I’ve been hesitant to jump back into blogging. Since I’m essentially retiring from active ministry, I just wasn’t sure what my first step back into the fray ought to be. Long ago, I posted above my desk St. Paul’s commitment from 1 Corinthians 9:16, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” This has been my commitment for the past 45+ years. So what now?
Then this morning I read the following article in the Wall Street Journal:
FDA Increasingly Halting Human Trials as Companies Pursue Risky, Cutting-Edge Drugs: Agency places more holds on trials to protect patients, ensure studies are designed properly, Wall Street Journal review finds: The Food and Drug Administration is pressing pause on drug-company testing of experimental medicines more often, a side effect of the industry’s move into promising but less-proven technologies. … The agency halted clinical trials for experimental drugs an average of 664 times each year from 2017 to 2021, up from 557 each of the previous five years, according to the review of agency data. Through mid-December last year, the FDA had placed 747 of the holds. … The FDA saw a 43% increase in the number of requests for permission to conduct clinical trials using experimental drugs from 2014 to 2021, according to the analysis of agency data. It saw a 66% increase in clinical holds during that time.”
We’re entering the third year of the Covid infestation of our world, and the controversy continues over whether all of us, not just us older folk but even our young children, should be guinea pigs for the government and drug companies pressing us to submit to “experimental … promising but less-proven technologies”. Please pause and consider this: last year the FDA put over 700 clinical trials for experimental drugs on hold. Doesn’t that seem like an amazingly high number? And how many clinical trials for experimental drugs were approved? And the number gets increasingly larger every year! When I say all this, I’m not just being a stubborn curmudgeon, but a concerned citizen who, “following the science”, recognizes that there are many reputable mixed-reports on the effectiveness and side-effects of the present entourage of vaccines and experimental drugs.
Exponentially, over the past two centuries, our technological world has grown obsessed with ending suffering and delaying death as long as possible. Certainly we all are thankful for the medicines and surgical procedures that have alleviated pain and suffering, and freed us from debilitating diseases, like polio and bubonic plague, so that we could live productive, pleasant, and happy lives, with our parents, siblings, children, grand-children, and friends.
But, as with the use of all technologies, there is a very elusive fine-line that mysteriously always tends to progress forward, increasing our expectations and demands for an ever more pain free and longer life. And if people can’t be freed from suffering or if their lives are cut short by anything other than “old age”, we have a growing feeling that they’ve somehow been robbed of the long, pain free life to which everyone has a right!
And what have our increasingly pain free and longer lives acquired for us? Have we become more enriched, more productive, more joyful, less anxious, and, most importantly, more Christlike? Has enabling humanity to live longer, more pain free lives led to more spiritually holy, service minded—others centered—people? And to a nation more free of violence, sin, greed, and debauchery?
The gospel, as given to us by Jesus, calls His followers to accept suffering as a normal part of life—a life in this world that is only temporary, for we are not citizens of this world but of the next. As Jesus said in His exposition of the new Law, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth … but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-20).
Our hearts are to be focused and attached, not on things of this temporary, fallen world, but on those things that prepare us, in this short life, for life in the next. We are in fact to be willing to freely give up this life if necessary for a friend: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). We even hear St. Paul, maybe the key interpreter of Christ’s Gospel, expressing his personal struggle over whether he should grasp tightly to whatever remaining life he might have, or let go so that he might go on to be with his Lord (cf. Philippians 1:21-26).
In the writings of Jesus’ apostles, we learn repeatedly that accepting suffering and death—accepting the cross—are a necessary part of growing in holiness: “Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:2-5).
So what should a Christian do? Should we, like the rest of our culture, merely accept all “experimental … promising but less-proven technologies” as God’s providential care for the avoidance of pain and suffering, and presume that the resultant elongation of life is God’s will for us all? Or are there times we should cautiously step back, and resist this ever-present pressure? Are there times when we should instead reject the experimental and technological promises of the world, and accept whatever pain and suffering might come, trusting that somehow this might be exactly what God is calling us to accept, even if it might lead to death?
This, of course, has been a long-standing debate, and generally those promoting medical care and treatment have won the day. No complaints here, except to point out the great extent to which the age-old proverbial “frog in the pot” analogy applies. As a culture, western civilization has “evolved” over the past two centuries to expect and demand more freedom from pain and suffering and longer lives than any of our ancestors ever imagined. In fact, the growth of the drug and medical industry, intent on eliminating pain and suffering, even death itself, is considered one of the highest achievements of our advanced technological Age.
In my opinion, however, parallel to the modern false gospel of “saving Mother Earth”—actually saving the earth from the unfortunate disease of Mankind—the obsessive elimination of pain, suffering, even death, has become the sister false gospel for millions of people around the world. Far too many of the most ancient and largest Christian churches now place an equal if not greater emphasis upon the alleviation of pain and suffering than they do upon the salvation of souls. The focus has gradually shifted from preparing for a bountiful life in God’s Beatific heaven to living a bountiful, pain free, long and productive life in the here and now: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21).
The decision concerning to what extent a person should take drugs or submit to expensive and burdensome surgical procedures to alleviate pain, to ease suffering, to avoid debilitating diseases, or to prolong life, has to be a personal decision. And don’t get me wrong, I‘m grateful for the medical care, drugs, and surgical procedures that have got me to this stage in life—and for the antacids that continue to manage my daily rebellious digestion! But the question arises: if our acceptance of pain and suffering is somehow a necessary step along the path of spiritual conversion—a discipline of patience, empowered by grace, to help us grow in the holiness that is necessary for our eventual entrance into the presence of God—how are you doing? If death snuck up on you tonight, robbing you of that long pain-free life you think you deserve, would you be ready to face God without embarrassment, without shame and regret? Would He know you? (See Matthew 7:21-23) If you are reading this, then to some extent, God has given you sufficient life to prepare yourself for one day standing before Him. Have you made good use of this time—not just by accepting suffering as one of the steps towards growing in holiness, but by dedicating your life to loving God as well as your neighbor—or have you squandered the gift of life?
The beauty of God’s mercy, like the father of the prodigal son, is that He always offers us a chance to start over. The conditions under which this can happen, however, are both very simple, yet very demanding—so demanding, that they require the surrender of every aspect of our lives, for the rest of our lives, no matter how long or short. This is what it means to have faith in God. And for this and many other reasons, the vast majority of humanity chooses instead to sedate and medicate their lives with every imaginable pain-relieving and pleasure producing drug, distraction, or entertainment, to avoid the sacrifices necessary for obtaining entrance into God’s presence. What better reason to put off death as long as possible, then to radically change one’s lifestyle according to someone else’s standards, rather then our own?
“Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord“ (Hebrews 12:12-14).
Every day, every priest, bishop, and religious in the Catholic Church are required to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. This begins with the Invitatory, which normally includes reading Psalm 95. This familiar psalm includes the following warning: “For forty years I loathed that generation and said, ‘They are a people who err in heart, and they do not regard my ways.’ Therefore I swore in my anger that they should not enter my rest” (Psalms 95:10-11). Most of us Americans live far more than forty years. Do we take this additional time to eliminate the extent to which we, either consciously or unconsciously, “err in heart “? Or to what extent, by grace, have we instead grown to faithfully “regard his ways”? And when all is added up, should He allow us to enter into His rest?
If by God’s mercy He has allowed us the gift of life, with less pain and suffering, even longer lives than any of our ancestors, should we not see this as His merciful gift of time, to allow us to turn our lives around, away from our myriad paths of rebellion, back into His righteous path by grace through faith in Christ? We really have no excuse, especially because anyone reading this has not only been given the gift of more time, but the gift to understand what God is expecting of us, to recognize our own pervasive failings, and to understand what Christ has done, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
And lest we think this is merely something we are to gratefully consider from afar, St. Paul introduced this statement by exhorting you and me to “have this mind among yourselves” (Philippians 2:5a). As Christ accepted pain, suffering, and death for us, we are to imitate Him, by accepting pain, suffering, even death for Him, and for one another. Lord, by Your grace, help us.