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Understanding God's Plan for the End of Life

Air Date 02/22/2019

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In a discussion based on her book When is it Right to Die?, Joni Eareckson Tada examines the dangerous ramifications of the "right-to-die movement" and "mercy killing," and encourages listeners to consider how we can all demonstrate love and compassion to those with disabilities and end-of-life challenges.

Episode Transcript

Opening:

Excerpt:

Joni Eareckson Tada: Well, there was a movie - what was it - last summer or two summers ago? Me Before You. And it was the story of a quadriplegic who, uh, felt that his quality of life was - was nothing. And even though he loved his personal care assistant, he opted for suicide. And all of his family and all of his friends said he made a courageous, noble, dignified decision. And I’m sitting there in the audience, as a quadriplegic, thinking, “No, he didn’t. He opted out. He - he took the cowardly way out.”

End of Excerpt

John Fuller: Joni Eareckson Tada is a remarkable woman, and she’s a tireless advocate for the value and worth of every human life. Today, though, there is a growing movement that advocates for suicide, and even taking the life of a disabled or disadvantaged person, that seems to make life less valuable. We’re going to be talking about this today on Focus on the Family. And your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly. Thanks for joining us. I’m John Fuller. 

Jim Daly: John, I can’t think of a more appropriate setting for this broadcast today. You know, we’re at the Evangelicals for Life Conference here in Washington D.C., where we’re encouraging the Christian community to take an active role in protecting and advocating the value of human life. And I can only think of one person that has done that for many decades, and that’s Joni Eareckson Tada.

Uh, here at Focus on the Family, we are decidedly pro-life, and always have been for 40 years. As the Bible says in Genesis 1:26, we were created in the image of God, and thus, every one of us - each one of us, regardless of the shape that we’re in - uh, we are created in His image right from the moment of conception till the final days of our lives. But we’re seeing a lot of troubling influences, as you mentioned, John, a - a culture of death today that’s growing prominent in our society. And here in D.C., it’s talked about. You know, what do we do with welfare, with people that, maybe, their quality of life has deteriorated and it’s time to let them go with decency? That’s the kind of language that’s wrapped around it. We’re gonna tackle this today.

John: Yeah, and we have a decidedly biblical perspective from Joni. She is, of course, a well-known author and radio host, an artist, a musician, a speaker. And she founded Joni and Friends back in 1979 to provide God’s love and practical help to individuals and families living with disability.

And today, as we talk - and by the way, you might hear an occasional siren...

Jim: Siren.

John: ...Or jet plane, as we’re holed up in a hotel room here. But, uh, we’re gonna be talking about one of Joni’s books - many books - that she’s written. This one is called, When Is It Right to Die? A Comforting and Surprising Look at Death and Dying

Body:

Jim: Joni, welcome back to Focus.

Joni: Good to be here. And, uh, thank you for inviting me to speak on this - this troubling topic that’s, uh, influencing not only our, uh, nation’s laws, but also the Christian community.

Jim: Yeah. Well, you, in many ways - I’m sure years ago, you didn’t sign up for this. “I will be an expert in physically challenged, you know, lives.” Fifty years ago.

Joni: Right. Fifty years ago, I broke my neck in that diving accident. And - and, um, my goodness, I was athletic. I was on the go. I was hopeful about, uh, heading off to college. And here, my plans were drastically altered when I took that dive - a reckless dive - and snapped my neck and severed my fourth, uh, cervical vertebrae that cut my spinal cord and left me a quadriplegic.

And I could not believe it when doctors said I would never walk, never have use of my hands. And I began to translate that, uh, Jim and John. “Okay, this means somebody’s gonna have to cut up my food and feed me. This means I’m gonna have to have bed baths. And someone is gonna have to brush my teeth and wipe my spit and - and clean my runny nose. And - and I don’t wanna live like that.”

And I guess that’s why, when I talk to many Christ followers who struggle with disability, um, they are thinking more and more about, “Why should I have to go through this? My, quote, ‘quality of life’ is so poor. You know, physician-assisted suicide’s not a bad idea, perhaps.” I’ve literally talked to quadriplegic friends who are thinking - seriously thinking about opting out of life because what they feel is, um, dehumanizing and undignified care.

Jim: Joni, so appreciate that boldness. I mean, what you shared is so straightforward. It makes us wince, especially if we have the use of our bodies. We’re going, “Wow. Think of that.” All those things that you mentioned. But let me ask you, in that same way, that pervasive thought then is, “Well, maybe it’s okay for them to select an easy way out because of the pain they’re in.”

Joni: Well...

Jim: And, of course, I don’t ascribe to that. I’m just trying to posture the way people rationalize physician-assisted suicide today.

Joni: Which puts our listeners who are Christ followers in such a key and influential position. You know, we were reading a statistic just before airtime - about 39 percent of evangelicals believe it’s morally permissible to provide, quote, “compassionate care and - and mercy killing.”

Jim: Yeah.

Joni: ...If someone’s suffering seems unbearable. Now when 39 percent of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ feel it is preferable to have 3 grams of Phenobarbital injected into your veins rather than deal with suffering, then we have to understand, what are we hearing about suffering from our pulpits?

Jim: Yeah.

Joni: Do we have a biblical worldview on suffering? Do we know how to handle it? How do we engage it? My hope is that Christians will begin to articulate not only a biblical worldview of suffering, but help people find virtue in affliction. Help people find courage in facing, uh, the challenges of - of disability.

Jim: That’s critical. I mean, what you’re saying is critical for us to understand.

Joni: Absolutely. And it flies in the face of our entitlement culture. We want a healthy life.

Jim: It does.

Joni: We want a comfortable life. We want life to go our way. And when disease or disability or aging or pain - especially pain - begins to encroach on our comfort, on our convenience, um, we start to despair.

Jim: Let me ask you, in that regard, when you look at quality of life and all the things you just mentioned, um - the able-bodied person listening who hasn’t lived a day in your shoes - we don’t understand what you have to go through. And your husband, Ken, is here. And he has been such a great support to you. And I know that from the times we spent together. But help us better understand why we should not support, um, some of those movements in this country where they’re proposing termination of life. Because we see it as a poorer quality of life. And who are we to judge that? You’re speaking from experience.

Joni: Absolutely.

Jim: I mean, does it ever frustrate you or make you upset?

Joni: Well I...

Jim: ...That I, an able-bodied person, would have some kind of judgment on you?

Joni: Well, yes, Jim, it does because it tells me that you think little of my abilities, you think little of my, uh, years of cultivation of patience, endurance, self-control, long-suffering, compassion toward other people who hurt. You know, suffering is the textbook that teaches us who we really are. And we all would like to think that we are paragons of virtue, but suffering is God’s choicest tool in molding our character. And - and my quality of life may seem poor to many people when I rehearse as that - that list, you know, somebody doing my toileting routines, bed bath, feeding me, dressing me, you know - all my autonomies out the window. Um, “your quality of life is nothing”. But I’m an image-bearer of God, and that makes the difference. You have to wake up in the morning and remember that. Thank God for my disability. Because I don’t think most people wake up in the morning and think, “Hey, I’m a reflector of God. I bear His image. That’s a big responsibility.

Jim: It is.

Joni: And it’s not based on pride, which, of course, is the essence of autonomy and personal choice. No. When we reflect on the fact that we are image-bearers of a great, almighty God, it humbles us. It makes us humble. We receive happily anything from the hand of God, even if it was from the left hand of God - affliction, pain, aging, disappointment, despair. I mean, these are things that are tough to grapple with.

Jim: Let me ask you about that because, uh, we’ve covered it in other programs we’ve done together. But I know someone’s listening today who is in a spot where they are bitter toward God. It may not be, you know, physical ailment. It could be, but it might be something else - a broken family, divorce, a wayward child - whatever is in their heart where God has let them down. Their expectations have not been met.

How - with your experience, with your physical constraints, how would you coach a person to say, “This does not matter how I love my God, how I love my Lord, how I trust my Lord, how I depend upon my lord.” You walk it every day, and I use that word correctly. You walk it every day. But talk to that troubled soul. And, again, we - we could have all of our physical capability, and we’re broken in this area. How do you do it?

Joni: Well, first, it’s totally understandable. Um, Jim, there are so many mornings - after 50 years of quadriplegia - where I wake up, and to be quite honest, my quadriplegia is somewhat of a walk in the park next to my struggle with chronic pain. It is so difficult. Please don’t ask me to explain how a quadriplegic feels pain. I can’t explain it, but I have other quadriplegic friends who’d feel the same. And it just wears at your resolve. It erodes your joy like corrosive acid. It just eats away at your peace of mind. You begin to doubt the goodness of God. I understand. I get it. I resonate when people struggle with these things. But these are the very things - I mean, even the apostle Paul in Corinthians, he said to his friends, “My brothers, I don’t want you to be uninformed about the hardships we endured in Asia. We were overwhelmed far beyond our ability to endure. We even had in our hearts the sting of death.” Basically, what the apostle Paul is saying there is, “I’d rather die than go through this.”

Jim: Right.

Joni: “You guys don’t understand. It was hard. We were totally overwhelmed.” And, Jim, I just know there are listeners right now who can identify with that statement. Take heart. An apostle knows exactly how you feel, not just Joni Eareckson Tada. A biblical apostle knows how you feel. But - and the right at the end of that little list of his woes, he says, “but.” And I love buts in scripture, don’t you?

Jim: Yeah.

Joni: “But these things happen that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead.” And, oh, my goodness. If God can raise the dead, He can raise me up in the morning out of my chronic pain. He can raise our listeners when they are overwhelmed by, uh, the needs of their disabled child, their elderly parent for whom they’re caring. God’s grace is sufficient. And sometimes, I don’t think we as Christ followers understand how deep and wide and great the grace of God is unless we suffer.

Jim: Joni, you’ve written the first edition of this book, I think, 25 years ago. And you re-released it, updated it. When you look at the change in the culture in 25 years, what have you noticed? I mean, you’re seeing this every day. Many of us aren’t looking at it in the same way you do. So you’ve been at the helm of this movement to protect life. What are the changes like, and what scares you? What gives you hope?

Joni: Well, my concerns about physician-assisted suicide began, really, in 1982, when I was on an airplane reading newspaper. It was about, um, a child - an infant with Down Syndrome who was starved to death in a hospital. And it was upheld by the state Supreme Court. And I looked at that and thought, “Oh, my goodness. You know, this is what the abortion ruling in 1973 is bringing us. People warned us about this. Francis Schaeffer warned us about this in 1973, and we’re seeing it come to reality.”

Jim: Connect those dots quickly, because some people - maybe people that aren’t Christian, they don’t understand this, they may be Christian and not pro-life. Why do those dots connect for you?

Joni: Well, because in the Supreme Court ruling back in 1973, uh, judges determined that there is an inherent, quote, “right to privacy” in the U.S. Constitution. And when that was determined, that opened the door to an exercise of personal rights in every single realm. However, over the time, that’s become morphed into this competition between whose rights are more important than whose. And so no longer are rights moral claims based on the Word of God, but rights, over the years, have become nothing more than people’s willful determinations all dressed up in politically correct language - calling them rights. But really, it’s what I want when I want, and I want it now.

Jim: Including my own death.

Joni: Exactly. And including the - the entitlement culture that we find ourselves in. And when people start viewing rights as willful determination, such as that, and when they disengage rights from their moral basis and the word of God, then the exercise of rights becomes nothing but a national competition between who is more victimized than who. And I think we see that happening in our country now.

We have become a haranguing group of individuals who have radicalized rights, um, based on the interpretation from 1973’s ruling. And now no one does anything for the common good of the country. Our moral consensus has - has unraveled, and we’ve become a bunch of - forgive me - spoiled brats...

Jim: Yeah.

Joni: ...Who just want what we want when we want it.

Jim: Very much the “me” culture. And it’s getting more me-centric, it seems, each and every day.

Joni: Well, there was a movie - what was it - last summer or two summers ago? Me Before You. And it was the story of a quadriplegic who, uh, felt that his quality of life was - was nothing. And even though he loved his personal care assistant, he opted for suicide. And all of his family and all of his friends said he made a courageous, noble, dignified decision. And I’m sitting there in the audience, as a quadriplegic, thinking, “No, he didn’t. He opted out. He - he took the cowardly way out.”

Now, there may be some people thinking, “Now, wait a minute. Wait a minute. I’m suffering pain. I’m - I’m going through intractable pain.” Well, if we are dealing with pain - and I’m one with you - then let’s pour our resources not into the advancement of giving people special rights to die. No. Let’s pour our resources into developing better pain management techniques, uh, better hospice, better palliative care. Let’s help people deal with anger. Let’s give them social supports, bring them out of social isolation. Let’s provide spiritual community. Let’s be a friend to these people and walk the journey with them. That’s the compassionate way to deal with suffering, not slap five patches of Fentanyl on your chest.

Jim: Joni, you also mention back when you were at the beginning of this journey, that people helped you get this perspective, that you did have down days. I mean, you’re a very buoyant spirit. You see that. And, in fact, some people who have followed you and know your ministry would say, “Yeah, Joni’s got that capacity to stay on top of these things.” But talk about the help that came around you - those that picked you up in your despair. What did that look like?

Joni: Back then - it’s still painful for me to remember it - I would - I would, uh, I’d been released from the hospital. I was spending that summer in a deep depression. I - I didn’t know what to do, where to turn. I - I would drink. Um, I found some friends who weren’t Christians who would come over on a Friday night, and they’d sneak me their beers and - and, uh, you know, scotch and soda became a favorite. And I began to deaden my pain with alcohol.

Of course, I was what? Only 18, 19, 20 years old. But - but an alarm went off in my head, and God introduced me to a couple of Christians who intervened and started to make a difference. And they didn’t treat me like a project. I wasn’t their, you know, despairing neighbor who, you know, needed to have a friend, so I’m gonna do the admirable thing and become her friend. No. They were my friends. They got engaged with me. They - they took me to Bob’s Big Boy to get burgers. They - they took me shopping. They...

Jim: You were just one of them.

Joni: I was one of them, and it made all the difference in the world. And I think it was those Christians, who began to share with me perspectives from the word of God, the fact that, uh, we don’t own our bodies, God wants to honor Him with our bodies, which He paid for with His own death. Um, God is against murder. He’s against suicide, which stands to reason He would be against self-murder. God loves life. Death is the last enemy. And uh, we are to do all we can to sustain life. As long as we have a breath, there is a purpose; there is a meaning, even if it is the smile that you offer, the encouragement.

I’m thinking of a woman named Kim, real quickly. She had a neuromuscular disease. She was despairing of her life. Uh, her elder at her church called me and asked if I would please call and talk to Kim because she was considering, um, opting out of life and not going on a ventilator. She was so depressed. And I got her on the phone. And after some long conversation about prayer and - and heaven and - and courage and whatnot, I said to her, “Kim, I’m going to give you a Bible verse that’s going to change your life. It’s from 1 Peter, chapter 3, verse 8. And it says, ‘A day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years are as a day.’“ And I said, “Kim, we all know the old adage - that God looks at a thousand years as just a couple of days gone by. But have you ever thought of the other side of that verse? That he looks at our days as worth a thousand years? A thousand years’ worth of opportunity to invest in His kingdom?” I said, “Kim, when your mother comes to give you your meal tonight and syringes your - your meal into your G-tube” - because she was fed with a feeding tube.

Jim: Right.

Joni: “Why don’t you just say to your mom, ‘Let me say a blessing. Let me say a blessing over my food before you syringe that into me.’ Just do that, Kim. I know your focus is on yourself and your pain, but try reaching out because that small momentary act of courage has got to pan out to at least 579 years’ worth of eternal benefit to your mother, bliss for yourself and glory to God. Start living that way. Look beyond yourself, even though you’re on your quote, ‘deathbed’, and care about others. I mean, look at Jesus. He was on His cross. And He’s - what’s He doing? He’s dying, but He’s also ministering to this man crucified next to Him. He’s counseling His mother about who she should live with. I mean, He’s doing all these things on His cross - His own deathbed.”

So she began to take my advice. When people would come over to do a Bible study by her bedside, she - with great effort, because her breathing was labored - would say, “Let me share with you my favorite Bible verse.” Of course, everybody is stunned silence listening to her - this courageous woman. And it was so encouraging. And her mother told me that Kim lived another, I think it was three months after our conversation. But she said, “Joni, those are the most meaningful months my daughter ever lived because she believed that what she did with her small gestures of encouragement and courage and - and, um, boosting the spirits of others and bolstering others’ perspectives on her suffering, she believed it panned out to at least 59,000 years’ worth of eternal benefit to her and bliss for others and glory to God.

“And she put a value on it that that Bible verse in 1 Peter, chapter 3 gave her. And those were some of the most meaningful weeks she lived. Thank you,” she said. And to be honest, Jim, Kim’s not alone. That’s the way I live every day - every single day. I want to - I have to push in the back of my thinking - I have to push back pain. I have to find something that’s more interesting, that demands my focus, that’s more - that’s more engaging than my pain. And what is that? 1 Peter, chapter 3, verse 8. I want to live life well. I think that is dying with dignity. Because we’re all dying each and every day. We die to self each and every day, right? But we rise to Jesus. And we’re...

Jim: Yeah.

Joni: ...All preparing for that final exit. And I just want to make certain that my death will be a good death because I have lived well.

Jim: Joni, that is well said. I mean, all of us pass through that - that threshold. No one’s going to escape it, whether you’re able-bodied or you have some physical, uh, disabilities. And you have expressed it so well today.

Joni: Well, it’s why I wrote that book, When Is It Right to Die? I really wanted to give Christ’s followers a keen understanding of the arguments surrounding physician-assisted suicide, as well as give them a language so that they could engage their own, uh, neighbors and friends and churchgoers in a biblical worldview of not only life but death.

Jim: Yes. Let’s do this. I mean, there are people listening that are in the middle of a crisis, maybe such a painful crisis they’re thinking, “This should be my last day on Earth.” Can you pray for those listening that are in...

Joni: Absolutely.

Jim: ...That spot and haven’t turned to Christ?

Joni: Absolutely. Oh, Jesus, hear the heart of those, who are listening right now, who are overwhelmed by their chronic pain or disability in their family, or their husband who had a stroke, or a new medical diagnosis that means a life-altering situation. Oh, Father, be near and real to them. And we pray against the lies of the Devil - Satan, who is a murderer. Satan, who is an accuser. Satan, who says, “Life is not worth living; you are better off dead than disabled.” No, we stand against those lies, and we stand against his murderous agenda. We want life. We choose life.

So Father, I’m praying for my friend listening right now. I’m asking You to be the Prince of Life in their life. Give them the words of life which will sustain life. Show them that You’re the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Father, You are all about life everlasting. Give my friends listening a reason to live which, of course, is always found in You and Your Word. Give courage. And, Father, give them the courage to ask for help.

And give Christians listening, who have yet to get engaged with someone who’s despairing, help my Christian friends to reach out in their neighborhoods, in their churches, in their places of work, in their communities and find those people who are despairing and provide life-giving hope and help. It’s what our role is as Your ambassadors, so enable us to do that, Lord Jesus, in Your name. Amen.

Jim: Amen. Joni Eareckson Tada, thank you for being such a great example of how to do that so well. And your book, When Is It Right to Die? - what a resource for every Christian home.

Joni: Thanks, Jim. 

Closing:

John: What a terrific conversation with Joni Eareckson Tada today, on Focus on the Family. And we need to address this kind of subject. It’s difficult to talk about. As Joni said, we need to address it, though, for our families and - so they can understand the implications of our faith when it comes to end-of-life decisions.

Jim: That’s a great point, John. And for those listening to us right now, if this broadcast has raised any concerns or questions for your family, I hope you’ll contact us here at Focus on the Family. I’d like to put you in touch with one of our Christian counselors - someone who will listen to you, know what’s going on, then pray with you and direct you to resources that can help you at your point of need.

John: Our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY - 800-232-6459. Or you can find help at focusonthefamily.com/radio.

Jim: John, what Joni is expressing here is so critically important to all of us - it’s this value of human life. And in a culture right now that is so open to pursuing a death culture, we need to stand up as believers in Christ to say, “This is not what God intended for us.” You know, I’m reminded, even during the Coliseum gladiator events, it was Christians who stood on the floor of that Coliseum who said, “We’re made in God’s image. Let us not destroy each other. Let us lift each other up.” And that’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to say, “Lift up the value of life. Let’s not be a culture of death.”

And you know, for Focus on the Family, one of the ways that we have done this is in our Option Ultrasound program. And I am very proud to say that we have helped to save over 400,000 babies together. And that’s through a lot of ultrasound machines being placed in local pregnancy resource clinics. So to the clinics, thank you for your hard work every day on the front lines. And to those who have donated to place those machines, thank you for stepping up.

Consider supporting the work of Focus on the Family so that together, we as believers can say, “We stand for life.” 

John: And we’ll have more information about ways you can join this worthy cause and donate at focusonthefamily.com/radio, or call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. And if you’re able to make a financial contribution today, of any amount, we’ll say thank you by sending a complimentary copy of Joni’s book, When Is It Right to Die? It’s a great resource addressing this entire issue with biblical insight. And we’ll send that to you when you make a gift of any amount.

Coming up next time on this broadcast, Cynthia Tobias talks about the best ways to parent a strong-willed child.

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Guest

Joni Eareckson Tada

View Bio

A diving accident in 1967 left Joni Eareckson Tada, then 17, a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. After two years of rehabilitation, she was determined to help others in similar situations. Joni is now an internationally known advocate for people with disabilities. She is the founder and CEO of Joni and Friends International Disability Center, a best-selling author of more than 50 books, a radio and TV host, and a featured guest in numerous media outlets. Joni and her husband, Ken, reside in California. You can learn more about Joni and her ministry at www.joniandfriends.org.