This is the sixth in a series of posts about issues of death and dying, looking at the questions I receive as a pastor. In this week’s post, I take a look at the end of life, and the decisions that we can sometimes face.
Before We Begin
Let me first say that this is a very sensitive topic, so please be aware that I am attempting to answer this question from a general viewpoint. I do not know your specific situation, and I in no way wish to beat you up or cause you to feel anguish over a decision you have made or are struggling to make. If you are not able to handle what I have to say right now for whatever reason, close your browser and come back when you are. It’s okay. But find someone to talk to in the meantime. Talk to your pastor. Talk to a friend. Talk to God. I hope this post will inform you and be a help to you, but let the Word of God be your guide, and know that…
You Are Not Alone
Questions about the end of life can be incredibly complex, confusing and emotionally overwhelming. In a culture that is becoming increasingly self-focused at a breakneck pace, it is more important than ever to remember that we are not alone, nor do we operate in a vacuum. Every decision we make affects more than just ourselves, and while this may be frustrating to admit, it doesn’t make it any less true. We are relational beings. Born into relationships with our families, we grow throughout our lives in relationships with others at places like school and work. That means that when you make a personal decision to change careers, commit a crime, cast your vote, take your own life or just about anything else, it is more than simply a personal decision. That decision has consequences for not just yourself, but for others – others who care about you, and still others you may not even know. And while you do ultimately need to make your own decision and not be held prisoner to peer pressure, it is also true that you must consider the effect your actions (or inaction) will have on those around you.
You Are Not Your Own
And you are not God. You do not have the right to decide when anyone’s time on earth is done, including your own. That means, no matter how badly you don’t want to have to live through something, the choice is not yours to make with a clear conscience. And likewise, you do not have the right to help anyone else take their life, no matter how much they might beg you.
But the hard truth that you do not have the right to prematurely bring about death does not mean you must necessarily do everything in your power to prevent it. Hear me out: We have incredible resources in medicine to be able to treat illness, bring about healing, control pain and even prolong life. These, however, are choices we are able to make. If you get a headache, you are not obligated to take an aspirin. If you have cancer, you are not obligated to undergo radiation. You should, however, consider how your choices affect your loved ones, who would be forced to watch you suffer. The choice is yours to make, but should be made in concert with family and friends.
What About Our Loved Ones
While suicide, assisted or otherwise, is not okay, what about those times when death is or at least seems imminent for our loved ones? What steps can – or should – we take to prevent, prolong or provoke death for them, particularly when they are suffering? As a loved one lies dying, what can we do for her?
First and Foremost: Cherish Life
We value life. God created life, God gave us life, and God called us to new life in Jesus Christ. Our God is a God of the living. This is why we, as Christians, should fight to protect all life, from “womb to tomb.” An unborn child has a right to be protected from being destroyed at the beginning of life, just as an elderly or infirm person has the right to be protected from being carelessly discarded at the end. In between, all lives should be valued, respected and loved, regardless of whatever arbitrary labels humanity applies in order to divide us from one another, such as skin color, economic status, political affiliation or anything else.
We Do Not Hasten Death
Active euthanasia, hastening death by some artificial means, is not a viable choice for a believer in the living God. Also called assisted suicide for a reason, ‘helping’ someone to take his or her own life is not our right. Just as taking someone else’s life is not our right, the same principles apply to helping someone take their own life – no matter how loving it may seem. Is there forgiveness for someone who has made this incredibly difficult decision? Absolutely. But someone contemplating this decision – either on their own or with regard to someone else – should be counseled against it with great love and care.
We do not subscribe to the lie that death is “just a natural part of life,” nor that it is such a relief from suffering that it should be welcomed with open arms. Death is the enemy – Jesus Christ died and rose again to conquer death, and so we do not invite death into our lives, even if we also do not fear it because of our faith in the resurrection.
There Are Some Things We Just Have To Accept
Life is hard, and some moments in life can be downright excruciating. It is indescribably awful to watch someone you love suffer. Every part of you wants to do whatever it takes to help them, and in some cases, that might even mean wanting to end their suffering by ending their life. And yet, this power is not available to us morally, even if it is physically (just as you might be physically able to murder someone who makes you angry, yet are not morally free to do it). And while it may seem like a good thing on the surface to “put someone out of their misery,” it is not so easy or obvious as that, because we believe that we are placed on this earth by a loving God who gives us a purpose – and who numbers our days. Though we might not agree with or understand that number, it is still His number to give or take away – and His alone.
It may seem unfair, it may seem unreasonable, but there are many situations in life which are beyond our ability to fix or control, and this is no different, even as awful as it is. I don’t know why our lives sometimes extend beyond what we think is a reasonable point, just as I don’t know why our lives are sometimes shortened beyond what we think is reasonable. But blessed be the Lord, who rescues us from death – and who promises that our sufferings on this earth are not even worth comparing to the glory that awaits us in everlasting life.
We Are Not Without Options
As previously discussed, we are not forced to do everything in our power to prolong or prevent death, especially in cases where there is no hope for recovery. Taking someone off of life support (passive euthanasia, sometimes known as “pulling the plug”), is not at all the same as administering a drug to cause death (active euthanasia). The former does not necessarily result in death; the second does, and does so intentionally. Taking away life-saving measures can in some cases be an act of mercy that may hasten death – but not prematurely. This is also known as “letting nature take its course,” allowing death to happen, rather than causing it. But it is incredibly important that this option be discussed thoroughly, prayed over, and prepared for mentally, emotionally and spiritually by all involved. Again, include your pastor in this decision; he is uniquely qualified to walk beside you in these difficult times.
As created beings, we belong to and answer to our Creator, and therefore do not have the right to decide when ours or anyone else’s time on this earth should end. We are not, however, obligated to fight incessantly when death is imminent. We do not welcome death, for it is the enemy. Yet we do not fear death, because death has been defeated. We walk together on this earth with love and encouragement for one another, knowing that we belong to a God who loves us and saves us from the sufferings of this world. Put your trust in Him, and place your loved ones and your concerns in His gracious and merciful care.
Should Christians Mourn?