Palliative Christianity

English is a rich and nuanced language.  It has an uncanny ability to describe things with surgical precision.  Yet like many powerful tools, we rarely use it to its fullest.   For example, while the thesaurus — a Greek word for treasure box, not a prehistoric reptile — has a vast array of words to describe every conceivable affection we might have, we use the word “love” for them all.  We love our wife and children and we love our fried chicken, yet those “loves” are quite different.  Many powerfully precise words are used copiously and carelessly.  In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word.  I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

As the debate over end of life issues spills over from the ivory tower of medical ethicists to culture at large, the word “palliative” has become part of our everyday vocabulary.   “Palliative care” is one of those highly charged phrases used by a wide range of people to mean a wide range of things.   According to the dictionary, to palliate means to “make (a disease or its symptoms) less severe or unpleasant without removing the cause.”   In layman’s terms this means “comfort care.”

I am a strong supporter of hospice care.  When no curative option remains for a terminal diagnosis, “comfort care” is life-extending care.  Palliative care harmonizes perfectly with the answer to the Shorter Catechism’s question, “What is required in the Sixth Commandment? The Sixth Commandment requireth all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life, and the life of others.”  For a great discussion of this issue from a Reformed perspective let me recommend Christopher Bogosh’s Compassionate Jesus.

As a hospice chaplain, I have encountered many who view palliative care as tantamount to either medical neglect or euthanasia.  But the hard truth is that medical science cannot stop death.  The Scripture reminds us that everyone will face death. “It is appointed unto man once to die and then to face the judgement.”  Medical technology has allowed us to extend life, but not indefinitely.  There are times when palliative care is the most life-extending and life-choosing thing we can do.  And it is not predicated on the false, unbiblical dichotomy that pits “quality of life” against “quantity of life.”  Palliative care is based God’s command for Christians to exercise compassion and care to the sick and the dying.

But with that said, there is an area where palliative care is never appropriate.  And that is in regard to a diagnosis of eternal death because of sin.  God is indeed a God of comfort, but his greatest comfort is the comfort of the gospel, the healing balm of Gilead, which is offered to all as the curative answer to our sin and misery.  When it comes to eternal life and eternal death, palliative spiritual care — an attempt to “make our sin-sickness less severe or unpleasant without removing the cause” — is the most uncompassionate, hateful, and uncaring care we can offer.   God’s comfort in the gospel comes by way of the means of our discomfort with our sin.  The prophet Hosea calls us.

Come, let us return to the Lord;
    for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
    he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.  Hosea 6:1

To offer palliative care for the sin sick soul is indeed spiritual neglect and “mal-thanasia.”   Yet this is exactly what the prophets and priests, the pastors and elders, of Jeremiah’s day were doing – offering palliative care, saying “Peace, peace” when there was no peace, with men or with God.  Twice, Jeremiah points the prophetic finger at these hireling shepherds.

They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
    saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
    when there is no peace.  Jeremiah 8:12

The shepherds were offering comfort care — palliative Christianity — when curative care was at hand.  And the people had become comfortably numb.  The prophet is astonished that while even the animals are responsive to God’s sovereign design, His people persistently resist His grace and have become “numb and number.”   What type of care are you seeking for the terminal diagnosis of sin?  Have you sought to the certain cure of God’s grace and mercy through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ?  Or have you enrolled in palliative Christianity that affirms and confirms that your sin is not really a problem and that everything we be just fine?  Are you becoming numb and number?

Join us this Sunday, September 1 as we consider from Jeremiah 8:4-22 the terminal dangers of becoming numb to our spiritual condition.  We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock.  Click here for directions. Come with a friend and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there