Recently I read the story of the suicide of Rhys Habermann. Rhys was a young man diagnosed with bone cancer in his late teens. The suffering he endured was immense, and as the disease spread and required more treatments, Rhys decided to take his own life.
He was quite conflicted about this act – particularly as he wanted to be near his family, while at the same time hoping to protect them from the legal consequences of his actions. In South Australia at the time, it was illegal for a terminally ill patient to seek the assistance of a physician to end their life. In the end, risking the legal consequences for being present, his parents were by his side when Rhys killed himself.
It is undeniable that the Habermann family endured unimaginable grief. This was complicated by circumstances that prohibited them from seeing their son’s final days end the way he desired. Rhys’s parents have made known publicly their belief that their son not being given the option of euthanasia added an extra level of cruelty to their suffering.
However, the intention behind stories like these, and so many other extreme cases involving the end of life, is to move us emotionally towards compassion. In fact, one of the major arguments for voluntary assisted dying – or, more accurately, physician assisted suicide (PAS) – is the desire to show compassion.
It is often noted that most of the opposition to PAS is from religious people. The troubling question to the sensitive Christian mind is whether this opposition means that Christians lack compassion. This is the question I hope to answer in this brief essay.
Just to note: there are two acts normally associated with ending life in this way: euthanasia – the ending of life by another, as a show of mercy to the one suffering; or PAS – the ending of one’s own life through means supplied by a physician. For simplicity, in this essay we’ll use PAS to describe either mode of ending the life of someone suffering.
Self-autonomy and control
One of the most important considerations about legal reform and public opinion concerning PAS is the stories told in society. The primary mover of public opinion about PAS is the testimonies of those closely associated with suffering, propagated by those seeking reform.
For confused Christians, hearing these stories and hearing the blame placed on the “religious minority” for blocking what the “majority” of the population clearly wants is enough to cause any decent person to have doubts. Let me be clear: these stories are moving, tragic and devastating. But they aren’t the clearest picture of reality because suffering is not the debate’s main concern.
If you listen and read carefully, you’ll notice that the major concern for advocates of PAS is autonomy. People deeply desire control over their lives. When someone is terminally ill and all treatment plans have been exhausted, naturally they feel out of control. The main argument for PAS is allowing people choice over when and how they die.
Furthermore, it is important to note that a major shift has taken place in this debate: society once sought what constitutes the “good life” and aimed to pursue it together. Now, proposals for “progress” seek opportunity for a “good death” (the literal meaning of the word euthanasia). But do we believe that death features in a “good” life?
This desire for control can be seen in our ongoing efforts to establish ourselves: we seek control over every facet of our lives, including our own self-definition. In today’s society, damned be the person who disagrees with another’s beliefs about what is good and right for them. We are authorities unto ourselves, and the greatest transgression in our present age is to deny someone’s opportunity for authenticity – ultimate control over their self-identification, self-actualisation and even self-termination.
But there is a fundamental error in the modern conception of self: a “self” is never one in isolation; it is always socially defined. We are who we are because of the company we keep. We are a brother or sister, husband or wife, mother or father, friend, teacher, cousin and so on. Likewise, we are a leader or follower, companion or loner, trend follower or trendsetter, and so on. We are who we are because of our social interactions. We never exist in a vacuum, independent of other social forces.
This social component of our identities is crucial to our retrieval of the concept of what dying well really means. We don’t die alone; we are always suffering, ageing, and ultimately dying, in relationships – even when those relationships aren’t particularly intimate or are strained. This means our choices are never without implications for others.
Suffering, compassion and despair
Furthermore, one of the most discouraging components of the fight for PAS is the normalisation of despair. Despair is one of the loneliest places where a person can end up for, in despair, a person recognises no one who can stand with them.
Supporting PAS encourages despair and leads people to believe that there is no hope or purpose in suffering. PAS is seen as compassionate because it puts an immediate end to suffering.
But true compassion is not capitulation to despair. True compassion is being known in community – a community where we live and suffer together. To be Christian is to belong to a community, to be welcomed into the people of God and to be known most intimately in the local church. Suffering has real place and meaning in this community.
It is strange to think that suffering doesn’t belong in life; the Bible teaches that suffering is normative of the Christian life (for example, Romans 8:16-39). In fact, the Bible tells us that, while suffering is not good, in suffering we can experience wonderful things. Paul elaborates on these benefits of suffering for Christian community in his defence of his ministry to the Corinthians:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).
Paul himself knew suffering of the deepest kind – so great that he “despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8). He was sure he had reached the end of his life. But in his suffering, Paul could see its purpose: “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9). Suffering has many benefits: first, says Paul, the sufferer comes to know comfort from God. Second, in being comforted, the sufferer can extend comfort to others. Third, suffering engages participation in Christ: those who suffer know him more by sharing his sufferings, and by extension, they know the hope of life he offers.
In suffering, we live out our hope of the resurrection. This is the great irony of suffering in the Christian life: we don’t accept or hope for death in the face of pain; we hope for life.
Suffering with hope in faith
Recognising the significance of stories in our debates about these matters, I want to conclude with one that offers a different perspective to Rhys Habermann’s story. Last year, my dear friend Sam died after intense suffering. After a long battle with cancer, he had endured more than a decade of torturous physical torment – lesions, organ failure, reduced mobility of all his limbs, open-heart surgery and so much more.
You wouldn’t wish what he went through on an enemy. And yet, Sam’s suffering was imbued with incredible meaning and purpose. He modelled to me and to many people throughout the world what it is to suffer with hope and in faith.
Sam’s struggle with suffering wasn’t easy: he didn’t suffer gladly or without question. He often battled with the question of how he could trust that God was good when he allowed such intense suffering. But Sam recognised that the life of faith calls us to believe that God is good, even when life doesn’t feel good. At many points in our lives, believers must take God at his word, even when their experience challenges their beliefs. Faith is not by sight.
Amid his pain and suffering, Sam called upon his brothers and sisters in Christ for encouragement. But Sam offered more than he received: he taught us all about what it is to live with the hope of life, even in the face of death. He longed for his pain to end, but he trusted God in that pain, recognising the limits of his control in his finite humanity. What’s more, as a community, we all were given a chance to reflect on the life of Jesus who lived in faith all the way to his death.
The key indicator for God’s goodness, even amid such painful experiences, is the cross of Christ. Without the cross, we don’t know God’s goodness in pain. We all must deal with grief, pain, suffering and affliction. But we have no confidence that God cares about these things without the cross, God’s definitive act to end suffering – especially when our sufferings don’t seem to end.
The logic of the gospel is countercultural. We often think comfort comes from the absence of suffering. But the Bible makes it clear in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 that it is during suffering when we know true comfort.
Christians don’t lack compassion when they discourage choosing to kill oneself when things get tough; that is accepting despair and a denial of hope. Instead, Christians recognise that true compassion is found in Christian community as, together, we hold onto the hope of eternal life even in the face of death. This promise – even in the worst suffering – is ours.
Chase R. Kuhn lectures in Christian doctrine and ethics, and is the director of the Centre for Christian Living at Moore Theological College.