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Sunday, September 06, 2015

Digging In for the Long Haul

On the wall-mounted flatscreen across from my table in the restaurant where I enjoyed lunch today a news item flashed by. It reappeared every three minutes or so until I started to pay attention.

Apparently 77% of Canadians support assisted suicide for the terminally ill.

Canadian doctors, thankfully, are not yet on board with the idea. But of course Dying with Dignity Canada felt compelled to get in an obligatory shot, suggesting the poll validates the Supreme Court decision in February that struck down the federal law against assisted suicide.

I don’t have a dog in this particular dog-and-pony show (by which I mean the professional lobbyists and special interest groups pushing for this or that). I haven’t got a terminal illness, nor do any of my loved ones.

Looking Behind the Statistics

My personal conviction is that suicide is sinful, selfish and shortsighted (where the giving of one’s life for another is not), but it seems to me an issue very much between each individual and the Lord. What then might be the motivation of all these Canadians who support assisted suicide? I don’t imagine for a second that 3/4 of our population is itching to pull plugs or administer fatal doses, or even to watch a much-loved relative do it for themselves. Few beyond those who are currently terminal have any desire to work through the necessary steps involved in ending a life.

What patients, caregivers and hurting relatives are looking for, I suspect, is relief. For closure. For the horrible, seemingly-inevitable thing to be over with. When something is relentlessly unpleasant, painful, exhausting or deeply saddening, the most natural impulse is to wish for an end to the suffering, the waiting, the suspense and the not-knowing. The most understandable thing in the world is to just want life to get back to some approximation of whatever normalcy might mean to us. If that seems unlikely or impossible, people begin to consider their options.

But this is not really a post primarily about suicide, assisted or otherwise. It’s really about pain, and how the Christian deals with it appropriately. The desire for relief of ongoing anxiety, sadness or suffering is as understandable as it is ubiquitous. It goes well beyond the issue of assisted suicide into many other areas of life.

Pain that Never Stops

All kinds of people find themselves in the sort of pain for which there appears no end in sight. And of course there are varying degrees and different kinds of suffering involved. 

For instance, the parents of much-loved special needs children may be tempted to consider institutional care “for their own good” because the endless daily struggle has become overwhelming. Or a man or woman suspicious of infidelity or trapped in a miserable marriage may feel the impulse (among many other conflicting impulses, no doubt) to skip right to the finish rather than endure months of counseling, insecurity and ritual humiliation. Or family members of the mentally ill, alcoholics or addicts may find their lives so relentlessly damaged by their loved ones that they long to cut their losses, all the time accumulating tremendous guilt over their feelings.

Who can blame them for feeling that ripping off the band-aid in one fell swoop might be the answer? Not me. Pain hurts, and it hurts a lot more when there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. Something very unpleasant may happen today, but if it is over and done with today, tomorrow I begin to heal.

But what do we do when there is no end in sight?

The Christian Problem

This is an especially relevant question for the Christian, because our options are frequently constrained by our consciences and the word of God. Those with no hope beyond this world experience no such inconvenient limitations. For the unbeliever, abortion quickly resolves the issue of possible birth defects, the fear of responsibility or the emotional cost of abandoning one’s career dreams. A change to the laws may soon resolve the problem of what to do with a lingering, pain-stricken loved one. A marriage you don’t like is easily ended, and there will likely be plenty of support from friends, family and co-workers if you are thought to be a generally decent person.

For good reason, many Christians will never feel comfortable exercising such options even if they are all perfectly legal and society pats us on the head for being just as sensible as it is. We answer to a different Master and a higher morality.

This means when things go wrong in the lives of believers, much of the time we are digging in for the long haul.

As with the assisted suicide issue, society offers the Christian a plethora of tempting options, and will do so increasingly. Some of these are transparently not in keeping with the Lord’s will for us. Others are less obviously in conflict with what we believe. I am reminded of those in scripture who waited on the Lord in situations that seemed hopeless, and those who didn’t.

Digging Out or Digging In

Hannah was childless, as was Sarah.

Now some might be forgiven for harboring the thought that childlessness cannot compete with other kinds of physical and emotional suffering. But pain is exceedingly subjective and how we cope with it varies wildly from person to person. What hurts me may not hurt you, and vice versa. Further, few of us can picture what it meant to a woman in those days to be childless. The Old Testament record describes Hannah as grievously provoked and irritated, weeping, uninterested in food, misunderstood by her husband, deeply distressed and afflicted. So whether we understand it entirely, her pain was exceedingly real to her. Sarah’s desire for a child is not described for us in such exacting detail, but her experience was surely similar or she would not have felt compelled to craft a solution to her pain that involved giving up her exclusivity with Abraham.

Both women eventually got what they desired, but I judge Hannah’s joy at Samuel’s birth was unmitigated, primarily because in the end she gave up her own hopes and will, and cast herself entirely on God. Her consequent willingness to “lend” her precious son Samuel to the work of God provided leadership for a generation of Israelites and resulted in the anointing of Israel’s greatest king. It resulted in worship as well: Hannah’s prayer is virtually the template for Mary’s own song of praise at the prospect of bringing Messiah into the world and demonstrates deep personal knowledge of the character of God acquired through those years of suffering.

But how many years of suffering did she go through to get there? And was it worth it to her? In the end, I think it was.

Sarah, on the other hand, cannot have been unaware that she damaged her marriage, her own happiness and her son’s inheritance by contriving a quickie solution to a problem that God fully intended to solve in his own time. She was probably not aware of the collateral damage she and Abraham did to their own descendants through their interference, but we can look at the political situation in the Middle East today and trace virtually all of its problems right back to a woman’s inability to wait on the Lord ... and a man’s unwillingness to say no to his wife.

Waiting on the Lord is not a new idea, but it’s harder to do than to sing about. So do we try to dig our own way out, or do we dig in for the long haul?

It seems to me Hannah’s choice is the better one.

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