Thursday, March 22, 2012

Refusing Medical Treatment

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about treating terminal illness:

Q:  Is a Christian allowed to refuse life-prolonging medical treatment?  Does the Bible require us to use all available means, no matter how unlikely the chance of success, to extend the life of a person who is critically or terminally ill?  How do we know when it is appropriate to proceed with, discontinue, or refuse treatment?

Knowing how to handle a life-threatening medical condition can be a very difficult thing, especially when we are making decisions for a parent or other relative who is not able to express their preferences at the time of treatment, as is often the case in situations where we are faced with questions such as this. 

For the Christian, life is always a gift from God to be honored and protected.  When we make decisions regarding our own treatment or that of a loved one under our care, this is our starting point.  We desire to respect life as God has given it and care for it in a way which honors Him.  We frequently hear this principle applied to life’s beginning at conception, but it equally applies to life’s end. 

Because modern medical technology did not exist during the times when the Bible was written, we do not find extensive guidance on choosing a course of medical treatment.  However, since the Fifth Commandment says, “You shall not murder,” it and its accompanying explanations in the Bible serve as our boundaries in this sort of decision. 

To begin with, actively and intentionally ending our own life or that of a loved one is never an option for the Christian.  The only circumstances in which the Bible does not consider causing a person’s death to be murder are genuine accidents, self-defense, and government’s authority to execute criminals and defend its citizens through war.  Euthanasia, assisted suicide, and any other active and intentional killing of the patient are therefore not an option.

We also do not withhold essential provisions such as food, water, and oxygen from a person for the purpose of hastening their death, nor should a person refuse such things as long as they are able to receive them through normal means.  At the same time, one is not required to go to employ extraordinary or invasive means to receive or provide them. 

When Martin Luther explains the Fifth Commandment, he summarizes the Bible’s guidance in this way: “We should…not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”  Our goal when making the sort of decisions described here is to help and not harm the person receiving care.  We want to honor God’s gift of life by making our best efforts to heal and save, but also we do not want to needlessly cause or prolong suffering beyond the likelihood of recovery. 

This can be difficult, because we have no way to know with absolute certainty what the outcome will be, so as we make these decisions we are always ultimately leaving the person in God’s hands.  We do our best to serve them with our decisions, and trust Him to guide the outcome for their benefit. 

As we do so, it is important to honor their wishes whenever possible.  If they have expressed to us a desire regarding treatment, we should honor those desires.  When they have not expressed a desire or the decision goes beyond what they have communicated, we seek to always do whatever is best for them—whatever will bring the most help or the least harm in a given situation, and provide them the highest degree of comfort possible in the process. 

When the person receiving care is a Christian, we have an added consolation, because whatever the outcome, it will be for their benefit.  The Apostle Paul said, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain,” and the book of Acts tells us that “through many tribulations we enter the kingdom of God.”  This means that if the treatment is successful, they will spend more time receiving God’s blessing on earth, but if the treatment fails, their soul will rest with Jesus to await the Resurrection on the last day when they will be fully and permanently healed. 

As is often the case, the variety of circumstances is seemingly endless, so every situation will have its own unique characteristics.  Although we have general boundaries within which to proceed, the guidance of doctors and pastors is of immeasurable value when making any particular decision. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Can Jesus be Tempted?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines on the temptation of Jesus:

Q:  How could Satan tempt Jesus in the wilderness as described in the Gospels, when in James 1:13 the Bible says that God cannot be tempted with evil?
This question requires much care, because it touches on two of the most foundational doctrines of the Faith (The Trinity, and the Two Natures of Christ), and because these two truths are considered by many to be “mysteries” – that is, teachings that the Bible declares, but leaves an unresolved tension, because understanding them is beyond our natural capabilities. 

To begin with, God is three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), but there is one God, not three.  All three persons are equally God and have all the attributes of God, yet there are things we can say about one that we cannot say about the others.  For example, it is proper to say “God died” because Jesus died by crucifixion and Jesus is God the Son.  However, we could not say “God the Father died.” or “The Holy Spirit died,” because only the Son was crucified.  Similarly, only the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove at Jesus’ Baptism, while the Father and the Son did not. 

In a similar way, Jesus is fully God and fully human at the same time, yet only one person.  He is not half God and half human or sometimes God and sometimes human, but always completely God and completely human simultaneously.  Because of this, we cannot separate these two natures in Jesus in such a way as to say that only His divine nature did a thing or only His human nature did a thing.  If Jesus did a thing, then both natures did it, and if a thing can be said of one nature (divine or human), then it must be said of the other as well, because it is attributed to His whole person and not only to one nature.

When we look at the events of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness, we see the above truths put into action.  Since Jesus is being tempted, Satan is trying to tempt God.  However, it is only the Son whom he is tempting, but not the Father or the Holy Spirit. 

When James says that God cannot be tempted, the word he uses for “God” can sometimes refer to God as a whole (all three persons) and at others refers only to the Father.  Additionally, the words used to reference the temptation differ in the two verses.  When James says that God “cannot be tempted,” the word is actually an adjective and means that God is “un-temptable.”  The word focuses on God’s inability to give in to the temptation, not the inability of anyone to try. 

However, when Matthew, Mark, and Luke speak of Jesus’ “being tempted,” they use a related word that is a verb.  This Greek verb conveys a significant amount of meaning that is not immediately observable in English.  In this case, the verb is passive, meaning that the devil is doing the tempting, and Jesus is the target.  However, this verb does not imply success by Satan, or surrender on the part of Jesus, but only the attempts of Satan to tempt Him.  Therefore, the Gospel-writers are not implying in any way that Jesus was lured by the temptation, but only that the devil was trying to tempt Him into sin.

The book of Hebrews also addresses the temptation of Jesus, saying, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (4:14-15) 

In these verses, the temptations Jesus faced are described as just as real as those faced by every other person.  As human, the temptations were just as hard to resist as those faced by every other person, but as God it was completely contrary to His nature to give in to them.  As a result, Jesus was truly tempted in every way, but because He is “un-temptable” God, He successfully resisted them without sin—not just during His 40 days in the wilderness, but also during the 30 years prior and the three which would follow—culminating at the crucifixion when He was tempted by onlookers to escape the cross, but remained steadfast, suffering the wrath of God for the sin of the world as our substitute.