God Can’t Be Quarantined
This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of FOCUS.
Three years ago, “quarantine” was one of those words we knew in theory, but which few had experienced in practice. Today, virtually everyone has endured some form of quarantine because of the pandemic.
The first known use of the word quarantine stems back to the fourteenth century during the Black Plague. The word, derived from the Latin quadraginta meaning “forty,” denoted a 40-day isolation of people on ships coming from a plague-ridden area before they could come to shore.
Upon discovering this etymology, my mind was immediately drawn to the time when Jesus spent 40 days in a kind of “desert quarantine.” Of course, Jesus wasn’t banished to the desert because He had a dangerous disease. And yet today, many in our increasingly post-Christian society think of Jesus and His followers as a kind of dangerous ideological virus that needs to be isolated from our public institutions. One only needs to look at how our main public institutions — government, education, and health care — have already presumed that consideration of God should no longer play a part in our most cherished establishments.
Has God been quarantined from health care? To be fair, people haven’t (yet) been ordered to abandon belief in God to be a medical professional. Rather, there are assumptions and policies that God should not be brought into the clinic. With modern medical ethics upholding patient autonomy as one of the highest principles to be safeguarded, practitioners are regularly reminded that their professional obligation means keeping God at home when at the clinic or bedside, lest a patient’s “self-rule” be violated.
Yes, things have gotten trickier in health care for people of faith. Consequently, Christian medical professionals need to be reminded of Jesus’ words that we need to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves (Matt 10:16). That means carefully selecting which cherished principles are (and are not) worth fighting for while admitting that one’s personal and professional demeanour can still quietly translate into a proof of the reality of God. Perhaps prudentes et simplices, prudent and pure, as the Latin translation of Matthew 10:16 suggests, would be a worthy motto for Christian medical professionals.
But this begs the question: In the current climate, how can medical professionals bring God to their professional life in ethically wise yet spiritually effective ways?
Before answering the “how” question, we need to recall an important theological affirmation which historic Christian faith has always confessed: the omni-presence or ubiquity of God.
Scripture repeatedly reminds us that there is nowhere in all creation where one can escape God. Psalm 139 rhetorically asks, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” The strong non-rhetorical answer, of course, is “nowhere.” Acts 17:27 also affirms that God is near enough to all that anyone may reach out to seek and find him.
The omnipresence of God means that even in the most antagonistic, even atheistic, contexts, God cannot be barred, barricaded, or blocked. God, in short, cannot be quarantined, ethical codes, legislation, and professional standards notwithstanding. While we lament that God is increasingly unwelcome in many public settings, in faith we take comfort knowing that no one, anywhere, can escape God’s providential, loving, and merciful presence. Even if we should fail to be present to our patients, God will not. He is the ever-present Faithful one, the hovering Spirit of God (Gen 1:2) who will continue to be present in hospitals, clinics, and care homes, even if some day his people are forced to be absent.
This is where we always need to start. Far too often we think that somehow it will be our own efforts and strategies that keep God in health care. But theologically, that is simply thinking too highly of ourselves. While God freely and graciously uses us for His purposes, He ultimately is able to draw people to Himself even in drastic situations where God’s people have been driven out.
Fortunately, God’s people are still present in our health system. That means we must think wisely about what that means. In what follows, let me suggest three biblical metaphors that speak to how God’s presence, through His people, the Church, the body of believers, can still be experienced today in our health system.
The Healing of the Nations
Taken as a whole, the Bible gives evidence that God is concerned for the healing of the body. Numerous accounts of healing in the Old Testament, the Gospels, and Acts attest to the fact that God cares for the human body. Jesus and the apostles regularly engaged in ministries of healing (e.g., Matt 15:30; Acts 3:1-10; 8:7) and Paul even lists “healing” as one of the spiritual gifts given to the Church (1 Cor 12:9). By the way, let no one confuse the issue by arguing that the gift of healing speaks of only miraculous healing — though it can also include that. Consider well that Paul spent much of his ministry under the care of Luke, a physician according to Col 4:14, who attended to Paul’s own health issues!
The Gospels regularly link Jesus’ ministry of healing to the coming Kingdom of God (Matt 4:23; 9:35; Luke 9:11) so it’s no surprise that in the last chapter of Scripture we are told that the tree of life (Gen 2:9) will be restored “for the healing of the nations.” (Rev 22:2)
In this regard, there is a long history of alliance between the Church’s ministry of healing and health care from the post-apostolic period to the present day. Here in Canada, one needs only to recall the many hospitals and health care centres established under explicitly Christian auspices, including many which bear names of Christian saints, orders, and denominations. And let’s not forget that the cherished notion of “universal health care” had its origins under the Christian social vision of the preacher-politician, Tommy Douglas of Saskatchewan.
But we need to be reminded of another element of continuity between Jesus’ and the church’s ongoing involvement in health care. It is not mere coincidence Christians have long been concerned about the physical well-being of people, regardless of whether they were Christian or not. Just as Jesus indiscriminately healed all those who were brought to Him (Matt 15:30), so, too, the Church and yes, Christian medical professionals specifically, have not, and should never, demand that those who come to them for help to first become a believer. This is because all individuals are created and loved by God as his image bearers (Gen 2:27) and because the ministry of healing is a sign of the coming kingdom of God, whether or not an individual ends up confessing Christ. Just as Christ went about proclaiming the Kingdom and healing those who were sick, the Church carries on Christ’s work by doing likewise.
This is a principle we must never forget: engaging in health care is kingdom work. As Christians pursue the art and science of medicine as on outworking of their discipleship, they point forward in hope to a day coming when we will all put ourselves under the eternal care of the Great Physician, our Lord Jesus Christ. That means that we must not lose heart if and when the strictures of legislation and ethical codes increasingly make it feel like Christ-followers are being squeezed out. Consequently, we must continue to encourage young people to consider health care as a genuine way to live out their Christian discipleship and witness to the Kingdom — and then do everything we can as Churches to support them as they do so. Over the centuries, the church has willingly raised up preachers of the Gospel to go out and preach the Gospel of the Kingdom. Maybe it is time to consider how those engaged in healing the sick are vital partners in Christ’s Kingdom mandate and thus also need to be supported and sent?
The Aroma of Christ
Anyone who has been in a church basement can likely attest to its distinctive smell. Whether left-overs from the last church potluck, or maybe even the cigarette smoke from the last AA meeting, churches have their own distinctive “smell.”
How appropriate, then, that the Apostle Paul appeals to the sense of smell to speak not so much to the church buildings, but to the very people who make up the Church. In 2 Corinthians 2:14, Paul informs us that God uses the Church “as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession […] to spread the aroma of the knowledge of Him everywhere.” Smelly Christians! What a curious metaphor to speak of the effect of the church in the world!
Obviously, there is a degree of subjectivity in our sense of smell. While living in a cosmopolitan Montréal neighbourhood some years ago, we regularly experienced a virtual potluck of dinner time smells wafting into our kitchen window. To me, some of those smells were aromatic bliss, and others — less so!
Surprisingly, the apostle does not shy away from this curious phenomenon of smell when describing the Church being the aroma of Christ: to some, Christians bring the aroma of life, but to others the stench of death. (2 Cor 2:16). How then should we interpret this as health care professionals?
Theologically, we must remember that as the body of Christ is dispersed throughout the health care system, it will sometimes be welcomed while at other times shunned. We should not be surprised, in other words, that sometimes our Christian presence will be appreciated, while other times it causes recoil. While that may sadden us, reflect on what it would mean if people stopped recoiling from the Christian’s presence. If there is no longer a revulsion to the Christian, it may beg the question: Have we so hidden our Christianity that the aroma of Christ is now masked? Just as Christ warns of us losing our saltiness in the world (Mark 9:50), so, too, we must avoid the temptation to so sanitize and sterilize ourselves to the point that people stop recognizing that we are in fact Jesus-followers.
Though our goal is not to cause unnecessary offense, remember what Jesus said: “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Luke 10:16).
The aroma of Christ. It’s a striking metaphor: Those who spend time with Jesus are bound eventually to “smell like Him.” Sometimes that will mean rejection, but thankfully, sometimes spiritual healing. Our goal as Christians in the healthcare system is not to “raise a stink” but to allow the aroma of Christ to dignify people to be free to respond as they will.
The challenge, of course, is that people in the world cannot necessarily distinguish between the aroma of Christ’s body and stench of the failures of the human organizations named after Him. That the world recoils in our presence isn’t always because they’ve sensed the aroma of Christ, but because they’ve smelled the poisons of our internal bitterness, fights, and yes, religious superiority. There is no easy solution to this problem, but at the very least, we had better be prepared for regular personal and corporate showers of confession and repentance to cleanse us to be better receptacles of the aroma of Jesus’ lovingkindness and grace.
The Compassion and Comfort of God
One of the unfortunate outcomes of scientific and technological advancements in medicine is the ever-present temptation to practice of medicine mechanically, as if diagnosis and treatment of disease or ailment is all that matters. I once knew a surgeon who bragged to me that he did not like people but loved being a highly skilled mechanic of the body!
Yet, repeated empirical studies show how vital interpersonal communication and relational skills are to producing better health outcomes with patients. Empathetic listening, contextually sensitive moments of touch, and unharried time with a patient and family can make a significant difference not only in a patient’s physical, but mental and spiritual well-being.
Such skills, however, are not easily taught. It is difficult to feign authentic care and compassion. And even if one tries, most will quickly see through. The problem, of course, is that even medical professionals with genuine, Spirit-filled, God-honouring compassion are themselves subject to the stresses and demands that health care professions demand. Put succinctly, there are definite limits to the capacity of the human compassion fuel tank.
Fortunately, we do not have to build up our own human reserves for compassion. Instead, the apostle Paul extols God the Father, together with His Son Jesus, as the unlimited source of all compassion and comfort (2 Cor 1:3). This truth is not to set up a false disjunction between Christian and non-Christians, as if Christians have an edge on compassion and comfort over their non-Christian colleagues. Indeed, I have been the recipient at times of genuine compassion and comfort from non-Christian physicians. Nevertheless, there is an important difference.
Reflect carefully on this text:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in our all troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. (2 Cor 1:3-4, emphasis added).
Although it may sound opposite of what was just said, this Scripture does provide Christian doctors (and indeed, all Christians) an advantage when it comes to compassion and the passing on of comfort. But it isn’t because we have some kind of supernatural compassion quotient. On the contrary, the advantage is that we are direct recipients of God’s compassion in our own lives — the compassion received in the forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing of Jesus Christ — enabling us to be a channel through which God’s compassion and comfort in Christ can flow to others. Medical professional use instruments of all kinds, but it is fascinating to think that God’s people, Christians, are instruments in His hand to bestow divine compassion and comfort on all those with whom we come into contact.
This should encourage medical professionals who want to make a difference in their workplaces and with their patients but who may otherwise feel constrained by what they can say or do due to professional restrictions. On the contrary, they can rest in the reality that if they are willing to be instruments in God’s hand, channels of the Spirit of Jesus, that God can and will do just that. Sometimes that may be through the words we choose to share, the tone of voice in which we speak it, the time we take to listen, or even the gentle touch with which we connect. But in faith, we can rest assured that where a willing human servant of Jesus is, so too is the possibility of a divine touch of grace, mercy, compassion, and comfort flowing through us to others amid their suffering and pain.
Just prior to the pandemic, my wife spent a harrowing five days in hospital as result of her deteriorating multiple sclerosis. To be sure, we had some good and bad experiences during those five days, but the highlight was in the last two days when a middle-aged nurse came into our room, sat down, and took just a few extra minutes out of his busy day just to listen and talk. As it turned out, we quickly discovered he was a fellow Christ-follower, and within minutes, we simply soaked up God’s grace and mercy that came through him as he made himself vulnerable and open to us. His 20-second prayer, moments before he exited (and probably against hospital policy) meant the world brought God’s comfort to us in a real moment of need.
I thank God He sent us that messenger-nurse that day. And I’m certain that God will one day say to him, “Well, done, my good and faithful servant” — just as I am certain that He will say to many medical professionals who avail themselves to be channels of His compassion and mercy.