Rejecting Medical Care

By Beth Hyduke

Many people find themselves in the unenviable position of trying to make a decision between doctors' professional recommendations for treatments — say, for cancer — and their own peace of mind, physical stamina, and quality of life. When making such a decision, I think it's necessary to remember that any treatment a doctor recommends does not come with any guarantees that it will be effective in the long run, or even that in the short-term it will not further compound or add to the host of symptoms the patient is already experiencing.

On a purely personal note, I have seen invasive cancer treatments fail to do much if anything at all to keep cancer from aggressively metastasizing, while other patients who have come to grips with dying rather than face the wear and tear of ongoing treatments, have been startled to later discover that in the absence of treatment, their cancer spontaneously, and medically inexplicably, went into remission.

From a practical standpoint, the bottom line is that we do not definitively know that treatments will work, nor do we definitively know that refusing treatments will result in an expedient release of a natural death.

While the best, most conservative doctor out there makes a plan of treatment based on their qualifications, expertise, and experience, it is still a speculative recommendation from a fallible person who is unable to see into the future. A doctor's recommendation for treatment might be a sound, well-intentioned speculation, but it is still a speculation. On the other hand, the negative side effects of cancer treatments are themselves dauntingly numerous, debilitating, and unpleasant.

For most cancer patients, then, the question really becomes: does the potential benefit of cancer treatment outweigh the known drawbacks of cancer treatment, and does it outweigh it enough to justify the additional suffering that will be incurred by the treatments themselves? Of course, as a Christian believer, there's another, more important dynamic to all this other than just a practical one. When your personal preference is to forego or opt out of cancer treatments that are available and recommended to you by your team of healthcare professionals, would it be morally wrong to indulge that preference?

When Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:8 that believers "would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord," he was echoing a preference and a yearning common to all Christians, especially those facing deep affliction and suffering in this life (Numbers 11:14-15; Job 6:8-9; 7:15-16; Jonah 4:3, 8). There is nothing abnormal or immoral in sharing in this desire. It is completely natural, justifiable, and rational for a Christian to want to leave this present world of pain, sin, and suffering, because we view death as a door that leads us home to be reunited with Christ, in whose Heaven pain, sin, and suffering are no longer experiential realities (Isaiah 51:11; Revelation 21:4). That is why Paul writes that for the Christian laboring in this lifetime, death means an appreciable advancement (Philippians 1:21).

At the same time, the Bible strenuously upholds the sanctity of life. The repeated pattern in the Scriptures teaches that we are barred from actively engaging in the self-serving destruction of human life, but the Bible gives no instructions, explicitly or implicitly, that Christians must exhaust every available resource and course of treatment in attempting to prolong it, either. A Christian who opts out of cancer treatments their doctor advises is choosing to forego the advice of another human being who is paid to share their knowledge and special expertise; but the patient would not be guilty of actively accelerating their own demise, or violating the sanctity of their life. Rather, instead of deferring to an expert's opinion, they would be deferring to the natural course of events. This leaves their fate in God's hands — ironically, no more or less than someone who chooses to pursue all available cancer treatment options — because it is not the treatments or the medical advice that are inerrant and sovereign but God's will and timing.

With treatment or without treatment, the fate of every cancer patient and every person is ultimately determined by God who controls life, death, and everything in between. Over the expert opinions of the doctors, the preferences of the patient, the effectiveness of cancer treatments, and even over cancer and ultimately death itself, God sovereignly rules — and overrules — in order to accomplish His will and the ultimate good of His people (Isaiah 46:9-10; Romans 8:28).

There is nothing morally wrong, in our present age of technology with its abundance of available medical advancements and treatment options, with making a reasoned, conscious decision to either pursue or decline cancer treatment options. Neither is it immoral to prefer to die a natural death — but our own preferences, wishes, and wills must always be in submission to God's greater will for us. Our attitude towards our own suffering and death must echo Christ's when He agonized, "Father, if You are willing, take this cup from Me; yet not My will but Yours be done" (Luke 22:42). Finally, we must recognize that life is divinely given and therefore always inviolable; desperately trying to stave off death at all costs or seeking to end one's life prematurely are both forms of usurping the authority and the dominion of God.

From a Christian perspective, the purpose of medicine, hospitals, doctors, nurses, and cancer treatments is not to ultimately prevent physical death, which is inevitable for all of us if Jesus postpones His return (Hebrews 9:27), but to combat, and as much as it is able to do so, to limit the negative effects of the Fall such as illness, disability, pain, and suffering. Faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to pursue aggressive treatment for an aggressive cancer, the conscientious Christian will prayerfully weigh practical considerations in light of uncompromisable moral truth to determine what is the best option for their unique situation, understanding that while Christians remain here in this world, God fully intends for them to be here, and that means that they are still divinely and purposefully called to be here.

Throughout my professional career as an RN, many patients have expressed to me that their cancer diagnosis feels like a death sentence. Relevantly, 2 Corinthians 1:9 iterates, "We felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead." John Piper, pastor, theologian, and cancer survivor, writes:
The aim of God in your cancer (among a thousand other good things) is to knock props out from under our hearts so that we rely utterly on Him...Satan's and God's designs in your cancer are not the same. Satan designs to destroy your love for Christ. God designs to deepen your love for Christ. Cancer does not win if you die. It wins if you fail to cherish Christ.
Unlike unbelievers who have no hope in Christ and for whom a cancer diagnosis is very much like a death sentence, Christians can prosper and flourish spiritually even under the shadow of cancer and physical death because Jesus is our light (2 Corinthians 4:4-6), our hope (1 Timothy 4:10), and our comfort (Psalm 23:4).

Image Credit: Stephen Dickter; "More chemo"; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Christian-Life  | Controversial-Issues  | Eternity-Forever  | Hardships  | Health-Wellness

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Published on 3-14-16