We Are Not Our Own: On God, Brittany Maynard, and Physician-Assisted Suicide
In several heart-wrenching videos (here, here, and here), 29-year-old Brittany Maynard has talked about her intent to take her life, possibly tomorrow, by means of physician-assisted suicide in Oregon, because of a fast-growing, inoperable, fatal brain tumor.
Joni Eareckson Tada, who has suffered more and longer than most of us, has responded to Brittany’s sorrowful plan with empathy and biblical conviction. All of Joni’s concerns merit serious consideration. The one I want to expand on is this: She said, “I understand Brittany may be in great pain, and her treatment options are limited and have their own devastating side effects, but I believe Brittany is missing a critical factor in her formula for death: God.” Others have written open appeals to Brittany; I write mainly for those who are considering this issue afresh in light of Brittany’s story.
Cancer Is an Enemy
I hate cancer. It is regularly an accomplice in the life-robbing work of our “final enemy,” death (1 Corinthians 15:26). Death was not part of paradise, as God created it in the beginning. And death will not be part of the New Earth, as God brings it in the resurrection. In that sense, it opposes the ultimate goodness that God designed for this creation. It is an enemy.
But in the resurrection, “Death will be no more” (Revelation 21:4). Death came into human existence through the devil’s incitement to sin. But the devil himself was stripped of his condemning power when Christ died for sinners. God gets the last word. His Son “took on human nature so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14).
So death remains, for now. It hisses with fearsome rage. But for those who are in Christ, its fangs have been removed.
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting? (1 Corinthians 15:54–55)
Answer: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:56–57). In other words, Christ bore the curse of God’s law for us (Galatians 3:13). Therefore, it cannot condemn us for our sins (Colossians 2:14–15). They are covered. The sting — the fangs — has been removed.
Therefore, in Christ, we will die physically, but not spiritually. Our souls will go “home” (2 Corinthians 5:8); they will go to be “with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). Then at his coming to earth, our bodies will be raised and glorified (1 Thessalonians 4:15–16).
Subjection to Futility — In Hope
But even though, in the beginning, Satan incited sin, and death came through sin (Romans 5:12), God himself was the judge who brought the sentence of death on the human race. The horror of death is God’s appointed response to the horror of sin. Death, by God’s design, is the physical mirror of the moral outrage of human rebellion against God.
Thus God tells us that in response to sin, “creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope . . .” (Romans 8:20). Only God could do that. Neither Adam nor Satan acted with a view to the hope of the age to come. This was God’s doing. God appointed death for the human race. He did it with a view to death’s final defeat and removal. But it was he who did it.
So the Bible continues, “. . . in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption, and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). There is a bondage to the corruption of death for now. But the day of freedom is coming. God has appointed these times.
Until then, we die. And we live, with Christ. This death, and this life, are by God’s appointment. Satan incited sin. Adam and Eve acted sin. And God decreed the consequence of sin, namely, death.
And he is removing that consequence in stages. At the first coming of Christ, the immeasurable penalty of sin was paid (Colossians 2:14). And at the second coming, the miserable effects of sin will be fully removed. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Death will be no more.
But until then, the final disposition of death and life belong to God. He brought it in; he will take it out. And while it is here, he claims unique rights over it. “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deuteronomy 32:39; see also 1 Samuel 2:6).
Therefore, Job’s reverent and grief-stricken response to the death of his ten children was profoundly and painfully right: “The Lᴏʀᴅ gave, and the Lᴏʀᴅ has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lᴏʀᴅ” (Job 1:21).
How Then Shall We Die?
How then should we think about our rights with regard to death? Should life be in our control? Does it belong to us, to create or eliminate?
The apostle Paul did not leave us without help on this question. Whose are we? To whom do we belong? Who owns our body? He answers: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
These words were spoken to guide us in relation to our sexuality. But the principle holds for death. The more serious the consequences in regard to body and soul, the more firmly the principle holds. And death brings the greatest consequences to soul and body. It is the moment that sets the final destiny of both (Luke 16:26; Hebrews 9:27). Therefore, the principle holds at death: We are not our own.
Our bodies — their life, their death — belong to Christ. He bought them. They are not ours to dispose of as we will. They are his. And they exist for his will, and his glory.
Paul speaks this way, not only about sexuality, but about death and dying.
None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. (Romans 14:7–9)
All three points from 1 Corinthians 6 are here again, not in regard to sex, but explicitly in regard to death. Christ paid the price of his life to be the rightful Lord over the living and the dead. Therefore, we are not our own; we are the Lord’s. Therefore, we live and we die “to the Lord.” That is, life and death are not our private concern. They are not our choice. He bought us. He owns us. We live and we die to him — in reliance on him, in accordance with his will, for his glory.
Thus, “Thou shalt not murder,” is put on an entirely new footing. Not only do our lives belong to God by virtue of being created in his image, but now we are his — in life and death — by virtue of the purchase of Christ. We are doubly not our own. Our life and our death belong to God. He gives, and he takes. And he has put a double seal on that unique divine right: You are mine, by birth and by blood. You do not live, and you do not die, on your own terms.
What are his terms? We may risk our lives for the sake of saving others (Acts 20:24; Philippians 2:30). And in suffering, we may seek to lessen the pain — for others and for ourselves (1 Timothy 5:23; Luke 10:37). God has put this privilege in our hands. It is part of the limited lifting of the curse of the fall. But the right to end our lives, he has not put in our hands.
Our Final Sufferings Are Not Meaningless
The fact that suffering almost inevitably increases with the approach of death is often a terrifying prospect. Even those who are fearless of death tremble at the process of dying. I have seen terrible suffering in the hour of death. At one young mother’s funeral I said, “The great triumph was that she never cursed God.” Otherwise it was horrible.
But this tragic fact — which the suffering apostle knew better than any of us — did not change the truth: Giving and taking life belongs to God, not to us. And the suffering of our final days is not meaningless.
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)
Before anyone mocks the phrase “light momentary,” let that person realize that Paul was referring to his lifetime of suffering, the details of which are almost unbearable to read (2 Corinthians 11:23–28). “Light” contrasts with weight of glory. “Momentary” contrasts with eternal. Paul knew what it was to be “so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8). Such suffering was not light. It was not momentary. Except in comparison to the length and the glory of heaven.
But the point of this text is that our final sufferings are not meaningless. They are “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17). “Preparing” — working, effecting, bringing about. They are not aimless tortures.
And the grieving spouses and mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters are not merely watching. They are serving, caring, loving. Yes, suicide spares them the pain of watching. But it also denies them the privilege of serving. There are moments in the tireless care of the dying beloved that are so intense with self-giving love that they would not be traded for any death.
On the Edge of the Grand Canyon
Brittany Maynard has sweetened her last days with trips to the Alaskan glaciers, and the Kenai Fjords, and the Grand Canyon. In one sense, this it totally understandable. We were made for beauty. But in another sense, it is puzzling. For there is one thing that standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon does not do for you: It does not enhance your sense of autonomy. It makes you feel small and vulnerable in the presence of greatness and majesty.
That is a good thing. For we are small and fragile. We are not autonomous. We were never meant to be. Beauty, Yes. Joy, Yes. Greatness, Yes — outside of us, filling us with worship and wonder. We were made for God.
In one of her videos, Brittany wisely says, “Make sure you’re not missing out. Seize the day. What do you care about? What matters? Pursue that. Forget the rest.”
I could not agree more. What matters is that we have been bought with a price. We are not our own. We live and we die and we suffer for the glory of Christ, our Lord. And we never forget the truth that makes everything worth it: “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).