The Presbyterian Pulpit

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

MAKING TOUGH DECISIONS

Delivered 7/7/19
Text: Proverbs 3:1-8; James 1:1-8
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"If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God..." Hmmm. Have you ever felt lacking in wisdom? Faced with a tough decision? I read somewhere of an old farmer who had hired a local boy to sort the potatoes. He wanted him to separate them into three piles: small, medium, and large. After only a couple of hours, the young fellow came to the farmer and, in great frustration, told him he was quitting.

"Why?" the farmer asked. "Is the job too hard for you?"

"No," the boy answered, "but the decisions are killing me."

Have you ever felt like the decisions were killing you? Have you ever been confronted by an issue with which you just did not know how to deal? Of course you have. We all have.

Let me give you some "for instances." Example: you are on a jury in a murder case. The defendant is found guilty. Do you vote for the death penalty or not? Example: your wife has just given birth to a seriously deformed child. With surgery and constant care, the child may live for twenty or so years, but they will be painful for all concerned and will, no doubt, bankrupt the family, both financially and emotionally. Do you tell the doctors to perform the surgery or not? Example: your unwed teenage daughter (still in high school) comes home with the news that she is pregnant. She wants to have an abortion. What do you do? Serious questions, everyone of them, questions not just of what would be most convenient but questions of what is RIGHT, questions of ethics.

How do we handle things like that? Those are tougher than sorting the potatoes. This morning I am going to give you some guidelines, six steps you can follow when confronted by a really difficult ethical decision. I will give you the six steps first and then use one example to show you how they work.

Here are the steps. First, what does the Scripture say about the problem, if anything? As most of you know, my background is rooted in the Presbyterian Church. Presbyterians have historically insisted that the Bible is our primary rule for faith and practice. With the writer of Proverbs we affirm, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.” (3::5-6). Thus, the Bible should be our first resource for finding solutions to ethical dilemmas.

But, on some issues, the Bible does not provide any clear answers. So the second step is, What has the church universal historically said? For example, most Christians agree that gambling is a problem, and controversy has loomed over the past generation in America about the existence of state lotteries, but the Bible has little to say on the subject. However, the church recognized early on that gambling was wrong and has fought it for centuries. We should take that seriously.

Third, what has your own denomination said? There are some situations on which the Bible has not spoken clearly and which the church through the centuries has not spoken with one mind. War is an example. In recent years, some churches were absolutely ecstatic when the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq began - they would have been ready to lead the charge themselves with a Bible in one hand and a little American flag in the other. Other churches were equally outspoken on the other side - "War is Hell," they said, "and particularly on innocent civilians. Let's see if we can get Osama bin Laden and Saddam out some other way." As I say, I am a Presbyterian and that matters to me. If I were not quite sure what was the right thing to do in the Middle East, I would have been well served to see if my own church had a position to provide some guidance.

Fourth, common sense. There are some issues which are so individualized or so new that neither the Bible nor the church universal nor particular denominations have provided clear direction. For example, I remember in the early 90's, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the man who invented the so-called suicide machine, was indicted for murder in Michigan for helping two chronically ill women take their own lives - they were in misery and wanted to end it all as painlessly as possible. Should the doctor have been charged with murder? Our sense of compassion might want to say that, if these ladies were so miserable that they saw suicide as the only way out, who are we to judge? But common sense would caution us against coming to such a quick conclusion since, with questions about inheritance, rights of survivors, and the possibilities of undue pressure, there is a terrible potential for abuse here. Common sense tells us to BE CAREFUL!

Fifth, Christian concern. If we take seriously Christ's commandment to love God and neighbor, and if we have no specific guidelines from any other source, a good approach to an ethical question would be to ask "What is the most loving response in this situation?" Christian concern will sometimes prevent us from coming up with a too hasty moralistic answer to some questions. For example, do you remember the headlines a few years ago and the story of the Ayala family? Abe and Mary Ayala were the parents of Anissa, a lovely young teenager who had leukemia. Anissa's only hope was a bone marrow transplant, but no donor could be found to match. So Anissa's parents decided to have another baby with the idea of providing a tissue match for the transplant. Little Marissa was the result of that decision and at age 14-months, the operation took place. Neither the Bible nor the church has ever said anything about the moral acceptability of parents conceiving a child in order to obtain an organ or tissue that could save the life of another one of their children. The technology is still too new - our scientific capabilities have outstripped our ability to respond ethically. Hopefully the one will catch up with the other, but so far it has not. Does our Christian concern tell us anything about this subject or, for that matter, any other issue that is not covered in Christian tradition? The Lord's law of love must be considered in the decision-making process.

The sixth and final step is a request for guidance. As our Scripture says, "If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you." If you want to know how to sort those ethical potatoes but have not been able to get any clear answer through any of the other five steps, this is the court of last resort. Six guidelines to help in coming up with a Christian framework for making tough decisions.

Now, let us test them out with something that is currently the focus of fierce national debate...abortion. I realize that this is a subject on which most everyone of you have an opinion - I do too, and I will share it with you presently. But my purpose this morning is not to argue the merits of the case, but simply to use the topic to test our guidelines and their ability to help with Christian decision-making.

Consider the guidelines now. First, what does the Bible say about abortion? Obviously, there is the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" [or "murder" - a better translation], and some folks have used this to say that all abortion therefore is absolutely prohibited - it is murder. However, others argue that abortion is NOT murder, because a fetus is not really a human life - a potential life, but not a life yet. The Bible can be used to support that position too because in Scripture the penalty for murder is death, but the penalty for causing the death of the unborn is only a fine (Ex. 21:22). Apparently the Bible makes a distinction between the value of the born and the unborn.

But there is another side. There are a number of references that indicate God's knowledge of us, even before we are born. For example, God told the prophet Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jer. 1:5). What would have happened if Jeremiah's mother had had an abortion? I do not know. I know God could have handled it, but how, I have no idea.

What then is the Biblical position on abortion? There is a case to be made on either side. We can base our arguments, either pro or con, on other factors, but Scripture is not as definitive as we might wish.

We turn then to our second guideline. What has the church universal historically said on the subject? For years, the church said nothing much at all - it was not an issue about which there was concern. In fact, in this country, there were no criminal statutes enacted concerning abortion until the 19th century.(1) However, in recent years, especially since Roe v. Wade in 1973, the church has said both yes and no. Some wings of the church have agreed with the ruling while others have been opposed, even violently. That is a breach which has existed for years and is not likely to be healed anytime soon either, and thus no help in our investigation.

Move to the third guideline - the position of our own denomination on abortion. In 1983, my Presbyterian General Assembly adopted a policy statement called "Covenant and Creation: Theological Reflections on Contraception and Abortion." The position of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is that a woman has the prerogative to make responsible decisions, no matter what the choice. At the same time, the church committed itself to minimize the incidence of abortion through education and contraception. Two years later, the 1985 General Assembly made clear that abortion should NOT be used as a means of after-the-fact birth control. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is pro-choice. However, it is NOT pro-abortion. Several times in recent years, the Assembly has approved overtures to provide assistance and support for women with problem pregnancies to help bring those pregnancies to term. To be sure, the issue for Presbyterians is not really settled. The Presbyterian Church is a big tent and, as such, you will find a wide spectrum of views on many different subjects, including abortion. Some Presbyterians will support the recent action of these Republican legislatures restricting abortion to virtually eliminating the procedure being done legally; others will take an opposite view. Stay tuned. What has your particular faith tradition had to say on the subject?

The fourth guideline - common sense. Is there any such thing as "common sense" about abortion? Common sense, on the one hand, says that an unborn fetus may very well turn out to be the next Jeremiah or Einstein or Beethoven - no one knows, so we had better not take any chances. Common sense. On the other hand, common sense says that an unwanted child born to an unprepared mother who will provide inadequate support is condemned already to a life at the bottom, will probably end up having not much of a life anyway with an exceptional chance of becoming a drain on or a danger to the rest of society. To insist that such a child be brought into this world on the one-in-a-zillion chance that he or she will turn out to be some sort of genius is foolish. Common sense.

What then does common sense tell us for certain about abortion? Our only conclusion must be that sometimes common sense is not nearly so common as we might wish.

The fifth guideline - Christian concern. Again, this will not be as definitive as we might hope. Our Lord's command to love our neighbors might seem like an obvious demand for us to protect and defend those who are in danger, and who could be in greater danger than an utterly defenseless fetus about to be, for whatever reason, removed from the womb before term? On the other hand, love for the neighbor might also be understood as prohibiting bringing an unwanted or unhealthy child into the world, condemning the baby to a miserable life or condemning the mother and all who care about her to emotional, physical or economic hardship. Christian concern on the one hand will be muted by an equally strong Christian concern on the other.

Where does all this lead? On the basis of the guidelines, it would appear that we may conclude, per our investigation, that abortion is never a comfortable option, but that it is sometimes one which legitimately may be considered. The Bible is not as clear on the issue as we might wish; the universal church has not and does not speak with one voice; common sense is too UNcommon here; Christian concern is rightly directed both toward the mother AND the unborn child; at least we Presbyterians have some help because our church HAS spoken to us (and will speak again and again over the years, as needed).

Earlier I promised that I would give you my personal conclusion, and it is this: despite the fact that a decision to abort an unborn child is terribly tragic, there are times when it is appropriate - not as a method of after-the-fact birth control, but in cases of rape or incest, when the physical or emotional health of the mother is at stake or when the life which the unborn child might reasonably expect would be awful. In my view, Roe v. Wade should not be reversed - if it is, abortion will not be stopped, only LEGAL abortion will be stopped, and we will be back to the sad spectre of young girls dying in dingy rooms or back alleys in pools of blood with rusty coathangers at their sides. You may or may not agree with me - Presbyterians believe that God alone is Lord of the conscience, and the result is often honest DISagreement - but the position I have outlined is the one at which I arrive by following the guidelines.

Earlier I promised that I would give you my personal conclusion, and it is this: despite the fact that a decision to abort an unborn child is terribly tragic, there are times when it is appropriate - not as a method of after-the-fact birth control, but in cases of rape or incest, when the physical or emotional health of the mother is at stake or when the life which the unborn child might reasonably expect would be awful. In my view, Roe v. Wade should not be reversed - if it is, abortion will not be stopped, only LEGAL abortion will be stopped, and we will be back to the sad spectre of young girls dying in dingy rooms or back alleys in pools of blood with rusty coathangers at their sides. You may or may not agree with me - Presbyterians believe that God alone is Lord of the conscience, and the result is often honest DISagreement - but the position I have outlined is the one at which I arrive by following the guidelines.

When faced with significant moral choices, men and women who prayerfully consider the option set before them can be assured that they are empowered by the gracious work of God's Spirit to make an appropriate moral choice. (2)

Six steps to making tough decisions - First, what does the Bible say? Second, what has the church universal historically said? Third, what has our own denomination said? Fourth, what does our common sense say? Fifth, what does our Christian concern say? And sixth, what does the Holy Spirit say when we come in prayer with a request for wisdom?

There is no guarantee that each of us will come to exactly the same conclusions once we have gone through the steps - all you need do is sit in on the debates at various denominational gatherings and you will see that for sure. But if we go through the steps, at least we CAN be certain that we have been faithful in seeking divine guidance as Scripture instructs us to do. "If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you" - one more gift of a gracious and loving Lord.

Amen!



1. James E. Wallace, "Against `Against the Abortionists'," Monday Morning, 10/19/70

2. Quoted in When You Need the Wisdom of Solomon: Counseling in Problem Pregnancies, (Louisville, KY: Council on Theology and Culture of the Presbyterian Church (USA)), p. 11


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