Today I turn 57. I was born in 1957. It’s a 57 kind of year for me.
I don’t like getting old, but I refuse to pretend it’s not happening. And I refuse to be ashamed of what may be my greatest credit. My life doesn’t begin and end with temporal existence. I believe that, “though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day,” (2 Corinthians 4:16 NASB). In this inspired statement God doesn’t deny the sad facts of aging and death. In fact, He puts them in the most graphic and despairing of terms. Can you imagine if The United States Special Commission on Aging changed its name to The United States Special Commission on Decaying? The seniors would storm the white house en masse, flailing walkers and canes, demanding a less derogatory label.
But along with its realism, the verse places the unavoidable negatives of our death-bound existence in the context of a powerful spiritual hope. “Our inner man is being renewed day by day.” What? You mean something about me is getting better instead of worse? In Jesus I actually improve with age, like a Martin guitar’s time-mellowed wood gives a better resonance? Or like an old, beat-up towel actually absorbs more water? Or like a 57 year-old woman might, through an ongoing inner renewal, become more like Jesus each passing day?
While recent studies confirm that certain kinds of memory as well as processing speed and other brain strengths do fade with the years, some things get better. Certain kinds of reasoning ability and intelligences that accumulate with experience actually improve, or at least have the potential for improving.
But beyond all the brain science, I’m interested in how character improves throughout life. What is this “inner man” that is “being renewed day by day”? This esothen (in the Greek) refers to the inner life of a human being. And it needs renewal. In sharp contrast to the humanistic idea of a reservoir of goodness deep inside each person, Jesus said, “For from esothen, out of the heart of men, proceed evil,” (Mark 7:21). The renewal of the esothen, then, is the rebirth experience Jesus put forth to Nicodemus in hushed tones one moonlit night somewhere around Jerusalem. In order to improve characterologically, we need direct, divine, dramatic intervention. We must be born again.
My greatest fear in aging is not losing my memory or my wit. It will happen sooner or later. My greatest fear is becoming grouchy, grumpy, unloving and unloveable. Cognitive decline can rob an individual of the ability to “put on” on a good personality, but character resides at a more foundational level of a person. You can’t fake a good character. But a heart transformed day after day by the Holy Spirit can stay soft with love and grace long after the mind has decayed. I want that transformation, and I want it now and forever.
And when I’m not 57, but 87 (if I live that long), perhaps in the late stages of dementia, I want to be like the sweet old lady who kissed her daughter and said, “I don’t know who you are, but I love you.”
You’re off the hook. You don’t have to buy me a thing for my birthday. This is what I want: to be born again.