A person presented with the diagnosis of incurable illness is faced with many considerations. Perhaps the most important is the possibility of cure through means not practiced by the physicians who have given the verdict of incurability. Hope does spring eternal, and even terminally ill patients seek a heavenly respite—now as in the days when Christ brought Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter back from death itself.
The patient in this predicament and mood is in danger of falling victim to charlatans, “cancer quacks,” and others who take advantage of the hopeless and the dying to satisfy their personal desire for financial gain. Nonetheless, extra-medical areas of help do exist for the otherwise hopeless. These must be considered, especially in an age when there is no apparent help or cure for many illnesses despite all available modes of therapy.
We refer particularly to what is known as “the ministry of healing” or “Christian healing.” Is the patient who has been “given up” justified in asking help from the “healing church”? An extension of the question is, what is the Christian obligation of the physician who professes to be a follower of Christ? Should he pray the “prayer of faith” for his patients and expect “signs and wonders” to follow? What of physician-clergy cooperation in the therapy of the whole man?
Much thought is being given to these considerations by physicians and nurses, by the clergy, and by the laity. The annual conferences of the International Order of St. Luke in Philadelphia have been a great stimulus toward rethinking the entire field of Christian healing. In Europe the Thirteenth Annual Conference of the “Bossey Medical Group” under Paul Tournier, M.D., also in an interdenominational setting, has served a similar purpose primarily among physicians. In England the London Healing Mission under the Reverend John Maillard and the Reverend William Wood along with Edward Wilson House and its related publishing activities under Dr. Michael Wilson, M.D., are spurring both physician and minister to a consideration of the ministry of healing. Dr. Griffith Evans, M.D., F.R.C.S., of the Church of Wales (Presbyterian) has both written and worked to help physician and clergyman view this new realm of reality in truer light. Many other efforts could be cited, such as the Christian Medical Society, the Presbyterian Commission on Divine Healing, and the investigations of Michael Balant, M.D., in London, the writings of Sarano and Von Durkheim on the Continent, to mention only a few.
A RELIGION OF HOPE
What meaning has all this activity for man in general, for the Christian doctor, for the Church? To man in general it should represent hope. Christianity is a religion of hope. The Christian has life eternal and the prospect of eternity with Jesus and in the presence of God the Father. He hopes to see Jesus soon. He hopes to see loved ones in heaven. He hopes to see his prayers answered. He hopes for the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in his own life, and for a divine work in the lives of other men.
When Christian healing is viewed in relation to the commandments of Christ (to “heal the sick,” Matt. 10:7; Luke 10:8), one sees God bringing light into what may be a very dismal world. The dark areas of life in which dwell those afflicted persons who have medically incurable diseases are not helped by prognoses of hopelessness by either doctor or minister. Consider here the field of epilepsy. It was to the epileptic, the leper, the “woman with the issue of blood,” the mentally ill, the blind, the maimed and deformed, the chronically ill that Jesus came. Most of the illnesses mentioned in the gospel accounts are those which continue today to be considered hopeless. Were Jesus to return today, would he not look at us as he did his disciples and again say “O weak and faithless generation”?
There continue to be new developments in the realm of disease which must be considered. As old diseases become curable by medical means, new strains develop. As man is preserved through childhood or through adulthood, he is faced with the diseases and problems of the age group into which he grows. As physical disease becomes more amenable to therapy, psychological and spiritual illness becomes more prevalent. The means of therapy alone produces its own group of diseases—so-called iatrogenic (doctor produced) diseases. Some drugs may actually prevent health by producing an “unhealthy health,” as by the abuse of tranquilizers. At times the search for the removal of abnormality may result in cessation of the initial disease process by the substitution of a more serious problem than the first.
The Christian discipline of medical practice may require the physician’s re-evaluation of his work in terms which are supra-Hippocratic. There is a sense of eternal purpose in his work. It allows him to accept Christ, and then to find Christ walking beside him in his rounds, and standing beside him in his surgeries. It shows him that his practice has a divine purpose, and that he is not merely saving his patients from one disease so that later on they can develop another disease and die. Christ sends the physician to present Christ to his patients. In this encounter they have the opportunity not only to be saved from disease, but to receive life eternal, which ultimately is the greatest consideration.
To point others to Jesus Christ through his life and work could be considered the true work of the physician, as of any man. When this is perceived, the physician sees that, whatever his skills, he is not the only one engaged in the treatment of disease. He observes the work of the chaplain and minister in a new light. He sees the hospital prayer room or chapel as a vital part of the institution. The doctor so inspired knows the power of prayer in his own life and in the life of his patient. He sees the patient not as an organic physical entity only, but as a psycho-spiritual being who has spiritual as well as mental and physical needs to be met. In an era when many doctors are specializing in single organs, others are considering not only the entire body but the mind and soul in their work. It is not strange to find that the general practitioner and the psychiatrist are leading in this consideration. But it is also true that many surgeons are also giving “the whole man” serious contemplation.
When man becomes ill, even medically “incurably ill,” he may retain hope that through Jesus Christ and through the indwelling Holy Spirit he may receive healing. Such healing is not an end in itself, but simply a wonderful gift of God, an evidence of the ongoing kingdom of God and a part of the “natural history” of salvation.
The patient with “incurable illness” has every justification scripturally in seeking help from the Christian Church and expecting such help to be forthcoming in a positive way. The Christian physician who reads the Bible and sees its truth must surely give Jesus credit for all healing and must point out the necessity for the “prayer of faith” in all illnesses, certainly those believed incurable. When the physician practices this belief he can truly start cooperating with the clergy in total patient care and helping the organized church to evangelize the “sin-sick” world for Jesus. It is the hope of Christian physicians that the Church will continue in its meditation, research, and labor in this powerful working of God’s wonderful Holy Spirit in the realm of his healing power manifested to the afflicted, the suffering, and the dying.
Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.
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