[Jesus prayed:] “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.  They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (John 17:14–19 ESV)

And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” (John 12:23–26 ESV)

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  As it is written,

                “For your sake we are being killed all the day long;

                                we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:18–25, 35–39 ESV)

Last month, we examined the difference between how the world says you can have a good death and how God provides a blessed end for us even in the midst of death.  This month, we will look at our last question, “How should we, as Christians, deal with suffering when it is affecting our quality of life?”

As we examine the question, we will need to keep two things in mind from our previous articles:
+ human life is valuable at all times both because God gave us life and Christ redeemed our life by coming in our very flesh and blood;
+ suffering is no longer punishment for the sin of believers because justice has already happened upon Christ Jesus.

By keeping these things in mind, we are decidedly saying that the world will find it difficult to approach suffering this way because we see suffering through Christ Jesus.  In other words, we are actually making a confession about Jesus and what He has done as we answer the question of how we should respond to suffering.

Quality of Life?

But before we get to that point, we must deal with this idea about the “quality of life” determining how we respond to suffering.  We may even be able to have a fruitful discussion with people in this world in regards to this topic.  We can start by questioning this “measuring stick” being used to ascertain how valuable life is because that is really what is going on here.  Life’s value is being measured by how quality it is or how much quality it provides.  Perhaps you see the problem already?

Quality is in the eye of the beholder.  It is subjective.  You think this is a quality painting but I think it looks terrible.  You think this food tastes great but I cannot stand it.  For some, babies have a great life because everyone is serving them while others say it is pretty poor life because they are so dependent and find it difficult to communicate.  The measuring stick of “quality” will not only vary from person to person but can change from day to day!

The Israelites complained about their quality of life.  Even though their shoes and clothes did not wear out and they were free from the slavery of Egypt, they took issue with the food, for which they did not have to work and which God provided.  On one occasion they complained, “‘Oh that we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.  But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at’” (Numbers 11:4–6 ESV).  Another time later, they spoke against God, “‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food’” (Numbers 21:5 ESV).  They complained that God was not providing them a good quality life, as if God owed them.

But God neither owes us nor promises to provide such a quality of life that satisfies us.  And this is the heart of the issue.  A quality life is based on my desires and wants.  It is a look at how those wants are being met or not met and deciding that if they are not met, it would be better to die.  But life is more than “bread”—that is, life is more than what you want or desire, more than even what you need.  Life is God’s gift and to simply have it is good.

Consider that no animals seek death, even if their “quality of life” is low by any standard we might measure it.  Measuring life by its quality is essentially saying that life isn’t always a good thing.  Life could be an evil thing.  But life is good.

The Blessing and Purpose of Suffering in This Life

The real struggle we have isn’t with life or quality but with suffering.  That’s the real problem and as Christians we have a different view of suffering than the world does.  Most of the time, we think of suffering as bad and evil, and there is no doubt that suffering is a result of sin but that does not mean that God cannot use suffering to accomplish His good purposes. 

We see the most intense and immense suffering in Jesus bearing our sin—bearing mankind’s hatred and God’s wrath in His beatings, trial, and on the cross.  This is what Jesus goes through for your benefit and mine.  Jesus even speaks about His suffering as His glory for God uses Jesus’ suffering to bring about our salvation and deliverance for which we rejoice and thank Him.

Likewise, God also uses us in our suffering.  So, as Christians, we need to first and foremost take a different view of suffering.  We need to recognize how God can and does use our suffering.  On a very practical level, God is leaving us in a world where suffering exists.  We know that such suffering exists in this world to reveal the effects of sin and how our very existence depends on God.  We cannot live without Him.  Our rebellion in the Garden was the claim that we could do so and by removing some of His care, God is teaching us that we cannot—that we depend on Him for every good gift (James 1:17).

Thus, as creation suffered for our sake so that God might save us, so now we, who remain here, suffer in this world for the sake of those who have not yet believed.  God will rescue us out of this suffering but for now, we are here in this world as His lights (Matthew 5:14).  Just as Christ was sent into this world of suffering for our sake, so we remain in this world of suffering for the sake of others since He has sent us as He was sent.  In this way, we are like sheep led to the slaughter for His sake.

But if such suffering is only revealing the fallen creation, how come the disciples of Jesus exhibit joy in their suffering?  They were beat and told to no longer speak in Jesus’ name.  “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41 ESV).  And Jesus endured the cross for the joy of saving us (Hebrews 12:2).  First, there is the knowledge of doing what is good and right.  This is pleasing to God (1 Peter 2:20) and to us.  As His children, we want to please Him and we rejoice when we act in such a way.  Second, such suffering is evidence of our Lord’s love:

It is for discipline that you have to endure.  God is treating you as sons.  For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?  If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, the you are illegitimate children  and not sons…For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:7-8, 11 ESV).

God is loving you by putting you through such suffering.  He is exhibiting His care and great wisdom for you as He works all things together for the good of those who love Him and “who are called according to [H]is purpose” that they would “be conformed to the image of [H]is Son” (Romans 8:28-29 ESV).

We rejoiced in our baptism because we were buried with Christ and raised to new life with Him.  We rejoiced in that death because our sin was put to death and we are raised and will be raised new like Him (Romans 6).  Likewise, we can rejoice in our sufferings because God is using them to conform us to the image of His Son.  Jesus suffered and so shall we.  His suffering accomplished a great salvation for the world and our suffering is likewise connected with the world’s salvation (see above and below).  Jesus was raised and so shall we.  We can rejoice because we are being conformed to Jesus’ likeness—we are being made like Him, even now!  This likeness will be evident in its fullness on the last day; and yet even now that likeness is evident in our suffering.

Jesus faced suffering to redeem us and now His Body, His Church (that is His people) face suffering to remain in this sinful world speaking the testimony of Christ.  That is, the Church is about speaking God’s Word in this world of sin.  If you want to treat the sick, you run the risk of catching the illness and disease.  If you want to run into a burning building to rescue the people inside, you run the risk of likewise being burned.  Those who are willing to do this say that the risk and their suffering from the risk was worth it to save another life.  This is our joy in remaining in this world of sin to rescue others.  The risk and the suffering is worth it for every sinner that repents (Luke 15:7, 10)!  It is our joy to be part of the Lord’s rescue team and efforts by remaining here for the benefit of unbelievers and for helping uphold our fellow believers as we all suffer for the sake of Christ and His witness to the world.

Thus, you can see how our joy in suffering plays out in several ways.  As we suffer, we also become lights of continued faith in the midst of the suffering.  We do not just point to Christ in a world of suffering but in our own suffering, we serve as lights calling people to faith.  That we remain committed despite such suffering and that we die believing also testifies to this world.  For when you die believing and confessing Jesus, it speaks to the commitment and fact that this is what you do believe—it isn’t something convenient or some passing fad but your true belief.

This is possible because our Lord upholds us in such suffering.  We are not alone.  As Christ walks with us and promised to remain with us through our baptism, so He is present in our suffering, helping us remain faithful.  He does not abandon us, after all, “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Corinthians 12:26 ESV).  If we are suffering, He is present suffering with us.  Who else is able to uphold us but our Head, Who went through such suffering and death and overcame it?  And since “[p]recious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15 ESV), so also must our life and the suffering of bearing the cross be precious to Him for Whose sake we suffer!  Great is His love!

Beyond this, your suffering enables you to also comfort those who suffer—you are able to come along those in similar trials and be their support.  And this leads to one other aspect that suffering provides.  It gives the opportunity for people to act in love.  Sometimes, you will be the one serving and loving the suffering and other times you will be the one that someone else has the chance to love.  God teaches us and others how to love as we seek to help those who are suffering.  God gives us purpose.

This means that my grandmother, who wondered why God wasn’t yet taking her home, was still serving God’s purpose even if she could no longer serve others, even if she was unable to help, care for, or do much.  God was using her to give someone else the chance to love and serve.

So, what does all this mean?  When we are suffering, God is able to use that suffering to the blessing and benefit of ourselves, and even our own benefit.  It means we can seek relief from the suffering as long as we are not transgressing His clear commands to do so.  Likewise, we can seek to alleviate the suffering of others as long as we abide His Word when we do so.  On top of this, we can be filled with joy, even in suffering, because we know that we are like Christ in the world and the Lord is using this for our good and the good of those around us.  Finally, such suffering is a moment when God spotlights the Christian faith—when He shows, in the face of suffering and death, what really matters.

What About Medical Directives?

These days, people are encouraged to create Living Wills, which were “designed by the Euthanasia Society of America/Euthanasia Educational Council in 1967.”[1]  These documents are means of giving directives to your care when you cannot be consulted and when the condition is considered critical such that you are terminal or might die without some life-sustaining treatment.  The American Bar Association website warns:

Be very careful signing any such document without reviewing the implications to you. For example, some of the commonly used clauses in living wills may forbid the provision of assisted breathing, including devices you presently may be using if, for example, you are living with COPD.  Most important, many of the provisions of such a document have profound religious and philosophical implications. Be certain that whatever you sign is consistent with your beliefs and wishes.[2]

These documents are essentially means of extending your will beyond the present moment to some future moment.  It is very congruent with the world’s idea of each individual’s autonomy.

And yet even with this push to extent your will to moments when you cannot exercise it, Living Wills have major limitations and drawbacks including that you cannot conceive of every situation you might face or even be sure the doctors would do exactly what you intended by the document.  The American Life League website points out that some Living Wills are being used to deny people food and water because “key terms in advance directives” have been redefined in this or that state such that they “now consider ‘medical treatment’ to include the provision of basic care such as food and water, and ‘terminal’ to include many people who are far from imminent death and, indeed, not even dying.”[3]

Rather than using a Living Will, you could set up adurable medical power of attorney[4] for medical care.  This entrusts a particular person (or more than one person, if the first cannot be reached) with answering questions about your medical care when you are unable to do so.  This means entrusting your care to someone else to whom you may have expressed your wishes but who will have the ultimate say in the moment.  This individual may not do exactly what you would have done but they can respond to all the information in the moment, take all the facts into account, rather than being a simplified “if this, then that” set of statements.  You have discretion in who you chose to make these decisions but it still requires an amount of trust.  And while we can entrust our care to someone else, without having to be in control, we ultimately are always entrusting our care to the Lord.

This means we are not seeking death but rather upholding life.  But it also means that we do not think life must be preserved at all cost, either, for we recognize that we are in the Lord’s hands.  He will take care of us.  That’s why we make a distinction between removing basic care, without which we would all die and heroic measures.  We know that if we remove food and water, a person will eventually die.  If we take someone off a ventilator they may live—in fact, many people do live for a time when they are taken off such care.

In all these matters, we are called to act in faith.  We shine the light of Christ by how we conduct ourselves—how we live out His Word for in living out His Word, we show our trust of Him.  We do not consider our lives as our own.   Our life is God’s gift to us and He has redeemed us from death and hell and so we do not live here at our own leisure.  We are here as His people.  We are here as long as He wants.  We are here, living through suffering, pointing forward to the one and only hope that we have—the hope of Christ Jesus, Who suffered, died, and rose again to deliver us from this world of suffering and death, Who loved us even taking such extreme measures to save us.  We are here as lights of hope even in those painful and difficult moments of suffering, not because of anything special about us, but because we are Christians, His people, claimed, baptized, and waiting.

[1] https://all.org/euthanasia/living-wills-and-advanced-directives

[2] https://www.americanbar.org/groups/real_property_trust_estate/resources/estate-planning/living-wills-health-care-proxies-advance-directives/

[3] https://all.org/euthanasia/living-wills-and-advanced-directives

[4] Also called a “health care proxy” or a “health care surrogate.”