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Medicine and Forgiveness: How we mistreat our ills

MH900390526My medicine cabinet contains something shocking–medicine. Despite the fact that millions of Americans consume pharmaceuticals worth billions of dollars, we have developed a strange cultural tendency to decry the use of medication as somehow morally inferior. After a lifetime among fellow Christians, I can honestly say believers often share the same aversion to medicine. We might even be worse than the general population in our attitude about the use of medicine for healing.

Recently I listened to a Catholic priest being interviewed on the radio about the many confessions he had heard during his lengthy career. The priest said that a number of Christians he met for confession could not accept forgiveness because they had tethered their sins to clinical maladies. For instance, if John Smith has obsessive compulsive disorder that he believes is somehow connected to the sins in his life, it will be almost impossible for Smith to accept that he has been forgiven. Tragic! Even more shocking was the priest’s revelation that the vast majority of believers with a psychological disorder refused to pursue treatment. He said only 2 out of 20 would ever follow-up on his suggestion that they needed professional clinical help that might include counseling and/or medication. Many of these folks were convinced that their suffering was related to sin rather than something clinical. They refused to get the help they desperately needed. They resigned themselves to the belief that suffering was part of God’s plan for their lives and it was just their cross to bear. To this I say bull$&!#.

Back in my day (stop rolling your eyes, millennials), the medical profession was beginning to explode with new drugs and ways of treating diseases. Many of those diseases had formerly meant an automatic death sentence for people. We called them miracle drugs and we viewed doctors and surgeons with awe. These days I know people who argue with their doctor about almost everything. I am not suggesting that we idolize fallible medical professionals. And certainly the pharmaceutical companies have made grave (no pun intended) errors. But should we default to stigmatizing all medicines and their use?

In Luke 10:30-35, we read the story of the Good Samaritan. Recall that the Samaritan bandaged the victim’s wounds, pouring on oil and wine.

In 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul tells some sick people in the church to stop drinking only water and start using a little wine for their stomach and frequent illnesses. Back then, wine was used like a medicine (today it seems to turn people into snobs). They didn’t have the water purification systems we have today. In essence, Paul was dispensing medical advice for their digestive health.

Here is my point: It is OK to take appropriate medicine for a legitimate injury or illness. We get no moral or heavenly kudos for going the natural route at the expense of our health. There is no glory in needless suffering. Of course it is best to eat right, exercise, and embrace healthy lifestyles. But using medicine does not make us worse Christians. At worst, denial about our ailments and refusing medicine can put us at risk of faulty thinking about sin, suffering, and forgiveness. God’s forgiveness does not require that we choose to suffer. Choosing to suffer needlessly is just obtuse, not noble.


A Bad Person

MC900388892I recently watched a video where random people were being interviewed on the street. The questions focused on personal vices and sins. The responses of one young woman caught my attention. When asked if she had ever lied she replied, “Yes, but that doesn’t make me a bad person.” When asked if she had ever stolen she replied, “Yes, but that doesn’t make me a bad person.” When asked if she had ever lusted she replied, “Yes, but that doesn’t make me a bad person.”

We all have a tendency to look the truth in the eye and deny it. We also have a natural tendency to grade ourselves on a moral curve. We whisper to our innermost selves: “I’m basically a good person. Other people have done worse things.” The sobering truth is that God is not swayed by our comparisons to others.

Tragically, many people get seduced into a false sense of moral health when compared to everyone else. (I compare myself to Simon Cowell when I need to feel better about me.) But comparing ourselves to others obscures the accuracy of our inward gaze. In the Beatitude of Matthew 5:3, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

This Beatitude about poverty in spirit is another way of describing the epiphany we have when we finally see ourselves as we really are—morally bankrupt and unable to avoid judgment despite the fact that there are many people in the world who are more reprehensible than us. It is that “aha!” moment when we realize that God does not grade on a cosmic curve when judging our life. It is the first step towards redemption and comes after we gaze inward, without rationalizations or comparisons to others, at our sins and shortcomings.

Ironically, we move further from God when we insist on maintaining the illusion that we are not a bad person. As soon as we admit the truth about ourselves, the heart of God melts and we can move closer to him. I’m not suggesting that we need to toss our value and self-esteem out the window. I am, however, suggesting that the best self-esteem and understanding of our value comes from God’s love and mercy expressed through Christ rather than from our perception of our self-worth compared to others.

Justice for Some?

When I was a child, my uncle owned a laundry business. He and a business partner ran the laundry for several years. Eventually my uncle learned that his business partner had conspired to take complete ownership of the company. A legal battle ensued that eventually went to court. The court found in favor of the partner and my uncle lost the business. My parents told me that my uncle’s partner lied and produced counterfeit evidence in court. The court believed the deceptions.

That was my first shocking exposure to the reality that the good guys do not always win, especially in our modern system of jurisprudence. Reality justice is not like Perry Mason (or most of the Law and Order episodes) where the champions of truth and justice always prevail over evil.

Here are two verses in the Bible that help me understand justice and our imperative to pursue justice as Chrsitians:

Isaiah 1:17, “. . . learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

Proverbs 29:26, “Many seek the face of a ruler, but it is from the LORD that a man gets justice.”

As our culture moves further from belief in a moral God who cares how we live (that is, he cares about our ethics), we will turn more to the courts of law for remedies. The courts will not be able keep up with the disputes if the general population turns away from God. The law, by itself, is insufficient to help a society thrive.

Proverbs 29:26, cited above, has more than one meaning. It means God has the final word on outcomes of justice. It means the people of a society must recognize that there is a moral God in order for human judges and leaders to do their jobs effectively. It means God’s perspective of justice should be, ultimately, more important to us than human manifestations of justice. It also means we should have realistic expectations about the ability of flawed human leaders and judges to dispense justice accurately and fairly in every case.

So, we know God loves justice and we are told by the Bible to pursue justice, especially for the marginalized. How? Well, I believe one of the most important things we can do to advance justice is to step out of our denial of hard-to-face injustice. For example, to this day there are Catholics who do not believe a small number of priests sexually abused children. Some human behaviors are so horrible we mentally can’t go there; so we deny it because it shakes our sense of well being to the core. It’s no different in evangelical churches. For instance, if a pastor destroys his marriage and his ministry because he had multiple affairs there will always be some in the church who do not believe it happened, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. I’m not suggesting we go through life looking for little injustices to pounce on, but perhaps it’s time to take off our rose colored glasses so we can help those hurt by serious injustice.