Perspectives

Life, suffering and dignity: An interview with Kara Tippetts

Assisted suicide is another moral issue in the headlines, notably in Oregon.

Last week Brittany Maynard, the young California woman who’d moved to Oregon after being diagnosed with stage four cancer, kept her promise to end her own life with a physician’s assistance. Many voices had publically urged her not to go through with the procedure, but an equally vocal group of observers supported her decision, believing suicide to be a more dignified way to die than the drawn-out suffering of terminal cancer.

Kara Tippetts was one of the voices exhorting Brittany to reconsider, writing her a tender open letter that’s since gone viral. Kara urged Brittany and others considering suicide to realize that every moment of life is precious and worth living, despite pain and suffering. And as a stage four cancer patient herself [and a mother of four], Kara knows what she’s talking about.

She and her husband, Jason, have been through the ringer in the last few years. Moving to Colorado Springs to plant a church, they quickly found themselves facing medical crises and a wildfire that nearly destroyed their home. And then came Kara’s cancer diagnosis. Doctors immediately began a course of chemotherapy and performed a double mastectomy. Unfortunately, it did little to slow her cancer.

But Kara’s heart was in ministry, so instead of keeping her struggles to herself, she started a blog, “Mundane Faithfulness,” to encourage others in similar situations along with the broader public to see God’s love and hand in the midst of suffering. She didn’t expect her blog to become so popular so fast, but as her story continued to touch new audiences, she decided to chronicle the lessons God had taught her in a book, “The Hardest Peace.”

Kara says that though living with a terminal diagnosis is trying for her and her family, the knowledge that God walks with them in Christ sustains her. For Christians, it’s possible to find beauty in brokenness, and that’s the message Kara has for her readers, whether they expect to live decades or days.

Her open letter to Maynard certainly stirred strong feelings on both sides. But the negative reactions in particular shocked her.

“People are so angry about my letter to her. [They say] ‘How dare you? Let her live her story, you’re living your story!’ We love independence in our culture. And how dare we enter each others’ stories in any way, and give an opinion or ask something hard of somebody?”

After hearing some of the reactions to Kara’s message, it’s easy to worry about the direction our society is headed. What’s behind the animus? Why will so many defend a decision to embrace death, even when faced with someone like Kara, who understands the inevitability of death better than most?

“I think people are afraid of the beauty of suffering,” she says. “I’m afraid of it! And yet I know there’s beauty there. I said that to my oldest daughter once: ‘I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but I know your story is going to be made beautiful by walking me through my death.’ And I don’t say that glibly, I don’t say that without knowing that it’s going to be a huge heartbreak in the life of my family. But their tender care of me will grow some empathy and compassion in them that will be stunning—stunning to behold. I’m just sad I won’t be there to see it.”

Our fear of suffering might distort out view of assisted suicide, but there are compelling secular reasons to oppose the practice, says Kara. You don’t have to be a Christian to understand the distorting influence killing could have on medicine. As professor Ira Byock from Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine wrote in “The New York Times” recently, assisted suicide has a chilling track record where it’s already been tried. In countries like the Netherlands, the “right to die with dignity,” has very quickly become a “duty to die with dignity,” and the choice of some to end their lives prematurely has put immense pressure on those who feel differently.

“We’re walking away from the [deposit] of grace that is the Hippocratic Oath that’s been in place in the medical community for over 2,000 years. And it’s quite arrogant of our culture to think, ‘no, we know better.’ But the brokenness that would come in our relationships with our doctors if we legislate death would be staggering…Suicide will always be with us. But having doctors prescribe it is a depravity we’re not ready for.”

Christians understand that suffering is as much a part of human life as joy. And if we refuse to look for the beauty in suffering, cutting short lives we consider no longer worth living, we rob ourselves of God’s best work in our lives.

“We are to walk with suffering, and not hasten death,” says Kara. “We’ve bought the lie that suffering is a mistake. But…it’s the corner where you see how absolutely needy you are for Jesus, and that neediness is a good thing. The broken places in our life are the places that really draw us close to God. And we’re not to walk through those places alone, we’re to do it in community.”

That’s why Kara’s message to Brittany Maynard was as much an offer of the Gospel as an argument against choosing suicide. “My heart is that Brittany would change her mind and my heart is that she’d know she is loved. And I really asked her to consider, ‘who is this Jesus?’ before she makes any decision.”

Kara asks the same of all those who’s considering throwing away God’s gift of life—a gift that even in spite of suffering, is worth cherishing until God’s appointed end. Brittany Maynard made her choice, but Christians shouldn’t be afraid to recognize it as the wrong choice. And loving those in our own lives who face the prospect of pain or death is the best way to show the world why there’s no such thing as a life not worth living.

We hope you’ll visit Kara’s blog, “Mundane Faithfulness,” and check out her book, “The Hardest Peace.” We also hope you’ll join us in praying for her and her family, as well as others seeking peace and hope in the midst of suffering.

John Stonestreet

 

— by John Stonestreet

Stonestreet is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and is heard on Breakpoint, a radio commentary that is broadcast on 400 stations with an audience of eight million. Copyright© 2014 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries

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