Wednesday, January 4, 2017

When does suffering become worse than death?

A doctor in the Netherlands has performed the euthanasia of an alcoholic who claimed his addiction had turned his life into a “cocktail” of misery.  In possibly the first documented case of euthanasia for alcoholism, Mark Langedijk, a 41-year-old father of two children, was given a lethal injection by his GP.  Langedijk had spent the previous eight years battling against his addiction and had been in hospital and rehabilitation centres 21 times in that period.  His alcoholism had also caused the breakdown of his marriage, making him feel that his life had become “a hopeless cocktail of pain, drink, loneliness and suffering”.  Following an altercation with a fellow alcoholic, he decided that he wanted to die and his GP gave him a lethal injection on July 14.  Read it all here. . .

Recently a discussion about death prompted the comment "Pastor, there are a lot of things worse than death..."   I will admit to being taken aback by that estimation.  Death has always been the worst of human enemies and, indeed, of the whole creation.  Yet, in those societies in which assisted suicide and euthanasia are legal, death is at least the second worst enemy of man -- the worst quite possibly being suffering.

Even those who are against physician assisted suicide and euthanasia are under no illusions about the sufferings of this mortal life -- of illness without treatment or remedy, of emotional pain that makes living itself most difficult, of frailty of mind and body that renders the sufferer entirely dependent upon the care of others.  No, we are not immune from the reality that life is filled with suffering nor do we discount the pain of those who suffer.  What we do not believe is that this suffering is worse than death.

There are those who suggest that carrying a child to term is a fate worse than death and so we have abortion rights.  There are those who suggest that having a disability is a fate worse than death.  There are those who suggest that being born into a world that does not want you is a fate worse than death.  There are those who suggest that being disowned, homeless and have a genetic susceptibility to disease are all fates worse than death.  The list could go on.  Yes, death is bad but suffering is definitely worse.  Or so it is claimed. . .

Suffering is not good and there is no blessedness in the suffering itself or in the pain alone but that does not mean that suffering is worse than death.  We have monuments to the suffering of those who bore the cost of freedom and justice.  We look to a cross where suffering bore the fruit of our own redemption.  We have the promise of suffering that accompanies Christians -- no less than from our Lord Himself who insists it is when and not if we will be persecuted, suffer slander, are offered up to our enemies and persecutors, or even die a martyr's death for the sake of the Lord's name and His kingdom.  We say over and over again "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."  We remember the saints not on the day of their earthly triumph but on the day of their death.  Christians are no oblivious to the issue of suffering and pain but we do not believe that suffering is worse than death. 

According to St. Paul, these sufferings are not shackles to be cast off in favor of death but the very means by which we acknowledge the suffering that bore our own redemption and by faith we participate in this redemptive suffering of Jesus by our own suffering and pain.  Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church...  -- Colossians 1:24  Paul is not suggesting that suffering is not bad or painful but that this suffering is not without purpose, not without fruit, and not without its own noble glory.

No one looks for suffering (except a fool) and no one glories in suffering apart from the lens of Jesus Christ and His redemptive suffering.  But in that context we see what the immediacy of pain may obscure.  Suffering is not worse than death.  Truly suffering is part and parcel of all our lives since the Fall.  None of us lives to see the desires of our heart fully satisfied and everyone of us chafes over the unfairness of life and the fact that there is innocent suffering not born of poor choice and individual guilt.  But the guilt we all share in original sin means that suffering has passed to all and none may escape.  Not even the Son of God whose righteousness was pure and holy and without guilt or defect.  Yet the sufferings that come to us are not isolated from Christ's own suffering on the cross and faith sees what we bear and endure within this context. 

We enter this world through the suffering of our mothers.  We are cared for by our parents whose sacrifice and suffering is greater than we care admit.  We grow up to disappoint those who give themselves wholly and completely to our wants and needs.  At the end of our lives we find ourselves often receiving the care of those whom we raised.  We find out that our parents are not perfect and that their own flaws and failings come full circle into our own lives.  All of this is suffering but it is suffering in love and for love's sake.  We bear the sufferings of others, even strangers, for the sake of this love as Christ bore all things for us and our salvation.  How childish it is for us to insist that life hurts too much to keep on living and to choose the emptiness of death over what Christ by His life and death has won!

As a pastor I see many people in their sufferings -- from first diagnosis until death comes, from the painful reality of their terrible choices to their repentance, from the peril of labor that delivers up a child's first cry. . . You name it.  Part of my calling is to remind the sufferers that God is still there.  He is there in their pain and with them.  He who bore all things for us and our salvation will not now abandon His people in their suffering and pain!  Perhaps for the world suffering may be worse than death (God help us!) but no Christian can embrace such surrender to despair!

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