Addressing Death – Autonomy and Suffering


The readings from this morning address two key things in our series on Addressing Death.  Today we are going to take some time to reflect on what we mean by autonomy and suffering.  These two things, autonomy and suffering, are key idea’s when it comes to us being disciples of Jesus Christ, and trusting in God with all your, “heart soul mind and strength.”

All around the rectory are plastic plugs in the electrical sockets.  At first, I detested them since getting them out of the socket is a real pain.  I do not really want the plastic covers on the outlets yet, if I want my children to live past the age of three, I need to put them in.  Curious children with forks approaching open electrical sockets are enough to scare any parent, grandparent or other family member into preventative action.  We love these crazy little people and do not want any harm to come to them.

My children may want complete freedom to put the fork in the socket simply because they want too.  They have no first-hand knowledge or experience to tell them that this would be a bad idea.  All they really know is that Mom and Dad said not to do it.  Children really must live under a lot of rules because there is simply not enough personal experience or evidence for them to use as they navigate the world around them.  It is in their best interest to accept the rules of their parents.  They are required to trust that these people hold special information about why the rules make sense, even if they are not able to understand them.

We are a lot like children when it comes to our relationship with God in our strong demands of autonomy and independence.


It seems kind of silly to talk about autonomy as Christians since all life is under God’s direction.  We are restricted by our Christian morals, values and beliefs as is best understood in the Bible and through the activity of the Holy Spirit.  In a way, we are not to understand ourselves as owning ourselves, but belong to God.  We really are not free to do as we please.  We are free to do what is right, good and true.  We have responsibilities to our personal faith and to the community around us.  Our freedom is to be directed to others and not ourselves.

Great.  This is lots of heavy theology and philosophy to chew on.  So why do we act as though we are independent from God?  If we really do encounter God above us, beside us and inside us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit then why do we insist on our own way so much?  In each of these things we can point outside of our selves to where God is.  God is up there, over there or in there. In our very language suggest that at some point I start here, and God starts there.

Since that is so, then I get to choose what I do independent and apart from God.  I am in control and God can not force me or anyone else to do anything.  We may know this as ‘free will’.  Okay.  Then explain to me why we promised, “to put your whole trust in his grace and love?”  Why then did we promise, “to renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?”  These are our confirmed baptismal vows.  If we can pick and choose based on our own autonomy apart from God, then what were our promises really worth?

When it all gets stripped away we like to be in control.  We like to control how we live, what we believe, even how much pulp we have in our orange juice.  We like to control our lives.  We like feeling like we have power and influence in all aspects of our lives.  Don’t like your Doctor, find a new one.  Don’t like how you feel in the morning, pop a pill or grab a coffee.  Want to make more money, find a better investor and work more.  Don’t like what you hear from this church, find a different one that agrees with you more.  We get to control all this stuff.  We do not have a tremendous amount dictated to us.

That is until the body itself starts to break down and we are forced to move slower.  We start second guessing the stairs when we did not used too before.  Even what we can eat gets restricted.  For many, bacon is a luxury.  (Not for me.  Bacon is a way of life!)  Even here we can demand better access from public authorities and switch to turkey bacon.  It may not be the same, but at least it is bacon!  It seams like we believe that we are entitled to control every aspect of our lives, including when we live and when we die.  For some, this is a core issue with Physician Assisted Dieing.  It feels like we are taking even more control away from God, since God is the only one who chooses when we live and when we die.

Suffering and modern medicine.

Last year I was called to the hospital for a visit.  An man had been admitted with cardiac arrest.  He had signed all the papers stating, do not resuscitate prior to his admittance.  He and his wife had talked it over before the event.  When he arrived at hospital the children were not ready for their Father’s death and demanded the doctors do everything necessary to keep him alive.  The hospital staff obliged.  The wife looked on shocked, confused and torn.

When things settled down, I started talking with one of the nurses on hand.  He was clearly frustrated and upset.  He said, “you know I am not a religious person or anything but you need to know something.  What we did here was wrong.”

“Oh, I said.  What do you mean?”

“I see this scenario all the time.  We can bring anyone back and keep them alive.  Let me tell you what will happen to this man.  He will recover in about a week and be sent home.  He will do rehab and will like be okay for about a week.  Then he will be right back in here.  We will do it all over again, and again, until finally someone makes the hard decision.  This man will suffer for the next few months.  If you believe that God calls you home don’t you think you should go?  Don’t you think we ought not to get in the way?  The way I see it, we get in the way a lot.”

This conversation really struck me.  I had never once considered that medicine had progressed to the point where we could choose when and where we die.  I had never really thought that we had that kind of control readily available for us in some circumstances.  The reason this conversation stayed with me is because what the Nurse described happened precisely as he had explained it.  He did recover, go home and rehab.  He was severely limited in what he could do.  He suffered before he died as his wife shared with me with painful tears.  In this instance, it appeared to me that medicine and God were having a tug of war over this person’s life.  In the end, God won, but it was with a painful fight filled with suffering that did not need to happen.  Even upon his eventual, final death, the children were still telling the hospital staff to keep him alive.

The worst part of suffering is that it requires faithful patience and hope.  Physical suffering is heart wrenching to see and worse to experience.  Emotional and mental suffering are around us every day.  Spiritual suffering is often experienced by those who demand personal autonomy in places that God wants to work on in the individual.  Regardless of where the suffering is located patience and hope is required until it comes to an end.  This is at the heart of our reading from Jonah.  “As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, in your holy temple.  But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.  Deliverance belongs to the Lord.’  Like Jonah, we are called to hold on to our hope filled faith when we are bewildered, lost and in pain.

Wrapping it up

We serve Jesus and follow him.  We place our hope and lives in his graceful loving hands.  These hands were nailed to a cross for us and suffered for us.  These hands are like the plugs in the sockets that free us to grow and learn.  These hands helped move the tombstone to be open to create a new path to eternal life.  Are our hands on that same tombstone trying to pull the tombstone back?  Whose hand do you trust to hold:  Your own, or your God’s.  Amen.