If you’ve followed the news as of late, you’ve most likely heard of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old newly married woman that has made the choice to die. Diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Maynard has opted not to put her family through the stress of watching her slowly deteriorate and has chosen death with dignity, a program that allows for terminally ill patients an end-of-life option. Surrounded by her family and friends, she will consume the contents of a prescription pill bottle and depart from this earth.
Maynard originally made the decision to take the prescription November 1, but according to a recent video released by CNN, she is now waiting for the “right time” to take the fatal dosage.
While I certainly sympathize with Maynard’s situation and have compassion for her in her difficulty, I am saddened by her decision and the voices in our culture that support the idea that we have the right to elect out of life when things get hard.
In first reading about Maynard’s unorthodox choice, I joined the discussion by posting an article on Facebook railing against death with dignity and Maynard’s views. Then I felt a quiet conviction that perhaps my path as a Christian should not so much be to condemn her actions, but rather, as Ellen Painter Dollar argues in her article “A Christian Response to Brittany Maynard’s Decision to Die,” offer an alternative approach to the complicated issue of suffering.
Maynard’s story certainly raises some questions: Why should we allow ourselves to experience suffering? What good can possibly come out of it? How should we as Christians approach it? And while it’s convincing to believe that we shouldn’t have to go through pain if we choose not to, the Bible offers a few other ideas on the subject.
We are Promised Trouble
Understandably, we are made in God’s image and have this idea of perfection for this life in our mind because God is perfect. When we get diagnosed with a devastating disease and our idea of happily ever after shatters, we feel we should have an immediate rescue from our tribulations, but God never promised us that we would have it easy. We are simply encouraged to “take heart” and know that He has “overcome the world” (John 16:33). God doesn’t tell us we won’t experience trouble, He tells us that as Christians we can expect it.
And while we may not understand all the reasons we have to go through the trials that we do, we have the assurance that our longing for perfection will be fulfilled in heaven.
Suffering Has Purpose
One thing that we can find comfort in is that the only perfect human being to live on this earth, Jesus Christ, suffered. His suffering had a purpose: to provide salvation for all of humanity. Even in His perfection, He still struggled with His own emotions before having to endure the cross. He didn’t want to go through what He did; if He had chosen to avoid the Father’s will, however, we would not have the opportunity for the life we enjoy in Christ. According to Isaiah 53:5, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Clearly, Jesus’ pain was for something — a purpose bigger than himself.
Similarly, our trials are for something — our “light and momentary trials are achieving for us eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Our suffering has a distinct purpose that God uses for His kingdom.
Pain Enlarges Us
If we go through life and never experience hardship and struggle, we would all act pretty superficial. Suffering is what produces in us some of our most enduring qualities and gives us the ability to “comfort others” as we ourselves have been comforted (2 Corinthians 1:4). It is in the fires of affliction that we develop the qualities that make us “iron” believers.
In Streams in the Desert, L.B. Cowman offers the following excerpt from George Matheson — where Matheson observes that suffering “enlarges” us:
Someone once said of Joseph that when he was in the dungeon, ‘iron entered his soul.’ And the strength of iron is exactly what he needed, for earlier he had only experienced the glitter of gold. He had been rejoicing in youthful dreams, and dreaming actually hardens the heart. Someone who sheds great tears over a simple romance will not be much help in a real crisis, for true sorrow will be too deep for him. We all need the iron in life to enlarge our character. The gold is simply a passing vision, whereas the iron is the true experience of life. The chain that is the common bond uniting us to others must be one of iron. The common touch of humanity that gives the world true kinship is not joy but sorrow — gold is only partial to a few, but iron is universal.
While our culture may argue that suffering only takes away, Matheson asserts the idea that suffering can actually add to us. We are built up by the very trials we wish to escape from. It is from our very prisons that our character is perfected, and our own difficulties help us connect to others in similar trials.
The Other Side of Suffering
We have, in the midst of our suffering, the promise of “the other side.” As Joyce Meyer notes in her New Day, New You devotional, “Learn to endure whatever you need to, knowing that there is joy on the other side!” Like Psalm 30:5 promises, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” We will get victory in the struggle if we have the right mindset, even if we don’t get the resolution or result we want in this life.
My grandmother, a devout Christian, nonetheless struggled with dark bouts of depression and then dementia and Alzheimer’s in her later years. She was an accomplished pianist and the director of music at her church before she retired. I still have memories of her sitting at her large black Steinway grand piano playing and singing in her clear voice at family gatherings.
The woman who very much struggled with her own mental health was still a light to those around her, and even though she lost her battle to Alzheimer’s some time ago, she now has these words on her headstone: “In His presence is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11). Although she didn’t experience complete healing on this earth, I now have the reassurance that her ills have been healed. She endured to gain what was hers: fullness of joy in the presence of God.
Our world tells us that happiness is based on circumstances — and when those go bad, we should find an immediate out — a deliverance from. However, the Bible tells us that there is a peace that can transcend all circumstances and a beauty that comes out of some of our most harrowing situations.
Matheson reminds us that God “enlarges” us when we are in “distress” (Psalm 4:1, KJV), and sometimes we must accept that God’s will isn’t for us to get out — but to go through.
*Updated November 18, 2017.