Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Choice in Suffering

My soul is weary with sorrow;
    strengthen me according to your word
 (Ps. 119:28).

When Brittany Maynard opted to end her own life (via legal, doctor-assisted suicide) at the beginning of this month, I was going through a trial. Surprise and anger over my situation were soon replaced by sadness. Comments about Maynard’s brave choice and bold statement made me wonder: what would it feel like to have power over pain? With a heavy, metaphorical anchor on my chest, the thought seemed appealing. Momentarily, of course. But in that moment, I could empathize with Maynard’s desire and ultimate decision. She didn’t want to suffer.

The Washington Post published an article on Maynard with statistics about the motive behind most doctor-assisted suicides:

After reading this, one word came to mind: choice. Maynard was given the right to “die with dignity.” She was given the choice to prevent further suffering. Choice in suffering. Have you ever longed for it? Job certainly did:

Oh, that I might have my request,
    that God would grant what I hope for,
that God would be willing to crush me,
    to let loose his hand and cut off my life! 
(Job 6:8,9)

Like Maynard, Job wanted to die. Both had a desire to be released from pain. But while Job submitted his request to God, Maynard took a life that was not her own (1 Cor. 6:19). One recognized his position as man. The other tried to play God.

The Prospect of Hope

Job was by no means a stoic sufferer. His raw questions confirm this:

What strength do I have, that I should still hope?
    What prospects, that I should be patient? 
(Job. 6:11)

Yet he did not, despite his wife’s advice to curse God and die (Job 2:9), try to end his own life. In chapters worth of monologue about his anguish and pain, the subject of suicide never comes up. Some might explain this as having to do with the laws or cultural expectations of his day. Even Brittany Maynard had to move to Oregon, one of the four states where physician assisted suicide is legal, in order to end her life. Job’s friends and wife had pronounced him cursed and unrepentant. How much influence would “societal expectations” have had on him? No, suicide was not an option because to Job, God was the author of life and death.

Comparing Job and Maynard’s responses leads me to an important question:

Do Christians have any choice in suffering?

The overwhelming answer is yes. Studying the subject of suffering in scripture not only leads one to promises and blessings but choicesMaynard made the choice to end her earthly suffering. Christians have the opportunity to choose life in suffering. Christ in suffering! And hope in every trial. Here are some of the choices we have in our deepest valleys:

We can choose to imitate Jesus:

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21).

Jesus suffered more than anyone on earth ever has or will, all out of obedience to His Father and love for us. If following him includes suffering, we can count it an honor to suffer.

We can choose to rely on God’s strength:

He gives strength to the weary    
    and increases the power of the weak (Isa. 40:29).

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power (Eph. 6:10). 

We are never asked to be strong without God. Despite our culture’s promotion of “inner strength” and the countless bumper stickers and Pinterest quotes  about self-sufficiency, the Christian is called to boast in weakness. For each weakness is an opportunity to point to God’s strength:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me (2 Cor. 12:9, 10).

We can choose to rejoice:

Rejoicing in pain seems unnatural. Yet the passages below provide a larger context for this joy. Trials sanctify. They make us more like Christ. This is something to celebrate:

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom. 5:3-5).

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).

We can choose to anticipate the future:

The Christian knows that all suffering is temporary. We can anticipate the eternal presence of God in paradise, no matter how hard it gets on earth:

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you (1 Peter 5:10).

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom. 8:18).

We can choose the crown of life:

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him (James 1:12).

The Choice in Suffering

There is nothing simple about loving God in suffering. Bitterness, doubt, and alienation are our natural response. To the world, Maynard's choice seems like a logical approach when suffering is certain. But it shouldn't take terminal brain cancer for a Christian to confront the certainty of pain. John 16:33 promises us that in the world you will have tribulation. It’s coming. It’s not going to be easy. It might knock the wind out of you. But you have a choice. 

Written by Rachel Watson

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