Lately, we’ve been thinking a lot about old age and dying. Part of that is because we were recently visiting my parents and my mother, a palliative care nurse, has a lot to say about what the end of life looks like. It’s not pretty. There’s a lot of regret, a lot of brokenness, a lot of sin.
During the visit, I went to the park with an old family friend. “You know,” she said, looking at the fall colours, “I think that we’re like trees. We have these covers, these screens that we put up for people to see, and they can be spectacular. But then, at the end, it all drops away, and what we really are is left in the open. Just like the trunks and branches of these trees.”
During the summer, one maple looks pretty much like another. It’s when the leaves come off that you can see twisted limbs, dead and broken branches, and holes that pests live in. After the leaves come off, you can see which trees are healthy and strong and beautiful.
Old age strips away the screens of decency that we put up for other people. Failing mental quickness strips away social skills; failing bodies strip away privacy and dignity; failing memory strips away self-sufficiency and connections with others. What is left is what we really have: the twisted rottenness of sin, or the strength and beauty of holiness.
An unbeliever without the screens becomes openly nasty, fearful, angry, lustful, or covetous. Talk to a caregiver or someone nursing an old and dying unbeliever, and they will tell you that sins, past and present, haunt the scene. The twisted patterns that have been allowed to grow are bared, with nothing to soften the effect.
But a sanctified believer, though perhaps more confused and limited, will show some measure of contentment, joy, and trust. The unbeliever has nothing, and that becomes apparent. They grope for something to cover them as they head towards an unknown eternity. The believer has Christ and the hope of glory, and that becomes apparent, too. They may fear the process of dying, but they are looking forward to being with Christ, which is far better (Phil. 1:23). Though their bodies and minds are fading away, their souls are secure. They are still covered with Christ’s righteousness, even when everything else is stripped away.
That does not mean that a Christian will not struggle or sin when they are old and dying – they will. But the end of their life will not be defined by those sins. Instead, the practice of repentance bears fruit, the discipline of trust eases the close of life, and the habit of prayer maintains the relationship that will carry through death. Years of sanctification become evident. Decades of sowing in the soul reap a harvest of righteousness.
Dying is not an easy business, even for the Christian. As the body shuts down and the soul tears away, there is pain and uncertainty. There may be real struggle, physically and spiritually. But for the believer, instead of despair, there is hope. Instead of a wasted life, there is a record of service to the King. Instead of the ugliness of sin, there is the beauty of holiness, soon to be perfected.
What will you look like when your leaves come off? Once they start falling, it will be too late to change what’s behind them. “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come… and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecc. 12:1, 7)