Red herring of dignity

The red herring of dignity

Sir Edward Downes, a former leading British conductor, and his wife Joan Downes are the latest of over one hundred Britons to decide to journey to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland and end their lives in dignity (see the article in The Times). The issues raised by assisted suicide and euthanasia are complicated in both moral and ethical senses, and opinion on what is right and what is wrong is equally complicated, not to mention very diverse.

As the name of the Swiss clinic suggests, the heart of this issue is dignity. More and more people hold the dignity of life over and above the sanctity of life. This means that a dignified death is becoming more preferable than maintaining life. Rightly, many people are questioning who determines our mortality. The Bible is pretty clear on this issue – God, not Man, determines our footsteps and expects us to hold him as the only one able to decide when a life should end. However, there is a more serious yet less visible problem with choosing to place dignity of life over and above sanctity of life.

Refusing to face the inevitable

It is a difficult fact (but a fact nonetheless) that one of the ways God uses suffering for good is to make us aware or our frailty, mortality and, more importantly, our sinfulness so we turn to him for forgiveness and eternal life. Hosea 2:6-7 speaks of God putting thornbushes in the way of his rebellious people in order to make them aware of their rebellion and turn them back to him. In this way illness and suffering can be thornbushes to us, causing us to ask deep questions and seek profound truths that otherwise we would have remained ignorant of.

What greater reminder of our mortality is there than our very own death? What greater cause is there for seeking an answer to our meaningless existence than being presented with the end of our lives, knowing that we shall return to dust because from dust we all are formed (Genesis 3:19)?

In light of the ethical dilemma caused by assisted suicide, Ecclesiastes 12 takes on a whole new light:

1 Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come 
and the years approach when you will say, 
“I find no pleasure in them”—
2 before the sun and the light 
and the moon and the stars grow dark, 
and the clouds return after the rain;
3 when the keepers of the house tremble, 
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few, 
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
4 when the doors to the street are closed 
and the sound of grinding fades;
when men rise up at the sound of birds, 
but all their songs grow faint;
5 when men are afraid of heights 
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms 
and the grasshopper drags himself along 
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then man goes to his eternal home 
and mourners go about the streets.
6 Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, 
or the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, 
or the wheel broken at the well,
7 and the dust returns to the ground it came from, 
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Ecclesiastes 12:1-7

This mixture of poetry and imagery charts the final days for all of us. v1-5 uses intricate metaphor to describe how our faculties start to fail us, our limbs become slow, our eyes grow dim, our hearing grows faint, and so on. With each step we find ourselves drawing closer and closer to the day we die. What advice does the wise teacher of Ecclesiastes have for us? v6-7 offer a simple yet eye-opening warning: Remember God before it is too late.

And this is the elephant in the room at every assisted suicide or euthanasia procedure. Having the choice of a dignified death is simply another way of putting our fingers in our ears and refusing to listen to the testimony of the world around us – the testimony of our own bodies, even – that there is a God who made us and we all have an appointment with him to keep.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. Having a terminal illness or a degenerate disease is a terrible thing and I do not want to trivialise the agony of facing such scenarios or watching helplessly as the health of a loved one deteriorates. At the time of writing, my father has been diagnosed with Alzhiemer’s and vascular dementia. It is a difficult time for him and for the rest of our family.

However, instead of ignoring the fact that he will eventually die or worrying about maintaining his dignity as he approaches death, my father was spurred on by his illness to consider what will happen after he dies. When his body returns to dust and his spirit returns to face his creator, what then? Although it brings difficulty and suffering, my father’s illness is far from a total loss. It has brought into clear view the fact that he is a mortal being in the hands of a divine creator and that he must remember his creator before it is too late. Any thoughts of euthanasia would have simply distracted him from this reality.

What next?

So, what does happen when we die? Ecclesiastes 12 continues:

13 Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter: 
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

In the New Testament, Hebrews 9:27 says much the same thing: ‘man is destined to die once and after that to face judgment.’

Dying with dignity is a red herring. Whether we die in dignity or die ashamed, we still die. Whether we die rich or poor, full of life or on life support, on our own or with family around us – we all die.

Whether or not we die a dignified death is not important. Whether or not we have remembered God and dignified him, even in our death – that is what really matters.

But who can say they have truly dignified God? Who can say they have lived a thoroughly good life? No one. Romans 3:12 puts it in stark terms: ‘there is no one who does good, not even one.’ The truth is, as we face death and remember God we are left with a terrible reality: we have not loved him as we should have. The final conclusion of the matter for us all is one of despair and eternal judgment.

However, through faith in Jesus Christ the final conclusion of the matter becomes one of hope and eternal life. Judgment has already taken place in Jesus on the cross, and so we can face the end of our lives knowing we return to our eternal home and life forever with Jesus.

This is the truth that my Dad is discovering. As his mind and body fails him, he has realised that he has not lived his life to please God by living for Jesus. Thankfully (and with much praise to God on my part!) he has come to Jesus and asked for forgiveness. His suffering opened his eyes to see his need for a saviour who will save him from his coming judgment before God.

I do not know how I will die. I hope it will be painless and peaceful. It might not be. Whatever end God has in store for me, I do not want to be ignorant of the reality I face: every step towards death is a step towards my eternal home with Christ. In the meantime I keep on living for Jesus. ‘For, to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.’ (Philippians 1:21).