In this third episode of TGC Q&A’s Christians and Healthcare series, Dr. Bob Cutillo answers the question, “Can protecting my health become an idol?” He addresses:
- What are signs that I’ve made an idol out of pursuing health? (1:40)
- Health as a possession versus a gift (2:40)
- Health as an end versus a means to an end (4:44)
- Anxiety in regard to health (6:33)
- Health and a Christian view of suffering (7:45)
- In what ways does faith intersect with providing the best medical care? (9:15)
- How do I avoid being ruled by fear of getting sick—especially in this pandemic? Is my increased fear normal? (11:57)
- Fear as a normal reaction (12:22)
- God’s work to make us whole (13:48)
- Fighting fear with faith (16:01)
- A warning against arrogance and a story of sacrifice (17:15)
Find more from TGC on this topic:
Cutillo’s Recommended Resources:
- Reclaiming the Body: Christians and the Faithful Use of Modern Medicine by Joel Shuman and Brian Volck
- Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age by Bob Cutillo
- “Health Is Membership” in The Art of the Common Place by Berry Wendell
- “Dr. Matthew’s Passion” by Blaine Harden for The New York Times Magazine
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Dr. Bob Cutillo: You’re listening to TGC Q&A, a podcast from The Gospel Coalition. This is the Christians in Healthcare series, where we respond to questions at the intersection of faith and medicine. My name is Bob Cutillo. I’m a family physician, had been one for quite a few years, mostly serving underserved populations in urban America and Africa as a missionary. Most recently, I have been teaching medical students at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. I’ve been teaching pastoral and chaplaincy students at Denver Seminary. I’m the medical director of St. Benedict’s Health and Healing Ministry, which is a outreach to underserved populations, especially the homeless. In 2016, I collaborated with the Gospel Coalition and Crossway to publish Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age, which will be quite pertinent to the questions that I’ll be answering today, or at least responding to.
The questions that I’m going to be responding to, we’ve received from you. These are very good questions, ones that I have wrestled with for years. In that light, they’re not questions where I’m going to have a simple, true/false answer for you, or even an ABCD, but try to give you things to reflect about because really these represent ongoing challenges, these questions. They’re profound questions that we must face with ongoing prayer and relationship with the Lord. So with that in mind, let me start reading some of the questions. There’s three of them that I’m going to respond to today, and see if we can give some reflections that will help you in your thinking of these important matters.
The first question is, “What are some signs that I’ve made an idol out of pursuing health, or having good health?” For that question, I’d like to give you three things to ask yourself to try to help process that question because it’s a very big one. It’s easy to make an idol out of health because it’s such an important thing. It’s such a thing that we value so much. It’s something that we really want and desire greatly, so it can easily become an idol. The first question I’d asked you, and this is pretty much checking on your attitude. The question I asked you is, am I considering my health as something I have, as something I possess. Like, “It’s mine. It’s a possession.” Because if you begin to think of it that way, as a possession, then you begin to delude yourself into actually believing you can control it. So really, the attitude question is, “Am I considering health as a possession, or do I realize, from a Christian perspective, that it’s a gift?”
Now, if you’re considering it as a possession, some of the ways you’ll see that working out is you engage in efforts to be healthy. Thinking that you will surely be successful if you’re only diligent in carrying them out, which gives you the distinct sense that if you do the right things, you can control your health. So if you find thinking that, that’s a question you need to ask yourself. “Am I thinking I’m controlling my health?” Then, of course, when you are healthy and you have that attitude, you feel that you’re only getting what you deserve? So instead of being thankful for your health, you’re more expecting things to turn out well, and when they do, you’re not grateful. You’re just satisfied that you’ve been duly rewarded for your efforts.
I think that a lack of gratitude for any measure of health you have, when we realized that it’s a gift given by God, and fragile, and fretful, and not easy to have, then, if you think you have it, and you own it, and you control it, that’s a big warning sign. One of the signs that, also, it’d be, and I’ve seen this in many of my friends, is being surprised when you get sick. Like, “Oh, my goodness. Why am I sick?” Instead of realizing that sickness is part and parcel of our lives. It’s not something we control. So if you find that every time you get sick, you’re shocked at it, that may be a sign that you’re thinking you have your health in control.
Then, one last subtext of this first question you’re asking yourself, “Is health a possession or a gift?” If you’re thinking it’s a possession, and you’re trying to control it… I often see people, Christians included, depending way too much on healthcare and medicine to save you. In this day and age, medicine has so much to offer. Thank God that we are living in this age where we have so much good medicine. We can depend upon it, so much that had been done to reduce the ravages of sickness and the dangers of death. But if you find yourself believing all the promises that medicine is making to you, as if they can bandage all your wounds, and you depend upon them, and really expect them to be your savior, that’s another sign that maybe you’re trying to possess your health instead of be thankful for it.
Now, the second question that I asked you to ask yourself, and when you’re wondering if you might be making an idol out of health, is, “Are you pursuing health as an end in itself, or as a means to an end?” That’s a really important thing because health is such a good that we can make it a primary good. But it is not a primary good, it’s always a secondary good. As Christians, it’s always meant as a way to glorify God. So if we’re not using it as a means to an end, but as an end in itself, then we are in danger of idolizing it. I think when you see people trying to do be healthy, whether it’s the way they eat or the way they exercise, or you go to a gym, or you go to a bike path and you’re exercising, you can’t tell from the way that person is exercising whether they’re pursuing health as a means or an end. You can’t tell from the actual activity. It’s more the spirit in which you’re doing it.
As a small example, I can remember one time I was on a bike path. I saw all these people vigorously exercising and running, and just really killing themselves to be healthy, I think. Then, I saw this man riding by in his bicycle. He had one of those trailers behind it. You know, how many of the young families have their little kids in the trailers, like two or three years old? But this one was different because there was a nine-year-old child in there. A nine-year-old child who was much heavier. When I looked and saw it was a nine-year-old child with cerebral palsy, and this man was bicycling this nine-year-old child around the bike path, and I know for his case, he was being very healthy. He was probably getting more healthy than anybody there. But I knew that he was doing it with a different end in mind, to serve his neighbor.
Think about whether you’re pursuing health as a means to an end. That we receive health as a gift, we nurture health, not to own it or possess it or to have it as an end, but as a way for us to live faithfully and give glory to God. That’s another question. Then, the last question I would ask you if you are trying to discern whether you’re getting too tied up in pursuing health, is, “Are you exceedingly worried and anxious about your health? Are you regularly afraid you might lose it at any time, and you’re hypersensitive to any changes in your body that suggest a threat to your health, even when there’s no direct threats to it?” Now, we’re going to address this question when we come to the third question, but that’s more with the direct threat. But what I’m talking about here is, where there’s nothing going on that’s directly threatening your health, but you’re worried about what might happen rather than what’s happening.
Over the 30-plus years that I’ve been a physician, I’ve met more and more people coming to see me, not because there’s anything wrong with them, but because they’re afraid of what might be wrong with them, or afraid of what might happen. In fact, some people have even called it pre-traumatic stress disorder, instead of posttraumatic stress disorder. Even before anything happens, we’re worried about what might happen. The scripture gives us great wisdom. Of course, Jesus knew it when he said, “Who can add even a single hour to your life by worrying?” In fact, the paradox is “the more you worry, the less healthy you are.” In fact, worrying about your health is only going to make you less healthy. I think probably, in summing up this question, one of the things that underlies it is, I think, Christians in our society have lost a Christian view of suffering. That, we are so uncomfortable with it that we seek to avoid it at all costs when, sometime, it’s the only way through which God leads us into a deeper relationship with Christ.
I think of a quote from a Christian writer of the last century. She said, “The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural cure for suffering, but a supernatural use of it.” We have, in Christ on the cross, a traumatic relationship with suffering that should change how we’ve used suffering. Despite all the modern messages that we have in our society, that suffering is something we can avoid, something that has no purpose, and something that we should get rid of completely, we need to regain that Christian view of suffering. Now, I want to say that God knows what we long for.
This is important as you try to let go of health as an idol. He’s coming to restore us to complete health. He knows deep down this desire we have to be fully healthy. But in the meantime, while we’re waiting, we do well to remember that though, meanwhile, we groan, each of our individual lives is lovingly enclosed in the story of God. That’s a story of restoration, of redemption, and of making all things new. In that invitation is an invitation to trust what God will do in our deep desire for complete health.
Now, the second question is also one that I feel a great deal about, in my years as a physician, “In what ways does your faith intersect with providing patients with the best medical care?” I’m going to answer that question a little bit more briefly, but, basically, on two levels. The first level is, I would say that that question would apply to any work we do so that, when I think of work, I think of Colossians 3. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, not for humanity or for other people, or to please other people.” I think that if you’re doing your work with all your heart, and I might add also with your mind, and your soul, and your body, you give your work because you’re working for God.
It doesn’t matter what work we’re doing. Our excellence in our work is an honoring of God, and that would apply to me, as a physician, it would apply to you in your stages of work. It’s just a simple thing that we honor God when we pursue excellence in our work. The second level that I had answered the question pertains more specifically to healthcare and medicine. Though I would say it’s not only so, it would apply in other places. I ask you to think of the best in your own places at work. But it’s the way I’ve tried to understand the doctor-patient relationship. That has been the core of what medicine has been throughout history. It’s why I went into medicine, is to understand and nurture that doctor- patient relationship. What I draw upon, and what I’ve tried to draw upon over the years in my biblical reading is my Christian understanding of relationship to illuminate the doctor-patient relationship.
That means that instead of seeing that relationship as a contract, I see it as a covenant. If I see my relationship with my patients as covenant and not contract, then all of the things that I think of in God’s covenant with humanity, his commitment to us, his willingness to walk with us through suffering, am I willing to walk with my patients through suffering? Am I willing to be trustworthy? Because we know that no matter what, however untrustworthy we are in the Christian covenant relationship, God is always trustworthy. I’ve always sought to be a trustworthy source of care for my patients. We live in a world where most people don’t trust anyone. There’s very few people that have relationships that they can trust in, but my patients need to be able to put their trust in me, especially in their vulnerability to being sick.
I have a high call, if they’re trying to put their trust in me, to be found trustworthy. For that reason, there’s a deep connection between my Christian faith, my covenantal relationship with God, and my desire to have a covenantal relationship with my patients. Then, the third question and this one is quite apropos and current to our situation. ” How do I avoid being ruled by fear of getting sick, especially in this pandemic? Is my increased fear normal?” Well, I can see where that question came from. It’s a very valid and very important question for us to consider. Let me first say that it’s appropriate to feel afraid of things like plagues that stalk in the darkness and pestilences that lay waste in the noontime. Sickness, suffering, and death are scary things. When I think about Psalm 91, it talks about not fearing the terrors of the night. In honesty, I still feel like the fright little boy I used to be, who would look under the bed to make sure there was no monsters there.
Deep down we’re still frightened, little children. God knows that. The question is not whether we have the tendency to be frightened and scared. The question really is, how does our faith modulate that fear, that it would not rule over us or enslave us? I think for that, it’s important to take the firm grasp of some significant biblical truths. They’re there throughout scripture, but I think often we sidestep them as we think of ourselves in control and not being in a world that’s so uncertain. Yet, boom, a pandemic comes, and all of a sudden we face uncertainty. At the same level as most of the world has been facing uncertainty forever, and still does, but we have somehow isolated/insulated ourselves from that. But in fact, the biblical truth is still the same today, yesterday, and forever. We are frail, finite, and fragile creatures. Whichever one of those ones bothers you the most, we’re all three of those. We should not be surprised by the limitations of our body.
The second thing is that this incompleteness is part and parcel of who we are. God made us in our humanity to be frail, finite, and fragile creatures. Though we’ve grown inwardly in that recognition, the beautiful thing is that God is aware of our desire for wholeness. God is aware of our desire for wholeness. He knows that we are but dust. He knows that our days are limited. He knows that we’ve grown in our bodies. What has God done for us? He’s delivered us from the fear of death. This is something that is the most miraculous thing God could do for us because of how much it dominates our living without him. One of my favorite scriptures is Hebrews 2, 14, and 15 in this sense. It says, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death, he might destroy him who holds the power of death. That is the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
The words are as clear as can be. All our lives, apart from Jesus, we are held in slavery by our fear of death. In Christ, he frees us from the fear of death. Now, I want to be clear, it’s not because we’re not going to die. Don’t forget that he’s delivered us from the fear of death, but we, biologically speaking, we are still going to die. The reason we can be no longer afraid of death is because he’s going to resurrect us from the dead. That’s a whole other ball of wax if you will.
I think of the story in John 11 when Lazarus was raised from the dead. We know what a dramatic story that is. But the line that sticks out to me, in this context, is John 11:37. Jesus says, “Come back to Mary and Martha.” Lazarus is in the grave, and the people say, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind have kept this man from dying?” Do you see what a small vision they had? Of course, Jesus could have prevented him from dying. But what Jesus intended to do was much greater, which was to resurrect him from the dead, eternal life. This is why we don’t fear death, not because we’re not going to die.
Now, we have to fight our fear, with what? With our faith. It’s our faith in what God will do that can deliver us from the fear of death. I think that sometimes we wonder what’s the opposite of faith. We think it’s doubt. I think the scripture says the opposite of faith is fear, and that it’s faith that can dramatically alter our fear. As we respond to this question, I think of a couple of passages in the New Testament of healing, where Jairus, who was the synagogue ruler, and his daughter was sick and actually finally died. But on the way, Jesus says to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid, just believe.”
Another story is when the disciples are in the boat. Jesus is asleep, miraculously, at the one end, and the storm comes up. They’re scared as can be, and Jesus says to them, “Why are you so afraid? Do you have no faith?” So I encourage you, in this question of fear, to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our faith in him, what he has done for us, is the way that we can modulate the fear that is a part of all of our lives. Because really deep down, we’re still those frightened little children. We’re afraid of the monsters under the bed.
Now, as we close, I want to just be very careful to say, in this day and age, that when you ask Jesus to come into your life and when you receive him, and he begins to live in you, he delivers you from the fear of death, but that should never turn into any form of arrogance. I think that there’s sometimes when people think that they have been delivered from death, and they’re Christians, that they get a superior attitude to other people who are still struggling under that shadow of death. So it should never turn to arrogance. I think maybe the best way to end this conversation is to illustrate this principle with a person. Because it’s someone that I have thought of and admired for years, and I think illustrates this idea of how do we receive this deliverance from fear of death and enter into life with it in a humble way.
It’s a doctor in Africa. He was in Northern Uganda during an Ebola crisis about 20 years ago. His name is Dr. Matthew. He was a 42-year-old man. He was in charge of the hospital. Ebola hit and he was overwhelmed. He had a wife and children, and they wanted him to move to Kampala to get away from the hospital and the dangers, but he said, and this was his faith in action, he said, “I’ve been called to be there for my patients.” So Dr. Matthew, for principles of his faith, decided to stay put in the hospital and serve the Ebola patients.
What he illustrates is two things. First of all, he didn’t take his health for granted. He followed personal protective equipment. He tried to do everything he could to reduce the risk of getting sick. He respected his health. He appreciated his health as a gift. He sought to nurture it and protect it. But again, to use it for the sake of others, he was willing to go where there was great risk. Unfortunately, one night, in the rush of this very sick patient, he forgot to put his goggles on, and within a week he had a fever, and within a week later he had died.
He’s honored in the hospital. I only bring him up here to honor the principle that if we are truly to live without fear of death and not be arrogant but to, instead, live humbly and respectfully, we will live sacrificially. When we see someone living humbly, and respectfully, and sacrificially, then we know that they’re walking in between both respecting and cherishing their health as a gift, but not trying to protect it, and own it, or control it.