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Monday, October 13, 2014

Brittany Maynard

The moral schizophrenia of our society has never been more obvious. As a nation, we agonized over the suicide of Robin Williams in August. Now we are applauding the bravery of Brittany Maynard who intends to kill herself in a few weeks. His suicide was a tragedy; hers will be a triumph.

Many of us who loved Robin Williams’ public persona were shocked and saddened to learn of his private inner torment. If you have watched Brittany’s video and you were not deeply stirred, you must have a heart of stone. We are human beings made in the image of God. Therefore, if God weeps over human suffering (and He does), so ought we.[1]

What ought we to think about suicide? How ought we to react? That word “ought” implies that some answers correspond better to the facts of human existence than others do.

A number of years ago, I stood beside a woman whose husband had suffered a massive heart attack. The attending physician was asking her to make end-of-life decisions for him since at that point he was not capable of making them himself. She asked the doctor for his recommendation, and his reply shocked me: “If he were my dog, I know what I would do.”

“If he were my dog….” That is the crux of the matter. If human beings are dogs, mere animals, then we may, without blame, agonize over one suicide and applaud another, depending on our emotional reaction to the individual circumstances. I cannot give any compelling arguments against suicide to those who think we are dogs.

On the other hand, if human beings are immortal souls, who will one day come face to face with their Creator, then it makes sense to find out how He wants us to respond to horrendous suffering. What is our Creator like, and what does He want of us? There are two basic ways of answering this question. The first is the great American way—to invent a fairy-tale god who conforms to the way you think God ought to act. To those who are satisfied with their own idea of God, I have nothing to say. You can make up a god who likes what you like and hates what you hate, and that’s the end of it.

The second way to discover what our Creator is like is to listen to what He says about Himself and about us. The Bible claims to be the message of God to us. Rather than defending that claim, which I can do, I want simply to draw your attention to some of its basic teachings about suffering.[2]

First, the human being who has suffered more than any other is Jesus Christ. The Son of God became man to suffer and die for the sins of those who believe in Him. His physical and mental suffering on the cross was horrible beyond our capacity to imagine it, but it was not unique because the Romans crucified many people. While Jesus hung on the cross, God poured out the full extent of His wrath against sin on the human soul of His Son. Jesus endured the agonies of hell as if He were all manner of sinners rolled into one agonizing bundle of spiritual pain. No one else has ever felt the wrath of God to such an extent. No sinner in hell will be condemned for such a weight of sins as Jesus bore. Each unredeemed sinner will feel the weight of his own sins. Jesus was weighed down by the sins of multitudes.

Second, because Jesus rose from the grave, He is able to transform the sufferings of His people into the gold of heavenly glory.

If [we are] children, [we are] heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:17-18).

Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

In Paul’s case, those “light afflictions” included imprisonment, numerous floggings, being stoned and left for dead, three shipwrecks, and frequent physical deprivations (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation (1 Peter 4:12-13).
And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner? Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right (1 Peter 4:18-19).

The reasons for suffering are many, but the result of suffering for a patient believer in Jesus Christ is that we shall share His eternal glory. He suffered and rose again to bring us up out of suffering into joy.

We do not belong to ourselves. We do not have a right to do with our bodies as we please. We belong to Another, and it is His right to do with us as He pleases. If we submit to Him, we shall find that the lead of great suffering here is transmuted by the alchemy of the cross into the purest heavenly gold.

So glory in heaven is a reason for bearing suffering, but what about here and now? The apostle Paul suffered from a physical affliction, which the Lord refused to heal.

And He [Christ] has said to me [Paul], "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me  Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

The apostle testified that experiencing the presence and power of Christ in a greater measure was worth enduring the pain that humbled and weakened him.

Apart from Christ, there are only a limited number of responses we can give to people contemplating suicide. We can talk about the effect of their decision on their family, on their friends, and on society in general. We can mumble some vague platitudes about God. Sometimes these responses, along with love and compassion, are enough to thwart a planned suicide. I am glad for that, but we really ought to give these poor people more.

People in despair need more than a reason not to die. They need a reason to live. That is what Jesus Christ offers. For those who, by trusting in Him, endure great pain, He offers great glory in heaven, and He offers the power of His own presence in the midst of their trial.

Let us, therefore, bear with patience and trust the measure of pain that is our lot. The Great Sufferer, will lend us His strength in order that, as we suffer in imitation of Him, so with Him, we shall rise again.

[1] For God’s tears see Isaiah 15:5; 16:9, 11; Jeremiah 9:10; 48:31-32; Luke 19:41; John 11:33-35. In all of these examples except the last, the Lord weeps over nations that He is judging for their sins.
[2] For a more complete discussion of suffering, see my book, The Beauty of God for a Broken World: Reflections on the Goodness of the God of the Bible.