From the Vicarage February 2013 – on how to avoid despair when death approaches

The bedroom window this morning

The vicarage bedroom window in winter

There is a growing voice in the UK asking for it to be made legal for people to practice euthanasia (medically assisted suicide). It is argued that anyone who feels that their life is no longer worth living, because of great pain and suffering or lack of quality of life, should be allowed to end life with medical help.

Many people, especially Christians, oppose the deliberate ending of life because it is not a decision which we can make easily. Our “choice” to die (before the Lord chooses to end our life) is made really complicated by the subtle pressures which family members, well-meaning friends and even doctors might place on sick people. There are issues like the ongoing cost of care, inconvenience to others, not wanting to be a burden, saving an inheritance for children and so on complicate the “choice”.

There is of course a great difference between doctors not to providing medical intervention when people are sick and dying and deliberately accelerating the process by using drugs to kill someone.  There is arguably too much medical intervention in some cases to keep life going.

I would like to step back from the legal battles to give us each time to prepare well for pain or suffering if it comes. Euthanasia seems to stem from despair rather than pain.  I know that human beings have a great capacity for pain, but we have a low capacity for despair or hopelessness. The Christian knows that suffering with hope is bearable though unpleasant (Hebrews 12:7ff).  If the pain can be managed with medical help then suffering can be more than bearable, God can use it for our good as we grow, learn and rejoice through it.

And so, in this month’s parish magazine, I’ve included a copy of Richard Baxter’s “directions for a peaceful death” which contain wisdom on avoiding despair as death approaches. Baxter was educated in Dudley and was minister of Kidderminster from the age of 26 in 1641 until he was 45.

I have had a couple of cancer scares in the past ten years and Baxter’s writings have been the most helpful thing I have read on dealing with sickness, pain and the approach of death. His style is old-fashioned, but don’t let that put you off. Take your time to read it and think about what Baxter has summarised from the bible, and the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.

There will be some people reading this magazine who will not want to think about death at all. There will be some who are ill and can’t help but think about anything else. Whatever your thoughts are, it is no good to put death to the back of our minds and hope that we’ll cope with it when it comes. Most of us hope for a quick and painless death, but for many the reality is that death is a slow process. We wouldn’t hope to jump out of an aeroplane without lessons in using a parachute and dying is, in many ways, far more difficult than that. God wants us to be well prepared for the day our health begins to fail and so I hope Baxter gives you the same confidence he has given me.

May God bless us


Directions for a Peaceful Death by Richard Baxter
(Minister of Kidderminster from 1641 aged 26 to 1660)

We desire comfort because it is pleasant, but we should also desire it because it strengthens us and helps us in our greatest duties. And when do we need comfort most? When we are sick and near death! I shall therefore give you such directions to make our departure comfortable or peaceful at the least, as well as safe.

1. I want to make this treatise short and easy to read; in order for my readers to overcome the fears of death, and get a cheerful willingness to die, I desire anyone who is sick to read over these directions.

2. Do not misunderstand sickness, as if it were a greater evil than it is; but see what a great mercy it is, that death has the perfect messenger or forerunner: that God should do so much before he takes us to him, to wean us from the world, and make us willing to be gone; that the unwilling flesh has the help of pain; and that the senses and appetite languish and decay, which once drew the mind to earthly things: and that we have so loud a call, and so great a help to true repentance and serious preparation!

3. Remember whose messenger sickness is, and who it is that calls you to die. It is he, that is the Lord of all the world, and gave us the lives which he takes from us….Our sickness and death are sent by the same love that sent us a Saviour, and sent us the powerful preachers of his word, and sent us his Spirit, and secretly and sweetly changed our hearts, and knit them to himself in love; which gave us a life of precious mercies for our souls and bodies, and has promised to give us life eternal; and shall we think, that he now intends us any harm? Cannot he turn this also to our good, as he has done many an affliction which we have complained about?

4. Look by faith to your dying, buried, risen, ascended, glorified Lord. Nothing will more powerfully overcome both the poison and the fears of death, than the believing thoughts of him that has triumphed over it.

5. Choose out some promises of God in the scriptures which are most suitable to your condition, and roll them over and over in your mind, and feed and live on them by faith. A sick man is not (usually) fit to think of very many things; and therefore two or three comfortable promises, to be still before his eyes, may be the most profitable matter of his thoughts.

6. Look up to God, who is the glory of heaven, and the light, and life, and joy of souls, and believe that you are going to see his face, and to live in the perfect, everlasting fruition of his fullest love among the glorified.

7. Look up to the blessed society of angels and saints with Christ, and remember their blessedness and joy, and that you also belong to the same society, and are going to be numbered with them.

8. So that sickness and death may be comfortable to you, as your passage to eternity, take notice of the seal and earnest of God, even the Spirit of grace which he has put into your heart. …For this is God’s mark upon his chosen and justified ones, by which they are “sealed up to the day of their redemption,” Eph. 4:33

9. Look also to the testimony of a holy life, since grace has employed you in seeking after the heavenly inheritance. It is unlawful and perilous to look after any works or righteousness of your own, so as to set it in whole or in part instead of Christ, or to ascribe to it any honour that is proper to him; as to imagine that you are innocent, or have fulfilled the law, or have made God a compensation by your merits or sufferings, for the sin you have committed; but yet you must judge yourselves on your sick beds as near as you can as God will judge you. And “he will judge every man according to his work;” and will recompense and reward men according to their works. Matt. 25:21,34, &c. “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful over a little, I will make you ruler over much. Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you —for I was hungry and you fed me,” etc.—Heb. 5:9.
10. Look for evidence of your faith in Christ as you appeal to him to acquit you from all the sin that can be charged on you; for all that believe in him are justified from all things, from which they could not be justified by the law of Moses. “There is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, that walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit,” Rom. 8:1.

11. Look back upon all the blessings and mercies of your lives, and think about where they came from and what they signify. Love tokens are to draw your hearts to him that sent them; these are dropped from heaven, to entice you there! If God has been so good to you on earth, what will he be in glory!

12. Remember (if you have attained to an old age) what a long time you have had already in the world. If you are grieved that you are mortal, then you might have grieved every day of your life; but if it be only that you die so soon, if you have lived well, you have lived long.

13. Remember that all mankind are mortal, and you are to go no other way than all that ever came into the world have gone before you (except Enoch and Elias).

14. Remember both how horrible your body is, and how great an enemy it has proved to your soul; and then you will the more patiently bear its dissolution. It is not your dwelling-house, but your tent or prison, that God is pulling down. And yet even this poor, weak body, when it is dead, shall be changed at he last “into the likeness of Christ’s glorious body, by the working of his irresistible power,” Phil. 3:20,21.

15. Remember what a world it is that you are to leave, and compare it with that which you are going to; and compare the life which is near an end, with that which you are next to enter upon. …Is this wicked world, malicious world, cruel world, implacable world, more pleasing to us, than the joy of angels, and the sight of Christ, and God himself in the majesty of his glory?

16. Settle your estates early, that worldly matters may not distract you. And if God has endowed you with riches, dispose of a due proportion to such pious or charitable uses, in which they may be most serviceable to him that gave them you.

17. If it may be, get some able, faithful guide and comforter to be with you in your sickness, to counsel you, and resolve your doubts, and pray with you, and discourse of heavenly things, when you are disabled by weakness for such exercises yourselves. Let not carnal persons disturb you with their vain babblings.

18. Be fortified against all the temptations of Satan by which he uses to assault men in their extremity: stand it out in the last conflict, and the crown is yours.

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