Fears, Doubts and the Loss of Spiritual Assurance in Later Years

In this article from the recent Bulletin of the Affinity Social Issues Team, Roger Hitchings considers this important but often neglected matter in the pastoral care of Christians in later life:

In his fascinating book ‘Being Mortal’, a book about life in old age, Atul Gawande, who is a surgeon, writer and public health researcher, quotes a gerontologist friend who says, ‘Old age is a continuous series of losses’. In many ways that is a statement of the obvious, but we need to recognise that its accuracy encompasses the whole of life, and has repercussions in every area of life, including in our spiritual lives.

That older age brings many losses is clearly a fair reflection of the experience of most people who live into their 80s and 90s, especially as they lose their physical capacities. Many of the senses diminish, the ability to move around freely reduces, sleep patterns change and continence control becomes a problem. It is also true in the social aspects of life as roles in family and community change. As one frail elderly lady said to her daughter, ‘once I did everything for you, but now we have changed roles and you do everything for me’. Similarly, status in the family and in society becomes different. From being significant and respected, older people move more to the periphery of things and become observers rather than participants. Many seniors expect these losses to occur, but struggle when they actually occur. This is one of the reasons why in earlier life many people have a dread of growing old.

A very healthy and alert lady in her early seventies said to me, ‘I don’t want to grow old.’ I had to remind her that as long as she continued breathing she could not avoid it. She was, of course, merely expressing the generally negative view of old age that we find throughout society. While the other more positive aspects of advanced years are too often ignored or played down, the primary focus in thinking about later life is on loss and decline.

This article looks at one particular effect of these losses that is rarely considered or recognised, and which, even in evangelical Christian circles, fails to receive the pastoral response that it deserves. For a significant percentage of older people a particularly distressing effect of loss is the development of doubts, fears and a loss of assurance of salvation.

It is a fascinating feature of Psalm 71 – the older person’s Psalm – that twice the writer says, ‘do not forsake me’. He also says ‘do not cast me off’ and ‘do not be far from me’. He is fighting against fears and doubts as he feels the oppression of his enemies, but also the possibility of the loss of God himself. Older people may feel a degree of embarrassment about having such fears and doubts and so they tend to keep quiet. When I raise these issues in presentations, people often thank me for talking about them, saying such things as, ‘I don’t talk about them myself because people would not understand’, or more sadly, ‘I feel I am such a failure to be going through this and I don’t know how to explain it to anyone’, or, ‘I thought it was just me who had to face these challenges’. Part of the reason for this article is to air the reality of these things.

Jim was a man I greatly respected and looked up to. He had occupied a leadership role in the church he attended with great distinction and extraordinary graciousness over many years. It seemed that he always knew what to say about every issue and he could handle difficult or distressed people with such tenderness and compassion. A minister once referred to him as the ideal elder. But one day when he was in his mid-80s he spoke to me about something that was troubling him. ‘Over the last few years’, he quietly said, ‘I have been increasingly disturbed by doubts about the very things I have built my whole life upon. And I find myself wondering if I really am a believer.’ It was all so unexpected and shocking to him. He then commented, ‘I can’t talk to my pastor; he is young and doesn’t have much time or understanding of older people. So, I struggle on, but it is really worrying me.’ That confidence in the Lord that had always marked his conversation and demeanour was absent. He was perplexed and troubled. How could he, after over sixty years of following the Lord, find himself experiencing such uncertainty?

Then there was Peter – a remarkable preacher and thinker. He had pastored in several churches with great blessing and benefit to the people to whom he ministered. He was a real ‘people-person’ – devoid of self-focus and very generous in his estimation of others. He was so clear on the gospel, having read deeply and widely, and was profoundly knowledgeable on theological matters. But as the years went by the frailty of age developed, his memory became more and more unreliable, and his ability to do many ordinary tasks deserted him. He became inward-looking and preoccupied with his own condition; his delight in spiritual conversation disappeared; instead he reminisced about himself or spoke incessantly about his problems and the inadequacies of those who were trying to help him. Clearly something was wrong.

After several discussions in which I gently probed where he was spiritually, he confessed to being overwhelmed by fear that he had never been a believer. As he put it ‘I have lost the joy of salvation. Everything seems meaningless to me at the moment. I don’t know if what I used to preach is really true.’ Of course, there were the signs of developing dementia which I had discussed with him on numerous occasions, but there was also a growing spiritual crisis. He was not resentful or even slightly angry about his intellectual losses. He accepted the fact of them as part of ageing and sought to live within his remaining capacities. But he had lost that spiritual edge and decisiveness which had always marked him out.

David was quite different from the other two men. Yes, he was a fine example of a Christian man, and he had held office in the churches he had attended. But there was something matter-of-fact about his problems. Throughout his life he had dealt with the spiritual questions and doubts that most believers face with what looked like an unshakeable trust in the Lord. Then as he entered his 80s ill health had assailed him. He had coped with it well and, in fact, through very difficult times he had shown beautiful composure and a firm trust in the sovereign dispositions of God. Now his health had returned to some degree and he seemed to be going along well. But his interest in spiritual issues had declined. If concern was expressed, he would pass it off by saying, ‘It’s my age, you know.’

However, he spoke to me about it after a meeting at which I had raised the issue. He had found himself being disturbed by serious doubts about his faith for a couple of years after his illness, and a gnawing fear had possessed his heart and mind – fear that there was no God, and that he had wasted his whole life by seeking to follow the Lord. Some close friends had discussed things with him and had advanced strong arguments to seek to re-establish his faith. They had prayed with him and shown him impressive love and understanding. But he had lost his longing to seek the Lord for himself. So he had decided to quietly abandon spiritual things. He could not understand what had happened to him, and without any explanation he felt abandoned and lost. But he could not forget what he had known in the past and the joys and peace that had been his, nor could he ignore the testimony and lives of his caring friends. So why had he lost all his spiritual bearings?

These three men are quite dramatic examples of the issues to which I am drawing attention. Many other examples could be given which are less striking but equally distressing for the people involved. Some who read this will begin to think of those they have known, especially those in their last days facing eternity. John Bunyan accurately pictures this in Pilgrim’s Progress as Christian crosses the river of death. As he goes further into the waters they get deeper than he expected. Doubts and fears begin to enter his heart and mind. And he despairs for a while that he will get across. That is how it can be for some.

So we need to consider what may be the causes of these troubles and how we may respond to those who experience these doubts, fears and loss of assurance. I would suggest that there are twelve contributing factors which may come into play. Not all of them will affect every older person, but different aspects will be relevant to different people.

i)               Losses of ageing

As we have considered already, there are a variety of losses associated with later life. These are not just physical phenomena, but also social, psychological, intellectual and emotional. The losses in one area of life can undermine confidence in other areas too. My wife and I ran a charity for people with visual impairment. One individual complained that their sight was even worse than normal. It was a very real and distressing experience for them. However, the reality was that a member of the family had not rung up to speak to them when they should have. The sense of reduced vision was real, but the cause was not in the eyes but in the heart. So it can also be in spiritual things.

ii)              Uncertainties due to losses

Associated with these losses are growing uncertainties about personal capabilities and the reliability of others, especially carers. This uncertainty often leads to increased anxiety and a loss of confidence. Most people experience a measure of increased anxiety as they get older, but here we are looking at its further intensification. It may vary with individual personalities and circumstances, but when many aspects of life are affected in this way then reduced confidence in the Bible, and even in God, can begin to arise. Doubts and fears once entertained can be very difficult to shift.

iii)             Demands of ageing

Coping with losses and uncertainties, as well as the discomforts and limitations of age, can be very emotionally and physically demanding. With some it can become all-consuming. The needed strength to resist the spiritual onslaught is reduced by the battle to cope with the problems in other areas of life. The writer in Psalm 71 appears to be experiencing this weakness. Is it not significant that so many great men in the Old Testament fell into sin towards the end of their lives? Think about Noah, Abraham and Isaac, David, Solomon and many others.

iv)             Undue concern over sin and lack of focus on the full extent of forgiveness

We are all conscious of our past sins and failures. There are times when memories of them come back to us with deep feelings of regret. We have to remind ourselves that the atoning work of Christ has dealt with all our sin and that he forgives us completely. Indeed, the Lord chooses not to remember our past sins (Hebrews 10:17). But if for some reason we dwell on our failures too much a sense of unworthiness and wretchedness can come over us which destroys all joy and peace. In later years, and especially as frailty develops, there is more time to think and ruminate. That is both a blessing and a danger; it is at such times that people are vulnerable and may become overwhelmed by the depth of their sinfulness, leading to a loss of all sense of assurance. Thank the Lord that Christ is more than sufficient for the full extent of our indebtedness to God!

v)              Unhelpful teaching earlier in life

It is a symptom of older age that things that happened years ago may be more easily recalled than recent events. This can be true of what someone has been taught as well. If in their early Christian life a believer was taught that salvation may be lost and that their standing before God is to some measure dependent on their efforts and commitment, then, even if later in life they come to a different perspective through study and ministry, that earlier teaching may be recalled and feed into developing doubts and fears.

vi)             Deep seated disappointments over circumstances and health

There is a very complex relationship between spiritual health and the deepest reactions to the losses of age, especially some of the illnesses with which it is particularly. An elderly believer can convince himself and others that he has accepted the wisdom of God in declining health, and he may use all the right language to express genuine trust in the Lord. But at the same time deep in his heart there is a real sense of disappointment and sorrow which can gnaw away at his confidence in the Lord. Such souls need help to search out this hidden resentment and to establish a better frame of mind. Of course, in some the disappointment is not hidden at all and is expressed strongly and clearly; that also has to be addressed.

vii)            Difficulties in concentration affecting spiritual life

Another feature of ageing is reducing powers of concentration. Reading Scripture may be a regular habit and duty but meditating and reflection on that reading may become more difficult. Sight problems can also come into play here; losing the ability to read for oneself or to retain what has been read for further consideration is a sore blow to any believer. Even the normal reduction in powers of recall can have a debilitating impact on meditation and reflection. This loss of concentration and recall affects personal prayer and the reading of Scripture and other spiritually edifying materials. It also affects listening to preaching; just following a reasoned presentation can become arduous after fifteen to twenty minutes. And even when the older person has been able to keep up with the sermon, the ability to recall the details and to draw out spiritual benefit as once they would have done may be much reduced.

viii)          Problems with preaching and worship

These are interconnected, but I have divided them up to just highlight the way they can affect those suffering with fears and doubts. The words of many modern worship songs are quite subjective, which may well be of great benefit to younger people. However, it is somewhat alien to older people’s own way of thinking about the Lord and spiritual life. This can reinforce feelings of doubt and inadequacy in the older person.

Some modern preaching can focus heavily on the ‘practical’ side of Christian living. Again, it is a different approach to what many older people are used to. One dear man told me that the cross had not been preached in the church he attended for several months, even at the Lord’s Table. Successive series on ‘The Family’ (with emphasis on nurturing children), ‘Being a Christian at Work’, and ‘Relationships’ (which included sermons on Intimacy and Lust) did little for the troubled older members of the congregation. Each series was valid but the three together meant almost six months of desert experience for a number of those in later life. The undeniable truth is that nothing strengthens faith like preaching Christ and his finished work. If that is limited or non-existent the power of doubt and fear is not being challenged as it needs to be.

ix)             Inability to talk about spiritual things

One 90-year-old told me, ‘so few Christians engage in real and encouraging spiritual conversation’. It is not that people are unfriendly but their focus in conversation may not often include spiritually encouraging subjects which could be a lifeline for the troubled believer. Its absence can reinforce the sense of disillusionment with the things of God.

x)              Personality traits

Despite all that has been said so far this is a key issue. Some people have personalities that are more melancholic than others, some are more prone to negative thoughts than others and so on. It is also true that some godly persons are more sensitive to their own weaknesses and more likely to internalise issues. That can feed doubt and fear if it is not recognised and checked. Thus, these later life doubts and fears often appear to affect the most spiritual. As people get older they need to know themselves and be ready to correct any tendencies towards doubting and fear.

xi)             Unpreparedness

What we are looking at is a hidden phenomenon and rarely talked about by older people. Consequently, godly saints are not prepared for the onslaught of doubt and fear, and feel ashamed to speak about it. Church ministry on preparing for old age would help many older people to be better equipped to resist these problems when they arise.

xii)            The Devil

He specialises in sowing doubts and fears in the hearts and minds of all believers, including elderly saints. He is aware of all the above and he exploits them in his malign efforts to damage the Christian’s joy and peace.

This summary of some of the key issues that affect peace and assurance in later years shows why older people need informed pastoral care. They are as vital a part of the Christ’s flock as every other age group, but sometimes they can get forgotten. A verse that has been a tremendous help to me in responding to these issues is Isaiah 50:10.

‘Who among you fears the Lord? Who obeys the voice of his Servant? Who walks in darkness and has no light? Let him trust in the name of the Lord and rely upon his God.’

This shows that times of darkness and doubts are a part of normal Christian experience. It also shows that the Lord is not against us because we are in such a place, and that he may be trusted during these times. Indeed, the whole Bible is full of help and encouragement for troubled believers. The gospel is itself a tremendous balm to distressed souls, and to be able to use it to direct attention to Christ in all his beauty, fulness and compassion is a wonderful privilege.

It was said of the Lord Jesus that ‘a bruised reed he will not break, and the smoking flax he will not quench’ (Matthew 12:20). These bruised saints with their almost extinguished faith need those who, like the Master, can tenderly and patiently restore them. It is to encourage understanding and promote such tender care that this article has been prepared.

Roger Hitchings

(This article was originally published in the Affinity Social Issues Bulletin for July 2019. The whole edition can be found at www.affinity.org.uk)

The Social Issues Team publishes The Bulletin three times each year, containing information about current issues relevant to churches and Christians.

A PDF of this article is available to download here.

The whole issue of the latest Bulletin may be downloaded here:


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