Health Benefits of Christian Faith
By Alex Bunn and David Randall
Should Christian faith be recommended for patients’ health?
‘Spiritual care’ and ‘spiritual interventions’ describe spiritual activities, such as counselling or prayer, done specifically to help patients recover from disease or to cope with it. To decide whether these should actually be offered in medical practice we need to go beyond simply observing whether faith and health are associated. We need to look at intervention trials, which test whether these interventions lead to improved health outcomes.
Much of this of research has been undertaken in a palliative care setting, where evidence suggest patients do value the opportunity to discuss spiritual matters with their doctors.28 There are very few trials that look directly at spiritual interventions. One randomised trial assessed the impact of chaplains, in which daily visits were associated with shorter length of stay and reduced patient anxiety in emergency admissions with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.29 However, this study did not describe what constituted an appropriate spiritual intervention, partly because of the problems of standardising spiritual care for research purposes. This shows the difficulties of producing good trial evidence to support or refute the value of spiritual interventions.
Christian should respond to spiritual enquiries ‘with gentleness and respect’. The general medical council came to the same conclusion
The issue of ‘prescribing faith’ remains contentious within the medical community, and much of the debate is based not on evidence but on a priori presumptions of harm. In one article, the authors argue that even if strong evidence for such interventions improving health outcomes did exist, religious faith falls into a category of risk factors (like, for instance, marital status) that are beyond the remit of medical advice. They argue further that prescribing faith might be coercive, given the implicit authority gradient in the doctor-patient relationship, and that doctors could cause psychological harm by suggesting that patients’ illnesses are caused by a lack of religious devotion.30 Their arguments arise from a secular ideology which demands that spiritually, faith and religion should be excluded from medicine. In the UK, the National Secular Society insist the NHS should not fund chaplaincy services in hospital.31
The Christian perspective
The people we most need to listen to are patients, who typically are more religious than their carers. In one survey, patients and families stated that faith was the second most important factors in their decisions about cancer treatment, whereas the oncologists treating them imagined it would be last on the list.32 Even if we consider those patients who are not involved in organised religion, 76% admit to spiritual experiences and beliefs.33
Modern doctors need to become more patient centred by supporting spiritual care, as secular training has tended to exclude some of patients’ deepest concerns. At a time of illness spiritual issues often rise to the surface – questions of worth, mortality, and place in the world. The sensitive doctor will explore these by taking a spiritual history and considering how a patient’s existing spiritual views may impact on their current illness and hopes for recovery.
However, Christians would want to follow and commend the example of Jesus, who was strikingly non-coercive in his interactions with suffering human beings. The founders of the church advised that Christians should respond to spiritual enquiries ‘with gentleness and respect’.34 The General Medical Council came to the same conclusions 2,000 years later.35 Christians should not promote health benefits as the primary reason for coming to faith in Christ. Jesus came into the world to work a far deeper transformation in human lives than simply curing disease. In fact he promised that his disciples would experience trouble as a result of following him, not health and wealth.36 It was an accurate prediction, as the founders of Christianity had a markedly high mortality and morbidity!
Although the Bible does mention many healings and includes a promise of future deliverance from illness and pain, it also emphasises the value of suffering in the life of a believer. Suffering helps Christians to trust not in themselves but in God;37 it then allows them to comfort others in a similar position;38 to enjoy communion with Christ;39 and to become strong in their Christian lives – so that the apostle Paul even ‘delights’ in his troubles and hardships.40 The book of Job is devoted to the mystery of why good people suffer. Christian commitment then, according to the Bible, is no guarantee of health or wealth. The main reason for embracing Christianity should be the conviction that it is true – not the hope that it is healthy.
While it is striking that faith appears to be associated with improved health outcomes, the Christian faith is not to be judged by its material benefits, but by whether it is true. Christianity’s holistic emphasis on human beings whose physical, mental, relational and spiritual dimensions are all vitally important, is an important corrective to the reductionism of modern medicine. Patients do not simply present biological problems to be solved. Rather, effective medical interventions should address all the dimensions of our humanity. It is clear that most patients value and seek this form of holistic care.
In contrast to the popular myth that Christian faith is bad for health, on balance, and despite its limitations, the published research suggests that faith is associated with longer life and a wide range of health benefit. In particular, faith is associated with improved mental health. At the very least, the burden of proof is on those who claim that faith is bad for health and that all forms of spiritual care should be excluded from modern medicine.
Alex Bunn is trained in infectious diseases, and now works as a GP and for CMF with medical students
David Randallis a senior house officer in general medicine currently working in Queen’s Hospital, Romford, and co-author of Clinical Medicine: A Clerking Companion due to be published by OUP in April 2011
28. Grant E et al. Art cit
29. Iler W et al. The impact of daily visits from chaplains on patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): a pilot study. Chaplaincy Today 2001; 17(1): 5-11
30. Sloan R, Bagiella E. Spirituality and medical practice: a look at the evidence. Am Fam Physician 2001 Jan 1; 63(1): 33-4
32. Silvestri G et al. Importance of Faith on Medical Decisions Regarding Cancer Care. Journal of Clinical Oncology 2003; 21(7): 1378-1382
33. Hay D, Hunt K. Understanding the Spirituality of People Who Don’t Go to Church. Notingham: University of Nottingham, 2000. In: Spirituality and Clinical Care: BMJ 2002; 325: 1434-1435
34. 1 Peter 3:15
35. General Medical Council. 2008. Personal Beliefs and Medical Practice
36. John 16:33
37. 2 Corinthians 1:9
38. 2 Corinthians 1:4
39. Philippians 3:10
40. 2 Corinthians 12:10
Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) Files No. 44, 2011