Faith, the church and health care
by Ted Lankester
I spent quite a few years in my earlier life trying to work out whether God exists. One day I thought to myself: ‘If God does exist and if he is a God of love, as people tell me, then surely he will make himself known to me.’
Within one week and after years of searching, I felt changed, transformed and certain. I started to read the Bible more carefully and I came across what I now
call ‘The Nazareth Manifesto’ (Luke 4:17–19). When Jesus first stood up to tell the world who he was and what he had come to do, his mission statement was so simple. It was to bring good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom for those who were oppressed.
What a great vision! Is that ours, too?
In Matthew’s gospel (chapter 25:37–45) we are given a bit more detail. We are told that when God finally sets his approval (or not) on what we have done in life, he will ask whether we have fed the hungry and cared for the sick.
What higher priority than that does health and development work receive?
A healthy partnership
A recent report by the World Health Organization estimates that between 30 and 70 per cent of health care in Africa is provided by faith-based organisations. That seems to show that many people are taking God at his word.
But there is more. A recent study has shown that more than four out of five people worldwide have a religious faith. In many countries it is far higher.
I have been thinking a lot about these issues – how faith and health go together. It seems to me that health workers who are enriched by faith in God need to have two priorities. The first is sharing and demonstrating the wonder of knowing God to friends, neighbours and acquaintances. The second is to share our God-given knowledge of science and how to live healthy lives with our friends and communities (and of course to demonstrate it as well!).
A lot we can all do
I lived with my family of five in a remote part of the Himalayas for many years. Most people there had no access to health care. So we worked with community members to find solutions. Together, we worked out ways to prevent and cure many illnesses by utilising local resources, training community health workers and using a few essential medicines. We found that up to four out of five illnesses could be prevented, cured or improved at community level.
Most of the ill health in that community was caused by infectious illness, poor nutrition and, increasingly, non-communicable diseases such as diabetes. But simple guidelines apply to all of us, urban or rural, rich or poor. If we eat healthy, nutritious food, remain at an ideal weight and take regular exercise (whether in our fields, streets or gyms), we can prolong our life. This is not just for our own benefit, but so we can support our families, our communities and our country.
Last year I visited the Anglican cathedral in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I was delighted to hear from the dean that they were getting involved in health care, despite all the problems the country has faced. On a recent Sunday, members of the congregation were encouraged to have their blood pressure taken by doctors after the evening service. High blood pressure is now the biggest cause of death worldwide. So blood pressure testing can be an excellent extra blessing that church leaders can bring to their congregation and community.
Wise advice and simple improvements can often give us further years of healthy life, so we can continue to enjoy and serve God’s world. Surely something this valuable is worth talking about in our sermons, our schools and our Bible colleges?
Is it always a good story?
The relationship between faith and health care is often good news – but not always. We do have to be aware of some difficult questions about negative aspects of faith and health. I will mention two important ones.
The first is this: some people believe that faith alone will cure their illness. So for example, if they are taking antiretroviral treatment for HIV, they throw away their medicines. Many people have died because of this dangerous and foolish advice based on wrong theology. Did not the God who created faith also create the world? Of course he did. The God who loves us also gives us science and medicine to show his care for us.
Many of us give thanks or say ‘grace’ before meals, asking God to bless the food for our bodies. In the same way, when I take my medicines each morning to control my blood pressure and lower my cholesterol, I say thank you to God for each of them. They help me to go on a 7km run most weekends and to keep serving
my family, community and patients.
The second difficult issue is this: faith and health care sometimes seem to clash with each other. Health practices based on evidence and good practice may challenge certain beliefs held by some sectors of the church (and some other faiths). One example is in certain areas of sexual and reproductive health. I am going to be a bit controversial for some readers by saying that I believe the use of contraceptives has prevented large numbers of unwanted children and saved the dignity, health and freedom of countless women. We can be thankful to God for this and use contraceptives in a way that honours God, not as an easy way into promiscuity.
As teachers, is it OK to
talk about faith?
The Lancet is one of the world’s leading journals on medicine and global health. In 2015, for the first time it devoted an entire edition to the role of faith in health care.
This was one of its conclusions: ‘Faith-based organisations deliver a substantial volume of health care, and their common visions of stewardship, inclusiveness, dignity, and justice make many such organisations ideally suited as key partners for delivering the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals’ (William Summerskill and Richard Horton).
Some of you reading this article will be teachers in schools, colleges and universities. You may be reluctant to bring the topic of faith into your health teaching, because it appears to be separate or unscientific. But is it? The Lancet has endorsed its value. We know that church-based hospitals, health centres and community health programmes are saving thousands of lives every day. So although we need to be aware of regulations, we do indeed have ‘permission’ to speak about the role of faith in the secular world. And if we fail to speak up, we are not giving the full message about the vital role of faith-based organisations in the modern world.
- If you are a pastor or a church leader, please use the position of respect you hold to promote good health to your congregations and community.
- If you are a health and development worker, please enjoy the recent research that allows and encourages you to bring faith into your work and teaching.
- If you are working for a secular NGO, consider discussing faith issues respectfully with the people you are working with.
For all of us, let us thank God that he created our faith, he created our world and he created ways for us to prevent and cure illness. We can be very grateful for the wonderful gifts of faith, health and creativity he invites us to work with and enjoy.