A Practical Approach to End-of-Life Issues: Understanding the Purpose of Life

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

V. Understanding the Purpose of Life

When counseling a family at a time of crisis a certain amount of spiritual building takes place. A challenge I face in these circumstances is discovering the weak spiritual foundation of some of these people. Either we pastors are not clearly proclaiming God’s word, our members aren’t listening, or the sinful flesh is very strong. I hope the reason is the latter. At any rate, the challenge is great.

To prepare for the emergency room encounter, your pastoral work must begin way in advance of the crisis. We need to practice continued faithful preaching of God’s word and quality Bible class presentations that remind, in clear and practical terms, what the purposes are for life. While some of this important foundation work can be attempted in the emergency waiting room, it is tough. You do yourselves, and especially your members, a favor if you keep reminding them time and time again of why they are here and what they are to do with their lives.

In this regard, I outline four purposes of life. The first purpose is to come to faith. In his ministry Jesus put it this way: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness…” (Matthew 6:33 NIV). When one considers the words of Scripture which say, “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27 NIV) this certainly must become the first concern.

The beauty of this purpose is that it is God who accomplishes it through the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul reminds us, “He [God] saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5 NIV). As Christians embark upon a life of serving God they can do so knowing that with this first purpose accomplished by God they have hope and comfort to face the challenges that lie ahead.

The second purpose of life is to grow in that faith. “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17 NIV). For that reason Jesus observed, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39 NIV). A Christian, therefore, recognizes that Bible study, either on the corporate or private level, is to be a regular part of his or her life.

This purpose of life is especially important to emphasize in our preaching and teaching. There may be many different reasons why our members are not studying God’s Word. Perhaps it is too hard for them to understand or maybe our presentation of it is a hindrance. But whatever the reason, the responsibility rests with them to overcome the obstacles so that they may carry out this purpose in their life.

The third purpose is to share the faith. The assignment given by Christ upon his ascension made this point very clear: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:1920 NIV). Christians, therefore, seek to practice mission work and support mission work which accomplishes the task of discipling others through the administration of God’s Word.

The fourth purpose is the most general of them all and that is to live the faith. “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Corinthians 5:1415 NIV). This living begins first with obedience to the directives of God.

Obedience to these divine principles manifests itself in many different ways. While applications may differ, however, they cannot be done with the intent to violate another divinely established principle. It is my opinion that is what happened with the Browns who committed suicide to give their wealth for the work of the church. Reflecting faith means helping others. It means being good stewards of our resources. It means sharing our blessings for the work of the church. It does not, however, allow us to violate one principle in preference to another.

There is a logical appeal to the Brown’s decision. It would appear to have been sacrificial for the benefit of a greater number of people. But the decision was contrary to the principles expressed in Scripture. It also represents a dangerous public policy. We have seen other examples of this reasoning with sad results. Consider the anencephalic cases of the late 1980s at Loma Linda in California, and in the Baby Theresa case of Florida.

What is possible and what may seem practical, may not always be divinely correct. Even charitable acts out of concern for others do not supersede fundamental principles. One such principle is that all glory is to be given to God, as was done by a woman who anointed Jesus. While the arguments of the disciples that the ointment could have been sold and the receipts given to the poor sounds loving and logical, it failed to note the woman’s motive and obedience to another principle calling for her to give God all glory. That section is as follows:

(Matthew 26:613 NIV) While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

I have heard some attribute Judas Iscariot as the deceptively frugal or charitable one in this account. In fact, Matthew notes it was the disciples collectively who felt that the money could have been better used to help the poor. In a practical sense, most of us would be compelled to agree. But her action was not intended to slight the poor but it was a reflection of her faith and desire to glorify God. In many ways we face the same ethical dilemma when we build a church and wrestle with how best to glorify God with our resources as we decide what furnishings and design to use, balanced with the kind of ministry we wish to conduct.

My experience has been that when people lose sight of these purposes for their life they contemplate or actually take action to end lives. When the aspiring college student discovers her unplanned pregnancy she determines that to accomplish her career goals the baby must die. When Grandma is no longer what she used to be and finds she can longer walk in the mall, hug her grandchildren, or play bridge with her friends, she thinks her life has lost purpose. She then makes decisions to assure her life ends as soon as possible.

The problem here is that our members often confuse blessings with purposes. The man who works his entire life at the office and then is compelled to retire often exclaims that his life lacks purpose. But his ability to work was a blessing, not a purpose. It was a blessing for Grandma to play bridge, or hug her grandchildren. It was a blessing to be able to pursue a career according to our own time table. But none of these things are our purposes.

I mentioned earlier that the popular notion is that we are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All of these are blessings to which we hold no entitlement beyond the will of God. It is important for us to help our members recognize this distinction so that as the quality of their life diminishes they do not feel purposeless.

In this regard, there is a phrase that has become quite common in many households. That phrase is, “I hope I never become a burden for you.” This is noble-sounding and, when possible, is a correct course of action to follow. In practical terms, however, children are fulfilling their parents’ wishes in this regard by taking steps to assure that they do not become a burden. More and more medical decisions are being made by children to shorten the lives of their parents because “they didn’t ever want to become a burden on us.” And, more and more elderly patients sign medical directive statements assuring the premature termination of their life for the same reason.

While it is appropriate that you do not become a burden unnecessarily, it is inappropriate to suggest that there is something wrong with becoming a burden when necessary. Where in all of Scripture will you find anything that says it is wrong to become a burden if necessary? You won’t find it, but you will find many passages calling us to carry the burdens of others. While some may feel it is better for the family to avoid carrying burdens I contend that the fabric of the family and of society is strengthened when it can carry a burden.

But to fight this mentality against burden-carrying we must fairly evaluate where the notion begins. I call it the parenting complex. Parents become so accustomed to wiping the noses and backsides of their children that the mere thought that they should ever have to have their children wipe their nose or backside is repulsive. But why?

What is so wrong with a family having to sacrifice some vacations to take care of Grandma? What is so wrong to juggle the family schedule so that regular visits can be made on Grandpa to check-in and be sure he is OK? Without a doubt, such accommodations may hinder our pursuit of things in this world, but our directive from Scripture establishes the priority for us: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27 NIV)

Our role as spiritual leaders in the congregation is to guide our members with God’s Word to be willing to carry a burden and to be willing to become a burden if necessary. We need to elevate the task of caring for others as one of the ways we glorify God. Such willingness and love were reflected by King David when he showed concern for Mephibosheth, the surviving son of his good friend Jonathan (2 Samuel 4:4; 9:6-11). Stories like this need to be heard by our members so that they can feel comfortable imitating either David or Mephibosheth.

The above article is part 5 of Rev. Fleischmann’s 10-part paper. Click here to view the complete outline.


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