Medicine For People!

January 2016: Religion and Health

Detail of Religion mural in lunette from the Family and Education series by Charles Sprague Pearce. North Corridor, Great Hall, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Mural contains artist's logo and COPYRIGHT 1896 BY C.S.PEARCE

Religion and Health


  • Humility
  • The Lilies of the Field
  • Forgiveness
  • Suffering
  • The Seven Deadly Sins
  • Right Religion
  • Right Religion Supports Health
  • Acceptance

Year-End Schedule
Addendum: Desiderata

Religion and Health

I do not claim to be a Christian. Were my word to matter, I would suggest that no one could claim that title. It should only be given by others. Mother Theresa did great things; we can title her a Christian. President Obama has turned the other cheek to a tsunami of abuse and served all of us as best he could see; he is a Christian. Many people in our community act with Christian wisdom and charity and avoid the limelight. Let us nominate them.

Doctors will tell you that much of the suffering we care for arises as much from the psyche as from the body. From my significant childhood illnesses and from observing suffering in others, too, it has always seemed to me easier to suffer physical than mental pain.

For this reason, early in my medical career I worked and studied with the Hindu inspired Transcendental Meditation organization. During a later period I practiced the Catholic faith. Both of these experiences still enrich my life.

Now, Hinduism and Catholicism have no monopoly in teaching wisdom; Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and many other traditions have much to teach us. Even so, in my case I was raised in a Methodist family, reading and hearing the Bible. Little did I know then how much medical power was in those words.

Here are some examples.


Zach collects the garbage. He and two of his children have significant asthma and he spends three hundred dollars a month on a less-than-optimal supply of inhalers. He is a cheerful father and contented with his life. He attends church every Sunday.

Some of my other patients seem tormented by much smaller injustices that life has dealt Zach. Their blood pressure is higher, their sleep not as sound. They are too intelligent to enjoy Zach's innocent acceptance.

The Bible teaches humility and Zach lives it in good physical health, not worrying how others see him.

The Lilies of the Field

You'll never see anyone who looks like Phoebe in a clothing ad. As a photo subject she was far too plain. She was also the elementary school teacher most in demand in the Elm Grove School district near Milwaukee. And when you saw her, her smile and effulgent personality held your eye like a magnet. Everyone loved Phoebe for who she was, for the gift of her talent and personality.

Not all women are so content. I've cared for more than a few with the scars of botched cosmetic surgery, tattooed eyeliner or temporary reactions to cosmetics.

Others are like Phoebe, attending to what they can do, not how they can look.

And the Bible describes this well. "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."


Victoria dressed in a sophisticated way and was given to a sophisticated critique of much around her. One day she came to the office in tears, saying she was so depressed she wasn't sure she wouldn't kill herself. With medication and counseling this mood passed; she confessed, on one occasion only, that she judged herself far more harshly than she ever judged others.

This was easy to believe, for this hidden self-disdain is all too common once you have eyes to recognize it.

The Lord's Prayer of Christianity includes "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." In modern English: how gracefully we forgive others reflects how gracefully we will forgive ourselves.

So many of us would benefit from such wisdom.


Kathy has rheumatoid arthritis. It is so severe she suffered a mild stroke on one occasion from inflamed arteries in her brain. This prevented pregnancy, one consequence of which was that her husband left her. An excessive number of missed workdays cost her a very desirable job and she has moved down, not up, the employment food chain. Her symptoms abated somewhat but still continue. Nonetheless she is still at work taking care of other people, and her smile is reliable and genuine, her love of life sincere and realistic.

The book of Job in the Bible as well as much of the Buddhist tradition teach us that life includes suffering. Try as one might to escape, through recreational drugs for example, one cannot. Kathy exemplifies how graceful suffering nurtures health.

The Seven Deadly Sins

Now, the Bible (as does other religious literature) has goals other than merely feeling good about ourselves. Phoebe's and Zach's contentment arose from real self-development, not just feel-good mood-making. The Bible also enjoins us against the dangerous and self-destructive habits of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.

As a physician I know that these characteristics undermine good health. Victoria suffered from an excess of pride. I have seen lust and its attendant STDs bring sterility. Every psychiatrist has seen the mental illness that can arise from envy. Families are broken apart every day because of wrath. Infectious illness can follow slothful practices. The entire weight-loss industry counts on gluttony as a contributor to market share. And everyone knows people for whom greed has sabotaged personal relationships.

Right Religion

I am talking here about right religion, the religion of normal and un-assuming people.

Wrong religion supports mindless and destructive wars such as those in Vietnam and Syria, community-killing settlements such as those on the West Bank, and criminal attacks such as those on the World Trade Center and Planned Parenthood Clinics.

Right religion does not have a monopoly on life-enhancing ideas, but it certainly has a respectable track record. Even right religion can go wrong, as the actions of some priests and their superiors well illustrates, but I personally will never forget the many nuns who dedicated their lives to suffering humanity in Milwaukee hospitals, and their Catholic sisters who taught so many in parochial schools there.

Right Religion Supports Health

Right religion, be it any of the world's varieties, not only holds up ideals for behavior; it also holds up ideals that contribute as much to good health as do all of our medical advances. It may astound you to hear me say this, but I know very few doctors who underestimate the value of the spiritual life of their patients. We'd much rather treat someone who has strong spiritual values and the strengths that go with them.


While I have great difficulty forgiving those behind the predatory pricing of Zach's asthma medications, I also know many wealthy people of good and generous heart. The news of police brutality distresses me as much as it distresses anyone, but The Leader wrote recently of our local police force kindly caring for a bristly and mentally ill person with free blankets rather than fear and aggression. When we think back to previous decades of our lives, we don't remember the worries and cares. We remember the transcendence described by Jesus and Wordsworth, "the radiance in the flower, the splendor in the grass." Would that we could be aware of that as we lived it! This is what religion can teach at its best. If you are a traditional Christian, Jew, or Muslim, please accept my great love and respect. If not, I love and respect you the same. Not all of us conceive of the mystery and grandeur of our world in the same way and in the same words. And yet we live here together. Population growth presses us together more closely. We could not escape each other if we wanted to. And how we feel about ourselves and each other, and how we act out those beliefs, constitutes the single most important choice we make about our collective and individual health. May this holiday season bring you peace, health and blessed awareness.

December Schedule

I am out of town until January 3. We'll be open from 8 to 10 am Wednesday December 30 for laboratory and support service. Full services resume January 4.

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With appreciation to Jody Bower for her editorial assistance.



Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.

© Max Ehrmann 1927



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Medicine for People! is published by Douwe Rienstra, MD at Port Townsend, Washington.