In part one I asked some big questions, shared the tragic story of Brittany Maynard, and offered a quick explanation as to why we as Christians cannot support her decision to end her life “on her own terms.” In this second part, I want to explore a bit further the worldview issues at play and why Christianity offers the better worldview.
Brittany Maynard’s condition is terminal. She is going to die. She has said, again, that she wants to die on her own terms. But, what does she really mean by that? It shouldn’t take much in the way of thought to realize that what she’s hoping to avoid is the debilitating pain that will accompany her death. She also wants to save her new husband and family from having to watch her suffer terribly and without any evident purpose to it. That in itself strikes me as a noble thing on its face. But, it betrays a near total absence of a healthy theology of pain along with an awareness of any kind of a sovereign God. Without having that in place, the likelihood that we will respond to the pain that is part of this life in ways that are either foolish or multiplicative or both runs frighteningly high.
Now, this is by no means the place to flesh out a thorough theology of pain, but a few observations are perhaps apropos. First, pain is a part of this life. Pain is a natural consequence of sin. Sin will continue to run rampant until our Lord returns and thus pain will as well. The pain we face is real. Any worldview that tries to deny the reality of pain is ultimately a delusional form of escapism. Furthermore, everybody goes through pain. No exceptions. Sometimes the pain is intense. Sometimes it seems more intense than we can bear. Sometimes not. But, make no mistake: pain is a part of this life.
Second, all pain results from evil and is itself evil. This does not mean it cannot have or be used for a redemptive purpose, but pain itself is an evil. Always. In the apostle John’s vision of the new heaven and new earth we are told that there will be no more pain there. Any worldview that tries to claim that pain itself is good misunderstands its nature and source. Because pain is itself an evil, we should avoid it wherever possible. Notice, I don’t say we should avoid it at all costs. That would be foolish. But, we should avoid it whenever we can reasonably do so. The question here quickly becomes, of course, where does the line of reasonableness fall? The answer to that is situationally specific, requires a great deal of wisdom, and is beyond the scope of this reflection, but it is a good one to ask all the same.
Third, while this is not necessarily the case, all pain can be vested with purpose. The purpose may be benevolent or malevolent, but pain can have purpose. More than that, our sovereign God is able to use all pain whether its vested purpose is evil or benign to accomplish His plans. The kick here is that we are neither automatically privy nor entitled to His plans in this regard. Sometimes God lets us in on things, but sometimes He does not, leaving us to trust that even if we don’t understand it, even if we aren’t capable of understanding it, He does in fact have one. His purpose may be about us, but, it also may not be. It may be that in the pain we are facing He is planning to work in the heart of someone else. Either way, our place is to trust in His goodness and live our lives to His glory regardless of the circumstances we happen to be facing. Now, this certainly doesn’t preclude asking hard questions, but it does preclude assuming that we know better than God and that’s hard. Ultimately, our best recourse in pain is to hold tightly to the cross and the empty tomb, God’s definitive statements of His sovereignty and power over sin and death and pain. Apart from that, it is all just a waste of time and Maynard’s misplaced longing for a good death on her own terms is the right way to approach it.
This brings us back to where we started. What does it mean to die well? Is there such a thing as a good death? I’ve had the occasion to be with a family as they gathered around the bed of a loved one and prayed with them as grandma passed quietly into the arms of her Savior. Was that a good death? My own great aunt recently passed away at 103. She simply went to sleep and didn’t wake up. No pain beyond what might naturally be associated with being 103. No real suffering. Was that a good death? How about Jim Elliot and Nate Saint? They were massacred by Ecuadorian tribesmen because they were perceived as a threat. Was there’s a good death? Or what about Saint Telemachus, the 5th century monk who was killed by a Roman gladiator (or stoned to death by the crowd depending on which version you like) while shouting for the violence to stop? Was his death good?
If we are going to think about this idea of dying well here’s another truth we need to embrace as Christians: there isn’t such a thing as a good death. It may be that we are faithful until death or that our death helps to advance the cause of Christ, but this doesn’t make death good. Making sure it is on our terms instead of those of the cancer eating away at us doesn’t help either. Here’s why: death is the enemy. As followers of Jesus, we serve the Lord of life, not death. Now, yes, Paul said that death is gain for followers of Jesus because it allows us to be with Him and frees us from the power of sin entirely, but this does not mean that death itself should be thought of as a positive. It is a constant reminder that things are not yet as they should be. Think about it: funerals don’t celebrate that someone had a good death, they celebrate their life. When we hear of someone dying peacefully in their sleep, we are relieved that they didn’t have to suffer a painful, drawn-out death, but we don’t call this a “good death” because it’s not. Death isn’t good. Yes, our God is big enough to work redemption in death as in the death of Christ, but this in no way means that death is itself good.
If Brittany Maynard follows through with her plans—and prayerfully she will not—her death may be on her own terms, but it will not be good regardless of how comfortable and intimate the setting. It will be a tragedy and one deeply worth mourning. If she goes through with her plans our prayer should be that her husband and family are ably ministered to by believers who can show them the love and compassion of Christ as they wrestle with the tragedy through which they have walked and to which they lent their support. Our prayer should be that the cultural voices who will celebrate this as if something good has happened, something worth emulating, will find their cheers falling on deaf ears. In the meantime, our prayer should be that Brittany turns her heart away from her fears and to the Jesus who died so that even though her body will expire in time—perhaps very little time—she doesn’t have to; the Jesus who will walk with her through her suffering helping her to delight in the goodness and wonder of God even in the midst of such a dark valley; the Jesus who knows with perfect intimacy the full extent of her feelings and on whom she can lean with perfect confidence.
As we minister to those in our own lives who find themselves deep in a well of seemingly senseless pain, let us be sure that we are offering them this same Jesus. Let us not be the friends of Job, but compassionate caregivers who lovingly proclaim the truth and the hope that comes with it. Much to the contrary of a culture on its way to a wholesale embrace of a god-less worldview and the ensuing fallout (including the awkward position of having to celebrate what has always been feared because of a loss of meaning to life), this is the worldview that will lead to life and flourishing. Let us proclaim it, explain it, and defend it with grace, humility, and boldness.