Suffering Together

There is within Christianity a general expectation that life on earth entails suffering, and in special ways, for Christians. Beyond the suffering that results from persecution, a suffering that persists, for example, in China, the Sudan, and Indonesia even as I write, there is the suffering that accompanies compassion that takes the form of suffering with and taking on the burdens of others. One of the most dramatic instances in which followers of Jesus are called upon to suffer in this way occurs in the garden of Gethsemane just before Jesus is arrested and the day before he is crucified. Jesus has his disciples with him in the garden and, after asking the others to sit down, he takes three of them, Peter, James, and John, aside. As the story is recorded in the Gospel of Mark, he tells those three disciples: "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. . .Stay here and watch" (16:3-4, NIV). Then, going a little further into the garden,

Jesus, fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. Abba, Father, he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me, yet not what I will, but what you will." Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. "Simon," he said to Peter, "are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptations. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak." Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. When he came back, he again found them sleeping because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him. Returning the third time, he said to them, "Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come, Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!" (Mark 16: 35-42, NIV)

I agree with John Kilner's comments on this passage when he writes:
The suffering of Jesus portrayed here is about as intense as suffering gets. He is "overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death." His response is to recognize suffering for the evil that it is and to voice His desire to escape it. Yet, He acknowledges a more important agenda--God's agenda--which He is committed to follow no matter how great the suffering must be endured.

Kilner depicts Jesus, in these respects, as a model for how Christians should avoid any temptation to request physician assisted suicide when they are enduring suffering at the end of their lives because choosing to live is in accord with God's agenda. Without discouraging any Christian from deriving comfort from Jesus as a model of one who is willing to suffer when it is essential to accomplishing God's purposes, I would like to emphasize that one can fulfill God's purposes simply by refusing to ask for PAS or euthanasia, even if what one does request is to spend one's very last days heavily sedated. This too, is a witness to the incalculable worth of life, and as Pope John Paul II indicated, no moral imperative heroically to endure severe pain should be imposed by the followers of Jesus.

But this description of the enormous suffering Jesus experienced in anticipation of the torturous death to come does contain an important moral imperative. Jesus expected his followers to be in prayer with him, and be a companion to him while he was suffering. And he sought of his followers companionship. In short, followers of Jesus owe compassion to those who suffer. What happened in the garden of Gethsemane contains a very urgent message for all those who are attending the sick and the dying: Do not abandon the suffering; pray with them and for them; do not shun the suffering any of us feel when we are present to those who are physically diminished and suffering in any way. Suffering in this manner is not an evil to be avoided. Rather it is what inevitably will occur in a world in which physical deterioration, dying, and death is a reality, and everyone, Christians and all others, have a moral responsibility to practice the kind of compassion that will cause suffering to anyone who provides care for those who are suffering. Indeed, as human beings we will suffer some or at least be saddened even by thinking about or praying for people whose suffering is such that we would rather not think about it at all.

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from the Center book Life's Worth: The Case Against Assisted Suicide by Arthur J. Dyck.