Since the birth of our daughter, my wife has been dealing with an anxiety disorder. At its most extreme, she suffered constant panic attacks, triggered by things as slight as our children arguing or the worship music in a darkened sanctuary. Today, tightness in her chest often prevents her from exercising, or a rush of adrenaline keeps her up for hours at night. The symptoms can mostly be managed and aren’t obvious day to day. To most who meet her, she appears healthy, “normal.”

Unlike other illnesses, whose symptoms might be overt and lead to expected changes in behavior, anxiety imposes limits only its sufferers know. And this can be the biggest challenge, the hardest symptom to bear—limitations on one’s life that others do not expect. We grow up believing the world is our oyster, and we are told constantly that nothing should prevent us from laying hold of what we desire. As she, and we, have wrestled with the implications of living with anxiety, by far the most significant struggle has been acceptance of her body’s inherent weakness. We had not realized how conditioned we were to see good health not as a gift, but as a right alongside liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Only when our health turns for the worse do we discover otherwise. “Although our world is full of disease, accidents, and random misfortunes,” writes Bob Cutillo, a physician at Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in Denver, “many of us never plan on being sick or dying and are quite shocked when we are. How have we come to think like that in a world like this?”

Advances in medicine have achieved so much good—reducing suffering and extending life—that we now demand miracles. We wield this wonderful tool not only against disease and death but also against our uncertain futures and any inherent limitation of our bodies. This is the problem Cutillo explores in his excellent book, Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age (Crossway). We must learn again to think wisely about sickness, health, and living well.

‘Dependent, Frail, and Fragile’

Cutillo begins by exploring our fear of vulnerability and limitation. We are fragile beings, yet we attempt to control all that we can and to overcome any obstacle that frustrates our desires. Our healthcare system encourages this with its tests and well-researched probabilities. We have no patience for limits.

This sets up one of the defining anxieties of our age: Yes, our healthcare system allows us to live longer—but if we make the right choices, we might be able to improve on that outcome. “At face value, we would not expect that fear would increase as danger decreases,” Cutillo writes. “Yet for many in our age, worry about health grows as the likelihood of sickness and death shrinks.” As medical science gives us more information, we have the growing burden of making the right choices, deciding on the best diet or treatment plan. Poor choices could mean early death or a miserable old age.

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We hope in the knowledge of medical science. But the promise it offers is merely an illusion of control over our future and our health. Its “studies” actually tell us very little about ourselves. Statistics don’t tell us about our own bodies, about their unique trajectories or ability to respond to illness. While this information imposes a responsibility to behave a certain way, it also introduces anxiety over our increased chances for this or that possible illness or outcome.

Instead of being grateful for the ability to stave off illness, we now demand fixes for any and all limitations, not just those caused by disease. Cutillo says, “Modern medicine looks increasingly more like the pursuit of happiness and control of the future than the cure of sickness and the care of health.” So we have dentists offering Botox, doctors’ offices plastered with posters for anti-aging treatments, and, of course, Viagra.

Having bought the delusion of lasting health, we are baffled when the doctor can’t heal. “Feeling that the medical system has failed,” Cutillo writes, “is an increasingly common reaction when problems aren’t fixed or diseases aren’t cured.”

In the process, we have warped medicine itself. It is no longer a means to care for a person—body, soul, and spirit—but “a pseudoscience that reduces all of life to mechanical functions that can be measured and controlled,” says Cutillo. This approach made sense when infectious disease was our biggest threat. We drained swamps to end malaria; we developed sewage systems to prevent cholera; and we discovered antibiotics to treat bacterial illnesses. But we have reached the limits of that approach. Today’s diseases are more complex, often involving our environment, relationships, attitude, and history. Control is far more difficult.

Instead, Cutillo says, we must accept “the basic reality that we are dependent, frail, and fragile.” Not only are we weak, but our weakness is core to who we are. “Our limitations are not out at the edge of our existence but at the center of our being.”

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Through the Eyes of the Poor

Accepting our limits is too difficult for most of us to simply choose. Cutillo offers another path: identification with the destitute. Throughout his book are stories of the destitute and ill. He shows how the illnesses of the poor make us all unhealthier—and how our over-medicalized society directly harms people who have little access to medical care. In seeing health through others’ eyes, we realize that it is a gift, not a system to be manipulated to our advantage. Health is a blessing beyond our control.

Cutillo tells the story of a woman who came to his health clinic for breast cancer treatment. Having found a lump in her breast six months earlier, she had been looking for a doctor to diagnose and treat the problem. No doctor would take her because she didn’t have insurance. By the time Cutillo’s clinic saw her, the cancer had spread. Chemotherapy extended her life but couldn’t keep the cancer at bay. This mother of two died at age 44, likely because she didn’t have insurance. Cutillo contrasts her inadequate care with the fact that we spend $8 billion per year screening for breast cancer in low-risk women. Our desire for control and invulnerability shifts resources from those who need them to those who don’t.

Inadequate care for the poor confirms what John Donne wrote centuries ago: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.” Cutillo shows how research has established a direct tie between the health of the richest and poorest in a society. Greater inequality produces worse health for rich and poor, even when the rich still have lots of money to spend on healthcare. “What we must not miss, as individuals rightly concerned for our personal health, is the value of community health for everyone’s health, both rich and poor, and everyone in between.”

Identification with the poor also reminds us how little of our lives we really control. There is much purpose and joy to be discovered when we are not in control, when we don’t have to analyze our future based on the “science” that weighs the risks of our DNA, geography, habits, upbringing, and a hundred other factors.

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A New Picture of Wholeness

As for the church, many communities offer little except quiet prayers for the wisdom of doctors and miraculous healings. The solution is to practice what medicine has abandoned: care for the whole person. Cutillo writes that even while medicine can treat a sickness, a patient may often continue suffering from guilt and shame. James’s advice remains sound: “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven” (5:15).

Christian communities can also respond differently to suffering. They “can dwell in suffering without recoil, because, in communion with a personal and present God who suffered with us, [they believe] in a redemptive promise that absorbs suffering.” They can contrast the world’s cries for a cure at all costs with peaceful acceptance of our bodies’ finiteness in light of the infiniteness of our loving Creator. They can pursue—or not pursue—medical treatment with a posture of hope. And the community of faith can offer a new picture of wholeness that is not defined by clinical health.

Not only will we get sick and suffer, but we will die. We can appreciate and even be in awe of the wonders of medicine. But our hope lies elsewhere. As Paul wrote, “he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies” (Rom. 8:11). True health comes not from a fight to overcome the natural limits and vulnerabilities of our bodies, but from the hope we have in resurrected ones.

Rob Moll, a CT editor at large, is the author of What Your Body Knows About God: How We Are Designed to Connect, Serve and Thrive (IVP).

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Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age (The Gospel Coalition)
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Book Title
Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age (The Gospel Coalition)
Release Date
September 30, 2016
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