Counsels to the Aged
As an aged man, I would say to my fellow-pilgrims who are also in this advanced stage of the journey of life, Endeavor to be USEFUL as long as you are continued upon earth. We are, it is true, subject to many peculiar infirmities, both of body and mind, to bear up under which requires much exertion, and no small share of divine assistance; but still we have some advantages not possessed by the young. We have received important lessons from experience, which, if they have been rightly improved, are of inestimable value. The book of divine providence, which is in a great measure sealed to them, has been unfolded to us. We can look back and contemplate all the way along which the Lord has led us. We can now see the wise design of our Father in many events which, at the time, were dark and mysterious. The knowledge to be derived from studying the book of God's providence cannot be communicated to another; the lessons are like the name upon the white stone, which none can read but he who has it. The successive events of our lives we can make known — but the connection which these events have with our character, our sins, and our prayers can be fully understood only by ourselves. He who neglects to study the pages of this book, deprives himself of one most important means of improvement; yet many professors of religion appear to pay little or no attention to the providence of God in relation to themselves. If they meet with some severe judgment or some great deliverance, their attention is arrested, and they acknowledge the hand of God in the dispensation; but as to the succession of ordinary events, they seem to have no practical belief that they are ordered by divine providence, or have any important relation to their duty or interest.
I would affectionately entreat my aged brethren to make the dealings of God's providence towards themselves a subject of careful study. There is within our reach, except in the Bible, no source of instruction more important. And to aid you in this business permit me to recommend to your careful perusal two little volumes on Providence, which I have found useful and comfortable to myself. The first is Flavel's "Mystery of Providence Opened;" and the other is Boston's "Crook in the Lot". These excellent treatises may be read over and over again with profit. Perhaps the best method of studying such books is, not to read the whole at once, or in a short time — but to peruse a few paragraphs at a time, and then reflect upon the subject, and make application of what we read to our own case.
I began this letter with an exhortation to endeavor to be useful while you live. To comply with this you should, in the first place, guard vigilantly against those faults and foibles into which old people are apt to fall. We must be careful not to mistake . . .
moroseness — for seriousness,
austerity — -for gravity, or
discontent with our condition — for deadness to the world.
Why should the aged be more peevish and morose than others? If they are pious, there can be no good reason for it; but it is not difficult to account for the fact. In the decline of life, a gradual change takes place in our physical system by which the mind is considerably affected; and often bodily disease is added to this natural change. The nervous system is debilitated and shattered; and in consequence the spirits are apt to sink or to become irregular. To these may be added the afflictions and disappointments which most experience in the course of a long life, by which the temper is apt to be soured. And when men, by reason of the decay of mind and body, become disqualified for the same active services which they were long accustomed to perform, and these fall into the hands of juniors, whom they knew when children, it is very natural to feel as if the world was turning around — as if everything was going wrong. Old men have always been accustomed to laud the old times, long past, when they were young, and to censure all the innovations which have come in since. Sometimes, also, the aged experience a neglect from the young, and even a lack of respect from their own children, which is exceedingly mortifying, and tends much to foster that acerbity of temper so frequently found in the aged.
But although these and other similar things may be truly pleaded in extenuation of the fault under consideration, yet they do by no means amount to an apology which exculpates us from blame. And that old age is not necessarily accompanied by these unamiable traits of character, is proved by many happy examples. Some aged people exhibit an uniform cheerfulness and serenity of mind; and the remarkable fact has been recorded in regard to a few that a naturally irritable temper has been softened and mellowed, instead of being exacerbated by old age.
If I recollect rightly, this is mentioned as true in relation to the Rev. Rodgers of New York by his biographer, my respected colleague, the Rev. Miller. The late venerable Dr. Livingston, of the Dutch Reformed Church, President of their College and Seminary, was distinguished by uniform cheerfulness to a very advanced age; and his cordial and affectionate manners were remarked and felt by all who approached him. The Rev. John Newton, of London, seems to have possessed, with large measures of divine grace, a very happy physical temperament. It is delightful to contemplate the old age of such a man. And while I am mentioning recorded examples of a temper in old age deserving of imitation, I would recall to the remembrance of my readers the case of the Rev. Thomas Scott, who, at a period of life when most men relinquish all severe labor, actually undertook to learn the Arabic language, that he might be able to give instruction to the missionaries going to the East.
It has often been noticed that piety is apt to decline with the decline of manly vigor. If this be really a common event, it is exceedingly to be deplored. But perhaps it is more in appearance than reality. It requires much stronger faith and feelings of warmer piety to enable an old man to go forward in his course with zeal and alacrity, than for a young man, who is buoyed up and borne along by the vigor of youthful passions, to do the same. But I rejoice to know that piety does not always even appear to grow cold by the descent into the valley of years. In some Christians, it evidently goes on advancing; and their growth in grace is much more rapid in this period of life than any other. As they approach nearer to Heaven, their hearts and their conversation are more in Heaven. Oh that it might be thus with us all!
As these letters are intended also for my aged friends of the female gender, I would recommend to their notice and imitation the old age of Mrs. Hannah More. From her first appearance as a Christian she seems to have gone on advancing in evangelical knowledge and ardent piety, until she was completely ripe. And even then she lost nothing of the respect and affection which by her pious and benevolent labors she had gained; for still, when her memory was so impaired that she did not remember the books she had written, the elevation of her piety and the enlargement of her benevolence remained unimpaired. And it is truly a delightful thought that when in the wreck of mind, the whole cargo of knowledge seems to be lost, and parents no longer recognize their own children — religion, where it was possessed, still remains. Jesus Christ is never forgotten. Pious sentiments are never obliterated.
Cicero in his beautiful little treatise on Old Age, in which many judicious and pleasing sentiments are expressed, when speaking of the decay of the memory, says that he never heard of a miser forgetting the place where he had buried his treasure. What the mind prizes most — is longest retained in memory. It is often remarked, and justly, "How beautiful does unaffected piety appear in youth!" But it may as truly be said, "How amiable and venerable is exalted piety in old age!"
It has been said that avarice is peculiarly the sin of old age; we often hear of an old — but scarcely ever of a young, miser. This may be true in regard to those who have nourished the love of the world all their lives. They will hug their treasures with a closer grasp, and their affections will be more concentrated on them, when other objects are removed; but this vice does not originate in old age; it is only the mature fruit of the seed planted in early life; and though it becomes deeply ingrained in old age, it is not now so much the desire of acquiring wealth — as of holding fast what they have got.
The folly of the miser who hoards his money without a thought of using it, is easily shown, and has often been ridiculed. But the truth is, that all ardent pursuit of worldly objects beyond what is necessary for the real needs of nature might be demonstrated to be equally absurd. But whatever men of the world may do, let not Christians dishonor their holy profession by an inordinate love of the world. Especially, let not the aged professor bring into doubt the sincerity of his religion, by manifesting a covetous disposition. "Take heed," said the Great Teacher, "and beware of covetousness; for a man's life consists not in the abundance of the things which he possesses."
Many begin the world with little, and the claims of an increasing family render it necessary to exercise much diligence and economy to make a living; but thus it often happens that an avaricious disposition under the semblance of necessity, and even of duty — strikes its roots deep into the soul before the man is aware of any danger. Indeed, it is almost impossible to convince a man of the sin of covetousness, while he avoids open acts of injustice or fraud.
Dear friends, it is time for many of you to give up the further pursuit of wealth, unless your object is to acquire the means of doing good. But beware of the deceitfulness of the heart. Covetousness will allow you to promise such an appropriation of your gains. But put yourselves to the test by a simple experiment. Ask yourselves whether you are now willing to make that use of the property which God has given you, which his honor and the advancement of Christ's kingdom require. If you indeed find in yourself that disposition to consecrate all that you have to the glory of God — then it may be lawful to go on to acquire further means of usefulness. But whatever you now possess, or may hereafter acquire, of this world's goods, for your soul's sake — set not your affections on these perishable things! Be not proud of your wealth. Neglect not while you live, to do good and give cheerfully. Remember that you are but the steward of the wealth which you possess, and therefore it is required of you to be faithful in the distribution of what is put into your hands. If you have tried the plan of stinginess lest you should lessen your estate, now try the plan of wise liberality, and see whether that saying of Christ is not verified by experience, that "It is more blessed to give, than to receive."
Whether in the former periods of our lives we have had prosperity or have passed through the deep waters of affliction, it is nearly certain that in our old age we shall feel the strokes of adversity. If our friends have been preserved in life thus far — yet we know they must all die. If hitherto we have enjoyed uninterrupted health — yet now we must expect to encounter pain and disease. Old age itself may be called the common disease of our nature, which can only be escaped by death. Mr. Newton, in one of his last letters, says that he had but one disease — but that was incurable, which was old age. Then, my dear friends, let us set an example of patience and cheerful resignation under the afflictions which may be laid upon us. The passive virtues are more difficult to be exercised than the active, and God is perhaps more honored by quiet submission to his will under sufferings — than by the greatest achievements of zeal and exertion. But let us never forget that we have not the least strength in ourselves. We are dependent on the grace of God for every good thought and desire. But if we trust in him — we shall never be ashamed.