Overseas medical work has a rich history of heroic foreign surgeons and doctors flying solo in a small clinic, serving as the sole caregiver for the entire community. This situation has changed significantly over the years. Local health systems have improved, and Westerners have seen the value of integrating their work into the community and of training local health workers. This transition has actually enhanced the spiritual and social impact of the medical work and made it more enduring and sustainable. This article will introduce a holistic concept of health care. How this works in the China context will be illustrated. Finally examples will be given of how medical work in China has an impact on individuals and society in a way that exceeds treating illness alone.
The theme of this issue is “Serving the Whole Person.” What is meant by the “whole person?” The Bible teaches the concept of an integrated body, soul and spirit, each essential to defining personhood. Therefore, to serve the whole person means to serve each person in their entiretybody, soul and spirit, with attention to their role in their family and community.
Spiritual health is the foundation of health, and the church as a whole is God’s chosen channel for healing, for restoration and for the transformation of society. For the believer, sanctification involves body, soul and spirit (1 Thess. 5:23). When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus replied, “To love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” (Mark 12:30). So, God values persons in their entirety and longs for healthy and whole persons to love and worship Him with their entire being. Even the World Health Organization recognizes the holistic nature of health, defining health as “A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
Daoism and Buddhism make up the core of Chinese religious beliefs and healing is integral to these beliefs. Therefore, to Chinese people, healing is a normal component of any legitimate religious belief. Chinese people are prone to look to Jesus for healing and, in fact, the majority of converts in China come to Christ because of personal illness or illness in the family where prayer in Jesus’ name brings healing (Yip 1999:136).
Jesus’ ministry included physical healing, but it occurred within His broader ministry of bringing the kingdom of God into people’s lives through other forms of spiritual and emotional blessing as well as healing (Mark 1:14-45). From Jesus’ example, we are reminded to preach the truth even as we heal, and to preach forgiveness of sins and reconciliation of broken relationships as part of the healing process (John 4).
Medical Work as Ministry
There are many ways medical work impacts individuals and society. By loving and caring for people at the point of their immediate need, doctors can be a blessing to them. Physical healing can enhance our spiritual and emotional health beyond just the healing itself (Prov. 3:8; 4:20-23). In the same way, good medical work realizes that our physical bodies are in decay and not all illnesses will be cured; however, our spiritual lives can still be in regular renewal (2 Cor. 4:16-18). Therefore, it is important not to reduce medicine to the simplistic healing of illness, as if the same effect could have been achieved impersonally, or over the internet, or by simply prescribing a medicine.
An example from work in a Chinese clinic illustrates this point. Mr. Nai first appeared in the clinic with an ill daughter. During the long course of his daughter’s treatment, he was invited to participate in an economic development training session. During these interactions he was able to hear and see the gospel demonstrated to him in many ways, impacting several facets of his life. He accepted the gospel and has become a faithful servant of Christ. He has also improved his livelihood as a farmer and is a powerful witness in his community. This started with a simple clinical encounter.
Medical work as it is being promoted in this article assumes that people will be cared for more broadly than just the physical treatment of illness. In addition to their health needs, they have the opportunity to consider their life situation more broadly. Physicians are limited in what they can offer patients. A foreign physician in China shared his feelings while treating a young girl with aplastic anemia (a terminal illness). ” the tears start coming involuntarily into her mother’s eyes. What do I say to her? I know the blood transfusions are really a waste of the family’s money, but wouldn’t I do the same thing for my little girl? I try to point her to the true God, but that’s not what she came to hear. Yet, he alone really is their only hope. Lord, please make this clear to her somehow.” He is aware that treating her illness is not the family’s only need.
“Medicine” as an end unto itself has limited spiritual or social impact and there are forms of blessing outside of the physical healing that can actually feed back into and enhance physical healing. Illness treated today will often recur tomorrow if attention is not paid to the contextual and personal factors that contributed to the illness. We encounter many cases of fatigue and dizziness in young mothers; however, no illness can be diagnosed. For some we find it is their life and their family that has fallen out of balance, and this sense of instability manifests itself as a neurological imbalance. In many cases counseling and spiritual support have proven to bring healing and restored balance.
From another perspective, medical work also allows us to have outreach into the medical community we serve. This outreach includes medical colleagues, patients and medical students. Medical work that involves training, health education and other programs and is connected to services beyond the clinical setting can have multiplied effectiveness. For example, a young nursing student on her way home from work at the hospital stopped by one day. Learning about our club for young professionals, she decided to join. From there she enrolled to be a medical student intern with us which improved her medical knowledge and skills while in a Christian environment. Through this process she was able to come to know Christ.
By working within the local medical system we find ourselves able to model best practices and integrity. This form of cooperation allows for learning together as we work. It also allows for a natural Christian witness within those professional contexts. A work in infectious disease control was started with the local department responsible for this. During this time we discovered that one of the young men in the department was a young believer. However, his previous training had taught him that his line of work was unspiritual unless he used it to evangelize patients and colleagues. He felt quite uncomfortable in his role, and when we met he was not satisfied with either his work performance or the nature of his spiritual life in that context. Through working together, he has learned to integrate witness into his work and has become a model employee and a winsome witness for Christ in that context.
Medical work can be effectively linked to something larger and integrated into a broad community development program. Many doctors are busy and focused. They need and welcome a broader program around their clinical medicine. Here is the experience of one American doctor practicing in China:
Then one of our regular patients arrives, so I try to work her in amid the new patients as I can see her more quickly. She’s a forty-year old woman with TB of the hip and spine who could hardly walk when we first saw her; now she’s walking great but still has trouble squatting. After I see her and write the prescriptions to refill her TB meds, she then goes to see Mrs. Wei, the head of our Medical Assistance Fund, in order to get her refills paid for. I’m happy because I know Mrs. Wei will have time to chat and will be sure to bring Jesus into the conversation.
There are many examples of ways in which medical work and medical programs can exist within a broader community outreach. If one is able to develop a team of local and expatriate workers with a range of skills, then the community can be served in a variety of areas that connect to a medical work. For example, I am familiar with a situation where a medical work is one aspect of a community outreach involving agriculture, poverty elimination and a community center for young people. This is very effective. In another setting, a group of foreign medical workers has begun a fellowship with local Christians working in health care. This is a source of support for people who find it very difficult to live and work as Christians in their hospital settings. In another setting, health education is provided to families in rural areas whose children were assisted back to school through a scholarship program.
The holistic approach to health and ministry that has been introduced here can even become a framework for training and discipleship. We disciple young people to think about their lives as a body-soul-spirit entirety that God wants to transform and renew through and through. This often neglected biblical teaching has proven to be a good fit with Chinese health concepts and beliefs. It has helped young believers to more broadly appreciate the lordship of Christ over their entire lives and communities and His desire to be glorified in all ways, not just in the so-called spiritual activities of fellowship, worship and Bible study.
Health education programs that are aimed at the community in general can also be offered to the church. As mentioned above, in China many people’s first encounter with the gospel is through illness, so it is natural to provide clinical services and health education to the believers, many of whom are in poor health and lacking resources to pay for health care. Healing as a part of the life of the Christian church in China is surely evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit who gifts people to heal. It also reflects the social nature of the church as described in James 5:13-16, where the elders are expected to assemble together to pray for healing. There is scientific evidence to show how social support of the church coupled with faith and prayer is a powerful health-promoting force (Levin 2001).
In China, where the Christian church has been stigmatized for a long time, churches are slowly beginning to emerge as participants in society and beginning to expand the scope of their ministries. There are a few examples of clinics being run by Christians but most are small private clinics. China is now burdened with the problem of many common people being unable to afford health care. There is a group seeking to assist the Ministry of Health with this problem by promoting the establishment of health care services within the local church so that believers can access reliable and low cost primary health care. This is an example of coupling work to serve society with supporting the local church. Pray that it may be successful.
Jesus’ ministry involved preaching the kingdom of God, which involved healing of body, soul and spirit. Medical work in China is able to follow Jesus’ example by both ministering to the whole person and ministering to that person in their community context. Together, this is able to have a transforming impact on both the individual and society that transcends healing of physical illness alone.
Levin, J. (2001). God, Faith and Health: Exploring the spirituality-healing connection. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Yip, F. C. W. (1999). “Protestant Christianity and popular religion in China: A case of syncretism?” Ching Feng 42 (3-4): 130-175.
Image credit: Medical Appt. by Cathy Stanley-Erickson via Flickr.