Calvin Theological Seminary Forum Articles

A Hard Waiting for the Lord


Calvin Van Reken

Forum

Spring 2010
PAGES 7, 8

An article by Calvin Van Reken, Professor of Moral Theology, Calvin Theological Seminary

Henry was dying of throat cancer. He knew it; his wife, Joan, knew it; their two grown children knew it; and the doctors knew it. But he wasn't dying quickly, and it wasn't painless. It was a slow, agonizing, painful dying. The most the pain medications could do was take the fiercest edge off the pain. He could live for weeks before his body succumbed to the cancer. The disease and the pain it brought had already beaten down his will to live, as well as the will of everyone else involved. Everyone wanted the pain to stop, even if it meant Henry's death. A side issue was the cost of sustaining his life; he had already run up the tab to over $75,000, and every day he lived tacked on another $1500. Henry hated the pain, and hated how much his life was costing his family.

Henry wanted to die. When he told Joan, at first she objected, but after a while she, too, started to wish he would die, for his own sake. What made it easier for her to wish such a loss was the fact that Henry and she were both committed Christians. She knew that his death was, as the Heidelberg Catechism says, "our entrance into eternal life" (Q&A 42). What he seemed to be enduring was a prolonged death, and eternal life loomed as a much better option. For Henry, to live is to be in pain, to die is to be with Christ. But their shared understanding of what a Christian may do also blocked them from actively doing anything that would end his life prematurely. They told the hospital staff they did not want any intervention that would prolong his life, and waited patiently for Henry's disease to end his life. So they prayed for his death, and together endured what would remain of his life.

The death of a Christian like Henry, suffering the agony of a fatal illness, seems to be a good thing, and it is not wrong to pray for it. Henry and Joan believed that their Christian faith did not permit them to end Henry's life, even when his death was something they prayed for. Were they right? Are there things we may pray for that we should not cause to occur?

Consider a situation reported by BBC News in February, 2010. A television host, Ray Gosling, was arrested "on suspicion of murder by Nottinghamshire Police after he admitted to killing his lover." The 70-year-old's confession that he had smothered the unnamed man who was dying of AIDS was broadcast on the BBC's Inside Out program on February 15, 2010. The Nottingham filmmaker said he had made a pact with his lover to take action if his suffering increased. Mr. Gosling said he was aware of the possible consequences and had no regrets: "It's a terrible situation. I loved him to bits. We had a pact—-he said if the pain gets bad and if nothing can be done, don't let him linger on. I don't think it's a crime.... When you love someone, it is difficult to see them suffer."

Only four places in the world legally permit assisted suicide or euthanasia: Washington and Oregon, and Holland and Belgium. In a way it is surprising that these acts are almost universally illegal. After all, one can list specific benefits, like the cessation of suffering and the saving of needless expense, and there doesn't seem to be any downside. In fact, it seems compassionate to relieve Henry, and others in his situation, of the suffering. Still, the fact that so few places have legalized euthanasia or assisted suicide is a testimony to the widespread moral perception that euthanizing or "assisting" the suicide of someone like Henry is morally wrong. How can bringing an end to suffering be something we are forbidden to do? How can it be wrong not to bring about something that we are praying for?

From a moral perspective, two interrelated reasons help us understand why it is wrong to intentionally and actively end a human life. Those reasons are our limited knowledge and our limited power. Our limited knowledge means that, while we can see some of the short-term, immediate consequences, and we can even know that they seem good, we cannot know all the consequences that our actions will produce—-nor do we know whether those effects will, on the whole, be for the good. Our limited power means that we cannot control all the consequences, or the fallout of our actions as they reverberate through time.

When Eve "saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it" (Gen. 3:6). The problem with Eve's conduct was not that she was mistaken about the fruit; no doubt it was good for food, and desirable, and a means to gaining wisdom. All the consequences of eating it seemed good. The only problem is that she had been told not to do it. The immediate effects of eating the fruit were presumably good: Adam and Eve had a tasty fruit lunch. Of course, the full consequences of what they did were horrible. Once evil was triggered, Adam and Eve were powerless to stop its rampage. In spite of God's instructions not to eat from the tree, Adam and Eve thought they knew what was good; they thought that any fallout would be within their power to manage. And their mistake was the first instance of what has become a long-lasting human hubris.

God does not command that we do good, but that we obey. Generally, of course, obeying God will bring about what is good. So giving to Christian causes helps support the proclamation of the gospel and provide food for the hungry and homes for the homeless. But what makes our actions pleasing to God, what makes them right, is not that they have good outcomes, but that they are obedient. We must not measure our actions by their outcomes; we must evaluate our actions by whether they conform to God's will. A seeming good end does not justify an immoral means. Choosing to act outside of God's will to achieve an end that we think is good is to act like Adam and Eve.

The Heidelberg Catechism asks the question "What do we do that is good?" (Q&A 91). And the answer is that a good act must meet three conditions (none of which involve the production of a good outcome): it arises out of true faith, conforms to God's law, and is done for God's glory. Note this second point: "conforms to God's law." What this implies is that unless an action is permitted by God's law, it cannot be good, no matter how many apparent good effects it may cause. This is hard for us. There are circumstances where we are sure that if we do this one thing, the outcome will be very good, but the thing we would need to do to cause the outcome is forbidden to us. We do not doubt that the death of Henry will be a good thing, and it's very hard to let him keep suffering; however, intentionally causing that death is against God's law.

Only God knows what the future holds, and what is truly good; that is why God Choosing to act outside of God's will to achieve an end that we think is good is to act like Adam and Eve. acts according to his good and perfect plan. We don't know exactly what God's plan is, nor how he intends to unfold it in our lives or the lives of others. We may pray for situations that seem good to us, we may pray for them to come about, but that does not give us the authority to take action in order to cause such situations. We are not authorized to bring about every good. The only goods we may pursue are those that are attainable through morally permissible actions. Actively and intentionally ending an innocent human life is one of those actions which we may not do. Scripture teaches that the life of every per¬son is a gift of God, and that it is only on his authority that life ends. We each con¬fess, "I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ" (Q&A 1). To do as we think best with what belongs to God simply proves our ignorant human hubris.

We live in a culture that has lost its Christian moorings, and morality has been set adrift. Very few of our society's most influential people are committed to a set of moral imperatives that are not a product of human fashioning. Thus, the consequences of an action have become the only measure of whether it is right or wrong. With such reasoning, if the death of someone like Henry is good, then causing that death is morally permitted. This line of reasoning has some appeal, but we should resist it. What we should do is support and encourage Henry and Joan as much as we can, sympathizing with their agony, and praying for God to quickly end Henry's suffering.

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