BY GERALD R. WINSLOW
HERE IS NO MORE POWERFUL FORCE for human health than a profound
trust in the Creator who made us. Faith affects every dimension of our being
because we were created to be in communion with God. The many dimensions of
human lifethe biochemical, psychosocial, and intellectualare meant
to be unified at the spiritual core where our lives find their meaning and direction.
So the wise man of Scripture's Proverbs writes poetically:
"Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
It will be a healing for your flesh
and a refreshment for your body" (Prov. 3:7, 8).*
The Bible's testimony is that being in tune with God is important to our physical
Ellen White reflected this truth when she named "trust
in divine power" in the list of "true remedies" that includes
such other factors as pure air and proper diet.1 Elsewhere she wrote:
"The assurance of God's approval will promote physical
health. It fortifies the soul against doubt, perplexity, and excessive grief,
that so often sap the vital forces and induce nervous diseases."2
Thus the good news of God's grace, expressed to us in Jesus Christ, is the single
most potent force for the health of whole persons.
At the same time, being out of step with God and having feelings of guilt and
despair often deprive people of the health they could enjoy. The psalmist described
"There is no soundness in my flesh
because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin" (Ps. 38:3).
The feeling of having stepped away from God's path, without a sense of God's
forgiveness, is associated with an absence of health. Often full restoration
to health can be accomplished only when the spiritual illness of guilt or meaninglessness
has been addressed.
A Case Study
Early in my ministry, when I served as a hospital chaplain, I learned that the
connection between spiritual needs and physical health is complex. It was apparent
that patients who called confidently on God for help could face what would otherwise
seem to be overwhelming physical illness and difficult medical procedures. On
the other hand, I was surprised by the number of patients, some of them not
particularly religious, who were certain that their illness was a direct punishment
from an angry God.
Now, decades later, I still recall vividly an elderly patient
who was sure that his life-threatening illness was the result of God's retribution.
When I asked him to tell me why he felt this way, he recounted times when he
knowingly disobeyed the will of God. In particular, he told of a time when he
had failed to kneel in prayer, a posture he believed was required by God. For
this, and similar "rebelliousness," he was convinced that God was
punishing him with his illness and that he would be deprived of eternal life.
My heart went out to him as he wept in despair for his lost
condition, and I sought to reassure him of God's inexhaustible grace. I knew
that, whatever the future of his physical condition, what he most needed was
The story of this patient illustrates why we must speak carefully about the
relationship of faith and health. Understood properly, the importance of faith
for human health is a source of hope. But the truth of this relationship is
also easily warped. The danger of distortion may be particularly great in a
community of faith that emphasizes high standards of belief and practice, including
high standards for healthful living. In our world, twisted as it currently is
by sin, our health inevitably fails, and sooner or later we face our demise.
No amount of healthful and faithful practices will repeal the inborn death verdict
of our current mortality (see, for example, Rom. 5:12 and 1 Cor. 15:22). Rather,
we look forward to a new order in which death, already defeated by Jesus, no
longer has power (see Rev. 21:4).
Still, how often have we heard people wonder when another becomes
ill: "Did he or she fail in some aspect of health reform?" "Was
his or her life in harmony with the plan of God?" Such questions remind
us of Jesus' disciples who, upon encountering a man who was born blind, asked:
"Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
(John 9:2). This query reveals the pervasive belief that physical maladies are
retribution for sin. Of this false idea, Ellen White commented: "Satan,
the author of sin and all its results, had led men to look upon disease and
death as proceeding from Godas punishment arbitrarily inflicted on account
of sin. Hence one upon whom some great affliction or calamity had fallen had
the additional burden of being regarded as a great sinner."3
Jesus met the challenge of such distorted beliefs by giving
us the perfect example of what we may call "whole person care," attending
to the spiritual and physical needs of those who came for help. When Jesus met
the paralyzed man whose friends had lowered him through the roof, Jesus' first
words were, "Son, your sins are forgiven" (Mark 2:5). Then Jesus healed
his paralysis. The way that Jesus combined care for this man's spiritual and
physical needs is a model for all who accept our Lord's call to love one another
as He has loved us (see John 15:12).
Today we are witnessing cultural changes that present new opportunities for
sharing Jesus' good news for the whole person. Just now our culture shows renewed
interest in the relation between spiritual well-being and physical health. This
is evident simply by looking at the covers of popular magazines. In bold letters
the Reader's Digest cover says, "Doctors Report: Faith Can Heal
You."4 A recent Newsweek cover shows a picture
of a praying hospital patient with the words "God and Health: Is Religion
Good Medicine? Why Science Is Starting to Believe."5
What accounts for this new interest in spirituality and health,
especially in a culture that was supposed to be growing ever more secular? Why
is so much attention now being given the healthful power of faith? Answers to
such questions are bound to be complex. The human thirst for spiritual meaning
is hard to quench. Even the most secularized persons are likely to care about
their own healthmore than ever when they sense it failing. But perhaps
the most compelling reason for the resurgence of interest in spirituality's
relationship to health has been the result of scientific investigations. Hundreds
of studies have shown a relationship between religiosity or spirituality and
health, and the majority of these studies suggest a positive
People of faith who have long believed in the health benefits
of spirituality may feel little need for such scientific research. But in an
age when science has become the dominant approach to truth for millions, the
empirical evidence for the relationship of spirituality to health has created
new opportunities to consider the values of faith-based health care. At least
one enthusiastic physician has gone so far as to suggest that, given the scientific
data we now have, failure to offer the health benefits of spiritual practices
such as prayer should be considered malpractice.7
In this atmosphere of popular enthusiasm faithful Christians will do well to
seek the kind of balance that comes from following sound scripturally based
principles. For example, the Bible teaches us that care for our physical well-being
is part of faithfulness to our Creator, and that our bodies should be considered
the temple of God's Spirit (see 1 Cor. 6:19, 20). Thus the currently popular
emphasis on the health benefits of spirituality is only half the story at most.
Care for our physical health is also good for our spiritual well-being. A full
understanding of spirituality and health, deserving to be called wholistic,
should attend not only to the health benefits of spirituality but also the spiritual
benefits of healthful living.
Without such balance the presently popular slant on spirituality
and health has the potential for reducing the spiritual to a kind of magical
potion that is instrumentally good for health. While there is plenty of evidence
for the health benefits of faith, this is not our reason for being faithful.
According to Scripture, our faith is a response to God's grace, and all this
is a gift from Him (see Eph. 2:8-10). So the utilitarian idea of mustering religious
faith and its accompanying spiritual practices for the sake of human health
is not in keeping with the gospel.
Another reason to be guided by biblical principles is that not
all kinds of religious faith are equally beneficial to health. In their study
of the ways in which religious patients cope with illness, researcher Kenneth
Pargament and his colleagues found that patterns of beliefs may be either helpful
or harmful to health outcomes. More negative outcomes are associated with belief
in a punitive and unloving God, attribution of ill health to demonic interventions,
doubts about God's power, and the experience of interpersonal conflicts in the
patient's community of faith.8 Examples
of beliefs and spiritual practices that are associated with more positive outcomes
include seeking forgiveness and spiritual support from a loving God, viewing
illness as an opportunity to become more closely connected with God, and accepting
personal responsibility to collaborate with God as an active partner.9
These research results remind me of Ellen White's frequent emphasis
on intelligent faith and the importance of human cooperation with divine power.
Referring to our collaboration with God, she wrote, "It is in this way
only that the human agent can become a laborer together with God. The Lord does
not sanction in any one of us a blind, stupid credulity. He does not dishonor
the human understanding, but, far from this, He calls for the human will to
be brought into connection with the divine will."10
It is this kind of faith that nurtures our health and prepares us for serving
Recently some of my colleagues at Loma Linda University produced
a book with the title Spirituality, Health, and Wholeness, which is intended
as a guide for health-care professionals.11 The appearance
of this helpful work is just one more indication that Seventh-day Adventists
have been given the remarkable gift of practical faith that seeks to serve human
wholeness. There has probably never been a better time in our culture to share
the rich benefits of our convictions about the relationship of faith to health.
To our neighbors with whom we share this time in history, may
we say, in the words of the Bible, that we "pray that all may go well with
you and that you may be in good health, just as it is well with your soul"
(3 John 2).
*All Bible quotations in this article are from the New Revised
Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian
Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used
1 Ellen White, The Ministry of Healing, p. 127.
2 White, The Faith I Live By, p. 229.
3 White, The Desire of Ages, p. 471.
4 Reader's Digest, October 1998.
5 Newsweek, November 10, 2003.
6 For the most comprehensive analysis of these scientific studies, see Harold
G. Koenig, Michael E. McCullough, and David B. Larson, Handbook of Religion
and Health (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
7 Larry Dossey, Prayer Is Good Medicine: How to Reap the Healing Benefits
of Prayer (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996).
8 Kenneth Pargament et.al., "Patterns of Positive and Negative Religious
Coping With Major Life Stressors," Journal of the Scientific Study of
Religion 37, no. 4 (1998): 710-724.
9 A recent and helpful summary of this research can be found in Brenda Cole,
Ethan Benore, and Kenneth Pargament, "Spirituality and Coping With Trauma,"
in Spirituality, Health, and Wholeness: An Introductory Guide for Health Care
Professionals, Siroj Sorajjakool and Henry Lamberton, eds. (New York: Haworth
Press, 2004), pp. 49-76.
10 Ellen White, Our High Calling, p. 310.
11 Siroj Sorajjakool and Henry Lamberton, eds., Spirituality, Health, and
Wholeness: An Introductory Guide for Health Care Professionals (New York:
Haworth Press, 2004).
Gerald R. Winslow, Ph.D., is vice president for Spiritual Life at Loma Linda
University Health Sciences Center and a professor in the Faculty of Religion
at Loma Linda University.