Christians in Healthcare Discuss Their Work (Video)

Video / Produced by TOW Project

In this video, New Testament scholar Sean McDonough argues that the healthcare industry has its roots in the Bible, specifically Luke 13:10-16. Starting at minute 10:52 healthcare professionals share how the Christian faith changes their approach to their work. This video is part of Jesus And Your Job, a video series on how Christians in different industries view their work. To find out more about this series and how you can use it as a small group study, go to the Jesus And Your Job homepage.

Christians in Healthcare

Healthcare is a topic near and dear to my heart. When I left college my best friends were all in medical school. I watched them labor through that, and never again worried about what doctors get paid, knowing what they paid to get to be doctors. We’re going to reflect on that a little theologically with the help of Luke chapter 13, and then move on to our distinguished panel of five healthcare professionals.

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

Luke 13:10-16

As you know Jesus heals all over the place in the gospels. It’s not incidental to his ministry – it’s absolutely central to his ministry. This is one of the stories where I think if you look carefully you can begin to see why healing was so central. Jurgen Moltmann, a great German theologian writing about Jesus’ miracles, particularly healing, said, “Jesus’ healings are not supernatural miracles in a natural world, they are the only truly natural thing in a world that is unnatural, demonized, and wounded.”

Of course, Moltmann is not for a minute denying the miraculous nature of what Jesus does in these healings. We’ll get to that momentarily. What he is saying is that Jesus is not disrupting the created order – coming in with some plan B on God’s part to save our souls. Jesus is here to restore the created order. To bring it to its goal. He doesn’t immediately do that in absolute terms. This woman will again be bent over in the grave. Lazerus will die again. Things are not absolutely restored. But healings are tangible signs of the ultimate restoration that’s coming. They’re signs of hope. As such, they are truly natural.

Returning to our story in Luke, one of the things that Luke subtly provides here is a theological rational for why Jesus heals in general and particularly for why he heals on the sabbath. On one hand, Jesus heals on the sabbath because people gather at the synagogue with needs and Jesus is able to address them. But we’re going to see that the rational for why Jesus insists on healing on the sabbath goes much deeper.

In Luke 13:10-13 the woman is there with a spirit of infirmity. Jesus calls and frees her. And then the ruler of the synagogue has this indignant annoyed reaction:

But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

Luke 13:14

I want to focus on this innocuous seeming word “ought,” because it is the hinge on which the passage turns. He says it ought to be done, or it’s necessary to be done, or it’s fitting or the right thing to do to work on six days and then rest on the sabbath. Of course, at a very superficial kind of a level he’s sort of correct – that is by definition what the sabbath is, the day you don’t work and you rest. But I think even the casual reader is going to sense that this guy spectacularly missed the magnitude of what’s going on before him. At the very least, before he gets out his rulebook he ought to think for a moment about what’s just happened. This woman has been liberated from her infirmity in miraculous fashion. Who could do that except the living God? But he just goes right to his little guidebook and says: this is what you’re supposed to do and this is what you’re not supposed to do. This is what ought to be done.

Jesus then gives a very interesting answer: “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” (Luke 13:15) Frankly, this answer is very much in keeping with the thought of rabbis around this time. Jesus’ point in verse 15 is not absolutely distinctive – there would be plenty of guys unlike this synagogue ruler who’d say, “sure, on the sabbath it’s lawful to water your animals or to bring one out of the ditch.” Therefore there are some things you can do on the sabbath, for example provide emergency medical care, which are not prohibited by the sabbath command. This is the first level Jesus is working at. Then that little word ought appears again in verse 16: “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16). When Luke wrote this it would stick out a little more: It is necessary. Jesus, after lambasting this guy for being a complete hypocrite and treating this woman and the miracle with such disdain, in effect says, “You want to talk about what ought to happen? What ought to happen is you treat this lady better than you treat your animals! Or at least as well as you would treat your animals.” That’s part of the rhetorical force here.

But he doesn’t simply say that it’s a good thing for her to be healed – it’s stronger. Jesus asks shouldn’t she be loosed from this bond “on the sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16).  Jesus doesn’t simply say it’s permissible for her to be healed on the sabbath day – he’s saying it’s desirable that she be healed on the sabbath. In fact, the sabbath is the perfect day to be healed. Why would that be the case? Because the sabbath is meant to celebrate God’s work of creation. You rest and acknowledge your finitude, you humble yourself before God, but the whole point of that resting is not just a removal from work – it’s a removal or an exodus into worship and praise of God for his creating and liberating power.

The exodus is invoked in the original sabbath command in Deuteronomy:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15

That in a nutshell is the whole message of the Old Testament. The Lord is maker of heaven and earth. He’s the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt. He is the creator of all things and the redeemer of all things. The sabbath is the day when you celebrate that.

The woman in Luke 13 therefore has been kept from truly keeping the sabbath because of her infirmity. She can keep it at one level, but she can’t fully praise and celebrate God’s created goodness because her little bit of the creation has been bent over all these years. God needs to liberate her so that she can celebrate the sabbath. So not only is it the case that she may be healed on the sabbath, Jesus is insisting that she should be healed on the sabbath.

That’s why Jesus keeps doing this deliberately on the sabbath. Look at John 5 or John 9. Jesus heals on the sabbath so that people can be brought into the full celebration of God’s creative and redeeming goodness.

Now I want to think about both the differences and the similarities between Jesus’ healings and what we do in the healthcare business today. There’s a distinction – Jesus does as always what we can’t do. But whenever we say Jesus does what we can’t do, we always remind ourselves that Jesus is also always doing what we ought to do. As the perfect human, as the true son of God, he is a model for our own behavior. In his sacrifice, in his wisdom, all the things he does are things we are meant to imitate. And so it is with healing. That’s why we think again of Moltmann’s statement that “Jesus’ healings are not supernatural miracles in a natural world, they’re the only truly natural thing in a world that’s unnatural, demonized and wounded.” If a major part of the goal of Jesus’ healing miracles is to point towards the restoration that is to come, even as they provide examples of God’s compassion and power in the present, then natural healings done in the spirit of God equally witnesss to God’s purposes.

God’s compassion and mercy is healing people now, while healing done in Christ’s name tethers us to the ultimate healing that is to come. That’s why I think that healthcare is not only a pressing need or an urgent budget line item or something that politicians ought to debate. Those are all true. But healthcare is also integrally related to the dynamics of the progress of the kingdom of God.

Steve’s story:

I’m an anesthesiologist. I began in internal medicine and then went into anesthesia after that. My dad was a medical missionary with a hospital in Egypt, so that’s where I grew up, in just sort of a medical world. We never had the slightest pressure, but there was somehow the assumption that we might do this. All three of my siblings are also in medicine – it was something that just sort of occurred. I had a hiatus after college before going into medicine, then I wound up basically where I anticipated being, thinking that wasn’t where the Lord wanted me. There was a bit of a struggle – it was ministry or this. But it turned out to be medicine.

There are many dimensions of relating to people in the context of relating to the Lord. Often it’s very small things. You can’t do a whole lot without the Lord, but we’re limited in what we can do publicly in terms of expression. So my day always begins with praying for all my patients. I don’t know what’s coming, but I pray that in some way I’ll be able to witness to them. Usually that’s not verbally, because that’s constrained. But you can show love and caring and compassion in the way you talk to people, the way you touch them, the way you deal with the small things. I find that there are many ways in which God gives these reminders.

I need reminders all the time. I often joke that I thank God that I have to look for parking spots, because every time I look for one I pray. It’s not that I’m going to find a parking spot – it’s just a reminder to pray. Well I do the same thing when I’m starting an I.V. I do I.V. access all day long, but after every time I get in I say, “Thank you Lord.” It’s just a tiny little thing but it’s a reminder. It’s a privilege to simply enjoy the Lord’s presence while we’re working. I think that’s part of what it means to be salt. It’s often not external things that we can state or do, but it’s the small ways in which we can relate.

One of the things that always impresses me is the extraordinary privilege I have to be in medicine. Someone’s just trusting me with their life. In anesthesia people are usually pretty nervous about that time. Aside from the great drugs that we have, it’s a real privilege to have this person entrust themselves to me. And I take that as the sort of a responsibility which allows me then to pray for them. It’s often very brief, but prayer is a wonderful thing because it’s something we can always do. It doesn’t matter what your context – you can always be praying for somebody. And the rest of it is in the Lord’s hands. So whether or not you’re constrained in your witness or testimony, that’s not going to bind your ability to simply pray and take care of the person in that context.

Heather’s story

I’m an occupational therapist. Occupational therapy essentially helps a patient regain their occupations of daily living. That can be ordinary things, like if they’ve had a stroke and they have an arm that doesn’t move. How do they dress? How do they retrieve their clothes from their closet? Can they shower? Can they safely manage in the kitchen? Those are some of the things that I address. Do they have physical deficits, or are their modifications that need to be made? Is there safety education that needs to be provided? It goes on and on.

I work in acute care rehab, and I’m also on a locked psychiatric unit most of the time which is my preference. In the locked unit where I work there are some scary situations. My favorite thing to do as a Christian is to try to model respect and love for the patient that is really struggling. There could be some injurious behaviors going on and a staff member might really be having a negative reaction. Grabbing that staff member’s hand and saying, “You need to remember that she’s not doing that on purpose. She’s sick.” is modeling compassion right there on the floor.

In the rehab setting, when I’ve had people who are quite ill, I like to wait for an opportunity to pray. I ask the Holy Spirit to nudge me if I’m to pray with the person or over the person. It’s not in my job set, but I feel like occupational therapy is supposed to be wholistic, and it would be wrong not to address the spiritual needs of the patient if they are receptive to it, and if I’m getting that nudge.  Sometimes there will be a situation where there are multiple nurses in the room and I’ll pray, “Lord do you want me to pray? I’m feeling like you do. Maybe those nurses are going to exit.” In a matter of moments, those nurses are gone and I think, “Okay, I’m supposed to do this.” So I’ll ask for that. I feel that if God can use me that way, that I want to be used that way.

Adam's story

I’m a physician’s assistant in the emergency department. I’ve been doing emergency medicine for ten years now. Physician’s assistant wasn’t really on the radar until halfway through college. My mother is a nurse, and I kind of worked my way into medicine. It was a career out of practicality.

May faith buoys me and gives me a larger perspective for what’s going on. With the ED visits that we see, it’s not the best day for the patient. Or it’s an end of life situation. My faith offers me a larger perspective of what I’m doing: this time on earth is finite but these are infinite things that I’m helping care for. It’s hard to imagine working in the emergency medicine situation without that perspective. To think, “this is all the time we have and we’re going to spend 40 hours a week grinding it out in the ER,” it’s almost hard for me to imagine thinking “this is it.” A lot of the effects of sin come into play right there in the ER. On a day-to-day basis, my faith gives me background perspective, and makes it refreshing to come out of the ER and realize that’s the case.

My job is just kind of restoring someone to their created or supposed-to-be state. Some of the things that I like doing would be suturing up someone’s wounds. I oftentimes tell them, “It’s not me that’s doing the healing. I’m just pulling the skin edges together. There’s no magic here. If your body didn’t heal, what I am doing wouldn’t matter.” Some of the critical patients that I take care of, I’m just restoring them back to the design or homeostasis. My perspective is not so much of coming in as the hero, changing everything around – it’s just kind of nudging them back towards the created order.

Jana’s story

I am an internist for a large multi-specialty practice. A lot of what I do is think and then refer people to actual healers, because I’m a primary care doctor and internal medicine doesn’t cure much. But we walk along with people in the path of their illness or chronic illness.

I have a long past to where I am right now. I started in medical sales after college because I was always interested in medicine, but didn’t want to make the investment in going to school. Then ten years later I decide that maybe I did want to make the investment. So I dropped everything and went back to medical school when I was 30. I got through medical school somehow, behind all these young people who could think really fast. Although being an internist is my second career, in some ways I’m in my third career because most of the time I’ve been an internist I was not a Christian. I just became a Christian 5 years ago, and just started coming to church about 2 years ago. One thing that stands out the most in the way my faith comes into my profession now, I think I’m more compassionate. I have to start my day every day with prayer, to pray to be able to love the unlovable, and to be kind to people who aren’t doing what I tell them to do. To be kind to my staff who are always throwing surprises at me, unexpected emergencies. And to have patience to try to keep on schedule when someone comes in for a blood pressure check but says, “My husband died last week.” I think, “Please let me have compassion when I really don’t have time.” Those kinds of things just require a lot of faith.

I think I enjoy my job much more since I became a Christian. Now that I do this job as a Christian, I don’t know how people who aren’t Christians do this job.

Miguel’s story

I’ve been an ER doctor for the past 30 years. I started in art but I didn’t think I was good enough, so I went into medicine. I usually start my day not knowing what’s going to happen with a short prayer as I walk into the ER. I usually ask for three things: 1) wisdom, which I need the most in there, 2) compassion because halfway through the shift I’m going to get tired and lose it, and 3) the strength to get through the day. Usually while I’m walking I do that small prayer.

While I’m in the Emergency Department I continue to calm myself through prayer. I am known in the ED as the one who has a Bible in my bag. This older person was dying and she requested a Bible, and I just happened to have one and I brought it to her and she held onto it. Ever since that time, the staff have known that I’m a believer. Which is sometimes very difficult, to be known as a believer in your workplace. Because, you know, there are times when you get tired, you get frustrated, and you don’t say or do the things that you should do.

Audience Question: How do you feel your career in medicine meshes with family life?

Steve’s answer:

That’s always a challenge, and my wife will attest to that. When I was doing my residency in internal medicine and I was working between 100 and 120 hours a week, we didn’t have the constraints that you now have on 8-hour days or 12-hour days. That meant for over seven years of my residency training I was really gone a great deal, and it was up to my wife to pull things together. When you’re in medicine often your nose is just to the grindstone. You’ve got to do this in order to get out the other side. So you sort of justify it to yourself that way. I think it’s by the grace of God that our children are protected during all that. Now that I have more time, I’ve structured my life so that I can be more available. I’ve often wondered, “Do my kids resent this?” or “How much do they suffer?” and things of that sort. Somehow, they’re very forgiving. It’s by the grace of God. But it’s always a difficult balance, because medicine is such an emergent thing, and have to get there and be there and take care of things.

Adam's answer:

I would say the ER doesn’t mesh at all with family life. It works out nice from my perspective because I get days off in the middle of the week. But I think the only way that it meshes is because my wife takes care of everything that needs to happen when I’m not there. I needed to sleep this morning because of working late, and she got all the kids up and took them here to church. Are they here? I don’t have to do any of that.

Heather’s answer:

For me being an occupational therapist, I’m not as in demand as other specialists are. I actually kind of have the best of both worlds because I do per diem work I can choose my days and my hours. Because I have a son who has special needs, I tend to choose to work when he’s in school. The summers can be a bit of a juggle, but there are some programs that he’ll be in, so I tend to do it that way. There’s a commitment of one weekend a month that can be a little bit tricky. You just kind of build up your resources and figure it out.

Jana’s answer:

It’s not a good mix. I’m a primary care doc, so I’m responsible for this population of patients and it just never ends. I became a physician before I had a family, before I knew what it even meant to have a family. Then I had my family after that. So if I had it to do over again, I’m not sure I would do it. Medicine has changed in that there are many more non-physician functions that I fulfill than there were when I first started. When I first started it was more like patient care practice, just jot down a couple notes. Now the notes and the non-physician functions – I spend more time doing those than I actually lay hands on patients. So it’s an evolving profession. I think the pendulum will swing the other way when technology improves, and I’m optimistic about the future of the field, but it’s tough.

Miguel’s answer:

I can echo everything. One of the things that I would point out is the sacrifices we make, especially in the emergency department. We have to be open and accessible 24/7, 365 days a year. Which means that we are going to work some holidays. That’s been one of my regrets, that I have missed some holidays with the family. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Read Luke 13:10-16. What is the relationship between physical healing and the biblical concept of Sabbath?
  2. Steve uses the start of an I.V. as a reminder to thank God. In your line of work, what normal occurrence reminds you to thank God?
  3. All the panelists in the medical profession feel the difficulty of blending work with family life. What are the biggest challenges for you in this area? What is your hope for your family and career?