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Do Christians have the Right to Die “Naturally”?

“I’m not sure what to do about my father”, said my friend. “He’s mid 80’s, his health is failing and he can’t live on his own safely anymore. He’s unsteady on his feet and my sisters and I are scared to death he’ll fall down the steps, lay there for a few days and die. But, he refuses to leave his house where he’s lived for close to 40 years. “Does your father have Alzheimer’s or does he have trouble thinking clearly?” I asked. “No, he’s okay mentally. That’s not the problem.” He just says he wants to die at home.

“Then I’d let him”, I said.

My friend was about as shocked as you may be. So I went on to explain how doing so may be the most loving thing he and his sister could do for him, and how some other serious Christians have thought about these issues. A few weeks ago, I blogged on the topic “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, like death. I think we Christians hang on to life with a tenacity that probably surprises God, given all he’s promised for us after life on earth. Personally, I’d rather die at the bottom of the stairs in my own house than live for a few more years in a nursing home, shuffling down the halls with a walker, taking a half-dozen medications to keep me alive and wetting myself.

This is no slam on the retirement or nursing home business. My wife’s grandparents and mine dreaded leaving their home for a retirement village and ending up loving it. But, when a Christian parent, capable of making reasonably lucid decisions chooses to risk possible death rather than leave the familiarity of their own home and enter into nursing care, I think we ought to think and pray deeply about their wishes, honor their decisions and not feel guilty about it.

How much care is too much?

I was in India recently discussing this topic with another American, a serious follower of Jesus, whose family can afford whatever healthcare is needed. They have a grandmother who they all love and admire who is being cared for at home. However, her quality of life has gone downhill considerably in the last six months. She truly would prefer to be with Jesus than continue to live like she is. At one point, she was taking thirteen different prescription drugs a day.

My friend’s family gathered around their grandmother a few months ago and together talked and prayed through some treatment options. She decided, with her family’s blessing to stop taking all but two of her medications. Not taking those last two medications quite probably would have quickly led to her death, a decision they felt was close to assisted suicide, which they are universally against.

Regarding the other medicines, they accepted the fact that it was possible, even probable, that there would be complications which could lead to a deterioration of their grandmother’s health and even death. While the thought of death saddened them, they believed it was time to leave that decision in God’s hands and let go. Oddly enough, she’s actually doing much better without those meds right now.

The Christian position on Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide

Christians have historically rejected all forms of euthanasia, voluntary, or involuntary. Christians believe it is wrong to take a life, even if the motive is mercy or relief of suffering. The basis for the Christian position view seems to be fairly unambiguous from the Bible: “You shall not kill”. Ex. 20:13; “I put to death and I bring to life.” Deut. 32:39; God created human life and he alone has the right to take it. So the fallacy of euthanasia is that it presumes upon the sovereign right of God over human life. For Christians the only option is natural death. However, the question is “What is a natural death?”

Natural Death

Some Christians hold to the belief that if God has blessed us with the medical means and resources, we are morally bound to use any and all means to sustain life. To not use them is tantamount to murder in the case of those who are not mentally competent or assisted suicide for those who are.

Other Christians hold to the position that to postpone death un-naturally by drugs, medical devices, or forcing medical care in a facility that the patient doesn’t want is a choice Christians can make if they are mentally competent, or the family can make for them if they’re not. They point out that only a generation or two ago, when these drugs and services weren’t available it allowed people to die naturally and not sustain life artificially. I’m sure you can tell by now, I’m generally in this camp.

A Word of Caution

I do have several concerns. First, I’d urge you to use every possible means to keep a non-Christian family member alive to give them an opportunity to come to faith. Second, I’m presuming that family members making these decisions have prayed deeply about their decision and sought good godly counsel. I’m also assuming they are good-willed and truly love the dying person. I’ve been in situations when I’ve sensed “pulling the plug” had more to do with preserving the inheritance, or relieving themselves of the stress and responsibility for ongoing care, than compassion.

We’ve had these discussions with our family and my wife and I have made some end of live decisions if we’re not competent to make them on our own. But, I’ve assured them that when my quality of life gets to the point that only drugs, machines and extensive nursing care can keep me alive. I want them to know I’m fine with dying naturally.

I’d strongly recommend you consult with a Christian attorney and consider both a Living Will and a Designation of Health Care Advocate (or Surrogate), which allows someone familiar with your personal moral beliefs and wishes to function as a stand-in decision maker if you are incapacitated. Go to www.christianlaw.org/cla/images/layout/WebPDFs/Living-Wills.pdf for more information.

My wife and I feel unbelievably honored that if and when the time comes that we can’t care for ourselves; our children have offered to do so. It’s a God honoring solution to this dilemma, but unfortunately one few families today choose.

Summary

It concerns me that certain members of the evangelical right have made areas in which I believe we believers have personal freedom, and have made it a litmus test of our biblical commitment to life. And, I’m well aware of the “slippery slope” argument they are trying to warn us of. However, I believe that where God clearly commands, we ought to always obey. Where God does not clearly command, we have freedom. In those cases, we must rely on biblical principles, our conscience, the Holy Spirit and the godly counsel of mature believers to guide us.

Question:  How do you feel about my position on these issues?

Following Jesus in Real Life

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