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Modern healthcare: are we playing God?

There has always been a wide range of opinion and practice among Christians on the matter of medical technology. Soon after his conversion, my physician husband was taken aback when a woman in his congregation explained she was not going to visit a doctor to treat a thigh abscess, but was instead going to pray according to the instructions of James:

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. (Jas 5:13-15)

She was waiting for God to heal her. Likewise, a friend of mine was devastated when a well-intentioned group of parishioners visited her to pray for her chronic back pain, and then accused her of having inadequate faith when she did not immediately improve.

There has always been a level of suspicion or unease among some Christians about medical technology, and it is not getting any easier. Healthcare is changing rapidly. The escalation in the number of ways we can manipulate the unborn human is regularly creating ethical dilemmas that we have never had to confront before. The developing scientific environment will demand a constant shift of focus and approach to the moral challenges, and new situations will require us to keep re-examining the subject. Rote answers won’t be enough.

What are Christians to do as we try to determine God’s will for us in this area of our lives? Is it legitimate for Christians to use medical treatments at all, or should we always depend on prayer? Are we trying to usurp God’s sovereignty when we visit a doctor, or does he work through the treatment? What is the relationship between divine healing and the practice of medicine? Is it okay to restore health so long as we don’t try to improve on nature? How should we respond to suffering as followers of a suffering God?

In order to address these challenging questions, I want to start by thinking more broadly about technology, for that is what medicine is—a particular form of human technology.

God and biotechnology

At a basic level, the skill and ability to use the materials of the created order to make things is one of God’s good gifts to us—whether the ability to make a chair, or to make music on the guitar, or to make a house that is beautiful and functional in its design. We do not somehow cease to trust God when we work or use our skills in this way—as if God’s provision for us can only operate when we are doing nothing! We work for our food, and at the same time we give thanks to God and pray for him to bless our labours. Medical technology is just another example of the skill, knowledge and ability that mankind has been able to develop because of how God has made us.

However, the Bible contains many warnings of what can go wrong when our God-given technological creativity is abused. The builders of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11 were skillful but fundamentally opposed to God. The technology the Israelites used to decorate the tabernacle was the same technology they had used to make the golden calf centuries before. Technology can be utilized for good or evil.

The same is true today. The technology we use to identify the genetic code for the purpose of curing disease is also being used to screen unborn children so they can be aborted. We should not be naïve about the risks that technology holds.

“We should not be naïve about the risks that technology holds.”

Living in this fast-paced, youth-oriented culture, the ongoing quest of biotechnology to perfect the human body can be difficult to assess, because it comes to us in the dominant language of our culture—the language of freedom, and of avoiding pain and suffering. We all feel the pull of these things. They promise an escape from the uncertainties of the human condition into a realm of near-mastery. With God supposedly removed as a brake on human self-sovereignty, we see no limit to what human power may accomplish. And if someone objects that it is sinful pride to take the place of God, this is taken as a piece of antiquated superstition. Anyone voicing concerns about the rush towards genetic and biological engineering is seen as either anti-science or callous towards those who may benefit.

George Grant questions whether technology really makes society as ‘free’ as we think it does. While the basic knowledge (the science) that underlies technology is itself morally neutral, each technology is inevitably accompanied by an ethic of how it should be used, because each technology is designed for a specific task. We may think it is up to us to decide how to use a computer, but we can only do so within the boundaries of its design. So technology is not neutral, and the ‘freedom’ it gives us is limited to selecting between the options available, rather than expressing our full creativity in search of alternatives. In the example of procreation, for instance, what was once an exercise in receiving and caring for the gift of a child becomes a reproductive project of obtaining a child of one’s own, choosing the best route through existing treatment pathways. “And in doing so, it is difficult to see how such a child cannot be regarded as something other than a commodity.”1

Paradoxically, this presumed ‘freedom without limits’ is achieved for the individual through a loss of freedom for others. Parents achieve freedom from caring for a disabled child through prenatal screening, which gives them the information needed to make sure all pregnancies brought to term are normal. As a result, pressure is already being brought to bear on parents who hesitate to screen or refuse to abort: “How could you choose to burden society in this way?” Is this freedom? Jean Bethke Elshtain worries not only about the elimination of a whole category of persons, but also about the prospects for those who are born damaged from any cause. There are already moves to screen every pregnancy for Down syndrome. And so, in the name of expanding individual choice, we are narrowing our definition of what it means to be human.2

Technology is now harnessed not just for the restoration of normal human function but also to provide options that our ancestors never dreamed of. Assisted reproductive technology (ART) has expanded its market to provide services not only for infertile heterosexual couples but also for single parents, homosexual parents, menopausal parents and now even fetal parents.3 What is now possible has created a perceived need that did not previously exist. Who would ever have thought that 60-year-old women would seek children of their own? Supply now drives demand, not vice versa, because we are using medicine not only to overcome disease, but also to overcome and supersede normal human functioning. And the financial rewards are enormous.

The power of commercial interests in scientific research has meant that ethical boundaries have been challenged by the push for profits. Laws have been overturned to clear the way for destructive research on human embryos, as well as the creation of human embryos with three genetic parents.4 Human cloning is now legal in several countries. These are worrying developments. When the focus of research moves from healing to profit-making, ethical considerations are unlikely to receive much consideration.

So there is a profit motive but also a technological imperative, which is the idea that progress is always good and that what can be done should be done. But as Christians we do not endorse progress at any cost. We may be willing to forego some treatments, despite the material benefits, because we deem them unethical. This is not only because some biblical prohibitions are absolute, but also because of the biblical understanding that there can be meaning in suffering. We can learn from suffering; it can have a purpose.

Suffering

The Christian world view has a distinctive view of suffering. We do not see suffering as illusory or unreal (as a Buddhist would), nor as the ultimately meaningless result of different sets of evolved molecules interacting with each other (as a consistent atheist would). For the Christian, suffering lies within the sphere of God’s sovereign rule as the creator and governor of our world. Indeed, the presence of sickness, decay and death is the result of his judgement on our rebellious world.

In other words, although (like nearly everyone) Christians do not wish to suffer and do not enjoy suffering, we know that we experience suffering under the sovereign rule of God.

Thus, suffering can function as God’s loving discipline designed to correct our ways (Heb 12:5-11). Suffering can test us, prove us and purify us (Ps 66:10; Jas 1:3; 1 Pet 1:7; Rom 5:3-5). Christians will also suffer because of persecution (Mark 10:29-30; 2 Cor 12:10; 2 Thess 1:4-5).

Sometimes suffering is a direct consequence of our sin (1 Cor 11:27-30; 2 Kgs 5:20-27; Ps 32; John 5:14; Acts 5:1-10, 12:19-23). Sometimes suffering is unrelated to our sin (John 9:1-3; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1 Pet 2:22; 1 John 3:5). In the same way, we see around us some people becoming sick as a direct result of their actions (smokers come to mind), while other people who have taken great care of themselves appear to be randomly struck down with disease.

Yet these ‘random’ events may still have meaning. In John 9, Jesus said a man was born blind in order that God’s work could be displayed in his life (v. 3). We are told that suffering can be for our good even when we don’t understand it (Rom 8:28ff.).

In other words, although we naturally and rightly want to minimize suffering where we can, we do so under the rule of God. We accept the ethical boundaries he has put in place, and acknowledge that if suffering is to be our experience then good will also emerge from it within the plans of God. We also know that suffering will be temporary and, from an eternal perspective, brief (2 Cor 4:16-18).

But the individualistic, secular public isn’t interested in the spiritual benefits of suffering, or in considering whether there might be a higher good than simply avoiding suffering at all costs. I remember hearing a parent at my child’s school talking about prenatal genetic screening: “Of course, it’s normal to want the best for our children; why would we ever hesitate to take full advantage of such opportunities to rule out the possibility of disease?” But in pursuing ‘the best’ for some children, we are prepared to terminate the lives of other children who might experience disease.

We find ourselves, then, at an impasse. Christians accept that some degree of illness and disability is inevitable in a fallen world, while the secular community is determined to conquer illness and disability at any cost.

We live in difficult times. The kingdom of God has come in Christ but will not be fully revealed until Jesus returns. We may not be able to control the technological pretensions of those who seek to build their biotechnological towers up to heaven, but the people of God can still bring glory to God as we practise wise stewardship of all the good things he has made. In our personal choices, we can still make practical decisions to ensure that our own use of biotechnology reflects the values of God’s kingdom, because in the end we know that our physical bodies will pass away. In our public and social interactions, we can argue and lobby for healthcare policies that protect and nourish life.

However, we also need to remember that we are dealing with real people’s problems. We need to extend compassion even when we are morally opposed to what other people want. When I am arguing against the abortion of disabled children, I am very conscious of the burden a mother takes on when she brings a disabled child to term. Of course all babies are beautiful, but we should not underestimate the toll of caring for one of these little ones. I am conscious that I also need to argue for better community support for these families, and I need to encourage fellow Christians to do likewise. Christian ethics are not just about saying ‘No’ to particular technologies, but about practical love and care for our neighbour (Jas 2:14-17).

Regardless of its problems, we as Christians should not turn our backs on technology. Out of love, we need to keep engaging with our society on these issues, giving specific attention to the urgent need for moral leadership as we encounter the difficult challenges posed by biotechnology.5

Healing

Where does healing fit in? If sickness and death are the results of God’s judgement on human sin, are our medical problems done away with by the victory over sin that Christ has won? And if so, does this render medical treatment and technology a problem for Christians? This has been a controversial issue among Christians, and it’s not within our scope here to conduct a full investigation of the subject. However, the outlines of an answer would be as follows.

The Old Testament word that comes closest to ‘health’ is shalom. It is usually translated as ‘peace’, but its meaning is much richer. Shalom represents salvation, wholeness, integrity, community, righteousness, justice and wellbeing. This helps us to see health as God sees it. It is a holistic experience that extends beyond the physical and is grounded in our relationships.

In the New Testament, holistic healing is an integral part of Jesus’ ministry as he announces the coming of the kingdom of God (Matt 4:23). Jesus didn’t just apply a bandaid; he completely restored his patients to full flourishing, whether they suffered from blindness (Mark 8:22-25, 10:46-52; John 9:1-11), deafness and dumbness (Matt 9:32-33; Mark 7:32-37, 9:17-27), or paralysis (Mark 2:3-12). He healed those suffering from demon possession (Mark 1:23-26, 34; 5:2-13; Luke 4:40-41), and could even overcome death (Luke 7:11-15; 8:41-42, 49-55; John 11:1-44). Indeed, healing of the sick was to be the sign that the Messiah had come (Isa 35:5-6; cf. Luke 7:18-23). Jesus also sent out his disciples to heal the sick as a demonstration of the coming of the kingdom (Matt 10:5-8; cf. Luke 10:9). We also know that when the kingdom comes in all its fullness, in the new creation there will be no more evil and death and crying and pain (Rev 21:4).

All this has led some Christians to the view that it is God’s will for all sickness to be cured here and now through miraculous means. This is an understandable desire, and it is certainly true that God can and does heal people now in his kindness and grace—often through medical means, but also in ways that we cannot explain.

“The idea that God will heal all our diseases now—if we have faith—has two serious flaws.”

However, the idea that God will heal all our diseases now—if we have faith—has two serious flaws. The first is a problem of timing. One of the benefits of Christ’s victory and kingdom is that all death and disease will be done away with—but not until the new creation. In this present age, the whole creation is still groaning, Paul says, and waiting for that day (Rom 8:18-25). Suffering is still a reality, including sickness and death. In fact, it is quite clear from the New Testament that Christians should still expect to sicken and die (if Jesus doesn’t come first). Nearly all human death is a result of what we would call ‘sickness’. No-one dies of ‘old age’. They die because of some medical problem that we can’t cure. In God’s timing and plans, sickness is still an unavoidable reality of our fallen world, and he will not ‘cure’ it until the Last Day.

However, the second flaw in the ‘everything healed now’ view is that it restricts ‘healing’ to the physical. God is interested not just in our physical wellbeing but also in our spiritual, emotional and psychological wellbeing. No illness is beyond his ability to heal, but his intentions towards us are holistic. He wants to see all areas of our lives flourishing. We need to keep this in mind when we pray for resolution of the physical problems that afflict us. It could be that, as for the apostle Paul, God will choose not to relieve our physical suffering for non-physical reasons—for example, to keep us from becoming conceited, or to demonstrate his power in our weakness (2 Cor 12:7-10). ‘No’ is just as much an answer to prayer as ‘Yes’. We pray requests, not answers.

If God does choose to heal one of our physical ailments, he can do so directly and without any human intervention. However, he very often uses some kind of intermediary, such as a doctor—and this makes it no less an example of his kindness and grace. In the example I mentioned above, my husband’s urging led the woman to get medical help and to have her problem subsequently resolved.

Medicine, world views and ethics

Let’s tie these thoughts together. When we go to a doctor or utilize some form of biotechnology, we should not check God in at the door. There is no such thing as a purely ‘medical’ decision that lies outside the context of a world view. We all have a world view that shapes our thinking, our values and our ethics—even your doctor has one!

“There is no such thing as a purely ‘medical’ decision that lies outside the context of a world view.”

Secular or scientific neutrality is a myth. When a difficult decision arises in medicine there will often be an ethical aspect that is not recognized for what it is. It may be cast as a completely ‘medical’ decision when in fact it involves issues of morality. For example, should we undergo genetic testing or screening? Should we try an expensive experimental treatment if there is little chance of it working? Should we utilize medical treatments that were discovered and developed by morally questionable means? If we wish to honour God in all areas of our lives, we will bring all these questions before him.

Very often, medical decisions are made on utilitarian grounds—that is, within a world view that sees the ends as justifying the means. Doctors are taught to use the most cost-effective treatment, or the therapy with the best success rate, but they may not stop to think: is this treatment morally permissible? Doctors will often not raise these ethical questions; we will need to do that ourselves. We will then need to use a biblical approach to decision-making, taking into consideration the advice given.

Each decision we make during treatment needs to be approached with prayerful requests for wisdom, and held up to God’s word to make sure it does not breach biblical ethics. But beware—this may make you unpopular in some treatment centres! You may be viewed
as difficult and unreasonable by those who do not value human life as you do.
You may be considered disruptive if you ask for more time to consider your preferences and get more advice. But in the end we will all have to account for our own decisions before God. The Bible teaches us that we must take responsibility for our actions (2 Cor 5:10), and it is not enough to say, “The doctor made me do it”.

It will certainly help if you can think things through before you go for treatment, so that you can anticipate some of the issues that may arise. You may benefit from asking around and finding a doctor sympathetic to Christian values. God has given us a Christian community for support in difficult times of our lives, and this may be a good time to call on it.

From God’s perspective, our health includes our spiritual, emotional and psychological wellbeing, so it is also appropriate to seek help for treatment if any of these are damaged. Accordingly, it would be appropriate to ask for counselling to help cope with the psychological and emotional challenges surrounding medical issues if you find it difficult to work through them on your own. You might decide to speak to your minister, or you may go to a professional counsellor. Good professional counsellors don’t tell you what to do so much as help you understand your own thoughts and feelings. Some Christians find it easier with a Christian counsellor, although (as with doctors) many counsellors are happy to take your belief system into account even if they don’t share it themselves.

Finally, there is no instruction in the Bible that makes taking advantage of modern healthcare a moral requirement in itself. Life itself is not the ultimate good. We are not obliged to seek life and health at all costs. In fact, to do so would be to make it an idol.

 

This article is an edited extract from the Matthias Media book Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, available now. More info: matthiasmedia.com/fawm

  1. B Waters, Reproductive Technology, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 2001, discussing G Grant, Technology and Justice, University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana, 1986.
  2. JB Elshtain, ‘Biotech and human community’, plenary session at the Remaking Humanity? Conference, Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, Deerfield, 17-19 July 2003.
  3. Ovarian tissue from aborted female fetuses has been used to produce eggs for use in ART.
  4. Three genetic parents will exist for any embryo that develops from an egg that has undergone cytoplasmic transfer—the DNA of the mitochondria from the donor’s cytoplasm will mix with the DNA of the mother.
  5. For further commentary on emerging technologies, visit the website of BioCentre, a British think tank on emerging technologies and their ethical, social and political implications: www.bioethics.ac.uk. Also recommended: The President’s Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, Washington DC, October 2003.

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