by Don Hooser
In last month's issue, part 1 was "What to Do and Not Do."
This Part 2 covers many issues concerning the giving of advice regarding health matters.
Joses was so encouraging that the apostles nicknamed him Barnabas, meaning "Son of Encouragement" (Acts 4:36). God's people are called to pray for one another, help one another and to be encouragers .
There are many ways to encourage that do not include giving advice about remedies or medical treatments. But when a friend is sick or suffering, we yearn to help and are tempted to act as a teacher and adviser.
Your health-related ideas might be scientifically valid, might be much appreciated and might lead to good results. But this is a very sensitive and complex issue. Inappropriate advice can hurt people's health, as well as hurting them financially, emotionally and spiritually.
Before giving advice, ask yourself several questions. Has my friend asked for my advice? If not, am I certain it would be welcomed? Would I be presumptuous and unethical in influencing my friend at a very vulnerable time even if he or she does ask? Am I absolutely sure my "knowledge" is true, scientifically and biblically? With my limited expertise, am I tempted to say things I can't back up?
We can encourage one another to learn about good nutrition and healthy lifestyles. We can humbly share news and information about health matters, but we must be careful not to act as an authority or push our personal opinions on others.
In general, what are friends for? They are for love, companionship, personal help and support. Keep in mind that "love does no harm to a neighbor" (Romans 13:10). That corresponds with a time-honored medical maxim: "primum non nocere," which means, "above all, do no harm."
Be cautious, because harm is often caused by people with good intentions. You wouldn't want to carry the burden of guilt of pressuring your friend to do something that created false hope or even resulted in physical, financial or spiritual harm!
Pitfalls of Giving Medical and Health Advice
"A little knowledge is dangerous." One story describes four blind men trying to figure out what an elephant is like. One felt its trunk, another felt its leg, a third felt its side and the last, its tail. They concluded, respectively, that an elephant is like a snake, a tree, a wall and a rope.
That illustrates that it is not enough to "see" only part of a picture. Once we have a little health knowledge, it is tempting to begin advising others. With only partial knowledge, it is easy to do more harm than good.
A person who is sick needs a support group, made up of family, friends and church as well as doctors, nutritionists and maybe specialists and therapists. Each person has the opportunity to be helpful in his or her own unique way. But when a friend or family member tries to fulfill the role of "doctor," he or she often gives erroneous or unneeded advice and can hurt the relationship.
People with long-term illnesses often are overwhelmed with health and financial concerns plus all kinds of unasked-for advice coming from all directions (some of it even anonymously!). Please don't add to the pressure and confusion. Be supportive of whatever the sick person decides.
You can't even say for sure what you would do in your friend's situation—not until you experience the same condition, feel the suffering and hear all the advantages and disadvantages of various treatment options.
Power imbalances—such as a boss advising an employee, a deacon or elder advising a Church member or a senior family member advising a junior member—are intimidating. If you are in a superior position, be careful not to pressure or manipulate anyone who may feel obligated or fearful toward you.
Another factor is trust. Don't take advantage of the trust of a friend or fellow Church member to sell products or promote ideas. And "buyer beware." It's more difficult for anyone to be unbiased in recommending a remedy if he or she is also selling the remedy.
Giving medical-type advice to a member of God's Church is often a sensitive spiritual matter. When a Church member has a serious health problem, he (or she) likely will ask for an elder to anoint him and pray for miraculous healing (James 5:14-15). While hoping and waiting for God's divine healing, the believer will likely take some physical actions he thinks will benefit his health.
What medicines, treatment plans and supplements a person chooses is no indication of his faith or lack of faith in God for healing. His choices do not reveal what is in his heart. One choice is not less righteous than another. (Unless it is connected with false religion—see "Mixing Remedies and Religion.")
What a person decides is between him and God, based on his own conscience. As Paul said, "Why is my liberty judged by another man's conscience?" (1 Corinthians 10:29).
Quite often people who frequently advise others are unbalanced. Some practically idolize their medical doctors and others demonize doctors. Some feel that all forms of "alternative medicine" are automatically more effective and more righteous. (Realize that "alternative medicine" includes a huge range of approaches, from scientific and beneficial to unscientific, worthless and even dangerous.)
Don't put too much trust in words, such as natural or holistic. I try to eat mostly natural food, but that by itself doesn't tell you much. Many poisons are natural! Whether intentional or unintentional, the ways words are used are often misleading exaggerations, oversimplifications or simply untrue.
God is not against science! True "science" means accurate knowledge of God's creation. If a remedy is contrary to science, it isn't natural! Or if it depends on something supernatural, it isn't natural.
God said "knowledge shall increase" in the end time, and we can be grateful for the benefits of modern knowledge (Daniel 12:4). We should seek the best available objective scientific truth about our human bodies.
Take note that the Bible has nothing negative to say about "medicine" or "physicians." The problem of King Asa of Israel was that "even in his illness he did not seek help from the L ord , but only from the physicians" (2 Chronicles 16:12, NIV). We as God's people should fully trust Him for everything, including miraculous healing, while trying to do what we can to help ourselves.
Next to the Bible, the most helpful written resource for me before writing this two-part article was to read a book written by Cecil Maranville. Published in 2005, the title is People and Pain—How to Deal With the Chronic Pain of Fibromyalgia. Much of what he writes is helpful for dealing with any kind of chronic health problem, especially chronic pain. It also is helpful to friends who want to be helpful.
On pages 26-27, Mr. Maranville writes about friends who try stepping into the role of doctor: "I have wished many times that for humor's sake I had kept a list of the remedies, rubs and recipes that have been given, pushed and offered for sale to me. But it wasn't funny at the time... People came with sincere eyes and dramatic stories, making me feel guilty for not trying their cure...Friends should stick to giving the level of support that only friends can give."
During my more than 40 years in the ministry, I've heard from innumerable Church members telling of similar stressful experiences. That is what motivated me to write this article. A sick or disabled member sometimes receives hundreds of e-mails, cards, letters and phone calls from friends and even strangers with advice about what the member should be doing!
Consider people who are facing a life-threatening illness. Some will exert great efforts to extend their physical lives. They may have excellent reasons, like desiring to serve their families or the Church. Others can have excellent reasons for just wanting to go to "sleep," such as their advanced age, intense suffering or having an incurable disease. Whatever a person decides, we should not judge or pressure him or her.
Also, a person with an incurable disease might pursue a medical treatment to lessen the pain and suffering, which others might misinterpret as a desperate effort to prolong his or her life.
Jesus Christ spoke emphatically about placing much more emphasis on our eternal life than this physical life (Matthew 10:39; Mark 8:35; John 12:25). But the mere fact that a person is trying to get well doesn't mean that his or her spiritual priorities are wrong.
Everyone is different, so we need to get to know our own bodies, including our tolerances, deficiencies, allergies and sensitivities. Often a person gets on the bandwagon for some cure because he (or she) thinks it helped him or because he has read sensational claims, advertising or testimonials. He then feels like a white knight on a mission to save his ailing friend. But, as the saying goes, "one man's medicine is another man's poison."
Even similar symptoms don't mean much. Scores of people could have a similar-looking skin rash and yet the rashes could all have different causes. A medicine that helps one rash might not help the others.
Keep Priorities Straight
Sadly, it has frequently happened that Church members have become excited and even pushy about some "awesome" therapy, remedy or super food while having less interest in the Bible . The Bible says, "Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines. For it is good that the heart be established by grace, not with foods [or anything physical] which have not profited [especially spiritually] those who have been occupied [or preoccupied ] with them" (Hebrews 13:9).
Being human, it's easy to put too much emphasis on things physical, visible and temporary. However, "the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17).
Our bodies are "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14). However, they are complex, vulnerable and temporary. Many things can and will go wrong, and we will die. But if we are faithful to God, we will someday trade in these "lowly" bodies for "glorious" bodies! (Philippians 3:21).
Much more could be said on this subject. Let us continue to love, help and encourage one another. But let's be cautious about giving medical or health advice lest we unintentionally hurt someone—physically, financially, emotionally or spiritually.
Mixing Remedies and Religion
The Western world is turning increasingly to New Age philosophies, practices, mysticism and medicines. Many alternative health practitioners and even medical doctors are incorporating New Age treatments in their practices. Much of the New Age stuff is not new—it's largely ancient pagan (mostly Oriental) ideas with new twists and terminology.
Speaking about His people who should have known better, God said, "They are full of superstitions from the East; they practice divination like the Philistines and clasp hands with the pagans" (Isaiah 2:6, NIV).
When claims are made for a method or medicine, most people only want to know if "it works." However, God's people should be just as concerned with knowing how it works. Perhaps a mysterious diagnostic technique or remedy that can't be fully explained scientifically seemingly "works" because of a demon's involvement. Ouija boards, water witching, ESP and levitation also "work" for some people, but it's because demons make them work.
Satan, the great deceiver, will use anything to get people sidetracked from God. For example, the instructor of an exercise class might encourage the class to "advance" into Oriental spirituality. And before we become involved with any strange or mysterious health care, we should check up on its origin and history.
The Bible is the foundation of all knowledge, and everything should be judged as to whether or not it harmonizes with the Bible. God apparently is not highly concerned about what physical choices we make, but God is adamant about our steering clear of anything spiritual that is not of God (see Deuteronomy 12:29-32; 18:9-14).
You don't want to choose anything for yourself that is displeasing to God, and you surely don't want to recommend it for anyone else.
(This article was first published in the March 2007 issue of United News.)