The Sanctity of Life

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Let me start by asking you: how valued do you feel – and what makes you feel valued?

Maybe you've been thinking about the people who love you. Or about your work – what you do that makes you feel your life is worthwhile. Or about the A and two B's (or whatever it is) that you hope your A-level examiners will value you at. Or something else.

But more and more, our society is making people feel they don't have value – because of the story it is telling about human beings – where we come from and what we are. Wind the clock back, and our society used to believe in the sanctity of life – which means the way we human beings have unique value because God made us to have a unique place in his creation. But more and more, our society is telling the story that there is no God and that we're each nothing but a bunch of chemicals thrown together by evolution. So one writer says:

"What is a human being? The answer is: fat enough to make 7 bars of soap, iron enough to make one nail, sugar enough for 7 cups of tea, lime enough to whitewash one garden shed, magnesium enough for one dose of salts, phosphorus enough to tip 2,000 matches, and sulphur enough to treat one dog for fleas."

Which at today's prices has been estimated at £43. That's your value. But most people still believe deep down that we're more than that. And the Bible says: that deep-down intuition is right. And to see where it comes from, let's turn first of all in the Bible to Genesis chapter 1 and we'll ask the question:

1. What does the Bible say about human life?

So in Genesis 10.26-27, after the creation of everything up to animal life, we're told:

"Then God said, "Let us make man [which means mankind, men and women] in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion [in other words, rule] over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth."
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them."

So we humans are unique because we were made to be God's image. So, for example, I could show you a photo – an image – of my children. An image is something that represents the original, and the photo would give you some idea what the originals are like. But it wouldn't be a great image because my children are living people, whereas a photographic image isn't. But, Genesis 1 says we are the living, personal image of God, made to represent him. So the idea is that if you're living how God wants you to, other people will see in you something of what God is like. That involves us being able to relate to God, and able to understand what's right and wrong in his eyes. So that's how God made us – as spiritual and moral beings. That makes us uniquely different: we may share 98% of our genes with chimpanzees, but we're not just souped-up monkeys. We're uniquely different. That is why we've been to the moon, whereas they never will.

And that's why God values human life uniquely and calls us to respect and protect it. So let's turn on to Genesis chapter 9. This is after sin has entered the picture, when human beings will be tempted to kill other human beings who get in the way of their plans or corss their wills. So in Genesis 9.6, God says:

"Whoever sheds the blood of man,by man shall his blood be shed,for God made man in his own image." [And again, 'man' means mankind, men and women.]

So God values human life so highly that he even sanctions the death penalty for those who take it. I won't unpack that issue – but just look at the end of verse 6: why is human life so valued? The answer is:

"for… God made man in his own image."

That means he sees any assault on your life as an assault on him. It's like if you're a parent in the park and another kid hits your child, you see and feel that as something done against you – because your children are yours, bound up with you. And that's how God sees human beings, which is why the sanctity of life is then enshrined in the Ten Commandments, where God says:

"You shall not murder." (Exodus 20.13)

In other words, 'You shall not intentionally kill an innocent fellow-human.' Well, let's turn to one more place for what the Bible says about human life – Psalm 139, where David, the writer, is talking about his relationship with God. And, verses 1-2, he says to God:

"O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar."

So God knows all about us, even what we're thinking, which if you look at verse 7 makes David ask God,

"Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?"

In other words, is there any place I can go where God isn't there and isn't relating to me and involved in my life? And the answer is, 'No.' And David then thinks back to being in his mother's womb and wonders, 'Was God even there, relating to him and involved in his unborn life?' And the answer is, 'Yes.' Look on to verses 13-16:

"For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
[Which of course is picture language, not to be taken literally.]
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;"

Now they didn't know all the science we know. But they knew something. And the original word for 'unformed substance' is the one they used for the early, unformed foetus – as opposed to the word they used for the more developed unborn child. Then read on in verse 16:

"in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them."

So David is saying that God's relating to him and involvement in his life went all the way back to the womb – and, by implication, to his conception. And he's saying that even then, God had a plan and purpose for every day of his life to come. And the same can be said of each of us.

So the Bible says: we each have value because of what we are – namely, individually made by God in his image. Whereas our society often says: we only have value because of what we do – so that the less we can do, the less value we have. That's why special needs or disabled or elderly people can feel so unvalued – or even threatened – in our society.

And when it comes to unborn children, our society says: they only have value if their parents place value on them. So, for example, Tess and I had twins first time round. And in antenatal classes, our twins' midwife took us round the special care baby unit in case we ended up needing it. And it was amazing to see these premature little ones being cared for. But this midwife was also a Christian, and she said to me, "The tragedy is that just the other side of that wall, they're getting rid of babies the same age as these – the only difference is whether the parents value them or not." But the Bible says God values all human life, so we should respect and protect it as intrinsically valuable. So we each have God-given value.

And the Bible also says we each have God-given purpose. We all share corporately in the purpose of imaging God – and God has a unique plan for the part we'll each play in that individually. So for example, friends of mine have two daughters, the second of whom has Down's Syndrome. It was a huge shock to them and took a lot of adjusting to, but Helen, the Mum, once said to me, "I wouldn't swap Emma for anything, because she's so remarkably loving, and God has used her to draw out of us a more unconditional love than I ever thought we were capable of." In other words, we're imaging God together in a way we wouldn't have done if Emma hadn't been the way she is. So having seen something of what the Bible says about human life, the next question is:

2. How does this apply to the beginning of life?

Now this is where we have to touch on abortion, which I realise will be part of some people's experience, here. So the first thing to say is that if you've not yet discovered that God can forgive everything – including abortion – through Jesus, then you need to know that he can – and wants to. And if you have discovered that, you need to keep trusting that it is forgiven through Jesus' death on the cross, just like all the other sins of all your fellow-sinners here. We're all on level ground here – we may have sinned differently, but the point is we're all sinners who've sinned.

So having said that, we need to ask: how should we view the embryo or foetus and so how should we treat it? And, as you know, some people want to say it's not until some later stage that we should treat the unborn child as actually human, with the respect and protection that calls for. But biologically, the great step-change at which a genetically new individual starts life is the point of conception. And after that there are no comparable step-changes – just the continual development of that same individual. And Biblically, the passages we've seen – and others we haven't (e.g. Psalm 51.5, Isaiah 49.1, Jeremiah 1.5, Luke 1.39-45, Galatians 1.15) – point the same way: that the life of a human individual starts at conception, and so should be respected and protected from conception.

So one crucial question of care is: how can we help people continue with unwanted pregnancies? Well, one thing is to talk about the unborn child as a human being. When people feel abortion is the only way out, they can tell themselves it's something less – but deep down they know that's not true, and we can help strengthen that deep down conviction and encourage them to act on it. But the main thing is to understand what makes them feel that abortion is the only way out – and to offer real help. So in one survey, the three main reasons people gave for considering abortion were:

  • Lack of confidence that they could cope and be a mother
  • Fear of having no support
  • Pressure from others not to have the baby

So if we're close to someone in that position, they need to hear us offering real help in the face of those things. And one small part of that help might be to encourage them to use the Tyneside Pregnancy Advice Centre, which we and other churches support. You might like to know about that centre for yourself. Or you might like to ask about helping in it. And there's information about it in the Resources Area at the back of church.

So, abortion is to take human life – which we should not. There are hard and rare situations where the mother's life is in danger because of the pregnancy, when it's legitimate to judge it necessary to end the unborn child's life to save hers. But that's not intending to cause death. It's a decision, given that death will happen, about who will die, and with the intention of saving one life.

But as well as unwanted pregnancy, there's also the issue of problems in wanted pregnancy. And the culture of antenatal screening is making that more of an issue. So, for example, I remember at the scans on our twins being asked if we wanted the nuchal test. That picks up Down's Syndrome – although, like all tests it's inaccurate and 1 in 20 indicate Down's when the baby is fine. And I said, 'No, we don't want it, because it wouldn't make any difference to what we do – we believe we're to care for whatever children we're given.' And I wondered if the sonographer would think we were naïve, or even irresponsible. But she said, 'I'm always glad when parents say that.' But there will be more pressure on parents and medics to do more tests and to abort more babies with problems (including relatively minor problems). But we need to accept the mystery – and it is a mystery – that God's plan does include babies – and then children and adults – with difficulties and disabilities and diseases; and that somehow that does help us together to image God in ways we couldn't otherwise have done.

Now again, there are unimaginably hard situations. One is told in a remarkable book called 'The Shaming Of The Strong' by Sarah Williams. Her unborn little girl had a condition which meant she couldn't survive birth, but Sarah and her husband Paul believed God wanted them to continue the pregnancy, and leave it in his hands. And here's what Sarah wrote, addressed to their little girl, at the funeral for her:

"I am so grateful to you for giving me a glimpse of the nature of God's love. There was nothing you had to do to earn my love. I didn't require anything of you – even your physical normality. Your worth was written into your being from the first moment of your existence. Your value was not measured by your usefulness, nor was your identity composed of achievements or experience. Thank you for helping me hear an echo of God's eternal love for us. You whispered that message in the secret place, but I will shout it out in a world afflicted by activity, obsessed with strength, afraid of weakness, outraged by deformity and afraid of death. You were precious because you were created and given as a gift. I honour you and all your life has been."

Let me just mention some other implications of believing that the life of a human individual starts at conception:

  • One is that we won't use contraceptives that are in fact contra-the embryo – acting after fertilisation, rather than preventing it.
  • Another is that we'll seriously question the use of creating embryos for fertility treatment at all, and that we'll only favour fertility treatment that creates no surplus or stored embryos.
  • And another is that we'll disagree with research on human embryos which results in their destruction – for example, to take stem cells for treating disease. As a matter of fact, the only successful treatments so far have come from adult stem cells. So in my view it is perverse that the UK has liberalised human embryo stem cell research when it has provided no proven treatments at all.

Then lastly let's ask,

3. How does this apply to the end of life?

Just look at Psalm 139, verse 16 again:

"Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them."

So God had a plan for every day of David's life to come – including when and how his last day would come. The Bible says God is in control of everything – from our conception to our death, from the giving of our lives, to his taking of us back to himself. Whereas more and more, our society is saying: 'Look, there is no God to be in control – so we should take control of our own lives – of our own morality, and even of our own deaths.' That is the thinking behind the call for euthanasia and assisted suicide. And, as with people considering abortion, we need to understand what makes people think of ending their lives. One palliative care doctor mentions four main things:

  • Fear of pain
  • Fear of indignity
  • Fear of dependence
  • The social pressure not to be a burden

And on that last one, he writes, 'Perhaps the greatest pressure on the sick, disabled and elderly is the secular idea that there is a life not worthy of being lived.' Whereas the Bible tells us that our value is in what we are, not in what we can do; and that part of our share in the human purpose of imaging God may be, at certain times, to be a significant burden for the love of others to rise to and carry. And let's face it, to some extent, we're all burdens all the time to those around us. That's not just the life of a baby or someone with dementia. That's life. And it's the end of life.

So the application to the end of life is that we're not to try to take control of our own deaths through euthanasia or assisted suicide – control of the timing of our lives and deaths is God's territory.

But on the other hand, we're not to try to stay alive ourselves, or keep others alive, at all costs, with treatment where the burdens outweigh the benefits. There are times when it's legitimate to withdraw or to turn down treatment. But that is not on the basis that 'this life is not worth living'. Rather, it's on the basis that 'this treatment isn't worth giving' – because its burdens outweigh the benefits. Now that makes for agonisingly hard decisions, especially when they're on behalf of others – like baby Charlie Gard who has been in the news. But for others we love, and ultimately for ourselves, there will come the point where we need to recognise and accept that the process of dying has now come – and that any medical treatment isn't going to arrest that process, but is simply going to manage it.

So for example, the senior minister of my last church was Mark Ashton. He was diagnosed with cancer too late for treatment, and told he might live another 6 to 9 months. And during that time he wrote this booklet, 'On My Way To Heaven', in which he said:

"I do not think it… wrong to seek healing, but I have not particularly wanted that… I have not wanted expensive courses of chemotherapy that for me could have promised only an extra few months of life at best. Here is one area… where Christians have a wonderful opportunity to stand out… from our culture. Our contemporaraies are obsessed with healing and the extension of physical life at all costs. What a pity when we Christians imitate them in that!"

Conclusion

The sanctity of life is a huge topic – which means there's plenty I've not said. But it's also an intensely personal topic – which is why I've majored on the personal rather than the political. But it is a massive political issue for our society. So:

  • We need to work for change to the Abortion law – now being operated as abortion on demand, which was not its original intention.
  • We need to work against the creation of modified human embryos.
  • We need to oppose the legalising of euthanasia and assisted suicide.
  • We need to preserve the Hippocratic ideal that medics should do nothing to harm or take life.
  • And we need to work for the conscientious convictions of medics to be respected.

To equip yourself more on all this, there are various resources:

On the Christian Institute website you'll find very helpful, short articles on the sanctity of life, abortion, euthanasia and much more. The Care Not Killing website will tell you about that organisation, which aims to promote palliative care and oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide. I've mentioned the Tyneside Pregnancy Advice Centre. And two good reads – and I think must-reads for medics – are: 'Matters of Life and Death' by John Wyatt and 'Fearfully And Wonderfully Made' by Megan Best.

But the big lesson this morning is that we're worth infinitely more than that £43 list of chemicals we began with. Because each of us has been individually created by God to relate to him and to play our part in imaging him. Which means that whatever value others place on you, you can echo Psalm 139 – even as a person whose mind and body is marked by the fall – and say to the Lord,

"I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made."

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