The Temptations of Old Age

By Keith Drury


Old people are not exempt from temptation; they just face different temptations than the young. While we expect sainthood from the aged, sin crouches at the door through all stages of life. Jeremy Taylor got me thinking about this subject. In Holy Living and Holy Dying he described some of the temptations of old age. Since I intend to get old in the future, I’ve been investigating further. I remember the temptations of adolescence and know about the temptations of middle age, but I’ve never really thought much about the temptations and sins of old age. So, I recently have been reading the latest journals and textbooks on aging, and I’ve interviewed quite a few older people from age 60 through 95. I think I have enough data now to make an initial stab at the sins and temptations of old age I might face—at least this is what older folk say they face.  When Jeremy Taylor wrote in the 1600s it was an important goal for Christians to “die well.”  Today we are more absorbed in living well, but I’ve  witnessed some Christians who die poorly so I want to be aware of the temptations of old age. Here is the list I’ve been working with along with some of the ways older folk have suggested to resist the temptations of old age.


1. Selfishness.

The temptation to selfishness knows no age discrimination. All ages are plagued with self-centeredness but old people have more time on their hands to become selfish. They have worked hard and sometimes expect their payback. The popular bumper sticker on the 40 foot travel trailer says it this way: “I’m spending my children’s inheritance.” Older folk are tempted to “get what’s due me” after spending their entire lives working for others. Society even encourages this approach by saying, “You’ve worked hard, enjoy life now, you owe it to yourself.”  But living only for oneself is selfish. Selfishness is a besetting temptation of old age.


2. Feeling worthless

Psychologists report that older adults have lower self-esteem than at any other time in life—including adolescence! They are constantly tempted to feel useless and worthless, especially in America where one of the first questions we ask in getting to know a person is, “So, what do you do?” Answering, “I’m retired” is an admission of defeat which is why many older people respond, “I used to be a school teacher” desperately hanging their self-worth on what they did. Evangelicals claim we believe a life is worthy just in being, but we tend to apply that sort of thinking far more to a fetus then an old person. A fetus has potential for future contribution. An old person is sometimes treated as dead weight to society, so our pro-life position is stronger at the front end of life than at the back end. Retired folk find they have more time on their hands than ever, but they sometimes have less to do. One said to me, “I get up earlier but have no place to go” and another, “I’m busier than ever doing less than ever.”  Worse, younger folk compare older folk to icons of the active aged. Middle aged people (who are desperate to believe old age will offer them time to do all the things they now are putting off) compare older folk like they never would compare their children. “Have you heard of Jean Custer, Mom… she’s 82 and just made it to the bottom of the Grand Canyon?” The obvious implication is their own mom is too lazy to do this sort of thing. Middle aged people think the aged should “just do it” like their icons of the active aged do. Mom is not able to match Jean’s feat, so she is tempted to feel worthless. In a society that measures a human’s worth by their contributions, an old person doesn’t have much value. Older people thus are tempted to accept the cultural value that uselessness means worthlessness. Feeling worthless is a besetting temptation of old age.


3. Stinginess

All older people do not have more money, but if they do they will be tempted to cling to more tightly to their money. The aged have no “future earning power” except what their money can earn itself.  All older people have is what they have. The aged look around and see other old people who have been abandoned to fend for themselves and they get fearful they will be left with nothing. It is difficult for people of all ages to be generous, but it is especially hard for older people. A younger person can always say, “Well I can work harder and replace that money easily enough.” Older folk don’t have a job in their future. When they give, it’s gone. They have been terrified by stories about the $6000 monthly costs of a nursing home and they have heard about elderly friends whose children abandoned them. The aged are tempted to trust in Mammon to save them. Worse, older folk often have lived a simple lifestyle for decades are often asked to ante up to help a young person take a vacation trip to play soccer in South America. When asked to give to this venture they remember the 25th anniversary trip to Hawaii they gave up as “too expensive” as they saved for retirement. Having never been out of the country themselves they do not see why this youngster should take a vacation on their hard-earned saving. So they shut up their checkbook and refuse to give. At no age is the sin of trusting money so prevalent as among the old. Money may bring security, but it will not bring joy. Stinginess is a besetting temptation of old age.


4. Giving up

Middle age people like to imagine old age as a wonderful time of rest and fun. For some it is, but for many older people it is harder than that. Betty Davis once quipped, “Old age is no place for sissies” reminding us that it is not a cake walk for many.  Recent research in biology has shown what many older folk already know: by about age 70 the average body simply starts wearing out. Sometimes it comes sooner. Old age often comes with pain. One retired man said, I feel aches and pains every day like those flu ads describe—but all the time, not just when I have the flu.”  Hearing fades: “I can’t keep asking people to repeat things so I just pretend I hear.”  Eyesight dims: “Even my glasses can’t make me see things like I used to.” Taste diminishes drastically: “A good steak isn’t as good as it once was.”  Sexual function diminishes—“The idea continues; consummation weakens.” Older folk experience a general weariness—“I wake up after a full night’s sleep just as tired as I was going to bed.” On top of this general decline in health is the common experience of weary disremembering like the husband  watching TV who said, “Isn’t that the fellow—you know that fellow what’s-his-name?” and the wife responded, No that’s the other guy” Both were just too tired to remember the name. And they know that if they live long enough, perhaps vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s is in the wings for them. Many worked all their lives with the promise of an active exciting retirement of travel and fun only to find themselves barely able to get to WalMart, let alone to Hawaii. This common health decline tempts older folk to just give up. They can quit trying and slog through life “just surviving.” When offered opportunities to serve in the church or in the community they sigh, “Nah, I took my turn—let others do that now.” This is how old folk surrender to the joyless waiting room of death. Giving up is a besetting temptation of old age.


5.  Morbidity

Younger people don’t think much about death. Even when they do, it is usually about the death of others. Older people face death frequently. Somewhere in the 50’s most people begin to actually read the obituaries in the newspaper and notice the age of the newly dead. Over the 50’s and 60’s they watch the average age of the dying marching toward them. They eventually see a person in the obituary younger than them. Checking ages of the dead becomes a morbid habit and they begin counting down. Eventually half of those dead are younger and finally they have the day when they see all of the obituary notices were people younger than they are. They now know they are living on “borrowed time.” Older people attend funerals more often. They bury their parents. They bury their best friend. They bury their spouse. And, if they live long enough, they may bury one of their own adult children. All this can tempt older adult to succumb to morbid despair. Younger pastors often have little to say about heaven or the resurrection, even at funerals. They focus instead on celebrating the life and work of the dead person, as if all that counts is what people do. Middle age pastors complain about their older people who “sit there like dead people” in the service and wonder why they aren’t “more alive.” Perhaps it is because they are in the early stages of their own death and they have been constantly told that life is all that matters. This is how the aged plunge into an ever-spiraling funk of morbidity thinking only of their coming departure and thinking little of the life beyond. Morbidity is a besetting temptation of old age.


6. Feeling abandoned

Older people are the castaways of a society that is bent on measuring a person’s worth by their present contributions. With few others coming to see them, loneliness is the old person’s most frequent visitor. Children get busy with their careers and move to another state. Friends have died or moved away to their children’s towns. Letter-writing has disappeared and if the aged have no Internet connection they hear almost nothing from others. Old folk eventually are not elected to the church board or asked to sing a solo. Aged people become invisible in the hallways at church, passed by as if they were not even present. Issues come up at church they might have something to say about, but they are not asked. Instead, they are pacified with an old song here and there, a short remark, or they are offered sequestered entertainment as if they are children needing baby sitting. They are not taken seriously and seldom get asked for advice. They feel abandoned. This is why older folk float down the hallways of the church like invisible ghosts, leaving quickly to eat dinner with their spouse (or all alone) expecting nobody to invite them to lunch. Feeling abandoned, they are tempted to hold their own pity party—“nobody cares anymore—they’re just waiting for me to die.”  They might even wonder if God too has abandoned them. Surrendering to feeling abandoned is a besetting temptation of old age.


7. Bitterness

Most of us know someone who became “a bitter old man.” It can happen to women too. Sometimes it even happens to “great leaders” who end poorly and leave a sour taste in the memories of those who remember them. How does this bitterness happen? Some bitterness may be rooted in unrealistic expectations of what we hope old age will be like. Most middle age folk deny the difficulties of old age, preferring instead to imagine a bright active time of great influence and activity. For some this dream does come true. But for many, old age is more like we have been describing here. When the “golden years” lose their luster, an old person can be tempted to feel they have gotten a raw deal—that they have been ripped off. After forty years of faithful loyalty to their company where they expected to receive a regular pension their company goes bankrupt and they now receive exactly eleven dollars a month from the court settlement. Ten years ago they sacrificed all their vacations for six years, and gave a triple tithe toward the new church building but the current pastor said just last week from the pulpit, “You old birds need to realize that this church is not for you—it is for the younger people.” They can’t understand why people can get away with prejudice against the aged. They know that a prospective pastor would never say, “That church simply has too many black people.” Or “I can’t stand the songs the Mexicans want to sing,” but they know it is sometimes said, “That church simply has too many old people.” Or “I can’t stand the songs the older folk want to sing,” They are tempted to feel like they are expected to pay the bill for a church that overlooks their own needs. Some get bitter. Bitterness is a besetting temptation of old age.


8.  Despair 

Psychologist Erik Erikson suggested seven challenges humans faced through life, forks in the road where one could take the wrong or right fork. He labeled his final fork for the aged as “Integrity vs. Despair.” By “Integrity” he meant an old person who looks back over life and sees it as largely as worthwhile, e.g. “I made some mistakes but my life was worth living.” The other fork (Despair) is when an old person reflects on life and regrets the way it turned out. Vanity of vanities…all of life is vanity. To Erikson it was the major task of old age: reflecting on life and pronouncing it satisfying and worthwhile on the whole. The temptation here is to reject one’s own life that has already been lived. It is why older people turn to alcohol—to drown the vanity of their life. It is also partly why the largest single age for suicides is old age, mostly among males. These have asked, “What was it all for?” and answered, nothing. They examined their life and found it wanting. This is sometimes why even in the church we see the “walking dead” in our hallways. Unwilling to end it all by suicide they pronounce themselves dead while still walking about. Succumbing to despair they even see their own impending death as an escape from a painful uselessness of life. Plunging into despair is a besetting temptation of old age.


9.  Doubt

Old age is not pretty. For some it can be delightful and beautiful but for many getting old is difficult work. It may the most difficult test of one’s entire life. Thus the greatest challenges (and temptations to sin) can be at the end of life, not in adolescence. When an old person faces pain, abandonment, and death and their old age did not turn out to be the icing on the cake, they can be tempted to doubt God’s goodness. Thoughts come into their loneliness saying, “You gave your whole life to God and the church and look what you got for it—is that how God rewards His servants?”  The Enemy says, “So now you lost your wife, you lost your driving privileges, you have to move in with you son, then they put you in this nursing home, the pastor and people (and even your own children) seldom come to see you…you are forgotten—is that what God has given you for your life of service to the church?” How could God be good if this is how he rewards your faithfulness?” So they are tempted to surrender to the Enemy’s line of thought and doubt the goodness of God. Doubt is a besetting temptation of old age.


10. Losing faith

For some old people the greatest battle of faith comes at the end of life. People who die young can more easily die with a strong faith. The survivors who get old may face bigger battles. For some, (especially males) the ultimate trial of faith is at the end—asking the final and ultimate question: Does God exist or has all this been a sham? This battle is usually faced silently and in the interior secret rooms of the mind. Men who are facing this battle don’t even tell their wife. “Maybe there is no afterlife at all?” “Maybe there is no heaven and it was all just hopeful thinking to help us cope with life.  The final battle between faith and unbelief sometimes comes at the end of life. I knew one saintly preacher who was visited by younger preachers when he was dying with cancer. Looking up blearily to his visitors he said, “It is true isn’t it—tell me it’s true.” The visitors vigorously nodded and said, “It’s true—it’s true for sure.”  The white-haired saint’s eyes fluttered and closed as he whispered, “I hope so…I hope so…  How can a man preach with firm conviction all his life, and then face doubt and unbelief at the very end?  Because sometimes the hardest tests come in the final minutes of the game. The Enemy does not give up when we reach our deathbeds—he will present us with a final temptation: to “curse God and die.” Losing faith is the ultimate temptation of old age, especially those who suffer in the end.




Not everyone faces all these sins of old age. Perhaps you will die young and escape these later and larger tests. Or you may dodge these challenges even though you live to be 95. But many of us are going to live longer than we expected. It is no longer unusual to live to 100. The temptations we face in old age might be our biggest tests of all.  Perhaps Jeremy Taylor was right—all of life is to prepare us to “die well.” Our final legacy to our family and church may not be their memories of how we lived, but also how we died.  But dying is not just a momentary thing. It is longer than the moment of passing but includes the extended process we have described above.  The church has rightfully launched all kinds of ministries to help adolescents through the teen years and through a Christian college. Perhaps the church will increasingly launch more ministries to help old people face these bigger crises. By God’s grace, and with the help of the church we all can “die well.”



Companion article: Resisting the sins of old age.


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Keith Drury   October 27, 2009