Treat Illness With a Dose of Thoughtfulness

The Disputation

By David Klinghoffer

Published June 13, 2007, issue of June 15, 2007.
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Barack Obama is the latest Democratic candidate to offer a plan that would bring us closer to universal health care coverage, along socialized British or Canadian lines. Almost all the developed nations have turned to such models of government-directed medicine, while the United States has thus far resisted. Could this be because our country remains the most Bible-believing in the world? Let’s consider the possibility.

On the topic of health, Scripture overturns familiar assumptions. Why do people get sick in the first place?

The usual medical answers focus on purely material causes: unhealthy lifestyles, uncongenial microbes, unlucky genes. From such a perspective, it makes sense to devote the government’s vast power and authority to ensuring that everyone has healthcare coverage.

The Bible, however, sees illness differently. Plagues and diseases are a recurrent feature of the story of human history told by Scripture almost from the beginning. But, very differently than the secular worldview, sickness in God’s perspective has moral meaning. Almost always, it is a wake-up call, a warning, a message to the individual or the community.

Take a couple of examples from the book of Numbers. When Moses sent spies to scout out the land of Canaan in preparation for the Israelites’ conquest, the spies brought back a discouraging report about the land and its supposedly fearsome natives. The Israelites went into a collective panic attack. God was so disgusted by this lack of faith that He proposed to “smite them with the plague” (14:12) until Moses intervened.

Later, when the Jews ungratefully complained about the poor refreshments being offered on their 40-year camping trip in the desert, God sent poisonous serpents that bit “multitudes” until the people repented (21:6). Then the Lord had Moses fashion a copper serpent and suspend it on a pole. Those Jews who gazed upward at the serpent, and then cast their eyes to heaven in faithful understanding that this plague came from God, were cured of the venom’s deadly effect.

In an interesting irony, the image of the snake on the pole later merged with the pagan Staff of Aesculapius, which is composed of a snake on a staff, to become a symbol of the medical profession. In medicine, faith is not generally considered a tool of healing. In this biblical account, faith is the whole point. In contrast to modern Jewish culture’s worshipful attitude toward physicians — think “My son, the doctor!” — the Bible regards doctors with scorn. Ponder two contrasting stories of Jewish monarchs.

King Asa was one of our more virtuous monarchs, but he died in a way that did him little credit. He had been on the throne for 39 years when he was struck with an unnamed illness that began in his legs, spreading upward. Unfortunately, “in his illness he did not seek out the Lord, but only doctors” (1 Chronicles 16:12). This demonstrated his lack of faith.

Nine generations later, Asa’s successor King Hezekiah became “deathly ill.” The king did not consult doctors but instead prayed to God for healing (Isaiah 38:3). God responded favorably, adding 15 years to his life.

If a sickness is assumed to have spiritual significance, then the way to fight it is to address the moral condition that produced it. The Talmud explains that ideally we should never consult doctors at all. A person with an illness should seek out spiritual guidance, as in Christian Science. That we are allowed to use medicine is a leniency, taking into account that few of us are up to the spiritual level it would require to effect healing through repentance.

Does this mean that every time somebody gets sick, it’s a punishment? No, of course not. The meaning of an illness may imply nothing negative at all about the sick person. It may very well imply the opposite.

Nor may that meaning be readily discernible. One of the Bible’s most famous symbols of meaningful illness is the suffering servant of Chapter 53 in the book of Isaiah, whose pain atones for or otherwise follows from the sins of others. In the cryptic prophecy, Christians see an allusion to Jesus, while Jews see a personified remnant of the Jewish people:

“He was despised and isolated from men, a man of pains and accustomed to illness. As one from whom we would hide our faces; he was despised, and we had no regard for him. But in truth, it was our ills that he bore, and our pains that he carried — but we had regarded him diseased, stricken by God, and afflicted!” (53:3-4).

The original Hebrew here insistently uses language associated with literal, physical disease. Yet the unidentified “we” mistakenly attribute his suffering to his own moral flaws. In fact, “the chastisement upon him was for our benefit” (53:5), reflecting our sins. Though we shouldn’t assume we know the meaning of an illness, we should assume it has one.

Illness is to be treated with thoughtfulness, even — for the very mighty in spirit — gratitude. Rather than mandating health by government fiat, it would be better to allow individual moral actors, responsible human beings in all their glory and pathos, to work out their own relationship to their illnesses with maximum freedom.

David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author of the forthcoming “Shattered Tablets: Why We Ignore the Ten Commandments at Our Peril” (Doubleday).

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