A Practical Approach to End-of-Life Issues: Facing the Challenge of Suffering

Close up hands of helping hands elderly home care. Mother and daughter. Mental health and elderly care concept

A Practical Approach to End-of-Life Issues
Presented by Rev. Robert R. Fleischmann

VII. Facing the Challenge of Suffering

Suffering, or the fear of suffering, is one important reason people have advocated the early termination of life. When I speak of suffering, I am speaking of it both in an emotional as well as a physical sense. Physically I have heard the claims that most of the pain can be managed and that the problem is lack of good training in that area. That may be the case, but the emotional suffering manifested in the fear of potential physical suffering or of the declined quality of life, I suspect, to be a greater influence in the pro-death decision process.

It is incumbent upon Christians to understand the purpose and place of suffering in the entire scheme of things. First of all, a Christian must understand that suffering is a consequence of living in a sinful world. After man’s fall into sin in the Garden of Eden the consequence included suffering. God said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17b-19 NIV). Suffering was not part of God\’s created sinless paradise. Rather, it was a consequence of sinfulness.

Nevertheless, suffering is used by God to accomplish important purposes for our lives. One such purpose is that suffering causes glory to be given to God. Consider the case of the man born blind encountered by Jesus and his disciples: “As he [Jesus] went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 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 9:13 NIV)

I am sure most, if not all of us, have had members who, upon receiving a diagnosis of a terminal condition, spoke openly and confidently about their faith. Some who, until then, had been quiet in the practice of their faith, seemed almost anxious to share their condition and to express their confidence and trust in God. Consider the testimonies of those who have survived natural disasters. Many credit God with survival and give thanks to him for protection.

Another purpose of suffering is to heighten awareness of God. The Apostle Peter writes, “For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God” (1 Peter 2:19 NIV). I often illustrate this point when talking about prayer. As a youngster, many of us learned the familiar bedtime prayer which begins, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” As we got older many of us probably found less and less time or need for this prayer and, for that fact, any bedtime prayer. As time passed a bedtime prayer slowly became a thing of the past until some suffering came into our lives. And then, if you are like most people I have talked to about this, you not only started praying again but for the first time in your life, you dropped to your knees and cried into your pillow. Suffering made you more aware of God and his ability to be our Help and Deliverer in times of trouble.

A final purpose for suffering which is easily overlooked is that it may be intended to provide an outlet for the practice and nurturing of faith for others. The best example in Scripture of this is the account of the Good Samaritan. We know all about the two men who should have helped and didn’t. We know about the Samaritan who helped. But what about the man in the ditch? We have no indication that his suffering became an opportunity for him to glorify God. Nor did suffering necessarily make him more mindful of God. Rather, his suffering made him an outlet for the faith of others.

When our members have a loved one in a declining condition they empathize with him or her. They remember the good old days of vitality and fun. Now, time has taken its toll, and perhaps dementia has robbed him or her of any reasonable conversation or obvious logical thinking pattern. They receive tube feeding and we pastors counsel our members to read Scripture out loud and pray with this loved one. They do it but all they get is sporadic and unexplained interruptions of yelling, crying, or garbled noises. They begin to think to themselves that this is all useless. In fact, even the words “better off dead” cross their mind, if not their lips.

But is this all useless? We do not have time to review some of the evidence that others have offered concerning the cognitive abilities of the so-called demented or PVS condition patient. Perhaps they can hear but can’t respond in a way we understand. But perhaps they can’t hear or assimilate the information presented to them. Maybe they can’t grow in faith any longer or share their faith. Maybe all they can do is lie there, like a man in a ditch, as an instrument of God to be the outlet for the faith of others.

We live in a busy time wrapped up in its schedules and luxuries. There is no denying that a seriously disabled loved-one presents a real burden on a busy family. Even relocation into an extended care facility does not remove the family from the financial or schedule burdens of support and visits. But perhaps, just perhaps, God is telegraphing to us a little different priority system than that which we have been using.

The above article is part 7 of Rev. Fleischmann’s 10-part paper. Click here to view the complete outline.


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