Opinion | Discipleship

Your Best Years Are Not Behind You

God needs willing workers, not necessarily young ones.
Your Best Years Are Not Behind You
Image: Resolution Productions / Getty Images

I am not 25 anymore, or 45, or even 65. But God doesn’t care. It’s Monday and my phone is ringing. My email inbox is full. My workload is steady. The harvest is ripe, as the Good Book says, and God has work for me to do. That’s the biggest surprise to me about getting older: God doesn’t worry about age. He needs willing workers. My biggest life questions aren’t about whether I will dye my hair, buff my thighs, or get a Botox shot. Instead, I’m simply asking: Am I still willing to work for God and not stop?

I never wrestled much over stages and ages of life. That’s because I’ve always worked. And work is curious and holy, no matter our age or season, our calling or color. I used to think our best years were based on timing and talents, but our best years, it turns out, are based on our godly purpose—and our willingness to labor for the cause of it. As a New York Times article recently declared about an 89-year-old Brooklyn artist: “Her Secret to a Long Life? ‘It’s Good to Work a Lot.’”

My daddy taught me this principle early on. He didn’t have sons. Instead, he had “the girls”—my sister and me, born to him and my mother in the Jim Crow ’50s. Growing up black in his proud household meant we were up at dawn every day, making our beds, clearing the dishes, sweeping the carpet, cleaning the bathroom, and moving rocks.

Yes, we moved rocks. This was in the ’60s after fair-housing laws passed, so my hardworking parents moved our “colored” family from our beloved but cramped inner-city bungalow to a squeaky clean new tract house out in the sticks. It offered us a new beginning, surrounded by suburban sameness and rocky, bare front yards. Nobody dared say we didn’t belong. So Daddy roused my sister and me early one Saturday morning and asked us to collect all the rocks. He was eager to sod the yard, determined to build a suburban-worthy lawn to calm the neighbors. So I moved rocks. All day.

I was 14 and skinny and the rocks were heavy, but the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and the work—as work tends to be—was doggone good. Standing in our long shadows at the end of the day, we looked across a sod-ready yard, not bitter but grinning. “You did good,” Daddy said. “Thanks, Daddy,” I said to him. “You did good, too.”

Of all the things my dad taught me, starting with the sufficiency of Christ and his cross, the second best was that work is a wonder. And age? It doesn’t matter. In our youth-seduced culture, aging is bemoaned and belittled. Wrinkles are reviled. Gray hairs are camouflaged.

Clearly, our culture hasn’t read the Book of Exodus. Right there in the third chapter, Moses climbs around Mount Sinai while tending his father-in-law Jethro’s sheep. He is 80 years old. But God doesn’t fret over age. Instead, God looks at Moses and says the kindest words this sojourner has probably ever heard. Take off your sandals. Meaning what? Stop wasting time on Jethro’s sheep. Stop dragging your dusty flip-flops on unholy ground. Instead, take off your sandals before me. And then? Get to real work. That’s when you can change everything, Moses is told, even if he can’t quite believe it.

Moses pushes back, of course. He says he’s not qualified: “What if they won’t believe me or listen to me? … I get tongue-tied, and my words get tangled” (Ex. 4:1, 10, NLT). We hear Moses today because he sounds like most of us: self-doubting, dismayed, and lacking courage.

However, what Moses doesn’t ask is also significant. Even at 80, Moses never inquires, “What if I’m too old?” He’s worried about other things instead. His speech. His ability to lead those unruly people. He even begs to bring along his brother, Aaron—who, at 83, is no spring chicken.

Moses never stews over age. So why do we?

Many of us often assume that after a certain year, we’ll finally become this person or achieve that goal. We dream of stepping off life’s stage and heading for the golf course or the front porch, arguing that we’re too old to give more. But retirement as a concept is barely mentioned in the Bible (excepting those Levite priests in Numbers 8:24–25). Regarding age, God doesn’t seem to care. As the creator of years and time, he advises us not to count down to retirement but rather to “number our days” and “gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).

The Scriptures are full of heroes from the so-called “wonder years.” Abraham and Sarah, at 100 and at 90, were charged with bearing a covenant son and parenting a nation. Noah built the ark at age 600. Zechariah and Elizabeth were “both very old” (Luke 1:7) when they became the parents of John the Baptist. Anna the prophetess, too, served in the temple until her “very old” age, watching and waiting for the Messiah. When she finally saw him, she didn’t kick off her shoes, sit down, and retire. Instead, she worked even harder, speaking about the child “to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:36–38).

Our task now, as Andrew Murray would say is to avoid “confound[ing] work and fruit. There may be a good deal of work for Christ that is not the fruit of the heavenly Vine.” My hard-working father understood this truth: that ill-tempered work, driven by ambition or other self-interest, lacks kingdom purpose and anointing, as well as kingdom joy.

When he took my sister and me to church on Sundays, he wanted us to know the God of the ages who would make every moment a wonder if we would surrender all our days to him. He wanted us to know the Carpenter who spent his adult life building—the one who waited until age 30 before he turned toward Galilee and changed the world. He was the worker of all time. He made us a stunning promise, that whoever believes in him would do “even greater works” (John 14:12, NLT), and those works would be miracles.

We could move more than rocks, he said; we could move mountains (Matt. 17:20). How? Jesus explains: “Because I am going to be with the Father” (John 14:12, NLT). This good news means the Holy Spirit, sent to us from Christ, will empower us and unleash our potential to keep working for the kingdom without stopping.

The oldest woman I know, now 105 and still kicking, once confirmed this truth with a piece of advice (the best she ever gave me): “To live a good long life? Pace yourself.” As she put it, “Stay busy. But let the Holy Spirit do the work.”

As I approach my late 60s, my phone keeps ringing and, with gratitude, I keep answering. I keep joyfully answering because I know that every year, the harvest will be sweeter. Why? Because God is producing good fruit in all of us.

Patricia Raybon is an award-winning author whose books include My First White Friend, winner of a Christopher Award, and Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace.

This essay excerpt was adapted by permission from The Wonder Years: 40 Women Over 40 on Aging, Faith, Beauty, and Strength, edited by Leslie Leyland Fields, Kregel Publications, 2018. www.kregel.com.

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