Christian Thinking Regarding Medical Care and the Need for Respect when Opinions Differ: Part 1
Christian Thinking Regarding Medical Care and the Need for Respect when Opinions Differ: Part 1
by Dave Lutz
How are we Christians to think about problems with our physical bodies? And how are we to navigate through those times when there is a clear need to pursue some type of treatment?
And further, given the multiplicity of treatment options available for so many of our physical problems, how are Christians to interact when differences of opinion arise as to what treatment(s) to pursue?
The Bible clearly exhorts Christians to care for one another. We’re exhorted to “bear one another’s burdens”, and help meet the needs of others, especially for those going through various trials, including physical illness or injury. In a healthy church, such physical difficulties, especially if prolonged or more severe, will become known to other members; that actually can be helpful in mobilizing people to pray and offer tangible support for the person or family in need.
On occasion, as a person’s condition becomes known, opinions may arise as to what type of treatment may be most effective. Such opinions may be based upon someone’s personal experience with a similar problem or knowledge of someone else who has gone through something similar. Opinions may be expressed by trained health care providers, as well as those who have no formal medical training.
Sometimes opinions as to the right course of medical treatment can become strong convictions, and if we have people with opposing strong convictions coming together, we find the potential for Christians mistreating one another. How are we to handle that? That is one of the issues this article means to address. First, let’s consider some elements of a biblical view of healthcare.
Why do we have medical problems?
The ultimate cause for all of our medical problems is not hard to find; it is human sin. Scripture is clear on that.
Genesis 2:15-17 says, “The LORD took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it [notice the physical function here, man using his body for work before the fall into sin]. And the Lord commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” (ESV)
Influenced by Satan’s temptation to doubt God’s word, Adam and Eve brought sin into the world by violating this command. The consequence of sin was physical and spiritual death and alienation from their Creator. God was gracious to our first parents in that they did not physically die that day, and God made provision to redeem them out of their condition in sin and death.
However, as a consequence of sin, the process of physical decay and death was introduced in them and would be passed on to their descendants, such that in time death is inevitable for us all. The death rate is 100%. That’s clear. As our pastor, Andrew has said, “there are no 137 year-olds”.
So, even though there are a myriad of secondary causes for our physical health problems (various germs and viruses, diseases, accidents, inherited genetic dispositions, choices we make, the aging process itself, etc.), the ultimate, primary cause for all of them is sin. And Scripture is clear that sin affects not only our physical bodies, but all parts of us, including our mind, will, and emotions. Thankfully for the Christian, the dominating power of sin has been broken in us, and we are in the process of life change growing into the image of Christ (the process of sanctification). We hold onto the good news that Jesus Christ came to redeem a people and the creation itself out of sin and its effects. The Bible tells us that after this life, for all those united to Christ by faith, we will be free from the corruption and consequences of sin, including sickness and death.
Indeed, we look forward in time to resurrection bodies that will be free from physical decay, bodies that will be fit for eternity in the glorious presence of God in a renewed creation. We long for that to become reality, don’t we? Think about it; if you are currently a Christian healthcare professional, you’re going to have a different job in heaven.
But, in the meantime, our physical problems, be they minor or severe or somewhere in between, are a normal part of this life. Despite its incredible design and beauty, the world under the curse of sin is indeed a dangerous place to live, and the bodies we now have are subject to a number of problems and certain decay.
Our physical health as a stewardship.
The Bible tells us that God is sovereign over His creation. Being sovereign means that He is ultimately in charge of everything that happens, including the course of the lives of His people. He has determined the various activities that he would have us do. Ephesians 2:19 puts it this way: “...we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
God is also in charge of exactly how long we will live in this world. Some will depart from us seemingly very early while others may live a very long time. We all have an appointment for the time this life will come to an end, and it’s one appointment that none of us will be late for.
How easy is it for us to presume that we’re going to be here next week, next month, next year. We may plan a future event as if we know for certain what will happen, and that we’ll be there to see it. James 4:13-15 brings some correction to that thinking:
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’--yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” God is sovereign; we are not."
God is also sovereign over our physical difficulties. Often we will not fully understand His purposes in allowing us to go through these or other trials, though we can rest assured that He is good, and that He works all things together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
God has created us in His image, for a purpose. We might find that we have many different purposes in the course of our life, but we human beings were created for one overarching purpose. The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it this way: “Question: What is the chief end of man? Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever”. (1 Cor. 10:31; Romans 11:36; Psalm 73:25-28)
Part of glorifying God is to live in a manner that God intended for us. God gave Adam and Eve a mandate to fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over every living thing. In a sense, that mandate has not ended, and it involves work done with our minds and our physical bodies. Our bodies were created by God to take us through life in this world, and allow us to carry out the work that He has called us to do.
So we could say that our bodies, with the physical function they provide, are a stewardship that God has given us, for a duration of time that He has determined. Being good stewards of our bodies involves taking care of them for as long as we reside in them. Even as our bodies and their capacities change over time, they remain a stewardship given to us, to be taken care of and used in a manner that blesses others and brings glory to God.
For Christians, the importance of stewarding our bodies well is clearly seen when we consider Who it is we belong to, and Who resides within us spiritually. A great place to see that is 1 Corinthians 6: 19-20:
“...do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
Next, let’s consider a few ways that we can fail to be good stewards of our physical bodies.
We might think of these as 3 paths to avoid.
Paths to avoid: 1. Neglect.
One path to avoid here is neglect. We have been created by God in His image, with a body, a mind, and a soul or spirit. We recognize that we have a physical body, and an immaterial or non-physical part to us. These are good gifts from our Creator, and as we’ve said can be seen as a stewardship, things to be taken care of.
So, clearly it’s wrong to neglect taking care of our body. Such neglect might include not giving our bodies the rest or nutrition they need, substance abuse, poor hygiene, choosing to be chronically inactive or engaging in reckless activity--putting our bodies in situations that involve undue strain or high risk for injury, avoiding available preventive measures, or choosing not to treat a problem when treatment is clearly needed.
There are many ways we can neglect our physical health. It’s also true that neglecting our spiritual health can affect our physical health; consider Psalm 32:3, speaking of David before he confessed and was cleansed of grievous sin: “...when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groanings all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” Neglecting to deal with our sin can have physical consequences, as our spiritual health is connected to our physical health (see Prov. 17:22; 14:30, etc.).
- Expecting ongoing perfect physical health.
Over the course of human history, and especially over the last few centuries, healthcare has advanced quite a bit. Couple this with a digital information explosion that would have been unimaginable 50 years ago, along with economic prosperity, and you’ve got a recipe for some pretty high expectations when it comes to our physical well-being.
We can be tempted to buy into the idea that we can have, indeed should have, perfect physical health as long as we want it, and we’ve got all sorts of means to achieve it.
It doesn’t take a long look into the entertainment and advertising worlds to see this idea. Buy this product, get this surgery, take this supplement, and you too can look and feel this way (says the near perfect model making the endorsement). Use this product and it will make you look and feel younger. Think of how many times you’ve seen a product that claims to have an “anti-aging” effect (as if in some way it will cause you not to age).
Our culture certainly tends to foster an aversion to aging, and especially the destination aging takes us to, death. We tend to not want to think about death. We’d rather avoid it, or deny it (one group, “Christian Science”, actually teaches that death is an illusion). In recent years some have put their hope in something called “Cryonics”, a process of freezing the body at death with the thought that someone in the future will come up with a way to bring it back to life. According to Scripture, that won’t work (and what Christian would want to come back to a fallen world anyway). Instead, Christians look forward to their soul departing from the body at death to be with the Lord; and then in time to a resurrection body, one dominated by the Holy Spirit and fit for eternity.
Unfortunately, a promise of perfect health can also be heard from within some churches who hold a distorted view of the gospel. Some false teachers claim you can have perpetual perfect health in this life if you just have enough faith, or if you direct enough of your money to the one teaching (this part of the “prosperity” gospel). This view says you can rid your life of all sickness and disease by the power of your faith. That’s ascribing a lot of power to human faith. On the contrary, Scripture teaches that God is sovereign over all of reality, including sickness and disease. We’re not sovereign over such things; we don’t create our own reality.
Related to the view that Christians can avoid any and all physical problems, we find in the 9th chapter of John’s gospel some faulty theology on the part of the Jews of Jesus’ day. Apparently they tended to automatically link physical impairment with sin, as if personal or family sin was always the underlying direct cause. Consider John 9:1-3:
“As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
We find a similar faulty theology expressed in the Old Testament book of Job, in the responses of Job’s friends to the severe trials (including physical) that he was going through. Surely, they thought, a truly righteous man would not suffer this way. If you are a super spiritual person, God will prosper you with continual good health, right? As we read on through the book of Job to its conclusion, we find that faulty thinking corrected.
To be clear, sometimes physical problems and even death can be the result of personal sin (see 1 Cor. 11:27-30), but not always. Therefore we need to not be quick to judge.
An expectation of perfect physical health, besides not corresponding to reality, also misses the point that God often works through physical trials to bring about changes in us or people around us, or for some other purpose. Scripture tells us that trials are often a means that God uses to bring us near to Him (in some cases, unbelievers coming to saving faith), develop a greater dependence on Him, cause us to be humble, more sensitive to others, and pray more. Physical trials also cause us to yearn for our full redemption in the next life. In a number of ways, God uses physical trials to shape His people and bring glory to Himself. Consider these representative passages:
James 1:2-4, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Psalm 119:92, “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.”
Psalm 119:71, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.”
Certainly, for a person going through severe physical trial, it is helpful to know that God is working His good purposes through it, even if we don’t fully see or understand all that that involves. For believers in Christ, we could say that God redeems those trials for His purpose in us and through us, to His glory. May God help us to have that perspective more and more.
We human beings have been created to worship; that is hard-wired into us. Worship involves ascribing supreme worth to something or someone.
We’re used to the idea of worshipping God, but perhaps less used to the idea of worshipping something other than God. The fact is, certain things in our lives can become so important to us, so supremely valuable, that we can come to see them worthy of our worship.
It is the nature of sin to keep us from a right worship of our Creator and instead bring us to worship something else, something that He’s created (see Romans 1:23-25).
We’re aware of examples throughout history of people worshipping the sun, or some earthly ruler, or an image of some person or animal, or perhaps the entire creation itself. We might think of an idol as some image like the golden calf Israel made in the wilderness, or a decorative figure made to represent some man-made god. That’s a literal “idol”. But we know that there are also figurative “idols” we can create for ourselves.
We human beings can come to worship things like financial success, pleasure, some cherished sin, or even another person. Those things might not be represented by statues we physically bow down to, but if we serve them with supreme devotion above everything else including God, they are indeed idols for us.
Even good gifts from God, such as a spouse, a career, a home, even a church ministry, can become idols we serve. Interestingly, we human beings are actually pretty good at creating idols in our life. One notable theologian said it this way, “the human heart is a perpetual idol factory”. Again, we were created to worship, but sin corrupts that in us. And anything that takes us away from our supreme devotion to God dishonors Him and brings us harm.
As mentioned earlier, we Christians, with hearts regenerated by the Spirit of God, have had the power of sin in us broken; sin no longer has the dominion over us it once had. We’re now free not to sin. However, in this life we continue to struggle with remaining sin, remaining corruption. We don’t reach moral perfection in this life, and we can fall into the sin of idolatry.
If we buy into the idea that we can achieve lasting perfect physical health, fed by our culture’s message that that’s how life should be, our health itself can become an idol for us, something we worship.
Now here’s where it can get tricky. We ARE supposed to see some things as valuable, even very valuable, and we ARE supposed to be highly devoted to certain things in this life. Our family, our church, our neighbor down the street, the job that God has placed us in. And yes we ARE supposed to value our bodies and our health.
The key issue is one of relative importance, or priority. The point at which we move anything in this life up to a place of higher value, higher priority than God, is where we cross over into idolatry.
So Christian, while it’s true that your body is a temple, that’s because of Who resides in it spiritually (see again 1 Cor. 6:19). We’re not to worship the body itself, despite what our culture might tell us.
How can we value things in this present life (including our physical health) in a way that they don’t become idols to us? One way is to hold such things loosely, with an understanding that this life is temporary. God is sovereign over the good gifts that we are to steward, and how long we are to have those gifts. He does intend for us to enjoy the many good things we find in this life (1 Timothy 6:17; Ecclesiastes 2:24), but we need to rightly see them as gifts given from His hand. As someone has said, we must not value the gift more than the Giver of the gift. Only God is to be the object of our supreme devotion and worship. Keeping that perspective, cultivating our right worship of Him, will help to keep us from the sin of idolatry.
So, we’ve considered a few paths to avoid when it comes to our physical health: neglect, an unrealistic expectation that denies we’ll have physical problems, and idolatry. Next, let’s look at some considerations as we look to steward our physical health in a manner pleasing to God.
More in The Elders Blog
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