In the western world respect for elders seems to have diminished lately. I think we have a tendency to idolize youth. As little children we want to be older. We are jealous of older kids who can stay up later, do things and go places beyond our tender abilities. After we finally reach a small degree of maturity at 20 or 25 we spend the rest of our lives trying to retain or regain our youth. Perhaps the desire for eternal youth comes from an inner sense that this is what heaven is like. According to New Church theology,
"Our inner self or our spirit does not know what old age is. Rather, as the body or the outward self grows old, we pass into newness of life. As we age our spirit is made more perfect, at the same time as our physical powers diminish. This is truer still in the next life, for the Lord is constantly leading those in heaven into a more perfect life, and at length into the bloom of youth, including those people who have died at a ripe old age." (Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven §4676)
Another passage says,
“People in heaven are continually advancing towards the spring of life, with a greater advance towards a more joyful and happy spring the more thousands of years they live.... In a word, to grow old in heaven is to grow young” (Heaven and Hell §414).
I suppose when we pay more attention to our bodies than to our spirits, it is easier to see the imperfections of the body than the perfection of the spirit. We see childhood as immaturity and old age as debility, and a perfect body as the only way to have a perfect life. When we focus on the aging of the body it is hard to realize that eternal youth of the spirit is a constant gift to everyone who seeks renewal from God.
The various ages we pass through are all part of the Lord’s process for perfecting us. “Human life, from infancy to old age, is nothing else than a progression from the world to heaven; and the last age, which is death, is the transition itself” (Secrets of Heaven §3016). One might imagine that life would be easier if we could blink into existence as full-grown men and women and avoid all the struggles, growing pains, failures and inadequacies of being a developing child. Perhaps it would be easier, but the fact is that we would lose some of the best parts of us. As an ignorant and incapable baby we learned to trust and we gained innocence. These are vital parts of our character that we would not allow ourselves to accept if we began life with the know-it-all self-confidence of a teenager.
Again, we might imagine that life would be better if the body did decline in old age, but the fact is that by giving up much of our youthful self-sufficiency we gain a humility and innocence that we would not have otherwise. It is much like the innocence of infancy, but it is an innocence that is wise. “We are created so that when we grow old and become like a little child, the innocence of wisdom joins itself with the innocence of ignorance which we had in infancy, and so we pass into the other life as a true infant” (Secrets of Heaven §5608).
From the Bible we learn that every age is valuable and worthy of respect. When some parents brought their little children to Jesus for a blessing, some of the disciples shooed them away, as if the children were not worthy of being in Jesus’ presence. Jesus countered, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them, for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Luke 18:15-17, Mark 10:13-16). Another time children were singing “Hosanna!” as Jesus entered Jerusalem, and the religious leaders criticized Him for allowing them to do so. Again Jesus countered the criticism, this time by quoting David: “Out of the mouth of babes and nursing children you have brought perfect praise” (Psalm 8:2, Matthew 21:16).
Those who are old are likewise respected in the Bible. In fact, one of the Ten Commandments tells us: Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long on the land which the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:). It is the only commandment with a promise attached: If you respect your elders, you too may grow old.
Sometimes old age may seem like a time of loss and debility. Apparently King David worried about this; he prayed, “You are my trust from my youth. By You I have been upheld from birth. You are He who took me out of my mother’s womb.... Do not cast me off in the time of old age. Do not forsake me when my strength fails” (Psalm 71:5-6, 9). For all who have such concerns, the Lord’s answer is that He is with us in all stages of life. “You who have been upheld by Me from birth, who have been carried from the womb: even to your old age, I am He, and even to gray hairs I will carry you! I have made, and I will bear; even I will carry, and will deliver you” (Isaiah 46:3-4).
Abraham and Sarah believed they were far too old to have children, yet Isaac, the child of promise, was born as they approached their century mark (Genesis 17-21). Likewise Elizabeth and Zacharias thought they were too old when their son John was born. These miraculous births are reminders that even old age is a time of renewal, rebirth and progress.
Nothing we experience in this life is lost. Childhood becomes a part of us as adults, and so does every stage of life. “Every one of our states from our infancy right through to extreme old age not only carries over into the next life but also reappears” (Secrets of Heaven §561). In heaven, we will find that our youthful spirits embrace both the wisdom of great age and the exuberant playfulness of little children.
The Rev. John Odhner is an Assistant to the Pastor at the Bryn Athyn Church.