Burdens and Christian Optimism
Rev. Robert Fleischmann, CLR National Director
Despairing elders may come to the conclusion to terminate their own lives. Their acts of self-killing are often shrouded in euphemisms about wishing to “die with dignity” and “ceasing to be a burden” on others.
On the surface, most can sympathize with the perceived hopelessness of the aged and dying. Lacking the vitality of youth, the quick mind of their middle years, and companionship of friends and family either who have died or fallen out-of-touch, many shed a tear over the toll that time takes on their bodies.
How Bad Is It?
Within the Christian community, the church has had to wrestle with the harsh reality that some want to die quickly before they become too dependent, too much of a burden, or too uncomfortable. In this “me-centric” era of self-indulgence, we live the illusion that today’s youth have exclusively cornered the market. But they aren’t the only ones!
The information is shocking:
Older adults make up about 16% of the US population and account for 16.3% of all suicide deaths. This statistic is expected to increase, as the elderly are the fastest growing segment of the population. This makes the issue of later-life suicide a major public health priority.
In 2018, the annual suicide rate for persons between the ages of 65 and 74 was over 16.3 deaths per 100,000 individuals; for those 75-84 years, the number increased to 18.7 suicide deaths per every 100,000. The number rose even higher for those aged 85 and over. According to the American Association of Suicidology, the 85+ group had an even higher rate of suicide among seniors: 19.1 deaths per 100,000. Further, the number of older age suicides likely are under-reported. These “silent suicides” — such as deaths by overdose, self-starvation, dehydration, or “accidents” — might not be attributed to self-killing. The mortality rate among the elderly is higher than other ages. That’s because elders tend to use irreversible means such as firearms, suffocation (including hanging), or drowning to end their lives.
Life and Its Purpose
This comes as a bitter pill for many to swallow, but life is not all about us. The psalmist wrote:
I said to the Lord, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.” (Psalm 16:2)
God, as the center of all things, is the reference point by which we judge that which is truly right and truly wrong. He is the focus of our lives as our Creator and our Redeemer.
God has established purposes for our lives as follows:
- Come to faith [happens by the work of the Holy Spirit] (1 Timothy 2:4; Titus 3:5)
- Grow in faith (Psalm 143:10)
- Live the faith (James 2:14-26)
- Share the faith (Mark 15:16)
These are “our” purposes in life. In our pursuit to do all things to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31), these activities should occupy our entire beings.
While these purposes are assigned by God to us, God also assigns purposes for us. Even when we feel it becomes too difficult or impossible for us to carry out our purposes in life, God is not necessarily done with us.
Positive Reasons for Burdens
For those feeling useless, unappreciated or unwanted by others God may be holding them in abeyance, waiting for the right time and circumstance during which they can touch and influence the lives of others. Consider the story of Joseph (Genesis 37-43). Rejected and disowned by his own brothers, this man of faith was sold as a common slave. Yet, God worked out the events of Joseph’s life for his good. Joseph told his brothers:
And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. (Genesis 45:5-7)
For those who feel it is “time to go” and wish the Lord would just “take them,” consider the words of the Apostle Paul who said:
I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Philippians 1:23,24)
For those convinced that their disability renders them useless, a waste of time and merely a burden for others, consider how God uses such circumstances:
His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. (John 9:2,3)
While the story of the Good Samaritan serves as a reminder of how we deceive ourselves into thinking we keep the law perfectly, it is also a valuable lesson that the hardships of others also represent outlets for the faith of those who can help.
In other words, purposes in life both emanate from us (i.e., defined by God and performed by us) and incorporate us (i.e., established by God who uses us).
The Apostle Paul encouraged the Corinthians to proceed in the face of hardship with an eternal optimism:
It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” With that same spirit of faith we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:13-18)
While raised in this culture we cannot forget the fact that we live by a different standard. Scripture encourages us not to cling to the fleeting things in this world – whether they be riches (1 Peter 1:3-7) – whether they be prestige and power (Isaiah 40:23) – whether they be life itself (Psalm 144:4).
Our optimism enables us to “walk through the valley of the shadow of death and not fear” (Psalm 23). That optimism enables us to look past our present sufferings in confident anticipation of the glory that is coming (Romans 8:18).
This is an optimism that Christians live each day for the Lord in anticipation of the day they enter eternal glory with the Lord.
A “Welcomed” Burden in Caring for Others
A university professor once said, “The character of society is enhanced not by its ability to avoid carrying burdens but by its willingness to carry burdens.”
In the final moments of life, God’s purpose might be to test the resolve of others to carry burdens. The Apostle Paul noted that burden-carrying begins with the family. He wrote:
If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:8)
It can be difficult to adjust a family’s lifestyle to care for a needy loved one. The word “burden” rightly fits.
What must be considered, however, is the distinction between the world’s view and God’s view of a burden. The world sees little value in carrying burdens. Research can already calculate the cost savings associated with a person who ends his or her life versus someone who continues that life with a terminal condition.
The world also considers the lifestyle changes demanded in sharing burdens. In our independent pursuits of self-determination, carrying excess burdens hinders our progress and threatens our chances for success. Therefore, the world view concludes all burdens must be mitigated.
In contrast, we see that God venerates burden-carrying. It becomes a litmus test of faith on Judgment Day (Matthew 25:31-46). It becomes not only a lifestyle that befalls us because of the plight of someone close. Rather it is the lifestyle we seek as a reflection of the love we enjoy from God (Philippians 2:3-5).
Willing to Be Loved
Finally, it is one thing to be willing to take on a burden. It is an equal challenge to accept being a burden when there is no choice. Parents, even those whose own children did not want to take on the burden of caring for them, do a disservice to their children by letting them off the hook. Permitting children to succeed in life without the perspective of learning to care and share in the burdens of others deprives them of a valuable fruit of faith. So what if they feel they now need to visit every day? So what if they have to cancel a family vacation? Are not the most memorable stories in Scripture the stories of great personal sacrifice and humility for the sake of others (Genesis 13:5-12; Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 12:41-44; Luke 6:29; Ephesians 4:2)?
When we understand our God-assigned purpose in life, when we understand God’s added purpose for our lives and when we understand God’s dominion over life and death, we cannot accept self-termination as an option. We may have to settle for doing less with fewer blessings. We may even have to settle with leaning on those who at one time leaned on us. But through it all, we fulfill purposes in and for life that far exceed goals and objectives in this temporal world.
Do not fear death which guarantees you eternal life because of Christ. Do not fear life’s diminishing nature. See it as a means by which God conditions us to cease setting our hearts on things of this world. Do not fear having to carry the burdens of others. Remember the burden Christ carried for you. And do not fear becoming a burden for others. Others learn a valuable lesson of faith through the opportunity to put their faith into practice.
“But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.” (1 Timothy 5:4)