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A Shelter in the Time of Storm


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 life—the biochemical, psychosocial, and intellectual—are 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 well-being.

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 this experience:

"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 spiritual restoration.

Being Balanced
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 God—as 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).

Cultural Challenges
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 health—more 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

Christianity's Contribution
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 others.

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 by permission.

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, "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.

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© 2004, Adventist Review.