Small Group Guide

Sickness, Growing Old and Death

Posted Feb 12, 2017

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Regrets or Fears?

Let’s begin by recognizing that we’re talking, not about sickness, growing old and dying, but the fear of these things. We’re all going to get sick, grow old and die. There is no avoiding that. But when Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha, experienced anxiety on seeing a sick man, an elderly man and a corpse he was in his late twenties and in good health. It was the fear of these things that troubled him so…. 

The fact that you have a fleeting thought that whatever you’re feeling might be bad is normal. That’s where our powers of reason are meant to step in, evaluate the threat, and either determine “It’s no big deal,” or “Well maybe, we better go see the doctor.” But in our health obsessed culture, we’re inclined to magnify the threat level. 

In the past people went to the doctor only when they were really sick. People didn’t go for annual physicals or health “check-ups” until the 1920’s. Run enough tests, and you’ll likely find something a little off—a bit like taking your car into the shop. We’re also daily encouraged to self-diagnose medical problems we would not have thought of when we see television ads for drugs. The Nielson organization estimates that 80 commercials for medications run on TV every hour. $4.5 billion is spent annually direct marketing to you by drug companies. Then there is the Internet—we have access to more health information than at any time in human history. You feel something, go online and diagnose yourself. This meme captures it well: GOOGLE: creating hypochondriacs since 1998. Hypochondria is defined as an irrational fear of being really sick…. 

We can worry about a lot of things that are unlikely to happen to us. For our purposes, I’d offer this definition of worry: Worry is imagining a negative future that may never happen. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. “Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life?” (Matthew 6:27). He goes on to say, “Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself.” In other words, don’t drag the things that might or could happen in the future into your present. 

How do we avoid worrying about what might happen tomorrow? Buddhists, Christians and most therapists agree that a key to this is called MINDFULNESS. Mindfulness is about neither living in the past, nor the future, but living in the present. You are not sick yet. So don’t ruin today worrying about a sickness that might never come in the future. 

Questions

  • Do you find more of a challenge with not bringing regrets from the past into the present, or with keeping fears about the future out of the present? How can your faith help you with that? How can you as a group support one another in living more mindfully? 

Growing Old

We fear growing old too. We fear it in so many ways and for so many reasons. We fear becoming obsolete or irrelevant. We fear looking old. We are a society that seems to value youth, and we desperately want to postpone growing old, and looking old….. 

Some of the fears we have about getting older, particularly when we are at midlife, are unfounded, but we believe them nonetheless. Let me test this out—how many of you have moments when you can’t remember a word, or someone’s name and you’ve wondered, half-joking, half serious, whether you’ve got early onset Alzheimers? For those 45 to 65, the chance that you don’t have early onset Alzheimer’s is 99.75%.... 

Many of the heroic figures in scripture were what we would call “senior adults.” I love God’s promise in Joel 2:28, repeated in Acts 2, “I will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams.” In our old age, God will continue to fill us with his Spirit and give us dreams of God’s will for our lives. How vital it is that those of us who are not yet “old” listen for the dreams of our elders, and that those who are elders listen to the visions of those who are younger…. 

That brings us to what lies behind our fear of getting sick and growing older: our fear of DEATH. We’re all going to die. According to actuarial tables, most of us will live to at least 80. If you are 80 the tables say you’ll make it to 88 (89 if you are a woman). If you make it to 88 the charts say you’re likely going to make it to 93…and this goes on until, if you make it to 120, the actuarial tables run out of space! But we are all going to die…. 

When Christ saw his friend Mary grieving the death of her brother Lazarus, “Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” He tells us that death has been defeated. We don’t return to repeat the lessons of this life only with different people. We die and are resurrected. 

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul interpreted the prophets in the light of Jesus’ resurrection: “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’” Easter is God’s answer to our deepest fear. God came and walked among us in Jesus, who died and was buried, but on the third day he rose from the grave! When Christ stepped out of the tomb humanity’s greatest enemy was defeated, the deepest source of our fear. When we actually trust this it will be okay when we die. We grieve saying goodbye. But we have the hope that our goodbye is only “for now”…. 

We remember the words of Jesus to his disciples the night before he died: “Don’t let your hearts be troubled, trust in God, trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” 

Like David in the 23rd Psalm, we can say, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” This hope changes how we face our own death, and helps us to grieve as those who have hope when we lose someone we love. Indeed, “Death has been swallowed up in victory!” Trusting this gives us the ability to live life unafraid, with courage and hope. 

Questions

  • When did you first become aware that you seemed “old” to people younger than you? When did you first experience death through the loss of a person (or maybe a pet) who was precious to you? To what extent does your faith assure you that you will see those you love again, even when they die?
  • Almost all of us live most days without thinking much about our own mortality? Have you ever had an illness or dangerous situation that created in you a sense that “I might die”? Do you relate differently to the possibility (and, eventually, the certainty) of your own death than you do to the death of other people? How much are you able to trust that “death has been swallowed up in victory”? 

The Fear of the Lord

The Bible addresses fear more often than any topic except justice and forgiveness. It often teaches us not to be afraid, for God is with us. But while we’re usually told not to be afraid, Scripture also repeatedly tells us that we’re meant to have one fear: “The fear of the Lord.” We’ve often misunderstood this idea, but I don’t want you to miss it. 

We often see God as our friend, as our loving Father, but we forget that God is the power behind all that exists. Abraham, Moses and others, when they came in contact with the glory of God fell to their knees and hid their faces, not because God was angry, vengeful, or cruel, but because their very existence was contingent upon him. Apart from his grace and love, they knew his power and glory would have totally consumed them. God’s power and God’s love are inseparable. Together, they are AWE – FULL. 

The writer of Proverbs tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the beginning of knowledge, and that, “The fear of the LORD leads to life.” That reverence, respect, awe, fear leads us to seek to walk carefully, reverently and faithfully before God. It leads us to recognize that God is God and we are not. All other fears would disappear in the light of this fear, if we fully understood it. And that leads to something many even secular books talk about as one of the most important ways of overcoming fear: Being clear about a purpose bigger than yourself, and seeking to pursue it. Your purpose is to love God, and to love your neighbor, to walk with God and to do his will. In the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, it is to “Seek first the Kingdom of God,” and all other things will take care of themselves…. 

Will you fear the Lord, trusting in his love, and offer your life to him each day? As we do that each day, we’ll still experience fear from time to time, but his perfect love will in fact cast out our fear. 

Questions

  • What factors, if any, in your upbringing or early experiences in church made you fear that God was angry and vengeful toward you? How would you distinguish the healthy, respectful “fear of the Lord” from the kind of fear that makes you want to avoid God’s presence?

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