A few days ago, I wrote a long, but somehow too brief, piece on (some of) the theological problems arising from the act of assisted suicide, or physician-assisted suicide (PAS), particularly in terms of our attitudes and dealings with suffering. I feel as though some might read what I wrote and find that I don’t make enough of an effort to empathize with the person, the real individual. (I haven’t actually received any criticism, for the record.) I talked a lot about suffering, but what about the sufferer themselves? So, I would like to simply add to what I wrote previously. And I want to sort of think more specifically about the question that may be posed: Am I really supposed to simply trust God?
This question suggests a couple of things simply by its tone. It firstly implies that in the wake of extreme suffering, where physical pain relief is non-existent or ineffective, there is nothing to do except ‘trust and pray’. Secondly, it brings up the sort of cringing, frustrated sentiment we get when we hear, in the news or otherwise, about people’s denial of medicine, pain relief and such for “faith” reasons. How is it different to deny people assisted dying for “faith” reasons? A third thing the question brings up, I think, is that simply “trusting God” doesn’t seem sufficient, compassionate or even like something the God of the Bible would enforce. Wouldn’t God allow me to die, if I feel I really can’t take suffering any longer? Wouldn’t He? As I write these things, I think of the real frustration from the objecting people I’ve heard and read pose the same questions. The hurt and the anger is so real.
This is a difficult thing. This is a touchy, emotionally loaded thing. The news loves this issue because it is so controversial and there is so much strife in scholarly, political and social spheres. So much debate which amounts to not much more than philosophical banter (which I admittedly take part in). Needless to say, this is a volatile thing. But, if one bears with me, let’s take a deep breath, step back a bit, and think long and hard and honestly about this and without the excessive illogical fear of being on the wrong side of history. Let’s bring it — the debate — down from the clouds to what matters: the person, themselves, and God.
For the sufferer considering the route of assisted suicide/dying (or just suicide) or the person who thinks assisted dying ought to be permitted in the case of extreme suffering, is ‘trusting’ and ‘praying’ really the only solution the Christian can provide? Is that all there is to do. In some sense, yes. In fact, if you are a Christian, trust and prayer are frequently the only given solutions in scripture. Such was the case for Job, David, Paul, and Jesus himself (and almost every other Bible hero). Seek first the council and comfort of God. This isn’t a novel theological concept and shouldn’t be.
However, in the wake of illness and pain, applying reason, knowledge and means to solve these physical problems aren’t prohibited, biblically. I mean, obviously! This means that we are, first of all, to pray and surrender our situation to the sovereign will and provision of God, and secondly to pursue the available and provided means of helping ourselves and others live — to survive, but also live, if such a distinction can be made. Especially if you are one observing the suffering of another person, our efforts to help the person can’t end at good intentions.
This already sort of answers the second issue of the faith-denial of medicine. I’m here referencing cases where a parent will deny vaccines for their kids, or a patient will deny morphine or treatment, on the basis that to accept medical treatment is to place one’s faith and trust in human understanding, and not God. (Or something.) However, I affirm that it’s a bogus doctrine that reliance on science and medicine is counter to the faith. If we’re biblical, we know that science and medicine are means provided to us by God himself.
Now, is it the same thing to deny medical assistance in dying (MAID) for the reason that God doesn’t allow it? No, because of the moral groundwork undergirding MAID and assisted suicide. Medicine (or rather poison), in the case of MAID, means to kill. Medicine, in all other cases, means to heal and sustain. The moral reasoning used to justify the one is of a starkly contrasting vein than the one which justifies the other and arguably belongs to a distinct worldview perspective than the Christian one. So if one feels that for me to reject the application of MAID and PAS on the basis of scripture is morally the same as the rejection of vaccines or chemotherapy, know that if we make the all the appropriate and necessary ethical distinctions, it is certainly not the same, and everyone should know this.
The third issue is probably the most important and relevant one. So, let me repeat it:
Simply “trusting God” doesn’t seem sufficient, compassionate or even like something the God of the Bible would enforce. Wouldn’t God allow me to die, if I feel I can’t take the pain any longer? Wouldn’t He?
I have to begin by saying that what we think and hope God is like and desires is different than what God is actually like and actually desires. Usually, our idea of God and Jesus is flawed and in conflict with his revealed character in scripture. So, let me be clear. Your idea and my idea of God is not God actually. So, it is irrelevant what we think God would allow in the case of assisted suicide, or any other circumstance. What matters is what God has revealed, including what principles we are explicitly commanded to follow, in all things, and what his divine purposes are for his creation. To truly love God is to obey his revealed word for us, and this requires absolute submission to his will, and abandonment of our own ideas, wants and wishes, that we might not only conform to his moral character but also attain true joy.
I’ve stated previously that the act of assisted suicide represents an unbiblical attitude towards suffering and an unwarranted, tragic response. The act violates his purposes for us, our being made in the image of God, our possession of invariable and basic worth regardless of circumstance, and it is an act that flows from an unjust self-determinism rather than a submissive heart of faith. It is all of this. The act of killing — suicide or homicide or genocide — is simply a contradiction to biblical ethics. It devalues the life of the sufferer on a fundamental level, in response to which Paul might say, “Though to die is gain, to live is still Christ”.
Of course, when I think about other people suffering, I desperately want their suffering to end. Of course, I hate hearing about the incredible, sometimes unbelievable, ways people can suffer. And I make it a mission to hear the stories of the people who suffer do much they pursue the means to end their lives early. Brittany Maynard. Adam Maier-Clayton. I listen to their stories. Because as much as they are figures of political significance, they are people who bore immense suffering in their mind and in their body before they died. Pain that I can’t even begin to fathom. Man, with all of our technological advances, couldn’t there have been a way to relieve their pain? Give them another way?
And for many things, their is a means of relieving pain. For example, my mother, before she died of cancer, was injected with morphine to ease the pain from her body’s erosion. This is fairly common. Things like depression, I understand, are a different story because they’re illnesses that aren’t predictable like cancer. It changes from person to person, so forms of treatment vary in effectiveness from person to person. Still, ways of treating mental illness do exist. Just, not perfectly.
Still, so many diseases don’t have cures. And so many forms of suffering, mental and physical, don’t have effective means of relief. And often times, I recognize, there are cases where one can choose to remedy the illness or relieve the pain, but a balance is near-impossible. I will be the first to admit the limits of medicine and the profession. That doctors often have to make decisions which can either yield bad results or terrible results.
However, I deeply and earnestly feel that in a world underneath the authority of a transcendent, meaning-giving, rationality-providing, morality-defining, reality-grounding, eternally-existent Creator-God, the decision to end a life must be one given wholly to Him, and from his revealed word, the action is one of grievous consequences (oft-debated by right-to-die proponents) and not permitted to us by right. The conception-to-natural death Life Ethic of scripture is undeniable. The attitude it shares is one that is higher because right and wrong are judged not from the perspective limited inside the circumstance (i.e.: our time-bound minds) but by the essence and extra-temporal nature of God.
Suffering doesn’t define. God does. God isn’t through with us once we lose our ability. God still views us as valued beings with a purpose. Other worldviews say that once we’re too unable, too afflicted, too ailed, well, we’re expired. We’re wasted space. Wasted life. Wasted existence. God says, no, I’m not done with you. You are mine. I love you. And I have a divine reason for putting you in this world and into existence (Ephesians 2:10). And I don’t make mistakes (Proverbs 16:4). Other worldviews say that “grey decisions” can only be dictated by our autonomous will. It’s our choice. Life’s unclear choices are to be given up to what we feel is right. God says, no, seek not the wisdom and comfort of Man, but seek first my wisdom and comfort (Psalm 23, Proverbs 3:5-6, James 1:2-5). This isn’t to suggest that the issue is a truly grey one in the sense that it excludes the possibility of a truly right moral response. It is to say that when the right path is unclear, seek the council of God as revealed in scripture and pursue His insight through prayer. Because God defines what is right. Not the law, not the culture, and certainly not our own ideas, thoughts and feelings.
Submission and obedience, in this way, is the only way, in all of life’s circumstances, to truly commune with God, and thus to worship God. Pursuing God’s understanding and living life as a whole response to the Good News. It is only this way that we have joy. Because God’s intention for us as human beings, all along, is be in community with Him, in his love, infinite love and become more like Him. Part of this, in this life, is temporarily suffering well. By doing all of this — pursuing, submitting, obeying, loving — we fulfill our ultimate purpose and thus satisfy our heart’s deepest desire in the only way it can be filled.
Paul writes, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13). Joy and peace are tied to hope and trust, it seems. A certain mark of a Spirit-filled, born-again Christian is whether or not you are anchored in hope, like a ship unshaken by the whirling onslaught of harrowing hurricanes, battered but burrowing through the waves. We are meant to be that ship.
And so, for me, by asserting that the sufferer of extreme pain is to place their trust in God, pray, endure and not seek the means of terminating their own life, by MAID or PAS, I am not giving an uncompassionate, hopeless, legalistic word of recommendation. I believe I am giving the only God-honoring, dignified, value-upholding, joy-producing and biblically true solution to the vast, chaotic experience of suffering.
Photo: Ships Running Aground in a Storm, Ludolf Bukhuizen, 1690’s, from Wikimedia Commons