Since last month I have been thinking about old age. On May 4, my mother celebrated her 99th birthday. She awoke, said “99 — I made it!” and requested a chocolate cake. A week later she died.

Her own mother, my grandmother, was born in 1898 and lived 102 years. The year she turned 94, an election year, we had an extended conversation about politics. “Who was your favorite president?” I asked. She thought for a moment and declared, “Roosevelt.”

“I can understand that,” I replied. “After all, he led us during World War II, and started many important programs, like Social Security…”

“Not that Roosevelt!” she interrupted. “I mean Teddy Roosevelt.” She told of taking a trolley to downtown Philadelphia to listen to one of Teddy’s speeches on a whistle-stop tour during his second run for the White House, in 1912. “He was such a handsome young man…” she mused.

I had recently returned from Russia, a country in chaos after the fall of Communism. When I described the changes I had witnessed, my grandmother piped in, “I remember when those boys took over,” she said, speaking of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. “I didn’t think they would last.” Outliving a century gives one a certain perspective: she had watched a powerful ideology appear on the scene, burst into light, then fade away like a dying star.

Remarkably, my wife’s grandmother also lived through the entire 20th century; she died at age 104. A classy Southern woman, she had graduated from college with a degree in music. Growing up, she knew men who had fought in the Civil War, and buildings in her hometown of Columbia, South Carolina, still bore the scars of bullets and artillery.

In the year 2000, I congratulated her on her achievement. “Think of it, Grandmother, you’ve lived in three different centuries. She looked puzzled. “You were born in 1898, the 19th century. You lived all through the 20th century. And now it’s the 21st century. Three centuries—that’s amazing.”

In her furrowed brow I could see her mind struggling to absorb that fact. Then she came up with a response no one could have predicted. “Humph. Seems more like five.”

I can hardly fathom the blur of changes both grandmothers saw. Born before the Wright brothers launched their rickety airplane, they lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Radio, television, the refrigerator, air conditioning, automobiles, highways, antibiotics, computers, nuclear weapons—none of these existed in their childhood.

As I probed our grandmothers’ astonishing memories, I noticed a trend that seems almost universal in the reminiscences of older people: they tend to recall difficult, tumultuous times with a touch of nostalgia. According to polls, 60 percent of Londoners who survived the Blitz now remember that time as the happiest period of their lives. Somehow a new spirit of community and patriotism sprang up to eclipse even the horror of bombs and V-2 rockets. In the U.S., the elderly swap stories about World War II and the Great Depression; they speak fondly of hardships such as blizzards, the childhood outhouse, and the time in college when they ate canned soup and stale bread three weeks in a row. (Will the current generation someday regale their grandchildren with stories about the COVID-19 pandemic when people wore masks, argued about vaccines, and stayed indoors during lockdowns?)

I ran into this pattern again when I worked on The Gift of Pain, the memoir of Dr. Paul Brand, a missionary surgeon who had entered his ninth decade of life and sixth decade of marriage. As I interviewed him and his wife Margaret about their life together, they too kept circling back to the crisis moments.

For example, there was the interval in 1946-7 when Paul had preceded Margaret to Vellore, India. In that year of independence and partition, unrest between Hindus and Muslims began spreading across the northern part of the country. In southern India, though, especially the region around Vellore, Hindus and Moslems lived together in reasonable harmony. Thus Paul wrote and asked his young wife to bring their two infant children and join him as soon as possible.

Back in England, things did not look so rosy. London papers reported that violence was sweeping across India, forcing the greatest human migration in history. Four million refugees had fled to the city of Calcutta alone. In the northwest, Sikhs boarded trains, made men pull down their pants, and killed all those circumcised (Muslims); Pakistanis waylaid trains going the opposite direction and killed the uncircumcised (Hindus). An estimated 75,000 to 100,00 women and girls were systematically raped.

Paul Brand’s glowing reports of the situation in Vellore contradicted the frightening headlines Margaret was reading in London: “SLAUGHTER IN THE PUNJAB…BRINK OF CIVIL WAR…MASSACRE OF EUROPEANS PREDICTED.” Her family, not realizing the nearest trouble spots were a thousand miles from Vellore, thought it the height of folly for her to take two babies to such a place. But Margaret, trusting her husband, took a leap of faith and did so.

There were other family crises as well, and I heard versions from both Paul and Margaret. At the time, these dramatic intrusions seemed to call into question their entire relationship. But they retold the stories with nostalgia, for the crises fit together into—indeed, helped form—a pattern of love and trust. Looking back, from the vantage of fifty years, it seemed clear that the Brands’ mutual response to the stormy times was what gave their marriage its enduring strength.

Every marriage has crisis times, moments of truth when one partner (or both) is tempted to give up, to judge the other undependable, irrational, untrustworthy. Great marriages survive these moments; weak ones fall apart. When divorce happens, tragically, both partners lose out on the deeper strength that comes only from riding out such stormy times together. If, for example, Margaret Brand had judged her husband crazy for beckoning her to India in the midst of political turmoil, and filed for divorce—how sad that would have been. A splendid marriage and partnership in God’s work would have been irretrievably lost.

Great relationships take form when they are stretched to the breaking point and do not break. Seeing this principle lived out in people like the Brands, I can better understand one of the mysteries of relating to God. Abraham climbing the hill at Moriah, Job scratching his boils in the hot sun, David hiding in a cave, Elijah moping in a desert, Moses pleading for a new job description—all these heroes experienced crisis moments when they were sorely tempted to judge God uncaring, powerless, or even malign. Confused and in the dark, they faced a turning point: whether to turn away embittered, or step forward in faith. In the end, all chose the path of trust, and for this reason we remember them as giants of faith.

The Bible is littered with tales of others—Cain, Samson, Solomon, Judas—who flunked such tests. Their lives, like the marriages that fail too soon, give off a scent of sadness and remorse: oh, what might have been.

In America, I’ve noticed, a consumer mentality tends to infiltrate relationships as well as commerce. Some people treat marriage partners like automobiles; every few years it’s time to upgrade to a new model. Some Christians treat churches the same way. And some even approach God with a consumer spirit: when God performs satisfactorily, that merits our worship, but when God seems distant or unresponsive, why bother?

Why bother? Because the deepest strength only comes through testing.

Partly from listening to elderly people, I have learned that faith means trusting in advance what will only make sense in reverse. Fifty years casts another light on marriage; the century looks different to a 94-year-old. And I believe that human history will take on a new look from the vantage point of eternity. Every scar, every hurt, every disappointment will be seen in a different light, bathed in an eternity of love and trust. Not even the murder of God’s own Son could end the relationship between God and human beings. In the alchemy of redemption, that most villainous crime became a day we now call Good Friday.

C. S. Lewis once said that our first words on getting to heaven will be “Ohhh…” with an air of “Now I understand.”




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35 responses to “The Long View”

  1. Joan Matthews says:

    I identified with so much of what was written, and I helped to look after old people which also gave me a deeper understanding of life. I remember a priest coming to give last rites to an elderly lady in my care and he said “I wish I was as ready as she is!”

  2. Jim Moore says:

    I agree with a lot of what you have said, but not all. I am not sure if I should try to explain, because what I agree with is that we have very little understanding of what really matters in the present moment.

    What came to mind as you ended with the CS Lewis quote was Rev 6:10. Those who had been slain for the word of God, who evidently knew Him well enough, and were in His presence, still asked “How long”. The Lord brought me comfort through that, when I imagined that I was failing Him in some way when I cried “How long” or “How I long” (for the fulfillment of His promises). He assured me that it was not weakness. He was not displeased.

    I also wonder about those who flunk the test, who you set opposed to the heroes of faith. I think it is more the concept of flunking tests. They certainly fade from view. Something in their (the flunkers) lives is important as God relates to us. And for complete transparency, I have a struggle with reconciling the language of 2 Peter 3:9 with the description of hatred for Esau and his lineage. But to use more “I” language, I wonder how many tests I have flunked. I wonder why God still loves me. Sometimes, I wonder if He still loves me. I talk to Him. He seems to talk to me when He wants. Most of it is tender and today, it was playful.

    But, I am led to think a lot about receiving the kingdom as a child. Children, especially little children, don’t count how many times they flunk tying their shoes, or failing to stop whatever is so interesting to use the bathroom. Children don’t care what they don’t know, because they know their Abba does. Children may care in the moment when their knot falls apart or their pants are a mess, but they have faith in the one teaching them. And that is what the one teaching them cares about.

    When I start to wonder about things that theologians seem to have been concerned about, like losing salvation, or having a seared conscience, i.e. choosing a state where the wooing of the love of God cannot reach us, I simply get encouraged to return to being like a little child, and looking in the face of my Father.

    I am 69 years old at this point, and growing younger.

  3. Marjorie Rudolph says:

    Thank you. Your writing is always received with gratitude for the gifts and insight God gives you.

  4. Donald White says:

    We need far more of the “long view” before it is unavailable to us.
    A sincerely, heartfelt “thank you,” Philip, for doing your part.


  5. Steve Gimbert says:

    My mom’s mom lived one week shy of 108. At the age of 105 she was talking with her friends where she was living there in the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas. Her doctor called my mom in NY to relate what he’d overheard. She and her friends were talking about heaven and she remarked “most of my friends are thinking that I didn’t make it”! I hope to have that degree of cognitive ability in my 80’s if God allows. She also spent time in the 19th-21st centuries. Always enjoy your thoughtful updates Phillip. Thanks for keeping in touch.

  6. Peggy Yearsley says:

    Just a simple, heartfelt thank you!❤

  7. Cherilyn Johnson says:

    Thank you, Phil. God bless you as you journey. And thank you for sharing so much of your journey with us over the years.

  8. David Such says:

    Thanks again for your insight, Philip. Stories from your grandmother(s) reminded me of stories from my grandpa who lived 1903-2006. When he was well into his nineties, he said that in the inside, he was still a little kid.

  9. Ann-Elise Grosser says:

    I loved this! I appreciated the wise perspective you shared and laughed at the comment that living in 3 different centuries felt like five!

  10. Ofelia says:

    Love your insight, Philip. Hope you can come and visit us again at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, CA.. That was where I first met you, not very long ago. Pre-Covid. We have a new pastor – Pastor Jason Smith from North Carolina. We all love him!!! I hope he stays…

  11. I am now 96 years of age and am in fairly good health. I keep expecting some tragedy to befall me – as has happened to almost all my contempories. If and when it does, I will remember this inspiring article and take much comfort from it. Thank you so much.


  12. Cynthia Ann Storrs says:

    As always, insightful, thought-provoking, and pointing us back to God and His Truth. Thank you, Philip.

  13. Chit says:

    Always as always Philip…your writing makes me take a deep breathe of “yes…true….” thank you. Philippians 3-6 (The Message)

  14. Ken Dodge says:

    I am now 06 years of age and in really good healt I. leep expecting some tragedy to befall me as has happened to almost all my bontempories. If and when i t goes. I will remember this inspiring article and take much comfort from it. Thank you so much.

  15. Elsie Wietzke says:

    Dear Philip,
    Thank you, thank you for all of it! At 94 (why don’t I feel that old?), I find myself more selective and discriminating in what I choose to read and how to spend the time with which I have been gifted. Saying goodbye to all dear and familiar to me seems heartbreaking, until I reflect on what, through faith in all that our beloved Lord has promised, is yet to come! Thank you for reinforcing and encouraging and insuring with your words and by your example. Blessings to you🙏.

  16. Dan Huff says:

    Great thoughtful and informative article and one more thing I have noticed about getting older ….. time goes by much faster as events that happened two years ago are remembered as happening only a few months ago!

  17. Shelley says:

    My grandmother was also born in 1898. She lived to be 99. I asked her one time who was her favorite President and she also said Roosevelt. I made the same mistake you did assuming it was FDR. But it was also Teddy!

  18. Millie ternasky says:

    Phil, I’m sitting at my computer….I really should say, I have been sitting here for two hours trying to enter the correct information to order groceries. I’ ve always considered my self a reasonably intelligent person but put a keyboard in front of me and there is doubt!!!! I will be 92 in August and find that my mind does not compute with computers. Love your writing. millie

  19. Carolyn Storey says:

    Thank you for this wonderful perspective on earthly life and it’s struggles that can lead to strength.

  20. Melinda Hagerman Ecker says:

    Love these thoughts and truths! I believe it’s one reason (maybe?) God allows some of us to experience “old age”…to share with younger folk some things we’ve learned.
    Also, I send a short email each week to our “Seasoned Seniors” group at my church.
    As I’m sitting here, contemplating what “nuggets of truth” I can share this week…I opened up your email …and there it is! Ha! God is do good! ❤️

  21. Jeffrey Price says:

    Thank you

  22. Tina Pettifer says:

    Oh my that is really good. My husband and I will celebrate 50 years of marriage this year. We have just talked about the good and also difficult times. Certainly difficulties strengthened us as a couple.
    Your writings are an inspiration. Thank you.

  23. Michael says:

    My dear friend Philip, it is really a wonderful article, it really touched me, because I am going through very difficult times, I lost my job, I lost what was missed from my working life, especially since this happened with great injustice and lack of justice, I was asking God, are you by my side? If you stay by my side, why is this happening to me? Especially since I had been in a serious car accident three years ago. Thank you for your words that reach our hearts, it is truly from the Lord, I wish you a happy life and old age like an eagle that is renewed like a young man who satisfies your life with goodness, so that like an eagle renews your youth.
    (Psalms 103:5)

  24. Ken Davis says:

    What powerful and encouraging insight Philip! A 100 year old lady was invited to come to the front of the church and share her testimony. The pastor asked her, “what is the greatest blessing of being 100?” She pause for a moment in deep thought, and then responded “lack of peer pressure. “

  25. Robert J Royer says:

    PY: None of us needs a largeLoad of adoration piled on, but want to thank you for your books…they are a hugeBlessing to me and my walk with with Christ. When you announced your diagnosis with Parkinson’s, it was a disappointment that once again, a leader in our spiritual battle is afflicted. And just now would like to reveal some insight that would be helpful, but will just continue to look forward to meeting you on THAT Day. Blessings.

  26. Truth — understanding what the seasoned citizens meant by what they would talk about, truly an uncomfortable, bittersweet appreciation.

    I am sorry for your mom’s passing — but grateful for your willingness to share, especially vignette of the Brands.

  27. Sherry Wilcox says:

    Thank you for this article.

  28. Michele Breen says:

    Thank You

  29. Barbara Jarnes says:

    Thank you, Philip, for your thoughtful commentary on life’s struggles and the payoff for perseverance. I pray for you to have all you need from our Tower of Strength as you meet the challenges of illness and aging.

  30. Darlene Hixon says:

    Thank you Philip for this truth and reminder this morning.
    Indeed, “deepest strength only comes through testing”.
    Lord, help me remember that today.

  31. Jen Kloss says:

    Such a beautiful reflection! Thank you. It makes me think of Oscar Romero’s prophetic prayer: Prophets of a Future Not Our Own (

  32. Nicola says:

    Even C. S. Lewis made God too small. Although had he lived longer, and understood more of his mentor G. Macdonald’s work, he would have grown wider, deeper and higher. You know, I think for many of us, our first words in Eternity will be, ‘I never knew this. I am so sorry,’ to which God will say, ‘Don’t worry child. You all say that!’

  33. Linda L Hoenigsberg says:

    Philip when I see your name in my inbox, my heart skips a beat…I anticipate good things. This post reminded me of many things…mainly that looking back at crisis times and feeling a touch of nostalgia isn’t a strange phenomena (I look back on a decade of serious emotional illness when I was in my twenties and think of the sweet town where I lived, time spent with my little children and my small church family who supported me, etc., rather than the emotional hell I was going through at the time). The post reminded me of the three decades of marriage to my husband, in which we marvel how each crisis has only brought us closer to each other, and the quote by C.S. Lewis…pure gold.

  34. Jenn says:

    ‘I have learned that faith means trusting in advance what will only make sense in reverse.’

    Love that so much. Thank you, your writing is still, and always will be, my favorite.

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