Stuff I Don’t Get: Finishing Badly–Or Not at All


Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.
—1 Corinthians 9:24

Nothing is more difficult for Christians to deal with than a lost, dying relative. We all want the people we love to make it to heaven. Which is why so many of us hope for that deathbed confession by a long wayward father or irascible aunt. And many times, that confession does come. I know that in my church I hear those stories all the time.

But the one story you don’t seem to hear much comes from the other side of the coin.

What about those stalwart Christians who give 50-plus good years of service to God but in those last couple years before passing on seem to lose their way?

Fact is, I’ve witnessed this a lot. That beloved soul who ministered the Gospel so effectively and vibrantly for years goes into himself in the end of life, gets grumpy, loses that holy smile, and just fades out.

I’ve known people who loved God’s word like no one else yet in the last months or years of life lost all zeal for the Scriptures. The pillar of the church who always talked about Jesus suddenly stops doing so. That elderly saint with the warm heart sees it go cold.

Why does this happen? And why don’t I ever hear anyone talking about it? I’ve got to believe that I’m not the only one who has witnessed this phenomenon.

In those situations, what of perseverance of the saints? Does God allow some kind of special grace here? Or is this a failure to finish the race or some kind of long-delayed negative portion of the sower parable, that seed that grew and finally succumbed 60 years later to the strangling weeds?

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

And God knows that’s not how I want to finish the race.

19 thoughts on “Stuff I Don’t Get: Finishing Badly–Or Not at All

  1. Only one thing qualifies us to finish the race legally. I believe we have that one thing from start to finish. How we hit the check-in points along the way are indicators of whether or not we possess that one thing. But we should be careful not to confuse the check-ins as credits that will help us in the end.

    There are some running the race without that one thing and no matter how they finish, they will still be disqualified.

    Conversely, there are some that are going to jump into the race between the last check-in and the finish line and because they possess the one thing, they will share a place at the banquet table with the rest of us.

    • Rick,

      What confuses me about the Calvinist position is that folks who hold it are just as likely to say that those “fade outs” were never really Christians at all; they faked it for decades. Seriously, I’ve encountered that explanation countless times on the Web. I find it extremely unsatisfying, especially in the light of passages on fruitfulness. Can someone exhibit years and years of the Spirit’s fruit and then dry up to nothing? I’ve seen it happen. What are we to think? (It’s why this series is entitled “Stuff I Don’t Get”!)

      If we allow grace for those who are elderly and suffering the effects of age, at what point do we grant the same grace to someone younger? The pastor who for 30 years serves the Lord with gladness but then seems to retreat into a shell in his late 50s, do we afford him the same grace we give the 80 year old? Or do we simply ignore that pastor’s seeming fade out and get on with our own lives, never wondering why?

      I can’t help but think of someone like J. Hudson Taylor, one of the giants of the faith, and possibly one of the major reasons that China has a vibrant Church today. Taylor buried his entire family in China and returned home a sadder man. Friends made note that something had broken inside him. This is not to say that he abandoned the Lord, only that the spark was not quite the same.

      Maybe it’s my own spiritual weakness that troubles me, but this is one issue I think we need to deal with because it’s more common than we let on.

      • Your points are spot on. I think there’s room for a conversation (not possible via the internet) regarding what “exhibit years and years of the Spirit’s fruit and then dry up to nothing” really means. For me, I try to establish a base before entering into the fuzzier area. That’s what I tried to address in my comment. Your questions are good and to hash through them they need quite a bit of unpacking. Given I can’t do that, I stopped at conveying my start point for this.

        • Sorry, Rick, for imparting any fuzziness into what is already a fuzzy issue. I was attempting to quasi-employ the same vernacular as those who talk about “never truly being a believer in the first place,” but it appears that I didn’t clarify terms enough.

          Darn this faulty brain!

        • Rick,

          I hate labels, particularly in Christianity, but it seemed inevitable that this label would come up, as the issue definitely has a Calvinism/Arminian bent to it (despite that fact that even within each those two houses there’s no consensus on the issue). :-/

  2. mad dog

    I could add to your list the grandparents who love God but apparently hate non-whites even more as they approached the grave. The brain, like all other organs in advanced old age, begins to fail and shut down. I don’t see how this could take place without affecting spiritual thoughts the same as any other.

    On a different note, ever notice how pastors love the sports analogy of this passage and abuse it in all kinds of ways? As an analogy, it’s supposed to help convey the meaning, but too often becomes the meaning itself in our sports-obsessed culture. A pet peeve of mine.

    • Mad Dog,

      Though I admire Martin Luther, his later life and subsequent theology exhibited some “troubling” thoughts.

      As someone who looks at modern professional sports and seeks valiantly for any redeeming qualities, I agree with your statement about sports analogies. Just the other day I was listening to a radio program discussing whether Alex Rodriguez’s 600 homers should come with an asterisk because he admitted to steroid use. The analyst noted that many old timers complain that today’s baseball records are tainted by performance-enhancers, yet amphetamines were the staple of many of those same old timers. The analyst then asked how uppers could have no effect on play. Good point, but not one that fits well with the average megachurch pastor’s sermon. 😉

  3. casey

    Let me know when you figure out an answer to this one. I think sometimes the christian life just gets so exhausting folks are happy to drift away. Especially in their later years when they just don’t have the energy level to keep up with it all.

    • Casey,

      It’s a tough issue, isn’t it? I wish we weren’t so afraid to discuss it, because I’m sure that bringing it out into the open would help us deal with it more effectively.

  4. David

    One of the issues that affects western Christians especially is the concept of retirement. Paul wrote that we should run the race to win, but too often, we run the race to get to 65 so we can rest. Christianity is a lifelong pursuit, but we treat it like an occupation which we will some day put aside for some long-deserved “peace and quiet”.

  5. henry

    Dan, in a discussion with a pastor here in east Tennessee about the oppressive atmosphere one encounters in a nursing home, he made an astute observation that I think applies to this post.

    The pastor said that the enemy knows these people are near the end of their lives, and that he has a limited time to break their faith. The enemy tries to take advantage of their possibly weakened mental or physical abilities and uses all of his weapons to steal as many souls as he can before they die.

  6. Pew Potato

    This reminds me of the Pastor and his wife who killed themselves last year by standing in front of a train.

    Jo Vardell, the DQ manager, also said it was best not to try to understand what reasons led the Johnsons to take a walk down the railroad tracks that night. Life is hard, she said, and sometimes people falter.

    “This is so odd, so out of character,” she said. “It’s just – I don’t know how to explain it.

    “It’s like the Bible says: ‘Even the saints get weary.’ ”

    • Potato,

      Man. Those kinds of stories just break my heart. Sometimes, everyone looks to the pastor for help, but the pastor really has no trustworthy friends to turn to. The problems just keep adding up until someone snaps. 🙁

  7. boethius

    In a somewhat similar thread did you notice Billy Graham has evolved into an inclusionist in the twilight of his life? I’m not sure if it’s just his age or perhaps, facing eternity himself, he’s saddened by the idea that the gate is indeed quite narrow and few will pass through it. I believe there was an article in Newsweek or Time – one of the big mainstream magazines – where he seemed (at least, how I read it) resigned to the notion that maybe there really are no consequences for deciding to be a Muslim or a Jew or an Atheist. This is utterly astonishing for someone who has preached the Gospel his entire life and seen so many converted, perhaps more than any other single preacher in human history. My feeling is that Graham has simply softened in his later years. It seems apropos: The fire-and-brimstone act – while completely genuine in context – seems almost silly for a frail old man near the end of his life. Perhaps our modern standards cast against the Biblical standard is pitifully low (it’s difficult to argue otherwise) but I’m more than willing to extend Graham grace for running the race and faltering a bit at the end. Compared to the soft patter / Christianity Lite of the Joel Osteens and Robert Schullers of the world, Graham’s life’s work has to account for some value to the Kingdom, even if his message today seems rather muddled.

  8. Duke_sc

    It may just be me but as I engage with these debates I feel somewhere at the back of my mind it is my own insecurities about where I am in God that informs my stance on doctrine. I know many who are working hard in the kingdom and putting me to shame, so I cling on to ‘saved by faith and not by works’. I also know a few who having been saved from terrible lives and have gone on to bear much fruit for God but are now languishing in sin. But I say ‘once saved always saved’ because the thought that these good people have thrown it all away seems too hard to consider. To say ‘oh they couldn’t have ever been truly saved’ is such an insult and paints God unjustly in a terribly harsh light. I once wept for a woman who in earlier life had been all out for God until she wed an unbelieving husband. She couldn’t see how God could forgive her for throwing away all the blessings He had given her. I hope one day to see her in Heaven along with all those broken people – believers who have lost their way. Prodigals if you like! Please God enlarge our hearts…

  9. Brian Fikkert

    Luke 10:42 “but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
    Christ said the Scriptures speak of me. We in America have a program to follow and a time structure to keep. We have traded the Living Word for the written word. We are busy doing for, rather than walking with our God and Savior. The flesh can not endure to the end what only the Spirit of God empowers the soul of man to complete. Read Psalm 42 written by a man after God’s own heart.

  10. bn

    Reading this article and the one below it, I am convinced that pastors are not the only ones suffering from burnout…

    Only God knows the heart and the state of anyone’s soul…

  11. For what it’s worth, I believe God betrays His understanding of human age and capability and enthusiasm in Isaiah 40:

    “He gives strength to the weary
    and increases the power of the weak.
    Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
    but those who hope in the LORD
    will renew their strength.
    They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.”

    To my understanding, this doesn’t say that those who hope in the Lord will soar on wings like eagles forever. After a while, they’ll settle into a run – a good run, hopefully; maybe for most of their lives. Then as age envelops them, they will walk with God without passing out.

    A marathon is still a race if you finish it crawling rather than sprinting.

    I think that’s all God asks of us.

    More pointedly to your question: at 55 years of age now, I find myself more easily wearied by the world than I used to be; less youthfully optimistic about how much can be done to improve it; more frustrated in my attempts to serve. My steps are slowing. I want to run, but sometimes it’s just not in me to run anymore.

    Every once in a while, I realize that’s because my focus is on the world and its/my inability – instead of on the Lord and His omnipotence. I have traded out my hope in the Lord.

    I don’t mind finishing the race on my hands and knees, as long as I’m there in prayer.

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