The Disturbing Witness of Voluntary Christian Suffering

cancer ebola

Right to Die

On CNN Brittany Maynard wrote a piece about her choice to die at 29 by her own hand because of her incurable brain cancer.

I saw this story being posted by different friends on Facebook. My atheist friends were using the story along the lines of Brittany herself, as a validating story promoting the practice legal in Oregon where a doctor can prescribe a patient sufficient medication to end their own life.

The rationale behind such laws and practice seems obvious and for many its goodness is self-evident

  • Reducing suffering is a good thing.
  • If death is inevitable and the path to it is disabling suffering why not shorten the trip for mercy’s sake!
  • Human life is about choice. Choice creates dignity. To choose to die is therefore more dignified than waiting for “nature” or “your body” to devolve and die on someone or something else’s timing. (Note our ideas of the good of “nature” are fairly inconsistent. Sometimes “natures way is best”, in this case “dignity” is a person choosing, not allowing “nature” to take its course.)

This is summed up on the Brittany Fund site

Death with dignity is an option every person deserves, to reduce suffering at the end of life and die in comfort and control, with dignity.

Pro-Life Christians

Many of my Christian friends who posted the piece oppose doctor assisted suicide. This too came as no surprise to me. This is a well trodden culture war battlefield where both sides feel they have the good and the right in their side. Many Christians assert that we have no right to time our own deaths and that we should let God and/or “nature” take its course.

One post that is being passed along by Christians to counter the CNN post is by a woman named Kara Tippetts who too is dying of cancer that has gone from her breast to her brain. She wrote an open letter to Brittany Maynard telling her own story.

A God Who Uses People’s Suffering

At the bottom of her letter to Brittany Maynard there was a video that she had made which talked about her and her husband moving to Colorado Springs to plant a church where she tells about a series of unfortunate circumstances in her life. She frames this narrative as initially assuming that God would use their strength in their church plant and in their community but instead that God would work through weakness.

When I reflected on that Kara Tippetts narrative framing of her circumstances I pondered how it contrasted with the narrative frame for Brittany Maynard’s story.

Victims of Chaos Creating Dignity and Expressing Humanity by Exercising Choice Through Will

The People Magazine piece on her introduced her to us in this way.

For the past 29 years, Brittany Maynard has lived a fearless life – running half marathons, traveling through Southeast Asia for a year and even climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. So, it’s no surprise she is facing her death the same way.

I am always on the lookout for the assumed or asserted baseline narratives of what life is about. Here we see Brittany living “a fearless life” because she’s running half marathons, travels to exotic places and doing strenuous adventurous things.

Would her story be different if it said “Brittany works for a bank in San Francisco. It’s not surprise she is facing her death in the same way”?

The modern conception of life is that we arrive here out of chaos. There is no purpose FOR life, there can be purpose IN life if you’re brave enough, creative enough, aggressive enough to seize the day. This is living with “dignity”. “Dignity” is by force of will overcoming the random chaos from which you sprang and willfully giving shape to your life by choice.

Now that she gets the news that instead of being able to enjoy the fortunate privilege of having the resources to travel the world and do exciting and exotic things before the age of 29, she has an incurable form of cancer and will die a painful death. She decided not only to relocate to a state where she can practice doctor assisted suicide but to also write about it in order to promote this to start a movement where this practice can be legalized in other states.

Again to her good fortune, or perhaps misery her story has gone viral and so now some will cheer her while others revile her. Most others I suspect will publicly say something like “well she’s suffering and it’s her choice so I’ll keep my comments to myself so as not to compound her suffering” however they feel about doctor assisted suicide.

What’s crucial here is that “human dignity” in this modern understanding of life is established by means of one exercising their will and control over their life. This is a very American idea, enshrined by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Liberty is understood as being “endowed by our creator with the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He borrowed it from John Locke who said “life, liberty and property. Brittany seems to be tracking more with Jefferson. The deism subsides leaving the narrative of personal triumph over random suffering.

Kara Tippett’s Assumptions about Life

Given our current common culture I completely understand Brittany’s decision and why she’s doing it and promoting it. It is completely consistent with the dominant narrative of our culture.  I am not surprised by Brittany Maynard’s decision or promotion of her vision just like I am not surprised by the resistance and even revulsion people have to Kara Trippett’s asserted narrative.

Kara Trippett in her story assumes that there is a God who not only is in control of her life but is in control of the universe. However fuzzy Kara is, or Christians are, on the role God has played in causing her to trip and bloody her nose, causing the fire to devastate her neighborhood, and causing cancer to not only attack her breast but travel to her brain, she clearly understands that God has a hand in this and that all of this is for some greater good.

We should not be surprised that many would find this narrative offensive and upsetting not just for people who are more atheistic or agnostic but also for those who are theistic or spiritual. Remember that the broadly held common theistic assumption that most American young people have Christian Smith has called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and it holds these 5 tenets.

1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

This may be a thinner deism of Jefferson and common religion but it remains in the imagination of a majority of people today.

From that perspective God has been negligent in Kara Tippett’s story. It is God’s job to keep her life, protect her and insure that she have at least an expected lifespan, perhaps with some difficulties but not anything as catastrophic as her four children losing their mother.

For many the pain and felt injustice of Kara’s situation is evidence that either there is no God or that God is not good. It is clear from Kara, however, that she doesn’t believe that. She still very much believes that God is good and that God is with her and that God will take care of her and her children, in this life and the next. Where does Kara’s perspective come from?


As a boy growing up in church I was always scared of lepers. I didn’t know any, but it seemed like the Bible was full of stories of lepers. Lepers were people who had a contagious disease where their fingers and noses fell off. In my childish imagination leprosy was some dreaded plague that must have broken out in Bible times and I was sure it would reemerge today. About all I knew about lepers was that their presence was so dangerous they had to live away from everyone and shout out “unclean, unclean” when they would come into a population as protection.

I also believed that God had given Israel these laws in the Old Testament for their protection. Because they didn’t have science or modern medicine God in grace gave them a pre-scientific tip on how to handle lepers for their own good. It was sad that some people got leprosy and had to live outside the camp but it couldn’t be helped. I thought that if in the case that someone somehow got better then they could show themselves to the priests, because they didn’t have doctors, and the priests would certify that it was safe to go home and then everyone would be happy.

The Evolution of Leviticus

My thoughts about leprosy I imagine probably reflected the thoughts of most adults in the church. I remember learning in Christian schools that the Old Testament law was given to Israel as a sort of primitive health advice. Don’t eat pork (because you’re too primitive to cook it thoroughly) and watch out for leprosy and other contagious diseases. This was the way I understood texts like these.

If you track the interpretive tradition behind the translations I assume I got these ideas from the adults around me who got them from the Bible and their teachers.

Leviticus 13:1–3 (KJV 1900)

1 And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron, saying, 2 When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, a scab, or bright spot, and it be in the skin of his flesh like the plague of leprosy; then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests: 3 And the priest shall look on the plague in the skin of the flesh: and when the hair in the plague is turned white, and the plague in sight be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is a plague of leprosy: and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean.

By 1984 the NIV Translations team knew that these diseases weren’t leprosy, so they punted in this way.

Leviticus 13:1–3 (NIV84)

1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 2 “When anyone has a swelling or a rash or a bright spot on his skin that may become an infectious skin disease, he must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons who is a priest. 3 The priest is to examine the sore on his skin, and if the hair in the sore has turned white and the sore appears to be more than skin deep, it is an infectious skin disease. When the priest examines him, he shall pronounce him ceremonially unclean.

If you read the NIV2011 you’ll find something more like this.

Leviticus 13:1–3 (NIV)

1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 2 “When anyone has a swelling or a rash or a shiny spot on their skin that may be a defiling skin disease, they must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons who is a priest. 3 The priest is to examine the sore on the skin, and if the hair in the sore has turned white and the sore appears to be more than skin deep, it is a defiling skin disease. When the priest examines that person, he shall pronounce them ceremonially unclean.

In 1984 the NIV translation committee prioritized the “infectious” nature of the disease implying a medical reason for the situation. By 2011 the heirs of that work opted for less specificity on the disease but more specificity with respect to what is happening in the passage. This isn’t about medicine. That became clear to the community of Biblical scholars.

Translators that have collaborated with medical professionals today pretty much agree that the text is probably talking about a variety of skin ailments that are likely NOT medically contagious and certainly not what we know today as “leprosy” or Hanson’s Disease. 

After being convinced of this scholars looked more closely into the text to discover other things they should have noted all along.

  • Naaman of 2 King 5 didn’t face the kind of treatment an Israelite would. He continued to lead his soldiers, serve his king, and Elisha and company didn’t flee from him.
  • Aaron’s prayer for Miriam when she came down with “leprosy” talked about “Let her not be like a corpse that emerges from its mother’s womb with half its flesh eaten away”.
  • The unclean “contagion” of this illness isn’t like the “flow” we talked about last week. This one would contaminate anyone who dwells under the same roof, and also applies to fabric and even houses. This is the kind of uncleanliness of a corpse.

So then what is the issue?

In conclusion, the appearance of the disease, and not so much the disease itself, is the source of impurity. Bodily impurity stands for the forces of death that are countered and reversed by God’s covenantal commandments, the forces of life.

Milgrom, J. (2004). A Continental Commentary: Leviticus: a book of ritual and ethics (p. 129). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

The Sacramental Performance Art of Israel

We can easily understand the exclusion of these people if there is a medical reason. Right now the US is very concerned about Ebola coming over from West Africa. Some are even suggesting we stop all people from coming from that part of the world. We would understand God separating people with a medically contagious illness that would put the community in danger. This we get and would call reasonable. What, however, are we to do with this?

The main point of these laws in Leviticus is NOT medical, for the ancients or for us, but rather the appearance of the “scaling” disease, either on a fabric, a home or a person. God seems to be setting up a symbolic world for his people where the drama of life and death is played out in the community, by the community. The priests play a pivotal role not as primitive medical doctors, but as priests who note the boundaries of life and death and ritually perform the rights that hold back death and preserve life in the camp.

If a modern American thinks about this long enough, I think they will be at least as offended at this than they are the Kara Tippetts story. God is asking these people who have medical conditions or mold break outs in their home to enact in their communal lives the lessons of God. We should note that for them this is not play acting, this is instead arises from a sacramental perspective of life that the material actions in this world have meaning in the more concrete spiritual realities played out beneath them.

Len Vander Zee in his book Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper calls this the “sacramental”

It has been commonplace in studies of the sacraments to base their meaning in the larger context of a sacramental world. Donald Baillie points out that nothing can be “in the special sense a sacrament unless everything were in a basic and general sense sacramental.” The only way in which particular sacraments can have meaning is if the universe were so created and structured that this can happen. Sacraments are material things that point beyond themselves to their Creator. They are windows into divine reality. “Things are more than just aggregates of matter lying around the universe,” writes John Macquarrie. “They have the pontentiality of lighting up for us the mystery of God himself. God is not part of the world…. So we do not see him directly, but because he is universally present, there is, shall we say, a sacramental potentiality in virtually everything. This means that at some time, in some place, in some circumstances, for some people or persons, that thing may become a sacrament, that person’s door to the sacred.” p. 17

Now what we’re talking about here is the whole community of Israel being a window into the life of God and within that people playing out roles, hard roles, difficult roles, roles of suffering and deprivation that moderns would say “now that isn’t necessary, and it is unfair and inhumane!” Many of us would say “they have a point”, yet this is what happens.

What you see in Kara Tippetts’ life, however, is exactly the same thing. She sees her illness and her suffering in this same sacramental sense, in a way that Brittany Maynard does not. For Brittany Maynard her life is simply her own to experience for herself. If the experience is cool and good and fun, like traveling and climbing exotic mountain then’s she’d down for it. If it’s going to involve suffering she’ll take the pills and skip the pain. Her life isn’t a sacrament of anything, it is an experience to optimize. There is no purpose FOR her life, but she’s going to squeeze all of the good experiences she can on purpose IN her life.

From our cultural construct we call Brittany’s choice one of “dignity”, but what does that say about Kara?

These two women in difficult circumstances reveal two different assumptions and assertions about life. They both have ideas why they embrace the one they do and why they reject the one they don’t. There is a libertarian stream in our culture that says “well just let people do what they want to do” but that really isn’t honest to how conversations are playing out on both sides.

Missionary Doctors and Ebola

Ebola has brought the specter of ancient plague into the modern world. While with AIDS people could have the comfort of a behavioral remedy people are afraid they may come down with Ebola by being on the wrong airplane or in the wrong hospital.

In Slate Brian Palmer asked the question “Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?” This article has prompted a lot of discussion.

This was picked up by Damon Linker who asked “Why do so many liberals despise Christianity?” Linker says of Palmer

Palmer tries to be fair-minded, but he nonetheless expresses “ambivalence,” “suspicion,” and “visceral discomfort” about the fact that these men and women are motivated to make “long-term commitments to address the health problems of poor Africans,” to “risk their lives,” and to accept poor compensation (and sometimes none at all) because of their Christian faith.

What Linker is picking up on and what Palmer is expressing is in fact very common. We repeatedly hear messages “you owe it to yourself”. Kara Tippett’s choice to not shorten her life is set against Brittany’s declaration of “dignity”.

Voluntary Christian generosity and suffering and self denial have long been a source of discomfort for others. The Roman Emperor Julian writes to Arsacius trying to prop up Hellenistic temple religion against the “atheism” of Christianity. He sends resources to Galatia to use to give to the poor and ride heard on the priests to get them to comply.

And it is not enough for you alone to practise them, but so must all the priests in Galatia, without exception. Either shame or persuade them into righteousness or else remove them from their priestly office, if they do not, together with their wives, children and servants, attend the worship of the gods but allow their servants or sons or wives to show impiety towards the gods and honour atheism more than piety. In the second place, admonish them that no priest may enter a theatre or drink in a tavern or control any craft or trade that is base and not respectable. Honour those who obey you, but those who disobey, expel from office.

He then drops the quote he is now most often remembered for.

For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.

 Jesus and the Unclean

As we saw last week Jesus upends this issue of the clean and the unclean.

Matthew 8:1–4 (NIV)

1 When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. 2 A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” 3 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. 4 Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

It’s important to note what Jesus does and doesn’t do.

If we were to rewrite Jesus we’d imagine some different approaches.

  • “Let me show you how to make skin ointment so that from generation to generation you won’t be bothered by skin diseases so you can go out and live your own lives.”
  • “Oh, Moses got God wrong. These skin diseases aren’t even contagious. Just go home and live with your family and forget all that superstition. God wants you to have your best life now! Whether you’re bald, have a scaly skin disease, you need to hold your held up and live in dignity!”

Again, as we say last week the narrative is that Jesus reverses the Leviticus dynamic. Just as the flow that made the woman unclean was stopped by contact with Jesus, so here Jesus chooses to touch the unclean man making him clean and whole.

We saw that the issue was not simply a disease, but the manifestation of death in the appearance of the disease, or the fungus on the cloth or the home, here Jesus is seen as the Lord of life as he brings life where there is death.

Narratives of Life and Death

How then does this play out in our lives? Doesn’t Jesus want us to be happy? Doesn’t Jesus want us to have our best life now?

The story of the Jesus as told again and again by the Apostles followed a pattern. It was a story like the story that the “unclean” were asked to sacrificially play out in the life of Israel in a sacramental way and it had everything to do with suffering. Just as Israel was in their system of clean and unclean to play out a drama surrounding the priests and the sacrificial system of life and death, so Jesus’ life was sacramental as well. The end goal was indeed shalom, but the path to shalom was a costly one.

Missionaries who go to Africa and treat patients with Ebola and how many other countless diseases not for money, not out of heroism, but because it’s what Christ did for them. They sacramentally play out this story.

If you read the letters from the Apostles the story is always the same.

  • He who had everything freely gave himself to suffer for you.
  • You are the beneficiaries of his generosity
  • Now live what he did and out of gratitude benefit others even though you suffer

We see this in the Christ song, already known by the time Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi

Philippians 2:5–11 (NIV)

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

  • This is what Yhwh asked those with skin diseases to do in Israel.
  • This is what Jesus did among Israel in his ministry.
  • This is what Jesus invites us to do in our relationships.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Disturbing Witness of Voluntary Christian Suffering

  1. “Now what we’re talking about here is the whole community of Israel being a window into the life of God and within that people playing out roles” ,,, Yes! For me, that is the interpretative key that makes the OT make sense. Israel “chosen” to be the exemplar, the case study, the paradigm. Thanks again for your thinking and writing on this, Paul. Especially for tackling the obscure and quirky details that are so complex and removed from our modern culture. The popular trend that dismisses the OT God as an arbitrary lunatic can be countered by the kind of biblical literacy you are sharing here …

  2. Pingback: How the Death-to-Life Factory Became Obsolete |

  3. Pingback: Levitical Blessings and Curses in a Skeptical Age |

  4. Pingback: Does God Talk To Katy Perry? |

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