RX: The Great Physician and Health Reform Hysteria

What was the top cause of death in the United States in 2010? According to a recent New England Journal of Medicine article, the top killer in 2010 was heart disease, which killed 192 out of 100,000 people. Closely behind was cancer, which killed 185 out of 100,000 people. While the mortality rate in the United States has declined since 1900, the number of deaths attributed to heart disease and cancer has actually gone up. As a silver lining, the number of deaths related to communicable diseases, such as tuberculous, pneumonia and influenza, has drastically declined since 1900.

However, the New England Journal of Medicine is wrong. Heart disease is not the top killer of Americans. The number #1 killer of Americans is sin … by a wide margin too. Sin, which is our rebellion and disobedience against our holy creator God, is a natural condition that is 100% deadly if not properly treated. The heart of man is desperately wicked and beyond any earthly cure (Jeremiah 17:9). Everyone sins and everyone receives the sentence from their sins, which is death (Romans 3:23, 6:23). Every man thinks their ways, plans and decisions are just and right, but – in the end – our choices inevitably lead to our death (Proverbs 14:12). Sin is the most ruthless and efficient assassin of all time.

Not surprisingly, we find in the New Testament that Jesus is also extremely concerned about the deadly nature of sin.

In Mark 2:1-12, we find Jesus preaching in a private residence in Capernaum. Four men show up carrying a paralyzed man on a mat. The home is so packed with people that the four men can’t even get into the doorway. Desperate to get this sick man into close range of Jesus, the four men tear open up the roof of the house and lower their disabled friend down to the feet of Jesus, who has gotten quite the reputation as the local healer. Jesus sees their faith and declares to the paralytic: “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Whah hunh?!? Your sins are forgiven?!?

If this group of men have come asking for a healing then why does Jesus offer forgiveness of sins instead? Consider the request of these four men. In Jesus’ time, this paralyzed man would have suffered tremendously, relying completely on the kindness of family, friends and even strangers to save him from starvation and homelessness. Many may have presumed that the paralytic’s condition resulted from sin and treated him as a spiritual outcast. In this light, the four men were so concerned about their friend’s physical condition that they vandalized someone’s home in hopes of getting their friend within eyesight of the reputable healer. These men have desperately come begging for a cure of physical malady – not spiritual ablution. Yet the perspective of Jesus is radically different than any of the men seeking healing. Jesus considers the paralyzed man’s sin to be far deadlier and serious than his physical infirmity.

Of course, the scribes are around to be the permanent party poopers and start questioning (in their hearts) about how Jesus has the authority to forgive sins. Jesus then heals the paralytic to offer evidence to the local nay-sayers that He has the authority to forgive sins. If Jesus can make paralyzed legs walk, then He can also offer the forgiveness of sins. Jesus can physically heal. But don’t miss the point: Jesus considers the paralyzed man’s spiritual condition to be the more desperate problem. The Great Physician examines us and knows our greatest needs.

Based on the teachings of Christ, we must realize that our need for Christ is essential. Without Christ, we are 100% dead in our sins (Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:1-3). Without Christ, we are still slaves to our sins (John 8:34; Romans 6:15-23). In the midst of the Gospels, we find a Savior who affirms that life is fragile, sin is fatal and repentance and belief in Him as Lord and Savior is essential. Only Jesus Christ can cure the disease of sin (John 14:6-7; Acts 4:12).

In a less familiar story in John 8:12-30, we find a complementary situation. Jesus is debating a crowd of Jewish festival goers during the Feast of Tabernacles. The crowd demands answers to who Jesus thinks He is, what authority He has and why He keeps making such outrageous and confusing claims about Himself. Exasperated, Jesus cries out to the crowd in John 8:24: “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” Jesus is extraordinarily frustrated that the people continue to question the qualifications of the Great Physician instead of examining the deadliness of their own sinful condition. The crowd is principally composed of the hostile and the belligerent instead of genuinely questioning seekers. Jesus has already answered questions of His identity before, and considers the greater need of the crowd to be salvation from their sin. Jesus urgently desires to heal the crowd from their sins, but they’d much rather keep asking for a David Copperfield show.

Not only is our need for Christ essential, our need is equally urgent. In James 4:13-15, Christians are exhorted about the transient nature of life: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” No one knows the duration of their life. We could walk out of the doctor’s office with a clean bill of health and die of a heart attack within 30 minutes. We are a candle flame that burns bright for a moment then gets quickly snuffed out. And we have a limited time to ask the Great Physician to cure our sin (Hebrews 9:27).

In the midst of a charged debate about health care reform in the United States, my prayer is that Christians would not lose the perspective of Christ. Fervent emotions in the Christian community range from Chicken Little (“The sky is falling! We’re doomed!”) to Left Behind (“I’m rapture ready! … The signs of the apocalypse are at hand!”) to randomly quoting deist Founding Fathers and flying the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag. Let’s all take a deep breath and think Biblically for a moment. Regardless of whether an individual mandate, single-payer system or free enterprise exists, none of these man-driven health care systems will cure the fatal condition of sin. In the 2,000 years since Jesus lived, died and rose again, no man has ever developed a cure for the wickedness of a man’s heart and no man ever will. While the current health care discussion in the United States is important and debate-worthy, this debate is not more important than mankind’s need for a Savior. As repeatedly noted by Jesus throughout the Gospels, the spiritual condition of a man’s heart is still the more desperate condition. Christians should be espousing that our need for Christ far exceeds our need for free enterprise, health insurance or so-called American values. And a lost and dying world desperately needs to hear about why they essentially and urgently need Christ far more than they need to hear Christians prattle on ad nauseum about our position on health care.

Please don’t think that I’m going all anti-medicine Scientology up in here. My family has health insurance … I see a doctor (somewhat) regularly … I have opinions regarding the role of free enterprise in the American health care system. As a pastor, I routinely encourage people to go see their doctor when they’re hurting and in pain.

But unless the Lord returns quickly, I am going to die. And you are doing to die. You might be lying in a casket in my church as a I preach your funeral. When the doctor strolls into the Norman Rockwell adorned room to gently inform you that you have terminal cancer, it is far more important to have repented and believed in Christ than to have health insurance. He is the source of life. He is the source of resurrection (John 11:25). It’s well past time to stop getting hysterical about health care reform and to display a radical trust in the healing and resurrection power of the Great Physician.



Man vs. Vision (Proverbs 29:18)

I love those television survival shows where the survivalist goes out to a deserted island with a hunting knife, a toothpick and a can of sardines and is forced to survive for a month. I could never do it … I like air conditioning, cookies and processed meats too much. But it’s fun to watch folks “getting back to nature” just to remind yourself why the droll suburbs is actually a fantastic gift from God. In particular, part of the fun of watching survivalist shows is watching the host eat bugs and then see the grossed-out, barf-ready reaction of my wife squirming on the couch.

There’s a “teaching” segment of every survivalist show, where the host tells you why the white, bitter bark of some exotic tree with star shaped leaves (which you could never realistically distinguish from an oak tree in real life) is absolutely essential for you to live in the wild. The host eventually runs through a litany of things that you can’t live without while away from civilization: Fire … Clean water … Shelter … Sea snails … Bugs. Let’s face it: If my whole survival on a deserted island hinges on eating a meal worm that eats tree bark and spurts forth warm cream colored innards inside your mouth, then I’m toast.

What is essential for a church to survive? The common answer to this question is VISION. The foundation of this assertion is a folksy mistranslation of Proverbs 29:18. It’s one of those verses that people believe they know by heart: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” The common misapplication is that churches will die without a clear mission statement and a strong CEO-style pastor. By proxy, purposeless, anti-missional churches without a “clear” mission statement consisting of multiple alliterative words (i.e. go … grow … gobble … giraffe) wind up meandering around the figurative wilderness and dying a slow death of hipster deficiency.

Unfortunately, the cliche misquotation of the verse completely ignores the second half of the proverb. Proverbs 29:18 (ESV) actually states: “Where there is no prophetic vision, the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.” Many Old Testament proverbs have a negative and positive component to them, and the actual proverb cannot truly be understood without a comprehension of both sides of the coin. The negative element of this proverb relates to “prophetic vision,” which is referring to God’s special revelation through his chosen mouthpiece (i.e. the prophets). The term does not refer to mission statements, vision statements, purpose statements, corporate planning retreats, comprehensive plans or cutesy acronyms that form the term “GIVE,” “HEART” or “LEAD.” The actual proverb is kind of like an 80s teen romantic comedy (think: Sixteen Candles). When the parents leave on vacation, the kids turn into wild barbarians, throw a wild keg party and destroy the house. The lack of authority leads to debauchery. Similarly, man is unbridled and sinful without the clarity and conviction of the Word of God. However, that’s not the end of the proverb. The positive element of the proverb is that God has not left mankind without revelation … God has spoken through His Word. Accordingly, a man will be blessed by living according to what our creator God intended and commands. Carrying the proverb into a New Testament context, Hebrews 1:1-2 states: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” God has now perfectly spoken through Jesus Christ, and His blessings now continue to those who repent and believe in His Gospel.

Proverbs 29:18 is an extraordinarily Gospel-centered verse. Prior to being pierced by the Word of God, we all run around wild like savages, content and ignorant within the cocoon-like bliss of sin. We were dead in our trespasses and sins, following the prince of the power of the air (read: Satan) and living according to the passions and desires of the flesh (Ephesians 2:1-3). We need the revelation of the Holy Spirit to give us spiritual understanding, to move our hearts with spiritual truth and to draw us near to God (1 Corinthians 2:6-16).

So how does this Gospel saturated proverb wind up being so egregiously misapplied? Most commonly, the verse is misappropriated to support some iteration of a strong-pastor or CEO-model of church leadership. The argument goes that churches die if they don’t have strong pastoral leadership. And insubordination to the church’s vision statement (and the pastor) by the congregation is a deadly offense. Many pastors also use to the verse to strongarm their followers into granting them excessive authority without challenge, feedback, “checks & balances” or resistance. It turns churches into the Borg (“We are the Borg. You will be assimilated!”). While the correlation between pastoral leadership and church health is certainly debatable (and I won’t argue for/against that point in this particular blog post), Proverbs 29:18 is not a church growth strategy. Moreover, the proverb should never be used to strike fear into the heart of the congregation that the church will die if the pastor is not granted excessive authority. The hubris and egotism of a pastor that abusively drives a congregation away from Scripture can kill a church. Altogether, the dubious argument for a corporate-model ecclesiology cannot (and should not) be supported from the Book of Proverbs.

On the other end of the theological spectrum, the verse is also used to attack “traditional” churches and modes of worship. Essentially, the argument is made that the reason that many traditional churches are dying is because they lack in vision and innovation. There are many wide and various reasons why churches die, and some problems are unique to a particular local church. We should not oversimplify church decline by saying all church problems could easily be solved if the congregation held a corporate-style retreat, clogged up a white board with “ideas,” and condensed them into a cutesy mission statement.

Is it essential for the church to have a mission statement to survive? Sure … It’s called the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). Before Jesus ascended into Heaven, He commissioned the disciples by stating: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Carrying the Gospel to the ends of the earth is the work and ministry of the local church. And the Great Commission doesn’t need to be reformulated, reinvented, reconsidered or dumbed down … It is basic enough for every believer to understand and simply needs to be embraced by the local church as its mission. The church that has a heart for discipleship thrives and rejoices like the churches in Acts. When the church veers away from the Great Commission, then the church tends to morph into an ugly chimera that God never intended: A fraternity … A country club … A social service organization … A fan club … A psuedo-psychological therapy session … An empty building. Unfortunately, Proverbs 29:18 is used as a bully pulpit to argue that the church’s original mission statement has failed and the church needs a “do over.” While I would argue that the church needs to engage with elements of its modern context (i.e. music style or technology), the mission statement of the Great Commission has not failed … Nor will it ever fail. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Great Commission is God’s design for the spread of the saving Gospel message.

I’m new to the whole tornado siren culture of the Midwest. When the deafening and eerie neighborhood siren thunders through the walls of our house, you frantically rush your family, a bottle of water and your portable radio down into the basement. Then you realize that you forgot to put batteries in the radio so you rush back upstairs again. The siren blows to let us know that the tornado’s on its way and we must take definitive action. Similarly, the church is intended to be like heralds and sirens shouting out throughout the corners of God’s creation that the King has come and will return again. And if the King is coming, then we must take the definitive action of repenting and believing in His name.

Let the siren call out that the King is coming!