Medicine: A Helpful Servant, A Tyrannical Master

Medicine: A Helpful Servant, A Tyrannical Master

Is Medicine Our Master?

I’ve been doing quite a bit of reflecting upon the meaning of our mortality as Christians in our contemporary cultural moment. Some of it has been preparing for the Carl Henry lecture that I will deliver at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on October 21, entitled: “Hope for Mortals: The Church’s Witness in the Midst of Dying and Death.” Click here for details.

One book that I’ve found very helpful in giving a portrait of how dying in the contemporary West has been turned into a medical experience is Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Gawande is a Harvard surgeon, and a keen observer of the way in which our society has increasing asked for medicine to “fix” an “unfixable” problem: our mortality. It is a profound meditation upon the gift, yet limits, of medicine.

This has influenced my recent reflections upon the meaning of mortality and the Christian faith. In fact, I’ll engage Gawande and various themes that he addresses in the upcoming lecture. Here are a few paragraphs adapted from a recent article of mine for Comment Magazine, giving a few of my thoughts. I say that “Medicine is a valuable servant, but a tyrannical master.” Then:

When medicine becomes our master, it feeds our attempt to cling to life as if limits to our life are artificial or unreal. We’ve replaced final words with the agonizing final decisions of family members of when to shut off the ventilator. We’ve replaced the known pastor with the unknown ICU doctor. Rather than admitting that before God, our life is “like a breath,” and our “days are like a fleeting shadow” (Ps. 144:4), thus our final hope is in joining Christ in resurrection, we keep hoping that a quick medical “fix” will be around the corner. Many patients and some doctors act as if even preparing for death is an unforgivable surrender, an unpardonable heresy.

I am not fundamentally a critic of modern medicine. As I write this, I’m approaching the third year anniversary of my diagnosis with an incurable cancer. Without the therapies developed over the last two decades, I would probably be dead now. A few decades ago, the median lifespan for this disease was 2-3 years. It is now 5-7 years. I am profoundly grateful for doctors, nurses, chaplains, and medical researchers. Indeed, I agree with Calvin that those who reject medicine reject the means through which God himself “provides us with the capacity to attend to our illnesses.”

Yet, we live in an age when good things have been turned into ultimate things, turned into idols. For those who make “medical optimism” their ultimate hope, dying does not follow the pattern of ordering one’s life before God and others, passing on wisdom, confession, and putting one’s ultimate hope in Christ and his resurrection promise. Our new pattern of dying involves syncing to the disorder of desperate treatments, focusing our desires upon the salvation of “a few more weeks” rather than the true Savior and Lord.