This blog is the combined effort of four senior pastors of different churches. Their desire is to point you toward living a God-centered, gospel-focused, Christian life.

Monday, December 8, 2014

What Does the Manger Have to Do with the Grave? Christmas and the Value of Human Life

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”  (John 1:3)  How Jesus’ coming to earth changes everything.

Preface: The nation’s collective conscience about the value of life is changing.  We are losing our understanding of the intrinsic value of human life.  However, the incarnation, the entrance of Jesus Christ to this earth as a baby, teaches us about why life is so valuable.

The Drive for the “Right to Die”

Brittany Maynard was a 29 year old woman who was diagnosed with a terrible and terminal disease, stage four glioblastoma.  She decided to use her final days on earth to promote “Right to Die” laws in the United States, and, in a video presentation that went viral, declared the date that she would take her life.  She kept her promise and on November 1, she took an overdose of barbiturates and died.[i]
It would be only the most calloused individual who would not sympathize with Brittany’s plight.  The challenges of receiving a terminal diagnosis test the mettle of any individual, and any true Christian must look with compassion upon such a hurting individual and her family.  Still, two troubling issues emerge:  1) Brittany wanted to use her illness as a pulpit from which to be a missionary for legalizing assisted suicide in every state; 2) The organization “Compassion and Choices” used Brittany as the poster child of their advocacy of so called “death with dignity.”

At first blush, it might be thought, “What is the problem with assisted suicide for the terminally ill?”  After all, a person should be able to dictate the terms of their death, just as they live, right?  Failing to allow that seems cruel and who wants to promote the continuation of pain and suffering of hurting people?  One key word is “autonomy,” the ability to be in charge of one’s own life.  The “right to die” advocates have quite an affection for autonomy.  Why should the state, they reason, have an interest in stopping me from asserting my autonomy about when I will die?  In fact, Brittany Maynard, in one of her last videos, expressed it this way, “The worst thing that could happen to me is that I wait too long . . . and somehow have my autonomy taken away.”[ii]

The Christian Response to the “Right to Die”

How does the Christian respond to such a compelling figure as Brittany Maynard?  It is helpful to pull back from her personal story for a bit and see the landscape that legalized assisted suicide will bring us.  It will bring us the utilitarian view of life—that life is worth living only as long as that life produces something of value.  This leaves us with two questions—who determines what is “valuable”?  And how can we know “value” from “non-value”?  Let’s back up from Brittany’s diagnosis and consider a person who is not terminally ill but is perpetually depressed.  Should we leave it to them to live or die?  How about a person who is really, really sad because they faced a really, really bad day? How much pain does it take to become “unbearable”?  Who gets to decide what is bearable and unbearable?

The focus on the primacy of the individual assumes that the individual knows what is best for himself.  Is that true?  “Right to die” advocates actually disagree about this.  Some suggest that once a certain point is reached in lack of autonomy, others should be allowed to make the decision for the patient.  So, the focus on autonomy ends up with a person having to prove his own value, does it not?  What happens when a doctor determines that you no longer have an “autonomous” life?  Does that mean that the state is compelled, by “compassion” of course, to kill you?  

An ethic of life based on autonomy and utility will lead to people not admitting their needs for fear that they will be deemed to lack “quality of life.”  At the very best, this ethic promotes the wrong kind of living, people living lives that are separated from others because we would not dare reveal that we are needy.  There would be little reason for sacrifice to care for hurting people. Why sacrifice your autonomy and utility to care for someone who “ought” to be dead anyway?

The idea of the “right to die,” while presented as a compassionate response to human suffering, is actually a cruelty which will bring untold suffering to our nation.  Rev. Dr. Ignacio Castuera, one of the leaders of this “right to die” movement, cleverly named “Compassion and Choices,” said in response to the Catholic Church’s rejection of this ideology, “Even many Catholics disagree with the Vatican on numerous issues, ranging from birth control – to a woman’s right to choose – to end-of-life choice.”[iii]  Note that it is Castuera, an advocate of this position, who equates the position with the right to abortion.

Horrific Problems Ahead

Here are some of the horrific problems which will occur in our country if this “right to die”—“death with dignity” view is embraced:
1)    Society does not want to bear the costs of human suffering.  Already we are seeing that our government dependence of health care is creating all sorts of questions about the cost of that care for the value received.  This will lead to an increasing dependence upon an exit, as in assisting people to die.  People, especially the elderly, will feel guilty about being a burden on others when they do not have “autonomy.”
      2)  It is anti-God.  Joanna Rothkopf, declares in a article, “The issue with outlawing assisted suicide for those certain, justifiable cases is that the law then assumes that life, by any means, is more important than personal philosophy and comfort. And that life-centric view is largely derived from our predominantly Western Christian society.”[iv]  Rothkopf admits that the only real hindrance to an America shaped in her image is the “life-centric view” that Western Christianity provides.  As Al Mohler notes, “the restraining power in America, when it comes to the issue of legalizing assisted suicide, is the continuing influence in America of its Christian heritage, of the Christian worldview, that continues at least in some way to shape the society.”[v]
      3)  The “right to die” view assumes that the highest good is to avoid all suffering.  This will lead to ever increasing reasons to take suicide as the preferred option in the face of suffering.  This is particularly true where one person’s suffering creates suffering for someone else.
4)  Death, rather than being fought as an enemy, will be embraced as a friend.  This leads to a diminishing of the value of life at every stage, no matter how autonomous, no matter how useful.

What Does This Have to Do with Christmas?

By now, you are probably asking, “What does this have to do with Christmas?  Isn’t a pastor supposed to write about Christmas in a December blog?”  I have good news for you!  This most certainly is about Christmas, the celebration of the incarnation of God in the flesh.  Let me show you how:
      1)  Instead of not wanting to bear the costs of human suffering, Jesus willingly came to this planet to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows.  He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant.  We do not have feel like we are a burden to God, because He took our burdens upon Himself!  Isaiah 53:4-5, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.  Philippians 2:6-7, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”  
      2)  Instead of being anti-God, Jesus came to earth to make God known!  John 1:14, 18, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.”
      3)  Instead of avoiding human suffering, Jesus embraced the cross.  His soul was exceeding sorrowful, even unto death, but He did not take an escape route (although He could have called down legions of angels to escape the suffering).  He, for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross. Matthew 26:53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? Philippians 2:8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross; Hebrews 12:2  looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God; Matthew 26:37-38 And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.”  
      4) Instead of death being a friend, Jesus entered this world, fought death, and was victorious over it.  As Douglas Moo writes, “The resurrection of Christ means a final and decisive break with death and all its power.”[vi] 1 Corinthians 15:55-57 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. ; Romans 6:9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.; Acts 2:24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.

So, I urge you to resist the siren call of our age to think of death as a welcomed friend, to believe that the highest good is to avoid suffering, to live as though God does not exist.  Instead, remember the Savior, Jesus Christ.  He bore the costs of human suffering.  He came to earth to make God known.  He embraced His own suffering for our sake.  He fought death and defeated it utterly.

Just over a year ago, I shared at East White Oak's services about a friend of mine who was suffering from stage 4 glioblastoma (ironically very similar to Brittany Maynard).  My friend Suzy died about 14 months ago, but instead of taking her own life, she continued to live and to share Christ will all around her until the Lord took her home.  Her testimony was so compelling that the staff at the hospital where she received treatment had a special meeting with her to ask her why she could endure such hardships.  Here is what she said:
"I believe in and have faith in God and that has helped me through everything. Because Jesus died on the cross to forgive my sins I believe that I will spend eternity in heaven with Him. And so death is not a scary or frightening thing for me. It is just the time when I will get to meet Jesus face-to-face. Right now I feel like I am being held in the palm of his hand. And as long as I am on earth, as long as I have breath, I want to experience the joy of living as He wants me to live and doing what God put me on earth to do."

Be glad.  Your Savior values your life.  “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” John 1:3.

Merry Christmas,

Scott Boerckel