Why is life worth preserving? Sometimes there are so many problems and so much suffering that people wonder: “what’s the point of it all?” They may even imagine that putting an end to life will put an end to suffering. Last week the House of Lords rejected a new move to adopt assisted suicide legislation and it is being considered by the Scottish Parliament. It is argued that assisted suicide fails to protect the terminally ill and disabled people from feeling worthless and a burden on others with the added pressure to take this option and end it all. The quality of end-of-life care we provide needs to demonstrate that we value life enough to preserve it. Each person is valuable, not worthless, no matter what struggles they face. In addition to caring for people’s physical, psychological and social needs, there are also godly principles and the promises of God to help on the spiritual level. Reinforcing these spiritual truths is a reminder that when we, or a loved one, have to deal with suffering (or dread what may be ahead), we can respond in a way that respects our intrinsic human dignity and honours our Maker in His loving provision. People who have suicidal thoughts, whether due to illness or disability or pressures, need to be cared for, not helped to kill themselves.
In the earliest full length book about suicide, the Scots-born Puritan John Sym details the sort of views that fed into the Westminster Assembly’s discussion of the sixth commandment. The Larger Catechism speak of careful and “lawful endeavours, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any” (Proverbs 24:11-12; Acts 16:28; Proverbs 31:8). Things that help towards this are “patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit… comforting and succouring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent” (Q135). It also shows how the sixth commandment is against “the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life… and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any” (Q136). Sym’s book Lifes Preservative Against Self-Killing (1637) came firmly to the conclusion that even with sufferings and afflictions, life is better than death. To think otherwise is a sign that there are deeper problems than the suffering itself. Yet these deeper problems can themselves be addressed in order to support and protect people in their need. Sym’s careful discussion of these issues can be seen in the following updated extract,
1. What is so special about life?
Our natural life consists in the soul being united personally with the body.
Admittedly we live in a frail body, subject to sin and to manifold troubles and infirmities. This is a fading and temporary life, as James tells us, comparing it to a vapour that vanishes away (James 4:14).
Yet even this natural life is sweet. Nothing in the world is more dear to a person than their own life. “All that a man hath will he give for his life” (Job 2:4). Because of its excellency and usefulness, Solomon calls it the precious life (Proverbs 6:26). Once we have lost it we can never redeem it, or recover it again from death. Life is especially precious for three reasons.
(a) Because by it the person is preserved in its essence or being, by the personal union of soul and body, which would otherwise be dissolved and undone. Between being and not-being there is such vast a distance that we instinctively prefer to live miserably, than not to live at all. The loss of life is not only irrevocable, and unmatchable in worth, but also, it includes all other worldly losses in it, and therefore it is by far the greatest loss that anyone can suffer.
(b) Because it is by life that we are able to have any use or benefit of the good things that God gives us to rejoice in, in this world. Once we are dead, all this world and the pleasure of it is gone. Likewise all the miseries and calamities that betide us here are less evils than death, since partial evils are always less than those that are complete and full. Evils that afflict are less than those that extinguish.
(c) Because of how we can put our life to good use. We can live to God’s glory, spending our life according to his holy Word. We can do good to others, whether spiritual good in the church or civil good in the commonwealth. And we can use it to prepare ourselves for heaven, by working up our salvation here in this life, adorning ourselves with the graces of God’s Spirit, and by holy acts of obedience and performing our duties to God.
This is why the departure of the soul from the body is ordinarily so horrible to contemplate, and can only be thought of with pain and grief. It is not only because it involves the parting of two companions as sweetly united as the soul and the body, but also because it means the utter destruction of our natural, personal life, and being cut off from all the comforts that depend on it and make it better. Consequently we naturally endeavour to preserve our life against all dangers, and we abhor self-murder, which deprives us of so much good.
2. Why should we value our bodies?
There are three things to consider about the human body.
(a) The body is not only an integral part of the human person, but an essential part, something which constitutes the person. Without the body there cannot be a person. Therefore, if the body is killed, the person is destroyed, in the sense that it ceases from existing or subsisting in this world.
(b) The body is the organ, or instrument, by which the soul works. Therefore, killing the body destroys everything that the soul would have done in it. These include activities that would advance God’s glory in this life, or be useful towards our own moral and spiritual good, or promote the good of others in the church or society. So that, by killing himself, the person wrongs God, himself, and the church and society.
(c) The body, with the soul, makes the person, and so, in that respect, it is where God’s image resides. Therefore, by killing his own body, a person not only dishonours God, but also, in a way, does what he can to kill God himself, to the extent that by similitude God is in him.
3. What are the obstacles to enjoying life?
Sad and strange as it is, there are some who come to a place where they feel that their life is no longer worth living, and they entertain thoughts of ending their life. What reasons might there be for this?
Sometimes people fall into thinking that they should be free from the suffering and misery that fallen mankind is liable to, and feel that they have neither the support nor the strength they need to bear much suffering.
These sufferings are either genuine or only imagined, and either current, or feared. Whatever they are, the person despairs of being able to bear them, or dreads that God will not uphold him in them, or deliver him from them. Therefore he resolves not to endure them, but to remove himself by self-murder from that which he cannot remove from himself.
For example, there are illnesses which involve continual, grievous painfulness. These seem unbearable, for their magnitude, and also for their multitude, or unintermitted continuance. They may include gout, gallstones, strangury, racking aches, furious fevers, gangrenes, and other such desperate diseases.
Or sometimes people are afraid of disgrace, either public shaming, or the fear of being unable to cope with some trouble in a dignified way in front of others. In this case, fear of the precursors of death makes them cast themselves headlong into what they would most of all want to avoid.
Alternatively, sometimes people face the loss or lack of basic necessities for survival for themselves or their families. The consequent hunger, cold, oppression and neglect can seem unbearable. Some have killed their family members and then themselves in order to avoid what they might have to suffer in this way. But this only means that the suffering and death that they cannot endure to see or suffer inflicted by other means, they inflict on themselves unnaturally and wickedly.
Then again, there are difficulties to do with property and finances. Perhaps someone has been rich and well to do, but they have come down in the world. Or perhaps after careful toil, working hard to get on in the world, they encounter crosses and losses, or their goods are embezzled, or wasted, and they go into debt. They are unable to keep up their current lifestyle, or to repay their debts. Here we have a situation where one has to be poorer than he wishes, and another cannot be as rich as he wishes, and both of them resolve to kill themselves, as if to help themselves by a mad kind of remedy. The one, because he cannot have as much as he wants, takes a course to lose all that he has; the other, because he has so little, takes a way to have nothing at all!
Attempting to free themselves from their present (or feared) situation, they madly cast themselves into something worse.
There are also troubles of mind which can occasion thoughts of self-murder. People can be excessively discontent when their wishes are contradicted or disappointed. Either they lack some good thing (real or apparent) which they have expected, or they have to put up with some suffering which they did not desire. Maybe some injustice is done to them, or they have too many troubles in their families, or things are going so badly wrong in church or society. Yet none of these things would be persuasive to anyone as a reason to kill themselves, if only they would consider (a) that it is God who permits and regulates all these evils, and brings good out of them, if only they would see that their own will is not supreme, and (b) that it is not by dying, but by living, that matters are improved. Self-murder increases problems, rather than preventing or amending anything.
4. How can we fight against our fears?
Any of these fears of these ways of suffering is insufficient as a justification for someone to end their own life. Although they may be the reasons that people cite, yet there are likely to be more deep-seated and latent reasons underlying these. Being more aware of these should help us face down our fears more effectively.
(a) Fight unbelief with faith.
We need to believe in God, from whom and by whom we would have power in Christ to stand fast in all circumstances. We need to firmly believe and credit God in the Scriptures – to take seriously the directions of his Word, rest on his promises, and be persuaded that God has a gracious intent in dealing with us in our afflictions, and that these troubles will have a blessed outcome eventually. ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul, and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God, for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.’
(b) Fight the feeling of being unsupported by accepting God’s comfort.
The person perceives himself to be overburdened with miseries, beyond any means of deliverance that he can see, and beyond the strength he has in himself, conceiving his afflictions to be excessive, above his strength and more than he deserves. But we should try to realise that our afflictions come from God. They ordered by our wise, powerful, and loving father for our good. Others have had to endure more than this, and these sufferings are less than what we deserve. And if we are God’s people, God turns our troubles to make them blessings. He assists those who in the midst of afflictions trust in him. In the end these difficulties shall be recompensed with a far greater and eternal weight of glory.
(c) Fight pride with willingness to let God be in control.
We will not buckle to be willingly in the situation in which God has placed us, but we will rather risk breaking the mast altogether than lower our sails in a storm.
In general, pride is an over-estimation of what we deserve, or of our own wisdom and intelligence (in that we think that the circumstances we want are better for us than what God has provided for us). We prefer our own wills before God’s, and accordingly, to get our own way, we are apt to use the means of our own foolish devising, however wrong they may be.
Instead we should come to a thorough knowledge by the Word of how unworthy and insufficient we are, with a realisation of how merciful God is towards us in his thoughts and dealings. We should keep our eyes fixed on the promises of God to support us. We should also hand ourselves over to God, letting go of our own wisdom, will, and ways, and allowing God to make our choices for us.
(d) Fight fearfulness by finding satisfaction in God.
If we in Christ enjoy our good God, and if we possess the peace of our consciences in well-doing, and keep ourselves taken up about heavenly things and holy employments, then it is not in the power of any creature to make us miserable, or weary of our lives. If we are wronged by anyone here on earth, that should make us cleave the more close to God (1 Cor. 7:29-31). Our lack of certain things, or our suffering by them, we may care about the less, considering what little assurance we have of them at any time, and the fact that at all times they are accompanied with their own problems.
5. What can help us think more clearly about this?
Affliction is insufficient to warrant anyone to take away their own life.
Consider for one thing that while people intend to rid themselves from afflictions, afflictions are much less bad than self-murder. It is not rational for anybody knowingly and willingly to cast themselves into a greater evil, in order to free themselves from a lesser.
Consider too that the person is going to part from their life, in order to be freed from troubles. But all the good things in the world are far inferior to the worth of their life. No one’s chief happiness consists in the good things in the world, and therefore, no one should kill himself for such things. Nothing, not even poverty, is so horrible, or so much to be feared, besides sin. Therefore, why should anyone make such a bad exchange as to give away his life in order to get away from something, when at the same time he may well precipitate himself into endless misery?
Consider also what a mistake it is for someone to expect to be delivered from troubles by killing himself, when by doing so he only casts himself into infinitely greater miseries. When it comes to persecution, for example, our Saviour bids us flee from it, or patiently to endure it, but nowhere allows that we should kill ourselves to prevent or escape it.
And consider finally that if someone thinks to kill himself, in order to free himself from troubles and afflictions, that person is resisting the will of God, by shaking off the burden which God has laid on him to bear. We must fulfil the will of God by obedience, including suffering, when we cannot do the contrary without offending God. The saints of God never used self-murder to free themselves out of troubles. Of this we have neither precept nor commendable example.
6. How can we respond better to adversity?
People in trouble and adversity are under a double burden – not only the afflictions which they suffer, but also the strong temptations with which Satan assaults them. In distress people ordinarily feel things worse than they otherwise would, which makes their circumstances seem more unbearable. So if we are ever in times of affliction, we should beware of drawing hard, uncharitable conclusions against ourselves, either in accusing ourselves of being forsaken of God, or anything like that, or in making rash decisions about what we will do with ourselves or to ourselves, without warrant from God.
Again, in times of adversity, we should take heed of concealing our troubles too closely from those who may be able to help with advice and support. Concealed grief is most likely to sink us, but telling someone gives ease, and procures help.
We are to be observant when others are in adversity, and be helpful to them. Listen to them, counsel them, and give them assistance, as far as you can yourself, and speak up for them so that others can help them too. A burden is more easily borne, when it is borne by many.
When someone is in distress we should help them respond as best becoming their present situation, so that they will not be overcome by it.
(a) Be careful to live by faith, and not by feelings. Ride by the anchor of hope, cast upward within the veil.
(b) Be humble under the mighty hand of God, with obedience which includes suffering. It is better to cut our masts of self-will and pride by the board, than to risk being over-set by a high sail in the storm of troubles.
(c) Show endurance, and stand fast.
(d) Do not worry about future events, but keep walking in the good paths. Instead we should commend ourselves by prayer to God, and rest confidently on him, meditating on the gracious promises and dealings of God towards those who depend on him.
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