Christianity, Suffering and Assisted Dying

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Earlier in the year Saints and Sceptics began to think through some of the key issues which might affect Christians in the public square. A number of issues raised in that article have been very much been part of 2015 so far, and the Church has more work to do in responding to them. But one in particular, that of of Assisted Dying, is once current news in the United Kingdom.

On the 11th of September, 2015 a Private Member’s Bill will be discussed in the House of Commons, and the British Parliament will vote to decide if the law should allow terminally ill, mentally competent adults to request life-ending medication.

According to a 2015 Populus poll of 5,000 people, “the vast majority” of people support this choice, and, as with other moral issues of the day, ‘Public Opinion’ is seen not only to matter, but is often cited as one of the major reasons why a change in the law should take place.

In general, our generation seems to have an issue with dying – or not with dying so much as an issue with staying alive. Being alive, it seems, is not the ‘be all’, while death, for many, is increasingly seen as the ‘end all’  – and certainly the end of everything we do not like about this world. And it is at this point that people of faith and those of no faith have become strange bedfellows.

The same Populous Poll is quoted as finding that 79% of religious people support the Assisted Dying Bill”.  Now, for both religious and non-religious, it seems, and this is one possible interpretation, death will bring a certain end to suffering, and subsequently all will live forever – in the bliss of a heavenly realm, or in the transient memories of loved ones and the atoms of the universe. To die believing and hoping, for either, of course, requires faith – and so that which so many say they can live without must be a central part of their death.

And there are those within the Christian Church who also support the Bill. One of them is Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Evangelical.And they, among others, have written a letter to The Telegraph; and the contents of that letter have been reported as follows:

 that far from being a sin, helping terminally ill people to commit suicide should be viewed simply as enabling them to ‘gracefully hand back’ their lives to God.”

 There is, they insist ‘nothing sacred’ about suffering in itself…” Indeed they go further:

 There is nothing sacred about suffering, nothing holy about agony, and individuals should not be obliged to endure it.”

 “Nothing”; “nothing”, “not”.

Well, I expect that the Apostle Paul might have something to say about that.

Indeed the Apostle Paul, and much of the rest of the Bible, does have something to say about that; and from those words many people have drawn immense strength, both in living and in dying.

The Bible has much to say about the problem, the agony, and, yes, the role of suffering in the lives of God’s people; and contrary to the ideas communicated above, much of what it has said might, in fact, cause us to think about suffering in terms of the sacred.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:2-4 (ESV)


For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” James 2:19-24 (ESV)

 The Apostle James knew we would suffer, and he speaks of it as a gracious thing. Indeed he goes to the heart of the Gospel: “By his wounds you have been healed.”

 There is at least that which is sacred about suffering.

We can turn too, to 2 Corinthians.

 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;  persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;  always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” 2 Corinthians 4: 7 – 12

 And a section which uses a turn of phrase which seems particularly pertinent:

 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4: 16 – 18

 Here the wasting away of our flesh is categorically not thought of as something which is not sacred, nor it is thought of as something which “individuals should not be obliged to endure”; rather, a contrast is drawn with “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison”; it is spoken of as, a “light momentary affliction”, and as “preparation”, “so (that) we do not lose heart”.

No one ever said that suffering, or dying, or for that matter living, were easy. The Bible certainly doesn’t.

And in Romans we read about purpose, eternal purpose, in earthly suffering.

 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Romans 5: 3 – 5 (ESV)

Paul knew that we would suffer. Paul even dares to say that he rejoiced in his suffering, and then he called the Church to do likewise.

 “Nothing sacred”, Archbishop?

Job knew all about suffering, and, if we can bear the import of the implications of this, his suffering was the direct result of God’s Sovereign permission.

 And Joseph knew all about suffering, and he came to speak of it in terms of good:

 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” Genesis 50: 19 – 21 (ESV)

 And if there were ever any doubt about God’s intention towards His people in the face of the varied and complex circumstances of their lives,

 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28 (ESV)

 Nothing sacred about suffering?

 These comments are not intended as an all-embracing theology of suffering. I don’t suspect that anyone has ever written such a theology, although the Church has never ducked the issue; and the question has been addressed elsewhere on Saints And Sceptics.

 There is much about God and suffering and faith which is difficult, and one would be less than thoughtful or compassionate if one did not acknowledge this; but these comments are intended to rebut the idea that, “There is nothing sacred about suffering”, and, “nothing holy about agony…”

 Clearly the writers of the Bible thought differently, and found both good, and God, in the difficulties, suffering and trials of life.

 We should also be clear, however, that simply because Christians are called to endure suffering with patience, and to understand it as permitted by the hand of God, we are not called to seek out suffering for suffering’s sake; nor are we called to inflict suffering on others in the mistaken thought that it will be for their benefit. To suggest such would be to corrupt the teaching on suffering that we do have: that suffering happens, that we will not always understand why, that we are called to endure with faith and to rejoice in the Christian character it forms.  And also the Good News that God is Sovereign and that because of the voluntary, and sacred, suffering of Jesus we look forward with hope and confidence to a Day when all suffering will end.

 We should not take what God has said about suffering in this world and use that to make a point that God has not made.

 But the recent thinking as outlined in the Telegraph article, and by George Carey on this media clip, comes perilously close to compounding the denial that suffering can be a sacred thing, with using that denial to make and justify a decision that God has given us no permission to make.

 In Carey’s own words, “In my view it is a profoundly Christian and moral thing to devise a law that enables people, if they so choose, to end their lives with dignity.”

 It reads like a perverse and iniquitous retelling of, ‘Into Thy hands, I commit my spirit.’

 Does all creation groan for a better day? Yes.

 Do Christians look forward with hope of release from suffering? Yes.

 Is pain and suffering an affliction of a fallen world which is being redeemed and which will be banished from the New Heavens and the New Earth? Yes!

 But did any Biblical writer, ever, at any point, justify that glorious hope with the idea that we might hasten its experience with a call to take our own lives?

 Or, to use the euphemism used above, did any Biblical writer ever, at any point, suggest that taking one’s own life was merely, gracefully handing it back to God?

 The answer is, clearly, ‘No.’

 But even if we were to grant credence to this view, it could only be true if the person in question were a Christian believer.

 Carey’s views may be an attempt at a religious justification for assisted dying, but the call for such a law has increased as secularism has increased.

“It’s my life, I can do with it as I please,”  has never been a Christian precept.

So we must ask what our religious leaders, and what Lord Carey will tell the non-believer?

That they are gracefully handing their lives back to God?

If Lord Carey is right about the existence of God, and right that assisted suicide can be justified on the terms he has given, then by the same premise it must also be true that those non-believers who takes their own lives are not exchanging a temporary suffering for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, but for an eternal suffering beyond that which they have already experienced.

The reason we once feared death is because we knew that death was not the end. In words that the erstwhile Archbishop should know, we once had a healthy realisation that, “it was appointed unto man once to die, and after that, the judgement.”

That we no longer fear death, but in certain situations situations seek it out, is because we neither believe in nor fear God; and without our fear of God, we are no longer wise. Instead we have come to another place altogether.

In our Western World we have taken upon ourselves a predilection with death:

We act to take life in the womb, while acting with a macabre skill to preserve the body parts whole.

We support the taking of life to alleviate pain.

We support the taking of life when hope for today is gone.

We support the prescribing of medication to hasten death.

And in the face of all that, and in words that the Archbishop will have used, perhaps we might all say:

Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.”

In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?

Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.

Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee.

Lord have mercy upon us.

Christ have mercy upon us.

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