Honor the Physician: On the Harmony of Medicine and Faith

The Practice of Medicine

General Reasons for Honoring Medical Doctors

“Honor physicians for their services.” So says Jesus ben Sirach, a Jewish sage who lived in Jerusalem in the second century B.C.E. In this article, I shall refer to him as “Sirach” and quote from the book of which he is the author: The Book of Ecclesiasticus or Wisdom of Sirach, using the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the Revised Standard Version (RSV), the New American Bible (NAB) and the Douay-Rheims Version (Douay) of the Bible.

In general, physicians or medical doctors should be given honor for four reasons. First, “the Lord created them,” referring to doctors or the medical profession (cf. Sirach 38:1). Second, they possess skills, which are gifts from God (cf. Sirach 38:2a). Third, physicians are usually admired for their knowledge and skills (cf. Sirach 38:3). Fourth, illness makes their profession necessary. That is to say, after a person has done all that he or she can to become well and it fails, then he or she needs to see a doctor (cf. Sirach 38:12b). In short, the medical profession, ultimately, comes from God.

Primary and Secondary Causality

Sirach says, “healing comes from the Most High” (Sirach 38:2a). He heals through primary and secondary causality. Primary causality is the view that, ultimately, God is the source of all healing. He may heal a sick person directly, without a doctor’s assistance. God may even heal the sick in spite of all the unsuccessful attempts of the physician.

Secondary causality refers to the laws of nature, which God established and through which he most often works in the world. They are natural laws or ways in which the nature normally operates. With secondary causality, God works through the doctors, nurses and other medical personnel to heal a sick person.

Pharmacology and Pharmacists as Natural Instruments of God’s Healing

Taking medicine is not a spiritual weakness, indicative of a lack of faith in God. On the contrary, it is an act of faith, trusting God to heal by means of nature. Sirach says, “The Lord created medicines out of the earth (Sirach 38:4a). Then “the pharmacist makes a mixture from them” (Sirach 38:8a). That is to say, medicines are made by the “the pharmacist” or “druggist” (NAB) from the earth’s resources. God, by means of medicine and physicians, “heals and takes away pain” (Sirach 38:7a).

A Rational or Common-Sense Approach to Healing

The “sensible will not despise them” (Sirach 38:4b). That is to say, a “sensible,” “prudent” (NAB) or “wise” (Douay) person will neither despise nor reject medicine, because, ultimately, it comes from God. Sirach’s point is that faith in God excludes neither reason nor science. A rational person, then, someone who has common-sense, will, when necessary, seek out the doctor and take medicine from him or her to become well.

Non-Therapeutic Faith: Contrary to Mental and Bodily Health

Sirach’s principle of medical ethics also applies to those who have been entrusted with the care and health of others. For example, if a child needs a blood transfusion in order to live, and his or her parents reject it on religious grounds, then they are not sensible, no matter how much faith in God they may have. Any religion that contradicts the goods of the human person – life itself and bodily health are two such goods – is not sensible. Therefore, it is not “prudent,” that is, it is not in one’s own best interest nor in the best interests of others, to reject medicine.

Physicians as Collaborators with God

Every physician, whether religious or not, cooperates with God in the process of healing. Not only that, but non-religious physicians can be just as effective, if not more effective, than religious physicians as agents of healing. Of course, non-religious doctors usually do not see God at work in the healing process. However, according to Sirach, religious physicians, by faith, see the invisible God at work in the healing process. Almost as a matter of course, Sirach says that physicians “pray to the Lord that he will grant them success in diagnosis and in healing, for the sake of preserving life. (Sirach 38:14).

The Harmony of Faith and Medicine

For Sirach, faith and medicine, each rightly understood, are “friends,” not “foes.” They function in harmony, not opposition. The reason is that the same God who endowed human beings with reason to create medicines and perform surgeries for the healing of the body also gave humans spiritual aids for healing, such as prayer, the confession of sin and the anointing of the sick person’s body (cf. Sirach 38:9-14). Practically speaking, then, medical doctors, nurses, priests, ministers and rabbis should work together in fighting illnesses and curing diseases.

Acknowledging the Reality of Bodily Mortality

According to Sirach, medicine is not a panacea, a cure-all; neither is faith in God. The sage says, “All living beings become old like a garment, for the decree from of old is, ‘You must die’” (Sirach 14:17). Faith may, not must, contribute to a person’s healing. Because the human body is mortal, sooner or later, it will die. Hence, just as all the best efforts of medical science will eventually fail in the treatment of a sick patient, so, too, all the efforts of faith by a sick person and the all the prayers offered on his or her behalf, will not keep him or her alive.

For the above-mentioned reasons, being a physician is an honorable profession and the art of healing involves — from a religious perspective — both the operations of nature (i.e., the realm of what is visible or seen, namely, the science of medicine) and grace (i.e., the realm of what is invisible or unseen, namely, God’s activity in creation).

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