Willem Viljoen met Liezl when he was 15 years old. Childhood sweethearts, they married after school and pictured a wonderful, long, healthy life together. “One morning my life shattered when I received the news that my wife had passed away in a car accident. At first I did not believe it, but the inevitable realisation of the fact that my best friend was gone from this earth, with no warning, broke me.
Through the pain and tears I knew that if Liezl had thought about it before this day, she would have wanted to be able to help other people, even in death. It was strange to me that I could have such a clear conviction to donate organs at that moment, because we never really discussed it.
A husband’s toughest choice
When I was approached a few hours later by a coordinator from the Centre for Tissue Engineering to ask consent for tissue donation, I knew that it was what Liezl and God would want me to do. Signing the consent form was the hardest thing I ever did, but knowing it was the right thing to do, I signed and gave consent for her bone tissue, corneas and heart valves to be donated.
Almost two months have passed since, and not a day goes by that I don’t cry and feel a big empty space in my heart. But knowing that Liezl’s bone tissue will help crippled children walk, her corneas already helped two people see and her heart valves will enable two young people to actually live their lives again, gives me a sense of peace. Liezl’s death was not in vain. The knowledge that the legacy of love and giving Liezl believed in, has fulfilled other peoples lives just as she fulfilled my life, gives me a great deal of comfort in this painful time. My wish is that this God given legacy of love and giving would be embraced by all, so that everyone who has lost, or will lose a loved one might know the comfort that giving can bring.”
There is a severe shortage in SA
When a Christian thinks of a ‘good deed’ they can do for others and to the glory of God, donating an organ or giving blood is not usually top of their mind. In fact, more often than not (perhaps because of our aversion to needles and all things gory) the idea of signing up as an organ donor is probably last on the ‘to do list’ of life.
This is unfortunate, as South Africa and the world has a severe shortage of organs and blood available for the millions of people desperately needing a transplant/transfusion. Yet, this shortfall can easily be corrected if just half of all people who die gave permission for their organs to be donated. However, not all Christians agree with the idea of donating their organs or blood, citing religious validation for their reticence.
The ins and outs of donation
Before looking at Scriptural imperatives in favour of, or against donating organs/blood, it is worthwhile to sketch out the process of donation. First, there are live donations (usually donating blood and a kidney, as humans have two and can live with just one) and there are posthumous donations (ie: donations made once declared dead by medical professionals).
Interestingly, you can donate tissue, organs and blood, though you can be selective about which of these you wish to donate. Your family has to give consent after you have passed away (see sidebar) and utmost care is taken in the removal of organs, so bodies are not disfigured.
Two independent medical doctors are required to declare a person dead (or specifically to declare “brain death” which is when the brain has stopped functioning though the person may be on life support and kept alive on machines). Generally organs and tissue needs to be collected from a body within a maximum period of eight hours, as ‘dead cells’ are not usable.
The donating of organs and tissue is not entirely without controversy, and there are certainly a few things to consider when making a decision. Because of the imbalance of demand and supply, a burgeoning black market exists particularly in third world countries. (And in Hollywood movies!) That said, regulation is very strict around the process of donation, and hospitals face intense scrutiny.
Organs can also not be harvested unless the next of kin have given consent and donors are not permitted to know who the recipient is (and vice versa) - so as to prevent coercion and emotional manipulation. In America, prisoners are not discriminated against if requiring a transplant, though in China the disturbing practice of extracting prisoners organs’ without consent is allowed by the state. Blood is screened and donors have to meet strict medical criteria in order to donate.
Is there an ethical dilemma?
Though it may seem obvious that Christians can in good conscience donate and receive blood, tissue and organs, medical research journals found that many religions differ: Muslims and the Catholic Church see no problem. Most Protestant churches are in favour, though Jews have specific rules as to which organs may and may not be donated.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for their refusal to accept blood transfusions (based on their Watchtower Society theology who loosely bases their teaching on Old Testament Scriptures and Acts 15:29 that forbids eating blood, which they liken to receiving intravenously). Many have chosen imminent death over a compromised belief, however over the years the medical profession has created “bloodless surgery” for Jehovah’s Witnesses which involves transfusions being done with a non-blood compound that mimics the properties of blood.
According to minister (and kidney recipient) Tim Hawkridge, “There are many modern issues like organ donation, that are not directly addressed by Scripture, because they simply didn’t exist as technical possibilities at the time the Bible was written. However, there are a number of clear Biblical principles which speak into this issue, the most fundamental of which is that we are to follow in the example of Jesus by giving ourselves for the blessing of others. Jesus said in John 15:13, “The greatest love a person can have for his friends is to give his life for them.”
Leviticus 17:11-14 shouldn’t stop us donating blood and organs, but may even encourage it – it’s worth noting that the giving of blood and bone-marrow in fact cause the giver no permanent sacrifice, since both regenerate.
A gift of life...
Imagine if Christians were recognised as selfless disciples of Christ who regularly did good deeds according to His Will. Imagine if churches ran blood donation drives and encouraged members to sign up as organ donors. What a powerful testimony to the world. And what a small sacrifice, as we know “to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord.” 2 Cor 5:8. Contact The Organ Donor Foundation to sign up. Call 0800 22 66 110800 22 66 11 FREE or www.odf.org.za
Second key essential:
Your experiences are your best teachers. This is true of the positive, as well as painful experiences. Begin a treasure chest of the experiences that taught you how to be successful with various challenges in your life. Also be open to valuable lessons from unlikely sources. Over the years I have again and again been surprised by what I have learned from persons I underestimated. I gained much practical knowledge from the uneducated woodsmen who lived in our community when I was growing up.
To learn valuable lessons from life, you will need good mentors. Mentors are the people who teach and model for us the most important lessons for living and for achieving our lives’ purposes. My mentors taught me in a way that no book or classroom could ever have.
This process of learning will require you to find the disguised opportunities in problems: human progress is the outcome of irritants faced and solved. The problems that come your way are experiences that teach you the lessons and skills you will need to fulfil a meaningful life purpose. Where were you confronted with a problem and were able to find a successful solution? What did you learn from this and how can you apply it to a current problem?
Failures can also become wonderful teachers. Accept failures, but never allow yourself to have a mind-set of failure - thinking before you start that you will probably fail. Also remember to use a fresh approach or different perspective in trying to solve problems: see irritants as invitations to find creative resources!
Third key essential: acquire
There are certain attributes of character that are essential to living out a genuine calling. I briefly list them here: You must practise the solitude without which you become caught up in busyness and distractions that make you lose focus (“Be still, and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10). You should also acquire a spirit of tolerance, which will enable you to work with a wide range of people and not be polarising or polarised (“Love is patient, love is kind…it is not easily angered” 1 Cor 13).
It is also important that you build a character of self-confidence. Self-confidence based on wealth or social position is a fragile structure that can crumble unexpectedly.
Genuine self-confidence is moulded by something much deeper: learn to see yourself through the eyes of God – as someone born for significance. Your life is valuable, for God Himself “[has set] His Spirit in [y]our heart” 2 Cor 1: 22. Another attribute of character that you need to practise is becoming a person of integrity, whose word and intention can always be trusted. Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard, defined ‘purity of heart’ as: ‘to will one thing’. Integrity is thus the opposite of duplicity. For someone to say that the purpose of his life is such-and-such and then to work for other less-worthy purposes is to show duplicity and not integrity.
Cultivating a positive spirit is another habit worth forming. You need to believe that you can make a significant difference through your involvement in a worthy cause. Victory will come with a new attitude – the attitude that the seemingly impossible is possible! “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Mark 9:23
Lastly, be willing to go beyond what is expected to accomplish the extraordinary. With ‘extraordinary’ I do not mean spectacular accomplishments (such as becoming the president of the largest bank or the pastor who built the largest congregation). Extraordinary means that a person exceeds expectations by going out of his way to help, mentor and resource others. The way to significance is not by way of the spectacular: it is by way of seeing and taking opportunities to show compassion beyond what is required.
Fourth key essential
Do you have a generous spirit? Generosity comes from our recognition of the undeserved good we have received. I have found that the following five steps nurture a generous spirit: Firstly, give back to those you have received from. Who are the godsends that have come your way? In what ways are you now giving back to them? So much joy comes with acts of generosity!
Secondly, you need to cultivate the habit of generosity. Much of your life is controlled by habits. Habits are repeated behaviours or patterns – they are internally programmed actions. Generosity is a character trait that is strengthened by habit. The more we practise generosity, the more deeply that trait becomes a part of who we are. Kindness is a habit worth forming that will contribute immeasurably to the lives of others. Thirdly, make sure you share your success in a wider universe of need. I am convinced that the knowledge and skill God had enabled me to acquire should be made available to other worthy groups where there is need. The significance of your life is enhanced when a wider range of people benefit from your success. Whatever you do well, share it with a wider world and teach others the art of doing the same.
The fourth step to nurturing a generous spirit involves developing lasting partnerships with those who share your vision. The synergy of a genuine partnership is powerful. Partnerships that expand generosity are a great force for good in the world. Consider how your contributions to the lives of others can be multiplied by your partnering with other persons or groups for the betterment of others. Partner with those you respect and with whom your life’s purpose will be best fulfilled. Make sure your partnerships are built on shared values and worthy objectives.
Lastly, practise forgiveness – the generosity that heals. Perhaps the greatest act of generosity is forgiveness. I believe in a forgiving God and I have been on the receiving end of forgiveness. I guess that is why I have managed, in time, to forgive those who have wronged me. I’ve been able to offer forgiveness only because I’ve been privileged to receive it. Ask God to give you a forgiving spirit.
Fifth key essential: build relationships for life
Life is relational. We are a community and we need one another. Our close relationships encourage and strengthen us. To build lasting relationships, make sure a friendship is genuine and built on proven trust, respect and integrity. Also make sure that the partnerships you form have a compassionate purpose. Those I have worked alongside with for causes that gave deeper meaning to peoples’ lives have become both my teachers and friends.
If you are married, treasure who and what you have. Invest in keeping your relationship intimate and interesting. A marriage can be so rich and fulfilling when we have invested fully in it. My wife, Peggy, helped me to see that life could also be enjoyable and full of fun. If you do not have a life partner and you desire one, pray earnestly, wait patiently and move decisively. “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?” Luke 11:11
Sixth key essential: don’t retire!
A life of significance includes the so-called retirement years. A career ends, but a calling never does. Make the retirement years the crowning investment in significance! See your latter years as blessed with rich opportunities to make your most enduring contributions. You will be able to share yourself with others and your encouragement, wisdom and generosity will be of immeasurable wealth to others.
No matter how old you are, decide every morning that your calling will guide you for the rest of your life. Look forward on your life in great expectation. Believe that the God who has cared for you and given you a wonderful life will continue to lead you into a future worthy of your highest expectations and hopes. Ask Him everyday to help you find a significant purpose for your life.
There is indeed more to life than making a living. Let this prayer be your constant companion as you go through all the seasons of life: “Dear Father, help me to do the best I can, with what I have, where I am, at all times. Amen.”
By Jackie Georgiou