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ss nucleus - spring 2000,  Medicine and the Christian Mind

Medicine and the Christian Mind

Being a Christian should shape our understanding and practice of medicine. The following excerpts consider the Christian mindset on suffering, science, alternative medicine and psychiatry.

Suffering

Our response to suffering

When we see suffering, our first response should not be, ‘Why has this happened to him or her?’ Rather we should wonder at the amazing grace of God that he has not already judged the whole world - that we are not already all condemned. There are two remarkable things about suffering. The first is that we, who justly deserve God’s punishment, have been offered a way of escape. The second is that the Lord Jesus suffered and died, when he deserved no such thing. Only Christ was perfectly sinless, and yet God ‘did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all’ (Rm 8:32). (Thomson H. Making sense of suffering. Nucleus 1999; 11-16, July)

The victory is won

Evil still occurs. Our situation is a little like that of a chess match in which the outcome is certain. Even the defeated opponent who refuses to resign may continue to play, moving pieces here and there, maybe even capturing the odd piece; but it is all to no avail in the end. The victory is won. God has always been superior to the devil: Jesus’ death and resurrection displayed that for all to see. ‘Checkmate’ is guaranteed, but until the judgement and the creation of a new suffering free world, the devil somehow plays on. Ultimately, God will be seen to have dealt the final blow to suffering by creating a new heaven and a new earth, and then he will wipe away every tear; there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away (Rev 21:1-5). (Cleaver B. Why suffering? Nucleus 1993; 14-20, October)

Take up your cross

How should we respond to suffering as Christians? First, it should be a constant reminder to us that we live in a world which is transitory. Judgment is coming and God is only delaying it out of mercy. This should encourage us in evangelism and godly living, because ‘the time is short’ (2 Pet 3:11-14; Col 4:5). Secondly, we must realise that the only way of conquering suffering is in the way Jesus did, through the cross. Jesus relieved suffering in others - he restored peace in nature, brought healing to the sick and mended broken relationships - at great cost to himself. He calls us to follow him in this same path (Lk 14:27). As Christian doctors we will want to take up our cross: to use the skills he has given us to relieve the suffering of others, to bring patients and colleagues the good news of God’s grace and to take our own share of suffering in his service (2 Tim 2:3). (Saunders P. Why Suffering? Nucleus 1997; 18-23, July)

Science

Evolution

Discussion of evolution is frequently fogged by failure to recognise that the term is used in different ways. It is helpful to distinguish between micro- and macroevolution:

• Microevolution is evolution at and below the species level, as exemplified in Kettlewell’s famous studies of the variation in the proportion of light to dark coloured moths in a population of peppered moths. This aspect of the theory is really not controversial. Indeed, many of the examples given are scarcely evolution at all, if that term carries a sense of permanent direction change. They are rather examples of cyclical variation within fundamentally stable species.

• Macroevolution refers to the evolution of the living cell from non-living materials, of multicellular from single-celled structures, of new body plans, new organs etc... This theory is more controversial. Those who believe it can be roughly divided into two groups. There are those who believe that there is a God who has used these methods under his supervision to produce life in all its variety. A larger group, represented most vocally by Professor Richard Dawkins, subscribe to the ‘Blind Watchmaker’ thesis the belief that the processes driving evolution are blind and undirected.

The Bible indicates that God created in stages by feeding in the necessary information and energy to get from stage n to stage n+1. Hence, if you try to explain stage n+1 in terms of, say, the physics and chemistry operating at stage n, you will inevitably fail. To put it another way, microevolution operating at stage n might well lead to a lot of variation but would never produce stage n+1. In consequence, any scientific theory which does not allow for such inputs will experience an inevitable crisis as an inadequate paradigm. (Lennox J. Evolution – a theory in crisis. Nucleus 1998; 15-24, April)

Animal experimentation

I personally believe that we should be joining with those who seek to enhance animal protection within medicine (which is not to say that I condone in any way the more radical actions of the animal rights movement). For there are still many ways in which the 3 Rs, (refinement of techniques, reduction in the number of animals used and replacement of animal methods with other techniques), can be incorporated into current practice without any adverse effect on human health. As to whether this could completely eradicate the need for animal experimentation in medical research, I, like 70% of doctors surveyed recently by the BMA, am not convinced. However, both as Christians and as medics, we should be endeavouring to alleviate suffering. I can see no reason why this desire should not extend to other members of the animal kingdom, so long as we maintain a biblical perspective upon the unique position of mankind. (Fry M. Animal experimentation. Nucleus 1994; 2-7, October)

Alternative medicine

The roots of alternative medicine

Many alternative therapies, particularly those associated with New Age holistic healers, are based on the idea of God being a force or energy, rather than the Christian belief in a personal God and heavenly Father. Many of these therapies, grouped together under the heading of ‘Energy Medicine’, are often seen to be on offer in close juxtaposition to occult and astrological practices, tarot card reading, palmistry etc at psychic fayres and Mind-Body-Spirit events with strong New Age associations. (Smith G. Aromatherapy - the right scent to follow? Nucleus 1998; 21-27, October)

Test, hold, avoid

Each branch of alternative medicine needs to be assessed individually to determine its effectiveness, scientific basis, mode of action, safety, underlying worldview and links with the occult. We should be wary, but we must be careful also that we do not miss genuine gifts which God has given. The biblical injunction to ‘test everything... hold on to the good... avoid every kind of evil’ (1 Thes 5:21,22) is surely as relevant here as in any other area of the Christian life. (Saunders P. Alternative Medicine. Nucleus 1999; 15-25, April)

Psychiatry

Spiritual factors in mental illness

Most mental conditions can be dealt with in the same basic way that physical conditions would be approached by a non-Christian surgeon or physician. Nowadays mental health professionals are trained to take into account, and be sensitive to, the religious beliefs of their patients and not to impose their own beliefs on vulnerable people. In my experience there may be certain problems which do require spiritual input. These include situations where forgiveness is needed for a wrong committed against the patient. If a Christian has become depressed in this situation they will need the help of a pastor or fellow Christian. However, sometimes even here, it may be necessary to help the person out of a severe depression with drugs or electro-convulsive therapy (as John White asserts in The Masks of Melancholy). Only then can the spiritual issues be addressed by a person in command of their faculties. (Beer D. Problems in Psychiatry. Nucleus 1995; 2-7, July)

Demon possession and mental illness

Demon possession and mental illness are not simply alternative diagnoses to be offered when a person presents with deliberate self harm or violent behaviour, although they may need to be distinguished in such circumstances, whether by spiritual discernment or the application of basic psychiatric knowledge. It would seem reasonable to argue that demon possession may be an aetiological factor in some cases of mental illness, but it may also be an aetiological factor in some non-psychiatric conditions, and in other cases it may be encountered in the absence of psychiatric or medical disorder. Furthermore, demon possession is essentially a spiritual problem, but mental illness is a multifactorial affair, in which spiritual, social, psychological and physical factors may all play an aetioiogical role. The relationship between these concepts is therefore complex. Differential diagnostic skills may have a part to play in offering help to those whose problems could be of demonic or medical/psychiatric origin. However, spiritual discernment is of at least equal, if not greater, importance in such matters. (Cook C. Demon Possession and mental illness. Nucleus 1997; 13-17, July)

Depression and Christian counselling

Anxiety and depression provide an opportunity for caring professionals to point out a person’s need for God in their life and as a possible solution to their problems. This can be an effective method of communicating spiritual things to others. When patients present with unmet needs, it is a wonderful opportunity for all Christian doctors to share how needs can be met in God. For a Christian doctor to be a good counsellor who is able to listen, empathise and advise in a professional context, knowledge and skills are required in order to care for the whole person physically, emotionally and spiritually. It is vital that we learn to adopt the skills of counselling and communication to help us show the love of Christ and the wholeness which can only be found in him. (Suffield M. The doctor as counsellor. Nucleus 1997; 24-27, July)

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