Here’s a question from the news, from a listener who asks: “Pastor John, thank you for the podcast. I’m struggling with the story of Jerika Bolen in Appleton, Wisconsin. There’s an enormous amount of support for this 14-year-old girl who is terminally ill, and has decided to take herself off life support in order to end her life faster. While I am compassionate about her situation and her pain, I am also unsure about whether she has the authority to speed her death like this. Please help me with this biblically.”
As I have been giving some thought to what I might be able to say that would be helpful in this regard to the Jerika Bolen situation and her incredible suffering, I thought that perhaps I won’t rehearse the arguments — at least not all of the arguments — for why no human being should take his own life since I have tried to do that in several other places: give those biblical foundations. But a couple of years ago there was another situation where we tried to deal with that and people can go to desiringGod.org and type in euthanasia and there are just four or five podcasts and articles there about it.
So, instead, I thought it might be more helpful if I briefly address only one of the absolutely crucial underlying issues; namely, the way that God intends for a Christian to deal with ongoing pain. This is one of the huge reasons, probably the biggest reason that people desperately want to end their lives. They want to be done with suffering, which, of course, is understandable. The very meaning of pain is that we don’t want to have it. And we want to be rid of it. That is why we call it pain and not pleasure.
One of the reasons I want to say a few words about that particular point is that even this past weekend I was out in California talking to very educated, prosperous, professional, technologically savvy, mainly young people, and I was told more than once with illustrations that they had been tremendously helped in dealing with totally unexpected, big suffering in their lives. For example, there is a child living on a ventilator who is not going to live till she is probably beyond six years old. I was told by these young people, people in their 20s and early 30s, that they had been helped by being prepared for suffering biblically and theologically before the suffering came.
And I say it that way because I know that in the very moment of agony, teaching and preaching and counseling are generally not what people either need or can even handle. All of that needs to happen earlier while the mind is clear and the body is not being wracked with pain. And I have seen in the last 45 years one experience after the other, so many of them in people’s lives where a biblical orientation on suffering has, in fact, served profoundly to make the suffering endurable and even significant — even if it is not easy. So, here are a couple of those aspects of such a biblical, theological, God-centered vision of suffering, all of which are deeply connected with Christ’s sufferings, which he endured, not mainly so that we would escape suffering in this life, but that we would endure suffering in the hope of everlasting and exquisite pleasure forever and ever in the resurrection. So, I am just going to mention two things and then illustrate.
“The Bible teaches us to relieve as much suffering as we can both in this world, and especially in the next.”
The first is the Bible teaches us to relieve as much suffering as we can both in this world and especially in the next, but it is this world that we are focusing on. When I say we don’t have a right to take our lives, I don’t mean we don’t have a right to minimize suffering — trying to help people get rid of pain. That is the first thing. The second thing is that the Bible teaches us to squeeze as much Christ-exalting meaning out of our suffering as we can and shows us how to do it. So, let me take those one at a time.
1) Of course, Jesus’s command to love your neighbor as you love yourself (Matthew 22:39) or to do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12), isn’t that enough to impel us to relieve other people’s suffering as much as we can? Because we don’t want to suffer, and so we want to help other people not suffer. But let’s be more specific.
“The Bible teaches us to squeeze as much Christ-exalting meaning out of our suffering as we can and shows us how to do it.”
In 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul says to Timothy, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” Now, I was thinking this morning about that term “frequent ailments.” Doesn’t the word “frequent” translate into “chronic”? They are frequent. They keep coming back for poor Timothy. And I think the word “ailments” or “weaknesses” implies at least distracting discomfort, if not real pain. Paul wouldn’t bother telling Timothy to work on these with some natural healing efforts if they weren’t painful and disabling.
So, I think this passage is a clear illustration of using God-given natural means, even medical means, of eliminating as much discomfort and pain as we can. So, that is the fist thing to say about pain. None of us wants it. That is the meaning of pain. And therefore we should help each other get rid of it if we can.
2) And the second thing is that the Bible shows us we should squeeze as much Christ-exalting significance out of our pain as we can. Oh my, we need hours. We need hours to talk about that and meditate on that. So, let me just point quickly to four passages that people can take away and meditate on and see whether God doesn’t shape their heart and their mind so that when the time comes for their chronic pain they will be ready.
i) First Peter 1:6–7, “In this you rejoice” — and he has just given I count ten reasons for enormous joy in the future for the Christian. And then he says, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Only God knows when our pain is necessary. He uses the word “necessary.” Only God knows how to test us with fire so that our gold, our faith will be purified and not destroyed. But that is the goal. His goal is purification. Satan’s goal is destruction, and so we lay hold on the promise that suffering may be necessary and it is various and it is grievous and it is ultimately going to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus.
“Only God knows when our pain is necessary.”
ii) Second Corinthians 1:8–9, “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. . . . But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” One of the reasons or designs in all of our despairing suffering is so that we would be thrown on to the invisible arms of God. We can’t see them. We can’t physically feel them. And so all we can do, according to Paul here, is trust the God who raises the dead, which is what the design of that experience was for Paul.
iii) Second Corinthians 4:16–17, “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” — which means horrible and lifelong — “affliction is preparing [or working] for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Now, that text does not say that the affliction is easy. It doesn’t say that being renewed day by day is easy, while the outer man is being eaten away by some horrific disease that we can hardly speak of, it is so terrible.
But it does say that this is possible, because “we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen” (2 Corinthians 4:18) — the almighty God, the power of the Holy Spirit, the blood of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the victory over Satan, victory over hell, hope of everlasting joy. Those are the unseen things that we squeeze onto and squeeze meaning and significance.
iv) And the last one I would mention is Romans 8:22–23, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” None of the promises of God keep us from groaning in our pain, but they do keep our groaning from becoming bitterness and despair. They turn meaninglessness and misery into waiting for glory.
“The promises of God turn meaninglessness and misery into waiting for glory.”
Now, I know those two observations are not the totality of the answer to the question about a physician assisted suicide. And so, I hope our listeners will go and read about Brittany Maynard two years ago and what I wrote there and what other people have written. But, oh, how crucial it is to get these two things firmly in place in our hearts before our day comes.
1) It is right and good to try to reduce pain in this life and the next and 2) it is right and possible with God’s help because of Christ and because of hope to squeeze as much Christ-exalting meaning out of suffering as we can.