I am a born again Christian. Quite recently, in fact. I believe in the Holy, inspired Word of God.
I am also a cancer surgeon and a scientist.
I am a husband, and a father to two young children.
The story I would like to share with you challenged many of the assumptions I hold regarding faith, medicine, even fatherhood. It demonstrates how real problems emerge when people have trouble reconciling independent, well formulated perspectives about healing.
I believe there are two ways that God accomplishes healing in this world. The first category is natural law healing which is beautifully exemplified through modern medicine. The second category is supernatural acts of healing that are alive and well today, and best understood through the Word of God, not the scientific method.
In cancer care especially, I often encounter a strong form of doubt about medicinal approaches and experience some patients or their loved ones intentionally excluding medicine from the treatment approach.The rejection of medical treatment in these cases creates extreme challenges for medical providers– both ethically and morally– especially when a scientifically proven treatment option is being refused.
Many times it is a fear of side effects that drives the exclusion of medicine, or a prior experience where a patient was extremely dissatisfied with his or her health care; but I frequently hear patients say that God is telling them to reject treatment as an act of faith.
So how should a Christian physician respond to the exclusion of natural law healing by a patient on the basis that it is not God’s will? The ethical response physicians follow is to allow patients to choose whatever path they desire regardless of risk, because their autonomy must be respected. More times than I care to admit, however, my concerns extend beyond ethical considerations because I’m frankly worried that my patients are misinterpreting Scripture– even down to their comments about the nature of God and matters of salvation. What then? I adore our hospital chaplains who are far more prepared to answer these questions than I am, but I don’t always have the opportunity to “punt.”
What I’ve come to understand about healing is that health is unquestionably ordained by God, and it can be achieved through incredibly diverse and redundant mechanisms, often in the face of terrible odds. The story I’m about to tell reflects these truths, and challenges many assumptions we make as healers particularly when we ascribe preferentially to one method of healing over another.
A Father’s Faith
As a cancer surgeon, I am trained to perform some of the most extreme surgeries in medicine. It would not be unusual for me to operate on a tumor situated in the deepest parts of the pelvis for over 16 hours, and sometimes longer if things aren’t going as planned. I use surgical techniques that were developed by heroic pioneers of medicine that have been perpetually challenged and vetted for decades by some of the smartest people on the planet. Scientifically speaking, the surgical procedures I offer are widely accepted as efficacious based on statistically aligned outcomes and professional consensus among thousands of practitioners. Despite these extensive proofs that my surgery is effective, there is no individual guarantee that it will work in all instances.
So, when I was called urgently to the intensive care unit to consider a major pelvic operation for a victim of a traumatic injury (not a cancer mind you), I knew something was terribly wrong. I was warned by the primary team that the father of this patient had a reputation for being “difficult” and was refusing life-saving care because he stated that “God was going to heal his son.” Many of the staff were avoiding the room because of ongoing conflicts.
As I walked into the intensive care room, I introduced myself to Dad and explained my potential role in his son’s care. He was immediately skeptical of me and began interrogating me about matters of medicine and faith. I sensed we were getting nowhere, so I politely interrupted him and asked if we could pray together. His arguments softened to the point where we were able to pray in agreement for healing as we laid hands on his mangled child. After we were done, God opened a small window for me to engage this grieving but doggedly determined father. I asked him how this all came to be.
Over the last several months, Dad had been working nonstop. He was burnt out and needed a vacation, so he took his teenage son on a weekend trip to one of the local ski resorts. Nearing the end of the first day, he was watching his son navigate one of the more difficult ski runs when he lost control and careened over an embankment, striking a large ski lift support. The snow patrol estimated that he was moving over 40mph and came to an immediate halt upon straddling a large cement column.
The sudden deceleration caused a large tear in his aorta that interrupted the blood flow to his left leg, collapsed his lungs, and shattered multiple bones in his extremities, spine, and pelvis. He was immediately evacuated to the nearest hospital and was clinging to life for nearly a month before I was called to see him, sedated on a ventilator in the ICU. Based on the severity of his injuries, his statistical chance of dying was almost certain. His father bore witness to the entire event and never left his son’s bedside.
Once the young man was finally transferred to our tertiary referral hospital, his leg was long since dead and the necrotic tissue was making him extremely sick. There was a unanimous consensus among the medical staff that it needed to be amputated if he were to possibly survive.
His father, however, was seeking supernatural healing. For the last month, Dad had been speaking life continuously over his child, claiming his surrogate authority over sickness and death through the power of Jesus’ blood flowing through the Holy Spirit. By the time I was asked to participate in this patient’s care, his unexpected survival already bore a powerful witness to the medical staff that God was playing a miraculous role in his healing, well outside of the natural law. It wasn’t always perceived that way by the staff because of the personal conflicts that had developed, but by any reasonable scientific analysis this patient should have never made it off the ski slopes.
The father explained to me that he expressly chose to believe in God’s ability to heal because he read in the Word of God that unbelief limits God’s ability to enact healing through supernatural means, and he believed his son was actively receiving miracles that were keeping him alive. He claimed these miracles for his son without exception, and defended the air in the ICU room from even the slightest hint of unbelief. He chose to confront and defy any unbelievers who entered because his experience since the accident had taught him that his son’s life depended on his ability to maintain the Holy Spirit’s presence at his son’s bedside. I deeply admired this father’s conviction and wondered if I would have the same degree of conviction if my own son were severely injured.
He began to view compliance with certain medical recommendations as acts of unbelief based on his spiritual convictions, and viewed the medical staff who, according to him, were largely non-believers, being too far from God to make good judgments. He began requesting Christian medical staff and dismissed the non-believing staff.
The painstakingly difficult decision to proceed with an amputation finally came after much debate with the family, largely because the medical team had no choice but to lay down an ultimatum. Recognizing that all life support measures had been exhausted, they instructed the family that the leg had to be amputated or his son would die from the toxins being released into the bloodstream.
A few difficult questions came to mind: how, in that moment, does a father begin to reconcile his faith in God with the recommendations of a group of frustrated doctors who may or may not be consulting God in their medical decision making? How far must a father be willing to go to work out his faith with fear and trembling at the bedside of his dying son?
From the perspective of the health care team, we all struggled with the idea that we were being asked to set aside decades of training and experience, a wealth of accumulated scientific evidence, and rely solely on supernatural healing. Many of the providers questioned the notion that if natural healing is equally ordained by God, how can it just be set aside?
More broadly, I wondered about my personal role as a Christian physician. How do I fulfill my responsibility to both patients and God when they are in such apparent conflict? I was deeply grateful for the chaplains who attempted to bring clarity to the situation, but they too encountered deeply entrenched polarity.
Compounding matters further was the challenge I faced, now having to break the news that a higher level of amputation was needed because the initial amputation attempt he so desperately fought against was insufficient to stop his son’s vital organs from failing.
A Christian Doctor’s Dilemma
Nowhere in the Bible does it say that life is supposed to be fair. Based on a lot of soul searching and reading of the Word, I’m not convinced that God brings trouble to his children as a loving gesture to make them stronger. The Word teaches us that God’s heart is for his children is to protect them, hold them, and heal them. God is just, to be sure, but he’s not vindictive nor can he be tempted as such. The ultimate proof of God’s desire to heal us is far more convincing than anything the scientific method can generate: the death and resurrection of Christ.
So why is it, then, that people of faith sometimes view modern medicine or natural healing as mutually exclusive to acts of supernatural healing? Or, to look at the question from another angle, why do people of faith sometimes identify times when modern medicine is clearly aligned with God’s will for their lives, but on other occasions identify times when medicine is directly opposed to God’s will?
Is it God’s desire for us to be healed predominantly through supernatural means, to the point of excluding most or all other natural methods? No. Neither do I buy the idea that God’s plan for supernatural healing is just to fill in the cracks where modern medicine leaves off.
So how does this all fit together?
This difficult patient encounter left me with a much more challenging question that I continue to struggle with to this day: have we, as medical providers, become overly-reliant on natural healing to the degree that we fail to welcome the Holy Spirit at the bedside? In essence, have we turned medicine, technology, our rigorous training experiences, our scientific culture, into an idol that displaces supernatural acts of healing? Could a well-intended Christian physician, like myself, be part of a profound spiritual problem at the bedside because I’m uncomfortable (at times) with spiritual healing? To be fair, I’ve prescribed far more medical treatments than I’ve laid hands on patients, so if faith without works is dead, what kind of healer am I?
Like many things in life, it’s much easier to ask difficult questions than to answer them, but I do know that my patient’s life was balanced precariously on the edge of an enormous divide between science and faith– and he survived. Despite our collective shortcomings, the providential God we serve still chose to execute on the promises he outlined in His Word. He performed miracles well outside of the natural law, and provided us with a beautiful design that we were able to leverage to restore a badly bruised and broken body. There’s no need to compare and contrast which approach was best. In fact, we need to do the opposite. We need to be better at executing both natural law and spiritual forms of healing, so the Kingdom of God comes faster.
Faith and Science
The story has a relatively happy ending. My patient survived and is beginning the long road to recovery. His father did give me permission to operate on his leg a second time which resulted in improved clinical stability. He’s received nearly a full year of the best care and prayer this world has to offer, which in my opinion is why he’s alive today. What an inspiring story he will have to share!
I want to leave you with one last thought: what would our world look like if we prescribed healing through medicine and prayer with equal fervency?
We certainly have challenges to overcome because there is a very practical divide that exists between doctor and patient, believer and non-believer, even church and state, when it comes to healing. However, thanks to the safe forum BioLogos has created there are now opportunities to have productive, forward-moving discussions, that respect both science and faith as it relates to healing. These discussions are far from intellectual gymnastics, because the byproduct of bridging the divide between science and faith in healing, will bring us closer and closer to alleviating suffering in this world.
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