm where you sense God’s power and purpose. Your body may be getting older, but your spirit is getting bolder. As the Bible says in another place, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). When you pray a senior’s prayer, you don’t just sit around resigning yourself to the inevitable. You commit yourself anew to use whatever time God gives you to praise his name and to show other people the power and goodness of the God who has guided and care for you throughout the years.
I can’t help thinking of Caleb. Caleb was one of the heroes of ancient Israel. He trusted God so much that he wouldn’t back down from anything. By the time Israel was ready to enter the promised land, Caleb was 85 years old. But he had such faith, and God had blessed him so richly, that when it came time to decide what part of the land he should go after, Caleb wanted the land where he would be opposed by the strongest cities and the biggest, most gigantic soldiers. Caleb was a man of faith and prayer. He wasn’t just 85 years old. He was 85 years bold!
Now, maybe you’re not a Caleb. God preserved Caleb’s health and vigor in an exceptional way, and that may not be true of you. God may not be calling you in your old age to go scale a city wall or to fight giants. But he does call you to pray for his help, and then to take on whatever challenge and calling he has for you. You might be retired from your job, but you’re never retired from your calling. You might be physically weaker than you once were, but with God’s help, you are never too weak to overcome the enemy, whether that enemy is a cruel person, an illness, or the attacks and accusations of Satan, or even the last enemy, death itself.
Confidence Beyond Death
The writer of Psalm 71 prays, “Your righteousness reaches to the skies, O God, you who have done great things. Who, O God, is like you? Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up. You will increase my honor and comfort me once again” (vv. 19-21).
The person whom God inspired to pray this way may have been thinking of being healed and raised up from a time of sickness and weakness to a time of renewed health and greater strength. God often answers our prayers that way and gives us a new lease on life. But God’s ultimate answer to this prayer is that he literally brings us up from the depths of the earth after we have died. Even when our body is buried, the infinite power of God will raise us up. God raised his Son Jesus Christ, and he also promises resurrection and life eternal to all who belong to Christ. God will raise us to life everlasting, increase our honor to the level of unimaginable glory, comfort us, and wipe away all our tears. There will be no more sickness or mourning or crying or pain, just joy in his presence.
Do you know the Lord Jesus as your Savior? Then you don’t have to spend your final days alone and bitter. The apostle Paul was an old man, shut in prison, separated from friends, awaiting execution—but what did he say? In triumph he declared, “The time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8). If Psalm 71 is a great prayer with gray hair, then those words of Paul are surely a senior’s ultimate statement of faith.
Let’s move on to the last part of Psalm 71. The psalmist ends on a note of praise and confidence that victory is already as good as accomplished. He says, “I will praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, O my God; I will sing praise to you with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel. My lips will shout for joy when I sing praise to you—I, whom you have redeemed. My tongue will tell of your righteous acts all day long, for those who wanted to harm me have been put to shame and confusion.” On that note of triumph, the prayer ends.
I remember sitting in the hospital at the bedside of an old man. It was clear that he would die within a few days, perhaps even a few hours. His every breath was an effort, even with the oxygen mask he was using. This dying man had trusted the Lord for many years and sought to serve him, but there on his deathbed he again remembered times when he had failed God and his loved ones. He found himself struggling one last time. Might God still forsake him? Or would the Lord be with him all the way to the end and accept him into heaven? As the veteran Christian prayed with me, and as he prayed with his family and Christian friends, he became calm. He lifted his oxygen mask enough to say between labored breaths, “I have peace. I have peace.” And that’s how he died: in God’s peace, assured of Jesus’ victory over the last enemy.
Do you have God’s peace? Peace with God begins when you accept God’s promises in the Lord Jesus Christ, when you believe that Jesus’ blood pays for your sins, that his resurrection guarantees your victory over death, and that his Spirit gives you power to live and die in his holiness and grace. This gift of salvation and peace is not temporary; it lasts forever. God finishes what he begins.
If you’re already a Christian, and you face times of weakness and struggle, the first thing to do is to remember God’s promises. The Lord says, “I am with you always. I will never leave you nor forsake you.” God stays with you. He always finishes what he starts. “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,” and you can be sure he will remember you when you’re not so young. Remember your Creator and trust your Savior, no matter what age you are, and you have his promise to always be faithful to you. God says, “Listen to me… you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. 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” (Isaiah 63:3-4).
As a seasoned saint, you may know those promises and trust them, and yet, in times of trouble, you still struggle. At that point, dear child of God, you need faith in God’s promises, but you also need fellowship with God himself, the fellowship of prayer. You need to turn, not just to your beliefs, but to the One you believe in. You believe in the living God! You belong to him! So if you’re struggling with some of the hard aspects of aging or with some other difficulty, take it to the Lord in prayer. Make Psalm 71 your own prayer and say:
In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge… Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation… Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up… My lips will shout for joy when I sing praise to you—I, whom you have redeemed”—through the Lord Jesus. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.