“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”
It sounds obvious, but it needs to be said. Before I inveigh the proposal of doctor assisted suicide that has some how made it on this years ballot in Colorado (prop 106). Let me tell you why I am qualified to speak to this issue. Of course, prop 106 is a specific kind of suicide designed to help those who might be suffering perhaps even terminal. I am not going to address the specifics of the bill because they don't really matter. Others have done that. I have had the privilege (I do mean privilege) of doing many funerals, especially in recent years. In fact, I will be sitting with a woman who lost her mom and a man who lost his wife tomorrow to plan the funeral. She had cancer and would have been a prime candidate for the use of prop 106. I have sat at the side of someone who desperately wanted death to come, I listened as he cried out loudly for death to come because he was suffering and he wanted to see Jesus. His daughter (his primary care taker) listened to his cries daily. I later did his funeral. There are many more whom I have visited in the hospital as they hung on to life, but sought death. I have friends who consistently feel the pain of watching loved ones lose their health and their minds as life very slowly slips away. A few years ago my grandma was facing death. Knowing she was going to pass away I flew to Florida so I could spend one last Thanksgiving with her. I spent a few days with her and some other family. The picture that accompanies this post is the last time I saw her. I was flying out the next day so I hugged her and prayed for her before I left. Later I would speak at her funeral. I have been there as suffering gave way to death. I have spent time with people within hours of taking their last breath and I have seen them in the midst of pain and suffering longing for death to arrive. So, how could I say that doctor assisted suicide is not compassionate?
I will admit, that there have been times where the emotional turmoil seems to be too much. There have been times where I wanted nothing more than for God to have compassion and take a suffering person home to be with Him. My tears flowed and the doubter in me wondered why God wouldn't act. At times I would even become angry with God for allowing such suffering, but then I would remember, He is God, not me, and His ways are greater than mine!! Yeah, it sounds like another Christian platitude that isn't very helpful, but it contains important truth. It is a summary of good Christian doctrine. I must also admit that in a godless world, assisted suicide might very well be the most compassionate act that could be taken. In that world it wouldn't be any different than putting your pet down to end their suffering, but that isn't the world we live in.
If God does exist, specifically the God of the Christian Scriptures, then the compassionate thing to do is not to allow someone to take their life because they are suffering. Remember Job? Job learned some important things about God as he went through a great deal of suffering. Perhaps the most important lesson Job learned is that God's power, insight, wisdom, and experience surpassed his by an infinite amount. God questioned Job (Job 38-9) and Job's response was to shut his mouth. There is only one God of life and it isn't you, me, or a bunch of politicians; It isn't the doctor and it isn't the person suffering. I am sure that sounds cold, but it isn't. My life is not my own. One of the great lies of Western society is that my life is mine to do with whatever I want, unless I am in the womb, I guess. Job's life was not his own, it belonged to God, not because he followed God, not because of his religious beliefs, but because God is the one who created life and He is sovereign over it. Job recognized this, "Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised (1:21)." No person has unmitigated rights to their own life or any life. If this were the case, why should we bother to put conditions on suicide at all? Why wouldn't every person have the right to end their life at any time for any reason? Why should a person's mental health be a consideration, that is just a different kind suffering isn't it? Life, even our own life, is the domain of God.
God's ownership of life is not the only reason doctor assisted suicide is unacceptable. When I was younger and I would scrape my knuckles while working on the car or I would have some other obstacle I needed to face my dad would often say, "it builds character." Frankly, it was annoying, I didn't want any more character at that point, I just wanted relief. Comparing the minor suffering I experienced when I was younger with a terminal cancer patient might seem weak, but the principal applies. Just as my dad forced me to navigate whatever issues I was facing when I was younger so that I would grow in character, God who is sovereign cares infinitely more about a person's character and growth. Who knew my dad was being Biblical (Rom. 5:4-5; James 1:2-4). God cares about our character even in the waining months, weeks, days, and moments of our life. We ought not shortcut the work God is doing by playing God ourselves. It isn't only the character of the person who may be facing death or suffering that is important, but the character, growth, maturity, and work being done in those that surround the suffering person; it might be a family member, friend, nurse, or even a stranger that God is working on. Our most insightful ideas and our greatest wisdom is child's play to an infinite God (Is. 55:8-9).
A couple of weeks ago when I sat with a woman who was facing death because of the cancer that was ravaging her body she asked me about my daughter who is now a senior in high school. She proceeded to tell me how she had been praying for my daughter for some time. As I shared how she could continue to pray for my daughter she was writing it all down in her prayer book. A week later she breathed her last. Even in her last days she had not given up interceding in prayer for others. She had a ministry of prayer to her very last moments. I cherish those prayers. This will certainly be part of my message when I do her memorial service in a couple weeks.
Whenever doctor assisted suicide comes up it should be wholly rejected. It is not compassionate, the compassionate thing to do, and frankly the more difficult thing, is to walk with someone through the suffering, to help them face the hardship so they might finish well.
John Byrne is a pastor who has been spouting off his opinions his entire life (just ask his mom). This little blog is his venue for continuing in this tradition.