Dying With Dignity?

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Liz_me_kids“She is awake, she is alert, she is afraid she is going to hell and she wants to see you right now.” Those are words that I will never forget. They came through my cell phone, and even though I had barely had five hours of sleep, I immediately bolted upright in bed.

The “she” was my sister Elizabeth. She was afflicted with colon cancer, and that cancer had metastasized all though her body and had so thoroughly destroyed her digestive system that it had been well over a month since she had been able to take in any food or nutrition, in fact other than the small amount of fluid she was receiving along with her IV pain medicine, she hadn’t had any hydrating fluid in several days. Although many experts had said months ago she only had days to live she lingered, enduring tremendous pain, yet showing a remarkable will to live. For weeks she had been sleeping nearly 23 hours a day and even when she was awake she struggled with lucidity. She was, in the eyes of many, not dying with dignity.

For months, since I was first told that if I wanted to say good bye to my sister I needed to come see her immediately, my wife and I had been making the drive from Northern Virginia to Western Pennsylvania every Sunday after church to be with my family and to visit with Elizabeth. Visiting with Elizabeth had come to mean, by that point, sitting at her bedside as she slept fitfully. And that is exactly what I was doing the night before I received that remarkable call, I was sitting at her bedside, occasionally hitting the button on her pain pump if she began to grimace or cry out in her sleep, and praying. As I saw my sister suffering terribly, and knowing that as recently as a few weeks ago she had expressly rejected the gospel, all I could think to pray was to ask the Lord to do whatever was merciful, because I honestly didn’t know what was at that point. I knew that she was suffering, and I couldn’t bear to see it, yet I knew that an end to her suffering would mean that she would step into eternity, and I knew all the theological implications, even if I could hardly stand to think of them.

That night as I laid in bed at my mother’s house, I confessed to my wife through tears that I didn’t really know how to pray, so I just prayed that God act however was best. So when my phone rang very early in the morning, I fully expected to hear that Elizabeth had died during the night. But I didn’t, I heard those amazing words, “She is awake, she is alert, she is afraid she is going to hell and she wants to see you right now.”

My wife and I dressed at light speed and we raced back to my sister’s house, and as I entered I heard a remarkable sound that I thought I would never hear again, her voice. It was strong and clear, not only that she was sitting up, she was alert and clear eyed, and she looked at me and said “I don’t want to go to hell, but I’ve done bad things.”

I answered “we all have” and I began to walk down the Romans road with her, and when I got to Romans 10:9-11, she stopped me and said “it is romans_roadtoo late for me.” So I turned in my bible and shared the parable of the generous land owner in Matthew 20:1-16, and told her that it is never too late, that what matters is what you believe right now. And she looked me right in the eyes and said “I do believe.”

And over the next 28 hours she gave every indication that her belief was sincere. She wanted to read the whole bible, because she knew her time was short and she needed to understand it. Later on she took great comfort as I read to her the Book of Ephesians (it took some doing, but I convinced her that Ephesians was a shortcut to understanding everything she needed to know). Most remarkably the next day as I was sitting alone with her, holding her hand she turned to me, and in a loving yet scolding older sister voice, said to me that all she knows of God I taught her in the past day and a half, and she wanted to know why I hadn’t told her sooner. This after sharing the gospel with her countless times over the years.

hope_handsThat was the last thing she said to me. We sat in silence holding hands for a few more minutes, then an ambulance came to transport her to a hospice facility (she had been receiving in home hospice care, but her condition was too dire to continue at home). On the ride, she lost consciousness and never regained it. Some might say she did not die with dignity, but she did die with hope.

But what of those who choose to end their life, prematurely? Are they really dying with dignity? Merriam-Webster defines dignity as “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed”. There is only one source of human dignity, that is that all humans are created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). The very notion that human life is at all valuable is rooted in the fact that all humans are image bearers, young or old, redeemed or lost, healthy or sick.

Following the flood God gave 2 commands to Noah, to be fruitful and multiply, and then to impose capital punishment on anyone who commits murder. This sanction for murder was not to be based on the value or worth or position of the victim, but on their status as an image bearer (Gen 9:6). From the cradle to the grave every human being bears the image of God and their life is precious in His sight.

How precious? So precious that in stating His exclusive deity God makes clear that only He has the right to kill or make alive (Deut 32:39). And never forget that when Jesus was told that Lazarus had died and had been laid in the tomb, He wept (John 11:35). Even though He had the power to raise him from the dead, and had already purposed to, the loss of a life was so profound that the God of the Universe was moved to tears. God regards everyone who bears His image as valuable and precious.

So what are we to make of the call for the legalization of assisted suicide, and the lionizing of those who take their own lives to avoid what they perceive as intolerable suffering? To be blunt, it is profoundly evil.

If the value of a human life is tied inexorably to the role of humans as image bearers, then that value is not diminished in any way by illness, even terminal illness. There is no biblical category for suicide, it is simply self murder; there is no Hebrew word for suicide because there was no need for one. Those who assist in a suicide, are accessories to murder, plain and simple, and of course God is very clear when it comes to murder, He says “thou shall not” (Exodus 20:13). By the way the Hebrew word translated as murder in Exodus 20:13, ratzach, includes the ideas of premeditated murder, crimes of passion and even negligent homicide, there is no category of biblically justified murder.

In the ever expanding culture of death that has settled over western society, the “right to die” has become the latest cause célèbre. Most recently the conversation has been propelled forward by the personalityBrittany Maynard and press savvy of a photogenic young woman named Brittany Maynard. Ms. Maynard had been a vocal advocate for assisted suicide, since being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and as noted by Art Caplan of the NYU division of medical ethics, her youth, good looks and use of social media may have a tremendous political impact.

And the argument that she has become the face of, is essentially that allowing terminally ill people to decide when and how they will die, is the progressive thing, the morally right thing to do, and that it should be legal everywhere. In an interview with CNN, this is exactly the argument she put forth:

“I hope for the sake of my fellow American citizens that I’ll never meet that this option is available to you. If you ever find yourself walking a mile in my shoes, I hope that you would at least be given the same choice and that no one tries to take it from you.”

Notice the subtlety of the argument. In Ms. Maynard’s mind assisted suicide has become an inalienable right. For anyone to not be allowed legally to have a doctor hand them what amounts to a loaded gun in a room lined with plastic sheeting (and if you find that picture revolting, good, you should), is to have something taken from them. But the right to take a life is the sole prerogative of God (Deut 32:39). Yes, He has delegated the responsibility to take a life on His authorization in limited circumstances, as punishment for capital crimes (Rom 13:1-7), but there is not even a hint in the bible that the weak or the sick are to be killed; to do so is an act of murder.

As C.S. Lewis observed at length in (what is I think his most profound and under read work of fiction) That Hideous Strength the forces of theHidStrendarkness often make common cause with the idea of social progress and enlightenment. Social “progress” has brought us abortion on demand, the disintegration of the family, the normalization of pornography, and the patholigization of all manner of sin and on and on. Now the progressive position is advocating assisted suicide. But it is not progressive, it is wicked.

Those who take their own lives and those who assist them are engaging in a profound act of rebellion against God. If God is sovereign over life and death, to take a human life, even your own, is to usurp God’s sovereignty. It is making yourself God of your own universe, and that is simply idolatry. And it is always wrong. And those who approve of this position are calling evil good and that too is a profound sin (Isa 5:20).

To cut short a human life, even by a few days, is an act that carries eternal implications. As the writer of Hebrews observed, it is appointed for man to die once and then comes the judgment (Heb 9:27). And of course for those who die apart from Christ their judgment will be based on their own deeds (Rev 20:12), and no one apart those clothed in the righteousness of Christ (and thus have their names written in the lamb’s book of life) can stand innocent at the Lord’s bar of justice.

That is why to me the one of the saddest things I have ever read was also in Brittany Maynard’s CNN interview, she said:

When my suffering becomes too great, I can say to all those I love, “I love you; come be by my side, and come say goodbye as I pass into whatever’s next.”

The reason this is so profoundly sad, is as believers we know what is next.

[And I want to be clear, I don’t know the state of Ms. Maynard’s soul or the condition of her heart at the time of her death on November 2. If she placed her faith in Christ for salvation, her sins, including the final sin that ended her life, are forgiven.]

And that is why we must stand firmly against any calls to make self-murder legal, it is rebellion against God, it is an affront to humanity as bearers of His image and if someone dies apart from Christ through assisted suicide, their suffering is not ending, it is just beginning. Every minute that a person draws breath is a minute in which God may grant them repentance, and so every minute has eternal value.

To be honest, I don’t even know what dying with dignity means, it seems to me that it is just an alliterative catch phrase to make a horrific thing more palatable. You cannot die with dignity, you can only live with dignity, because only a living person bears the image of God. And to end your life by intentional drug overdose is not dignified, it is an ignominious act of rebellion against God.

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John Chester

About John Chester

John serves the saints of Piedmont Bible Church, a Grace Advance church plant in Haymarket Virginia, as their shepherd, a position he has held since 2012 and hopes to serve in the rest of his life. Prior to being called to ministry John worked as a lacrosse coach, a pizza maker, a writer, a marketing executive, and just about everything in between. John is a graduate of The Master’s Seminary and The Grace Advance Academy. He hails from The City of Champions, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and is unbelievably blessed to be married to his wife Cassandra.
  • Chris Bruynzeel

    Good article about a very sensitive issue in our society right now! Sorry for the loss of your sister… But though she has died yet she lives!

  • johntjeff

    Here is “practical theology” where the going gets down and dirty, indeed agonizing. Here is very, very personal “life theology” applied to our culture. Some have heard me often referring to the most important 12 chapters of the Bible to study, learn and memorize if you could only take those pages with you. It seems you agree with me about 6 of those 12!

    • Thanks for reading. One of my biblical counseling professors when you asked him how he was doing, if he was having a bad day, would reply “I’m trying to make my theology work for me.” The season of my sister’s dying was one long extended lesson in making my theology work for me. You are absolutely right, if you hide scripture in your heart, it will be there when you need to lean on its truth.

  • Lori Lynch

    Thanks, John, for your take and sharing about your sister. I frequently lack compassion in discussions of suicide but I am working to grow in that area and your information really puts the primary issue front and center.

    • Thanks for reading Lori. I think we all have areas to grow in, especially when it comes to compassion. I too have been lacking in compassion at times in this area. It has helped me to remember that we are all murderers at heart (Matt 5:22) yet God has compassion on us.

  • Karl Heitman

    Excellent post, John. You’re an extremely gifted writer. Thank you for sharing your story. Grace and peace to you, brother.