We are not our own

Dennis Sullivan, a physician and bioethicist, is director of the Center for Bioethics at Cedarville University in Ohio. He comments on bioethical news at BioEthics.com.

Brian Green had been the pastor of a small Baptist church for 12 years. He and his wife, Judy, were looking forward to their first grandchild. Then came the sudden news: Judy had stage four ovarian cancer. The prognosis was poor, but exploratory surgery and chemotherapy might extend her life by a year or more.

Judy was not interested. She rejected surgery or chemo, saying, "God is in control; I'm going to heaven."

Distraught over her decision, Brian came to me for advice. How should he respond?

From an ethics perspective, the answer was simple. Make sure that Judy did not have a treatable depression and that her decision-making capacity was intact. Ultimately, competent patients have the right to make their own decisions, including refusing treatment.

However, from a spiritual perspective, things are a bit more complex. First Corinthians 3:16-17 tells us that our bodies are God's temples and that God's Spirit dwells in us. We may not destroy God's temple, for it is sacred. The epistle later reminds us, "You are not your own; you were bought at a price" (6:19-20).

It is easy to say, "God is in control." But how does that guide us at the end of life? Paul gives a hint in his letter to the Philippians: "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain …. I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue ...

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