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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.

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The Blessed Realm of Suffering and Satisfaction

Tom (not his real name) and I were having tea yesterday (don’t judge us for doing a girly thing). Both in our fifties, we feel the onset of age-related aches and pains. And yet we were both laughing at the insidious assault of time against our bodies and minds. Tom said with a chuckle, “I can see the inevitability ahead.” Nevertheless, even with a serious medical condition that has impacted his lifestyle, Tom seems to age with dignity.

Growing old gracefully doesn’t necessarily happen naturally. It’s like any endeavor for improvement; it requires thoughtfulness, effort, and suffering. Jim Collins, author of Great by Choice, said: “. . . all writers seem to agree on one point: writing well is desperately difficult, and it never gets easier. It’s like running: if you push your limits, you can become a faster runner, but you will always suffer.” Suffering is a necessary ingredient for anything worthwhile.

Aging can make us cranky, bitter, angry, sharp-tongued, and a host of other unpleasant things. It doesn’t have to be that way. If we ask for God’s help, I believe we can push through to that place of satisfaction that comes through suffering. We can become gentle, funny, and wise even as our body aches and our hair turns gray. Without God’s help, we will become whatever the world makes us.

My Dog is Bitter (No, I did not mean biter.)

It is a beautiful day in Northern California and my two dogs won’t go outside after breakfast. (If they had thumbs they would play video games all day.) Anyhow, we recently bought two identical food bowls, one for each dog. Each food bowl is divided into sections designed to reduce the speed at which my dogs gorge themselves at feeding time. My female dog, named BG, is often bitter and irritable if our male dog, named Joe, gets his bowl of food a few seconds before she gets her bowl of food. BG probably thinks Joe is getting fed with her bowl. In the spirit of détente, my wife wrote each dog’s name on their bowl with a permanent marker, but that didn’t ease tensions between the dogs at meal time. (No, I have not questioned my wife as to why she thought it helpful to write the dogs names on their identical bowls, which made me wonder if my dogs are more literate than I give them credit.)

BG often gets irritated at everything Joe does. If Joe gets a few pats on the head, BG growls at him. If Joe runs to get his bone, BG growls at him. If Joe tries to sleep under the bed with BG, she growls at him. If we go to the park and chuck a tennis ball for Joe to retrieve, BG chases Joe and barks at him. (Their relationship is a lot like marriage . . . did I just say that?)

Have you ever noticed how some people are just like BG? They find fault with everything and everybody. Negativity oozes from their pores. If management changes the layout of office furniture at negative Neal’s place of employment, he doesn’t like the new layout. If a colleague at work makes a mistake, he is on it like white on rice. If the company changes a policy, negative Neal whispers complaints under his breath. If a meeting starts late, negative Neal gripes about the leader’s lack of punctuality. On the other hand, if negative Neal makes a mistake, well, you bring it up at your own hazard. In the mind of negative Neal, his work is important and highly confidential while the work of others is unnecessary and inconvenient, especially when it interferes with his duties.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not an acolyte of Norman Vincent Peale. I do not bow down at the altar of the power of positive thinking. To deny that bad things happen is to deny the truth. I do not believe God expects us to live in a fantasy world where we pretend everything is OK. But I find it disconcerting when encountering uber-negative Christians who have been churched a long time. I have fallen into this trap at times. You know the type: the person who will tell you they are an imperfect sinner but never seem to see their own flaws, only the flaws of others. Again, don’t get me wrong, I too see all the faults and warts that are part of the modern Christian church. What I am talking about here is an unhealthy personal feeling of superiority to others. A need to constantly feed the beast of superiority through criticism is evidence of something amiss in a person’s life. It is, rather, a weakness and a possible sign of deep insecurity.

If the entire Christian church would spend several weeks a year studying and implementing the three verses in Matthew 7:3-5 (it will have more impact if you look it up), it would send shock waves through the darkness for generations. It would also drastically improve the spiritual, mental, and physical health of God’s people. In addition, Philippians 2:14-15 tells us to stop grumbling and complaining. We can attend church for years and go through all the motions of piety, but it is just dead religion if we never make these verses active in our lives. Sure, we’ll feel good when our ears are tickled by truth, but we won’t be transformed down deep in our soul. These verses are the cure for many ills.