Powerlessness of the Sick

sickness-care-urban-monk

Introduction

While I was taking MD525, Poverty and Development, at Fuller Theological Seminary in 2015, I as an alternative health practitioner was so excited and at the same time amazed that the nature and goals for both poverty and chronic diseases were almost identical . First, just as poverty is fundamentally spiritual in nature (Myers, 144), the fundamental nature of sickness is also spiritual despite the existence of a variety of causes. That is both the sick and the non-sick need to be transformed: the former from the marred identities and the latter from god-complexes. It is because in God’s eyes, everyone is sick from the stance of transformational healing. Considering that health care is ministered as one of the many components of transformational development (Myers, 113), it may make sense to readers that the goals of the transformational healing and development should resonate with each other.

The purpose of this paper is two-fold. The first is to diagnose how the dominance of modern medicine has contributed to the marred identities of the sick and god-complexes of the non-sick. The second is to sketch a roadmap to Christian workers and development agencies of transformational healing so that both the sick and non-sick can be holistically transformed, which means that both sides can not only become free from the bondage of chronic disease and pain, but also recover their true identity as children of God (Myers, 17).

In this paper I maintain that human bondage to chronic disease and pain are fundamentally spiritual. While making the claim, I hope that I can ignite a flickering light which illuminate the answer of the nagging question deep within our hearts, “Why does our loving God sometimes allow his seemingly innocent loving children to suffer through terrible diseases, such as cancer and to die in agony (Fichter, 9)?

This paper is divided into three main parts. In the first part, I discuss how the dichotomy of the modern worldview which caused the modern medicine to abandon the spiritual nature of the sickness. In the second part, I examine how the current doctor-centered structure of the modern medicine can aggravate marred identities and god-complexes of both the sick and the non-sick. In the third part of my paper, I explore how the transformational healing in the form of patient-centered care can help both the sick and the non-sick regain their true identities as children of God and open the possibilities for their liberation from the bondage of chronic pain and disease. Finally, I conclude that the nature of the sick is essentially spiritual and that to witness Jesus Christ through health care as a part of transformational development Christian workers and development agencies need to shift from the current doctor-centered modern medicine to patient-centered transformational healing.

1. Dichotomy of the Modern World View

In the dichotomy of the modern world view, God works in a spiritual realm while science and technology dominates the physical world (Myers, 319). Modern medicine belongs to the domain of science and technology. Because modern medicine does not rely on God in claiming its effectiveness rejecting the providence of God in a physical world, the dominance of modern medicine in people’s lives is naturally bound to disregard the spiritual aspects of the sickness. Thus, by birth, modern medicine is in discord with the view that the primary cause of the chronically sick is spiritual. Thus many Christians in the dichotomous modern world view must live ambivalent life styles when they become sick (Myers, 345). During the day, they need to see the doctors during the day and then ask the church to pray for healing in the evening (Myers, 346). It is because to the patients’ minds, “the division of labor” between God and modern medicine was established: God takes care of our spirits and medicine our physical bodies.

1.1 Belief in Modern Medicine

During the Middle Ages, Christians believed that God controlled both physical and spiritual worlds. When people became sick, they depended on priests to recover their health. However, since Enlightenment, along with the development of science and technology, human beings began to be in awe with their own accomplishments and began to depend on science to figure out the causes of disease. They discovered the existence of germs and with the invention of vaccines and antibiotics they were able to “cure” many infectious diseases. As the knowledge of human beings continued to wide and deepen, specialization of one’s profession seemed reasonable and inevitable. Medical doctors kept sharpening their skills and knowledge in treating the sick while religious professionals were contained to focus on spiritual issues until it became natural that when priests become sick, they too went to secular doctors. It happened because even the religious professionals themselves believed that the doctors are the specialists in treating the sick. Dichotomous modern world view was already working such that that people unconsciously depended on medicine more than God because God in a dichotomous modern world view is stuffed in a spiritual world while science and technology govern our physical space (Myers, 346).

1.2 Limitation of Modern Medicine in Recovering the Chronically Sick

Is the “division of labor” between modern medicine and God bad?
It depends. Medicines can be very useful if we are only interested in relieving or reducing physical symptoms of the sick. This is like helping the poor when we quickly need to provide their materials needs for the poor in emergent situations. However, as can continuing to provide the poor in the long run only with their physical needs without attending their spiritual needs can be detrimental for both the poor and the non-poor (Myers), continuing to provide medicine in the long run can be harmful for both the sick and the non-sick (I explain more in the next section of this paper).

Of course, I do not mean that we should stop caring for the chronically sick if they do not improve. What I mean is that, similar to the transformational development of which the process is owned by the poor (Myers, 173ff), we need to establish a transformational healing system owned by patients which can transform both the sick and the non-sick. In the present, the modern medicine is a top-down doctor-centered system in which doctors control diagnosis and treatment methods (Porter & Teisberg, 225), and have the sole authority to declare whether the patients are cured. However, unless patients, the weaker of the two parties between doctors and patients, actively participate as the owner of the treatment process, they can never fully recover from their marred identities of the sick. Modern medicine is seriously weak in supporting that spiritual need of the sick. The reason is that modern medicine does not recognize the power of God who alone can provide the true identities of the sick as well as the non-sick whom doctors are a part of.

2. Marred Identities and God-Complexes of Modern Medicine

Someone may ask if it is possible that God is using modern medicine to heal us. That is the way it is supposed to be, I would say. I believe that all medicine, if genuine, is God’s gift (Bouma, 17) of which the use is supposed to increase our thankfulness and praise to God, and also to reinforce our true identities as children of God.

However, modern medicine has failed to carry out the task as God’s gift. First, instead of serving God, modern medicine became our gods (Schuman & Volck, 35). Far exceeding to regard modern medicine as one of the tools to enhance the qualities of our lifestyles, we are worshipping it (Mohrmann, 11). Secondly, modern medicine has the doctor-centered structure which seems to perpetuate or even aggravate the marred identities of the sick and god-complexes of the non-sick.

2.1 Medicine as gods

The idolatry status of medicine is pervaded in our lives. We rely on medicine and doctors more than God. For instance, when Christians are diagnosed for a serious sickness, such as cancer, they are likely to choose hospitals by reputation, by national ranking or by convenience rather than for its availability for spiritual source (Shuman & Volck, 13). Then they call on God when medicine alone will not be sufficient (Ibid, 13). The way Christians trust medicine is also manifested in their attitudes toward doctors. Doctors are greatly respected and they enjoy special power and prestige in our society not just because they are highly educated but also because we believe that our health and lives depend on them. If Christians really believe that God cures them through doctors, why do they weigh their doctors’ skills and prestige much more than their spiritual backgrounds?
One of the buttress that underpins modern medicine as idolatry is the popular myth that modern men’s life expectancy is greatly increased due to the development of medicine. However, Jekel in his “Biblical Basis for Whole-Person Heatlh Care” reveals that the increased life span for modern men and women was mainly due to the decrease of infant mortality and childhood disease which was the result of the improved nutrition and the sanitary revolution, such as the availability of clean water and sewer system, before immunization and antibiotics were available.

It is still true that medicine is important in saving people’s lives. However, some people still hope that someday the development of “wonder medicine” will be able to liberate human beings from the bondage of chronic pain and disease. Again, they put modern medicine as their savior. This is a lie. This is one of the web of lies which disempower the sick and confirm god-complexes of the non-sick. How can a human product, medicine, save human beings who made it (Myers, 151)?

2.2 Modern World Views toward Diseases

Excluding the power of God in a physical world, to explain the existence of chronic diseases, modern medicine seems to rely on two powerful narratives. One is the mechanistic view and the other is the evolutionary theory.

First view is that human bodies are like a complex machine. Diseases are symptoms of “broken down” bodies. When a car has a problem, we take it to a mechanic, the expert on cars. Likewise, when we have diseases, we go to doctors who are experts on “fixing” human bodies. To fix or adjust the malfunction of our bodies, they administer drugs. If human bodies seem beyond “repair,” they cut off organs or replace them with new ones (organ transplant). If pains do not stop despite medication and surgery, many patients are told that their bodies are “near the end of their life span” and their only option is to keep taking pain medication or cutting off their nerves to alleviate their suffering “before death.” Certainly in a mechanistic view toward human bodies, patients are regarded as “broken” objects which need to be “fixed.”

In the second narrative of evolutionary theory, human bodies are imperfectly designed, still in the progress of evolution. If patients’ organs kept causing inflammations or problems, many doctors are not hesitant to cut them off, permanently disfiguring the patients’ bodies, for example, appendectomy, tonsillectomy, hysterectomy, mastectomy, and so on. In the evolutionary perspective, particularly from the perspective of medical professionals human bodies sometimes act “stupid,” and need to be adjusted and corrected because the design of human bodies are still crude and not sophisticated enough.

Both mechanistic view and evolutionary theory do not hold high expectation toward the bodies of the sick. Patients are viewed as either “broken” helpless objects or “malfunctioning” organisms which cannot do much on their own, but which need to be either fixed or adjusted by specialists in medicine.

2.3 The Cause of Chronic Sickness Is Primarily Spiritual

Even though the flagships of modern medicine, surgery and drugs, are very effective in quickly addressing physical sufferings of the sick, modern medicine may harm or seriously aggravate the already marred identities of the chronically sick and god-complexes of the non-sick.

For example, in the mechanistic modern world view, a human body has a limited life span which is bound to “break down.” For old patients, if they do not improve, they are often told that their bodies are getting “too old” to be able to be fixed, that they have to live with suffering until the end of their life. Doctors may say that to patients with sympathy and good intentions. Yet because the patients may respect and appreciate their doctors’ honesty, the hopelessness of the patients will be further increased. The patients often accept their doctors’ words as final due to their special status and authority in the society.

This leads to the discussion of the non-sick who also fall into the victims of god-complexes by supplying the long-term medical needs of the sick. The non-sick may think that they are the only ones who can save the sick and also they may feel good about themselves for doing so (Myers, 242). However, this one way, top-down relationship is not good for the transformation of the sick either. This is because such long-term one way help is based on the prejudice that the sick has no gifts or skills to help themselves (Christian 1994, 264). Such superior attitude by the non-sick may reinforce low self-esteem and the feeling of helplessness of the sick (Myers, 222).

Both the sick and the non-sick need each other. Both sides must be transformed during their interactions because all of them are sick in God’s eyes. The sick must be recovered from their marred identities and the non-sick particularly from the god- complexes. Even though the latter group may act as the lords of the sick, they themselves are not immune from getting “incurable” or terminal diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. The burden of becoming “saviors” for the sick is impossible for any mortal beings to bear. It is only possible by God who alone has the power to heal us and transform us (Myers, 170).

In order for both the sick and non-sick to be transformed, we need the alternative, bottom-up biblical worldview which supports the ownership of the sick in the healing process.

3. Transformational Healing

Transformational healing is different from conventional modern medicine which is based on the perspective that the sick has the problem and that they must be helped by the non-sick. Contrary to top-down approach of the current doctor-centered medicine, transformational healing uses bottom-up and horizontal approaches. In this view both the sick and the non-sick are imperfect and need each other to be transformed, and the non-sick does not direct but serve the sick because that is how Jesus taught us to serve our neighbors. The non-sick support the sick to recover their health in their own terms because the sick are also children of God who have skills and talents to help themselves.

3.1 Biblical and Alternative World Views

Ancient Hebrews believed that people’s diseases and sufferings were caused by sins (Fountain, 105). That’s why when Jesus’ disciples saw a blind man in the street (John 9:1), they asked Jesus, “Why was the man born blind? Was it a result of his own sins or those of his parents?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Also, when Lazarus became seriously sick, Jesus declared that Lazarus would not die, but God’s son would be glorified through him. Thorough Jesus Christ, diseases were no longer God’s curses or punishments, but opportunities to testify God’s grace. Unlike the Old Testament which seems to view that diseases are God’s punishment (2 Chronicles 26:19 – 20), and unlike the modern world view which denies the providence of God in a physical world, the New Testaments witnesses that Jesus saves us from the suffering of diseases (Matthew 4:23).
Even though modern medicines seems to regard human bodies as either complex machines or imperfectly created organisms which malfunction from time to time, diseases can also be positively viewed by the evidence of working immune systems within patients’ bodies to preserve their lives. For instance, a fever during a cold or an infection is not the sign that our bodies are breaking down, but the activation of our defense mechanism in the circulatory system to protect us from the invasion of harmful bacteria. Diarrhea from food poisoning is our bodies’ emergent attempt to excrete poisons outside our bodies. High blood pressure is the body’s way of coping with poor blood circulation: raising the pressure from the heart will increase blood circulation. High blood sugar level for diabetes is the body’s refusal to absorb surplus sugar which is already saturated within the patients’ body and thus to eliminate the excess sugar through urination.

Various symptoms of disease are in fact not the signs of “breaking down”, but our bodies’ active immune functions which protect our bodies from further damage. Thus, without addressing the root cause of the diseases, the spiritual nature of the sickness, attempting to reduce only physical symptoms of the sick through medicines may result in further deterioration of the patients’ conditions, just as addressing only physical needs of the poor may aggravate their poverty in the long run (Myers).

3.2 Restoration of Our Relationship with God

One of the common questions that Christians have difficulty in answering is, “Why does our loving God sometimes allow his seemingly innocent loving children to suffer through terrible diseases (Fichter, 9)?”
We can understand if the wicked suffer, but why the innocent?
God allows us to suffer because God wants us to commune with Him not only spiritually, but physically as well. God allows us to become sick because He wants us to become stronger. What does that mean?
For instance, when we get cold, we may develop a fever as our body temperature rise. Is the rising of our body temperature a sign that our bodies are trying to “break down?” No, not at all. Raising our body temperature is a way of mobilizing the immune system to fight against harmful bacteria. During this battle, our bodies manufacture antibodies which will fight off the germs. The preparation of the antibodies is important because they will protect us from the invasion of the bacteria in the future and thus will save us from going through the same “trial” again. However, if we rely on fever remedies to reduce our body temperature, because we fear that fever is a sign that our bodies are trying to break down, then our bodies will not be able to properly prepare antibodies to defend against bacteria. Then, we will continue to be susceptible to the invasion of the same bacteria. Thus, developing fever is our bodies’ way of developing immunity against bacteria. We need to change our perception toward fever.

Let’s take another example, diabetes. Patients often focus on reducing blood sugar level because high blood sugar level is dangerous. Insulin or receptor blockers are often used. However, modern medicine has no cure and thus call it incurable. Am I saying that diabetes is curable?
In order to answer that question, we need to shift our perception from interpreting patients’ symptoms from “break down” to body’s inherent way to solve some hidden problem. Diabetic patients complain of frequent thirst, urination and hunger. These symptoms are the body’s concerted way of decreasing the patient’s high blood sugar level. Frequent thirst encourages the patients to drink more water which will help dilute their high sugar level and to force them go to bathroom, a way of quickly excreting the excess sugar in their bodies. Thus, the existence of glucose (sugar) in the patients’ urine, called diabetes mellitus (urinating sugar), is not the “break-down” of the body as modern medicine thinks, but a way of the body’s dealing with unhealthy high blood sugar level of the persons. The body is already undergoing the self-treatment!
However, I am not suggesting that patients do nothing when they have the disease, but that they should do something that caused the disease in the first place. No single individuals can figure out the cause it can vary, such as poor diets, lack of exercise, stresses in the job, broken relationships or polluted environments. The patients, their families, community and doctors must work in cooperation for the recovery of the sick (Fountain, 49). During this process no one can dictate others because we need one another to be transformed and we are only humble existence in need of God’s grace. Just as poverty can be a vehicle for both the poor and the non-poor to recover their true identity as God’s children (Beltran, 10-14), which means to practice godly love toward each other and to reach closer to God, chronic diseases can also be a passage way for God’s grace for both the medical professionals and patients.

Thus, I want to avoid the word, “cure” because everyone including doctors can only assist the sick to recover. The sick have the inherent abilities to recover (Robbins, 227). God gave each human being those abilities regardless of how sick they could be. It is because God created human beings fearfully and marvelously (Psalm 139:14) beyond our comprehension (Brand & Yancy). God is a loving God who personally created all the delicate, inner parts of our bodies in our mothers’ womb (Ps 139: 13). He works most intently within us to save us when we are sick because He cares so much about us.

3.3 Patient-Centered Care

The weakness of modern medicine is that doctors alone bear the burden to “cure” the sick and play god. Even though the society may compensate them through social prestige and financial gain, they cannot bear that burden because they are only mortal beings like us who can become sick. The high rate of doctor’s addiction to substances may have the reason. Thus, the sick and the doctors are both victims. The sick must live with the marred identities because they expect forever that their doctors are responsible to take care of their problems and the doctors suffer with god-complexes because they as gods feel obligated to take of them. It is professional paternalism (Fountain, 13).

As a solution, Fountain suggests patient-centered health care. Patient-centered care is a community approach (Fountain, 203) working as a team effort (Ibid, 49). Doctors are only one of the team members along with patients’ families, teachers, nurses, school teachers and community leaders. Their purpose is the recovery of shalom for both the sick in the family, school and workplace (Ibid, 49). Medical professionals abandon their secular pride and learn from others moral and spiritual problems that could concern the sick (Ibid, 46). The sick and their families actively participate the healing process and choose their options. In such an environment, the burdens of the sick can be shared by others and turn into opportunities by the Holy Spirit to thank and to witness God as the community gradually recovers shalom (Ibid, 119).

The goal of the patient-centered care is much more than treating the physical symptoms of individual patients. Also, the sufferings of the sick cannot be dealt as their isolated problems but as interconnected ones with their families and communities. Thus, they must be transformed together in their relationships with God, with self, with community, with all others (Myers, 75). Patient-centered care is a transformational healing that witnesses God in their humble, holy lifestyles by provoking the question about the gospel (Myers, 315) even though they may not explicitly engage in verbal evangelization.

4. Conclusion

Dichotomy of the modern world view contributed for the development of modern medicine which excluded God in a physical world. Thanks to the power of science and technology, modern medicine was effective in dealing with physical symptoms of the sick. However, due to its abandonment of the spiritual nature of the sickness, which is the primary cause of the chronically sick, the marred identities of the sick and god-complexes of the non-sick were aggravated.

To be liberated from the bondage of disease and pain, we need to be aware of the limitation of our modern world view and medicine, and be transformed ourselves first with the biblical worldview before we try to transform the sick (Bosch, 189). Unless we believe in the power of God in the transformation of the sick, our effort of evangelization may instead witness the power of modern medicine instead of God because people will eventually worship what we truly believe in. Is it God or modern medicine?

Thus, the true transformation starts from the conversion of our complete Christian world view (Myers, 344 ff.) “True healing means the restoration of the person to wholeness” (Fountain, 104). Because we are all interconnected, the suffering of the sick can be our own suffering. Then, working side by side with patients as their servants as Jesus taught us and sharing their burdens along their families is not a choice but a mandate. Patient-centered care can be a starting point to obey that mandate. To begin, we need to reject our secular power, the status and privileges that we are entitled to or that we own. It is possible only with God’s grace (Matthew, 19: 26) because such humble posture is based on God’s incarnational love and thus transforms the sick more powerfully than any content of our ministry can (Myers, 274). Thus, transformational healing starts inside-out with our humble attitude that God works everywhere and He alone has the power to heal and liberate us from the bondage of pain and disease (Myers, 151).

Bibliography

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