Life, death and choice
by Ann Crawford
Dr Ann Crawford (Ph.D.) wrote as the Pastor-in-Charge of Citipointe Transformations in Christian Outreach Centre, and teaches Pastoral Care subjects at Citipointe Ministry College, the School of Ministries of Christian Heritage College, Brisbane. This article was presented as a paper given at the Contemporary Issues in Ministry Conference, September 11, 2003, at Christian Heritage College, Brisbane, Australia.
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Life, death and choice, by Ann Crawford:
An article in Renewal Journal 20: Life:
God’s command in Deuteronomy 30:19 – I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; choose life that you and your descendants may live… – sounds simple and extremely logical. Most would agree that, in practice, following this command is not that simple. Many factors cloud these choices, detract from the logic and create a complexity that causes people to continue to walk in the wayward footsteps that led Adam to a finite existence on earth.
As these issues of life and death choices are fundamental in the individual’s quest for wholeness and therefore pertinent to the people-helping ministry of today’s church, this paper explores these concepts by examining life, death and choice; by identifying blockages and deceptions experienced in our twenty-first century life-journeys; and by delving into the philosophy of existential suffering.
“Throughout the whole of life one must continue to learn how to live, and what will amaze you even more, throughout life one must learn to die” (Seneca in Peck, 1997: 89). These words penned centuries ago contemplate the paradox that is life and death, for to consider one is to be conscious of the other. In accordance with Hebraic philosophy, we do not have an “either/or” choice for ultimately every person encompasses the “also/and” of living and dying. So it would seem that the issue for the human person is not so much a choice between life and death but that “a deep consciousness of death ultimately leads us on a path to seeking meaning” (Peck, 1997: 88).
Abrahams (1961: 242) quotes from Jewish philosophy as he writes, “Much of the difficulty of the problem of evil is . . . due to the human belief that he (the individual man) is the centre of creation. There is evil: but many so-called evils are nothing other than features of a life which includes death.” Jesus’ expounds this philosophy as He tells a story (Luke 12:16-21) of a successful farmer whose bumper crop could not be contained in his storehouses. The farmer’s decision to tear down his barns to build bigger ones was not the evil that incurred the wrath of God. After a lifetime of living, this man had missed the meaning. “Soul, you have many good things laid up, [enough] for many years. Take your ease; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself merrily.”
For those in the people helping professions, this “missing the meaning” of life – and death – is of vital significance, both in our day-to-day stories and in what Snyder (1995: 194) terms the “Divine Design” story, characterised by “finding and doing the will of God”. Consider God’s reply to the farmer where he not only paints a graphic picture of human mortality but he also highlights the consequences of the choice to find meaning in self-achievement and material possessions. “You fool! This night they [the messengers of God] will demand your soul of you; and all the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
It would appear that, in God’s economy, a meaningless life equates to a meaningless death and both incur his displeasure. Therefore, another avenue of thought emerges from this story that further augments this investigation of life, death and choice. This is the existential search for meaning described by Corey (1996: 171) as the struggle “between the security of dependence and the delights and pains of growth”. Security is one of the person’s basic needs, and, in a postmodern society which Snyder (1995: 218) sees as being “the triumph of the contingent, the transitory and the ironic”, security is often sought in codependency and pain is to be avoided. These choices side-track the meaningful process leading from suffering to peaceful wholeness.
Deuteronomy 29:29 reminds us that “the secret things belong unto the Lord our God, but the things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever that we may do all of the words of this law”. This paper will presuppose that the text of Deuteronomy 30:19 – “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; choose life that you and your descendants may live . . .” – is the revealed word of God and will undertake this investigation of life, death and choice, not primarily from a theological perspective but from relevant literature, particularly that which pertains to people-helping and pastoral caring. From this vantage-point it would appear that not only do the topics of life, death and choice warrant a deeper probing but that there are other issues that are inextricably intertwined into their inter-relatedness. The existential search for meaning, freewill and freedom, and the over-shadowing limitations and extremes of worldview and culture add to the complexity of the life/death-decisions that human beings are faced with daily.
The Hebrew word commonly translated “life” means alive, fresh, strong and is explained by Lockyer, as the “physical functions of people, animals and plants” (1986: 649). This writer continues, “because God is the source of all life, it is a gift from Him. He first filled Adam with the breath of life (Gen. 2:7), and He continues to be the source of all life”. In the New Testament the Greek “psyche” describes the breath or spirit of life. “The word ‘life’ began to refer to more than physical existence. It took on a strong spiritual meaning, often referring to the spiritual life that results from man’s relationship with God” (Lockyer, 1986: 649).
From these interpretations it could be deduced that “life” can be defined on several different levels. The most rudimentary of these indicates any form of living thing but even this basic understanding proposes a mystery that scientists down through the ages have sought to unravel. For the last half-century, biochemists have sought for a mechanism by which non-living molecules could make the transition to living systems.
Transcending these empirical deliberations, Holmes (1983: 121) comments that a Christian worldview understands “human life as a body-soul dualism in close organic unity, so that we function in many if not all regards as holistic beings.” Boivin (1995: 157) describes a Hebraic model of the person as conceptualising “the various dimensions of personhood as existing along a mutually interactive continuum to which the divinely inspired aspects of the human condition are directly apparent in the biopsychological aspects, without intermediate metaphysical states or constructs”. Paul preached to the Greeks, “in him I live and move and have my being” (Acts 17:28), echoing the holistic theories of these scholars and challenging the Platonic philosophical dualism that the body is the prison of the soul (Moreland and Ciocchi, 1993: 39).
Death could be described as the absence of life. However, the American President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioural Research (1983: 174-75) defines death as, “the state in which all components of mental life are gone, including self-awareness, thought, emotion, feeling and sensation.” In an effort to clarify the dilemma of organ-transplant doctors, this definition admits that a human being is more than physiological by incorporating elements that are more usually associated with the “soul” to identify human life – or the absence thereof. This definition would indicate that, at some point in the dying process, there is a separation of body, being the material part of the human person, and the immaterial soul, a position confirmed by the writer of Ecclesiastes 12:7: “Then dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it”. Moreland and Ciocchi (1993: 39) comment that, “this combination of material and spiritual resulted in a holistic ‘living soul.’” However, these authors continue with the observation that, “there is no indication in the creation account that this combination was ever intended to be separated.”
This notion of separation leads to the contemplation of another dimension of death. “Death occurs when something is separated from that which is its life. Since the living God is the ‘fountain of life’ (Ps. 36:9), the action of man turning from him can only result in death” (Moreland and Ciocchi, 1993: 46).
Choice creates the impression of selecting from presented options and consequently is predominantly associated with freewill and the consequences. Scriptural references, like the one from Deuteronomy 30:19, portray God, at various times through history, as offering his people a choice, delineating the options and describing the consequences both positive and negative, both good and evil. Once the information has been delivered, God then allows His Image Bearer the freewill to not only make that choice but also to bear the consequences.
The first biblical choice encountered is the choice Adam and Eve made when confronted with tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God had commanded that they “may freely eat of every tree of the garden but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat of it for in that day you shall surely die” (Gen 2:15-17). The Genesis account of the fall graphically illustrates the significance of the exercise of freewill, as Adam and Eve are banished from the garden and from the sweet communion with Father God they had experienced there. Peck (1997: 150-51) writes about this relationship between choice and freewill. “What I do know is that we have the power of choice. It is said that God created us in His own image. What is meant by that, more than anything else . . . is that He gave us free will. We are free to choose, for good or for ill, according to our will, and not even God can heal someone against her will”. Jesus did not minister or teach in his own home town as the family and friends of his childhood had set their freewill against him and the healings and the miracles experienced by others passed them by (Luke 14:23-30).
In Frankl’s account of his experiences in the Auchwitz camps he delves deeper into the questions of choice, freewill and suffering. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (Frankl, 1984: 86). Frankl’s observations of the human person, trapped in the horrendous circumstances of a Nazi concentration camp for a protracted length of time, revealed to him that it is possible to make choices, and, in fact, to make choices that would enable a man or a woman to craft excruciating suffering into bravery, unselfishness and dignity and to “add a deeper meaning to his/her life” (1984: 88).
The philosophy of the various dimensions of human freedom, while being a fascinating study, is far beyond the scope of this paper. However, for the purpose of this essay, a summary of Satre’s observations (in Corey, 1996: 174) is sufficient: “We are constantly confronted with the choice of what kind of person we are becoming, and to exist is never to be finished with this kind of choosing”.
I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction (Deut. 30:19)
Human beings must then choose between two covenantal ways, the two possible responses to God’s laws for our life. We cannot not respond. We live only in covenant relation to our Maker. We exit only in response to his sovereign rule (Walsh and Middleton, 1984: 65, 66).
This is a God of justice. As the above authors allege, whether the choices are understood or even known, God still holds every human being accountable for these choices.
The pastoral carer is not only confronted with these choices in the course of his/her own existence but is called to work with people who are also in the process of becoming. Those who have no cognition of the covenant relationship God has ordained necessarily suffer from a warped ability to make choices. As outlined in scripture (eg. Deut 27,28), all behaviour, all choices have consequences and the curses that result from choosing death are just as real as the blessings that flow from life choices. Does this mean that those who are unaware of their choices, who believe they have no right to make a choice or who have been programmed with wrong information with which to choose, are doomed to death?
However, “Just as we cannot be neutral in relation to him, so he is not neutral towards us” (Walsh and Middleton, 1984: 66). The cross is ample evidence of a merciful God who actively upholds his covenants.
Underpinning the ministry of pastoral caring is the biblical mandate to bring to the broken-hearted the message that God is not neutral. He is a Father who is vitally interested in the well being of his children and he has a plan and purpose for each one. At the opposite end of the scale is an awareness that no human being is able to be neutral and this revelation opens the way for the covenant to be proclaimed and the choices to be revealed.
The place of suffering in making choices
But, could it be that we often do not recognise the life-choice before us because the death-choice presents as the “soft-option”? A loving father nurtures and protects his child. However, that does not discount the inevitability that the child will, at times be exposed to pain, grief and suffering. A loving father will not, in fact cannot, prevent his child from suffering but he will teach and guide his child to choose the life option despite the pain. So it is with Father God.
Peck cites missionary/physician Paul Brand’s research into leprosy and explains that most “of the devastation of leprosy is caused by a localised absence of pain” (Peck, 1997: 28). When there is no pain, injury and infection remain unnoticed and untreated, eventually leading to disfigurement and death. Pain is a signal that something is wrong, that something needs to change. Although physical pain can range from unpleasant to unbearable there is usually some treatment that can be administered that will relieve the discomfort. However,
We do not like emotional pain any more than physical pain, and our natural instinct is to avoid it or get rid of it as quickly as possible. We are pain-avoiding creatures. Since it is a conflict between our will and reality that causes our pain, our first and natural response to the problem is to deal with it by imposing our will to make reality conform to what we want of it (Peck, 1997: 63).
Pastoral carers predominantly work with people experiencing emotional pain. It is this emotional pain that often drives the sufferer to choose the death-option – not physical death or suicide but the kind of choice that focuses on gratifying and comforting self and/or projecting the pain onto others.
As mentioned earlier in this paper, the philosophy of postmodernism dictates that we construct our own reality, that we impose our own reality upon the facts. The consequences of imposing our will upon our circumstances opposes the commands of God to follow his statutes, to choose to allow him to impose his will upon us. The natural projection of this would be that people in a postmodern society would be likely to experience a considerable amount of emotional pain. Pastors and those in the people-helping professions, would, I am sure, support these observations.
Frankl (1984: 154-155), in his dissertations on suffering, emphasised “that human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death”. He identifies the components of that meaning: hope in the future; experiences of the past; unconditional love; and purposeful sacrifice. People-helpers have a mandate to know that, “the world in which we live is divine destiny. There is a divine meaning in the life of every individual and of you and me” (Buber in Bruno, 2000: 29). Those suffering emotional pain are searching for that meaning, whether they are aware of it or not, and the people-helper is called to encounter, empower and encourage these fellow children of God.
Frankl (1984: 95) quotes Spinoza when he writes, “Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it”. By defining life, death and choice, and the intertwining and interrelated aspects of these topics, perhaps a clearer picture of the human sufferings and the human joys of life and death may be better understood. There is a curious security, a peace that passes understanding in being in intimate relationship with a God of paradox – justice and mercy, majesty and love, law and grace – with a Father who beseeches us to “choose life, that you and your descendants may live”.
On further reflection, life redefined becomes a pilgrimage, a deliberate journey of valleys and mountain tops. In God’s entreaty for us to choose life, perhaps he is longing for us to extract from this time we have here on earth as much meaning and purpose as we can, that while we live, we really live, and that we can take this divine energy called life and, in some way, impart it to those who experience this journey with us. Death, that dark foreboding that looms over us all, is not the destination of life but maybe even a facet of life that helps us to extract the last residue of meaning from suffering and joy alike giving us the choice to make the transition from one state to the other in unbroken fellowship with our Maker.
Abrahams, G. (1961) The Jewish Mind. London: Constable.
Boivin, M. (1991) “The Hebraic model of the person: towards a unified psychologican science among Christian helping professionals.” Journal of Psychology and Theology. 19 (2), 1991. p. 120.
Bruno, T. (2000) Jesus, Ph.D. Psychologist. Gainsville, FL.: Bridge-Logos.
Corey, G. (1996) Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Pacific Grove, CA.: Brookes/Cole.
Frankl, V. (1984) Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square.
Holmes, A. (1983). Contours of a Worldview. Michigan: Eerdmanns.
Lockyer, H. (Ed.) (1986). Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Moreland, J. and Ciocchi. D. (1993) Christian Perspectives on Being Human. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker.
Peck, M.S. (1997) The Road Less Travelled and Beyond. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Pohl, C. (2001) “Life and death choices.” The Christian Century. Chicago: Aug15-Aug 22, Vol.118, Iss. 23. p.14.
Snyder, H. (1995) Earth Currents. Nashville: Abingdon.
U.S.A. President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioural Research (Washington D.C. Government Printing Office, March 1983), p. 174-75
Walsh, B. and Middleton, J. (1984). The Transforming Vision. Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity.
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