If we are to engage well the pressing end-of-life bioethical challenges facing older people, such as physician-assisted suicide and age-based rationing of health care, we need a better understanding of old age itself. We need to ask some very basic but essential questions.
In what can we find the ultimate meaning of life? Is it in the comfort and well-being of our earthly existence? So would argue a human-centered position. Or, are the ultimate answers found only in God? Are we physical beings transiently tied to space and time or are we spiritual beings who desire to glimpse a higher level of spiritual reality? The attitudes we take into the closing years of our lives and the decisions that they inform often express whether God or human concerns are at the center of our lives.
In his book Full of Years, Aging and the Elderly in the Bible and Today (1987), Stephen Sapp, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Miami, illustrates how antithetical a human-centered world view is to a truly Christian view. Such a view reflects what Chuck Colson and others have called the “kingdom of man,” while a Christian view should focus not on the self but on God. The passion of the Christian should be to see the glory of God accomplished in every aspect of life. It is this passion for the glory of God that should dictate many of the decisions Christians make at the end of life.
In this article I would like to propose that the major value we ought to promote in our Christian lives is that God is glorified. We must seek to repress the values of this world and embrace God Himself as our only value. This represents a challenge to the Church. A major goal of our churches must be to equip people to live their later days, and ultimately die, with a passion for the glory of God. Sadly, many confessing Christians give only lip service in their lives to the glory of God. The choices they make at the end of life reveal their true values. Too often they put a greater emphasis on their own pleasure and comfort and lose the passion they once affirmed for the glory of God.
Though we likely may not be prepared to accept, pain, suffering and disability, they often confront us in our later years. These difficulties can challenge an individual’s faith, as well as that of his caretaker or other close friends. Declining health raises several issues. First is a basic issue of theology: can we look at the difficulties of the later years and still affirm that God is strong and loving? Second is a sociological issue: can we find the help and support we need at the end of life within the relationships we have?
We consider first the theological question. The Psalms help us as we struggle to find meaning in the difficulties of life. One of the central affirmations of the Psalms comes in the 62nd. Here we read: “One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that you, O God, are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving.” (Ps. 62:11-12)
There are three options to explain difficulties in life that do not seem right in our perspective: First is the possibility that God does not love us. He well knows that we are experiencing difficulties, but He does not care enough to help. Second is the possibility that He is not strong. He would very much like to intervene on our behalf, but the situation is beyond His control. He is not able to help. However, the Psalmist affirms that God is both loving and strong. Therefore the third option is the only one available: He has purposes for our pain and suffering which we do not understand. We must accept by faith that God is fully in control even when things are not going well from our point of view.
Second, there is also a sociological dimension of aging to which our churches must respond. Believers are commanded to “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way…fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). This command is a charge to help others. At the same time it obligates people to allow others to help them. The older years often teach us how to depend more on others. There is, indeed, a ministry of dependence. The Church is a community that is to be characterized by true fellowship. We are to participate in each other’s lives, which means sharing in each other’s sufferings. How often we see that pain and suffering can be decreased as it is shared within a caring community. It must be one of our goals in the Church to develop a community that can feel deeply one another’s pain. One of the ways God is glorified in His Church is when the members develop a depth of fellowship adequate to allow them to bear one another’s burdens (Eph. 3:21).
As we approach the end of life, we need to be very intentional about regarding death as a time when God is to be glorified. Paul affirmed this when he wrote: “so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20). God is glorified when Christ is exalted. In today’s culture there are many forces that would prompt us to focus more on ourselves than on the glory of God at the end of life. How, then, are we to approach death in a manner which glorifies God? It is imperative that our churches teach believers to long for God, die to self, trust God, and acknowledge that, in Christ, death has been defeated (Gal. 2:20, Col. 2: 13-15). The Church must teach a “big God” theology — one where the difficulties of life can lead to worship, instead of to questioning or rebellion. The Church needs to teach the meaning of suffering so that believers will have a foundation to lean on when they face difficult times. As mentioned above, the Church also needs to foster deep relationships within herself that will be sustaining at the end of life. Finally, church leaders need to help people make wise end-of-life decisions. The Church needs to be able to facilitate family discussions about these matters and provide proper theological basis for decisions. When families choose not to seek aggressive care but to care for their loved ones at home, the church needs to provide practical help and encouragement.
Too often Christians succumb to the myth that God is only glorified when we do great things for Him. However, the glory of God can often be seen not in our strength, but in our weakness. The greatest example the world has ever seen of God’s glory occurred through an agonizing death on a cross. So in our lives, as we approach our later days, may we live and die to the glory of God.
John Dunlop, "Successful Aging: Living the End of Life to the Glory of God,” Dignity 7, no. 4 (2001): 3.