Health and Religion

The Healing Mission of the Church. Sickness has its origin in man's broken relationship with God. This we must restore.

Gottfried Oosterwal, Ph.D., Litt.D., is professor of world mission at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
According to Ellen White, "nothing will help us more at this stage of our work than to understand and to fulfill the mission of the greatest Medical Missionary that ever trod the earth; nothing will help us more than to realize how sacred is this kind of work, and how perfectly it corresponds with the life of the Great Missionary. The object of our mission is the same as the object of Christ's mission."—Medical Ministry, p. 24.

She further defined the object of Christ's mission, and therefore ours, thus: "It was His mission to bring to men complete restoration."—The Ministry of Healing, p. 17. The term "restoration," with its Biblical correlates of healing, salvation, liberation, atonement, and redemption, presupposes that something has been broken and needs to be put back together. The task of the church, therefore, is in essence a ministry of healing and restoration.

In order to understand fully what needs to be put back together, we must look at man's life as he came from the hand of the Creator. In that divine act of creation, everything was "very good." Nothing in the environment formed a threat to the well-being of any creature.

God created man in His own image. This implies, first, that man was not made for himself, but for the glory of God (see Isa. 43:7; Col. 1:16). He was made to share in God's being, to represent God on earth, and to reflect His love. This close relationship between God and man remains basic to human life and happiness. As long as man recognizes his dependence on God and lives out this special relationship, he is crowned with honor and glory (Ps. 8:5). Therefore, true healing, in the Biblical sense, makes the restoration of this relationship its primary goal.

A second implication of the term "image of God" is that humankind was not made as a single individual, but as two differing yet complementary beings, a true reflection of the plurality of the Godhead itself (Gen. 1:26). For true healing to take place, therefore, broken relationships must be restored between man and fellow man, husband and wife, parents and children, black and white, and employer and employee. In this light, health care that seeks the restoration of the community is rooted in the Biblical message.

A third relationship seen in the term "image of God" is that of man's dominion over the earth (see Gen. 1:26-28; 2:15). As God's image, man was made a steward over all that God had made. Healing, therefore, implies that the wholesome relationship between man and nature must be restored.

What caused the disruption of the glorious program that God had planned for man? This question touches the very essence of the disease that plagues humanity, and no true healing is possible without facing up to it. The uniqueness of the Adventist medical mission is that it deals with the real cause of the dis ease, rather than with its effects.

According to Genesis 3, the trouble began when the evil one raised the question, " 'Is it true that God has forbidden you—?' " (verse 1, N.E.B.).* Distrust arose in the human mind—a distrust that turned to doubt when the devil contradicted God by asserting, " 'Of course you will not die' " (verse 4, N.E.B.). Through doubt and disobedience the relationship between man and God, which had been built on faith and trust, was broken. Pride and desire filled the vacuum caused by unbelief and led the first humans to the horrendous decision to make themselves independent from God (verses 4-6). Instead of obeying the law of God, man tried to become a law unto himself. But when a man breaks his relationship with God, he also inevitably breaks other relationships that are part of God's image. An implication of this insight for the healing ministry of the church is that a person is not completely healed until this relationship with God has been restored! All sickness is a state of being that has its origin in man's bro ken relationship with God. The first sin of distrust, which is being repeated in every person's life (Rom. 3:9-18), is the real cause of his fears and frustrations, his anxieties and alienation and defective social relationships.

The church has been called into existence to help restore these broken relationships through family-life clinics, marriage counseling, parent and child care, and other avenues. By presenting to the world models of husband-wife relationships, the equality of male and female, black and white, employer and employee, the whole church can participate in the healing mission to which it has been called.

Man's broken relationship with God was also the cause of his conflict with his environment. Early in man's existence, nature became his enemy. He has long been largely a slave to the powers of nature, over which God had once put him in control. With the development of science and technology man has re claimed partial control only to find that his control through technology has brought fresh threats. Those who com bat environmental diseases, improve the land, and correct unsanitary conditions are indeed doing a work of restoration. But these acts can be considered part of the Adventist medical mission only when they become illustrations and signs of man's restored relationship with God.

When man broke his relationship with his Maker, he was seriously affected as an individual, as well. As Isaiah puts it, "the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores" (chap. 1:5, 6). It is not just the human body that is affected, but our mind and will, thoughts and emotions, are affected as well. True healing, therefore, must seek to strengthen a person's will, change his heart and mind, and direct his thoughts and emotions to God. He must find his true and only point of orientation in his Maker. The church leader Augustine expressed the concept in these familiar words, "Thou hast made us for Thyself. Restless is our heart until it has found rest in Thee, O Lord."

Could not God have warned man of the consequences of sin, either to help him avoid it in the first place or to re cover from it after his troubles had begun? The answer is Yes. God spoke face to face with Adam and Eve in the garden, and when that became impossible He found many other ways (see Heb. 1:1; Amos 3:4-8). Because He loved us, God sent His Word, written by inspired men, so that we might read it, obey it, and find healing and restoration today. The essence of all Adventist medical mission lies in the communication of the Word of God.

To remind man of his high calling, the Creator gave him the Sabbath as a perpetual sign of his special relationship with God (see Gen. 2:1-3). The Sabbath was to be the divine seal upon His image (see Eze. 20:12). With the breaking of that seal, the image of God becomes broken. The work of restoring the image of God in man, the true ministry of healing, is therefore closely tied to the restoration of the Sabbath as God's holy day. This is evident from Jesus' own mission, from His discussion with the Pharisees over the proper way to keep the Sabbath, and from His acts of healing on the Sabbath.

We can evaluate the church's healing - mission only by comparing it to the pat tern found in the life and work of Jesus Christ. He is not only the model of all medical mission, He is its very source and goal, as well as the means by which the "complete restoration" can be accomplished. What strikes us first about Him is that He was wholly oriented toward God. "I have glorified thee" are the words written over His life and work (John 17:4). He lived in total dependence upon God: "I can of mine own self do nothing," Jesus said (chap. 5:30). " 'My food is to do the will of him who sent me' " (chap. 4:34, R.S.V.). It was Jesus' mission to restore an intimate relation ship with God in all men, by revealing God the Father to them, by giving them an example of what God wants all humans to be, and by granting them faith and hope as He shared His love with them. That restoration is the foundation of all healing.

It is here that the uniqueness of Adventist health care, as compared with the work of government agencies or the World Health Organization, lies. The purpose of all healing and the specific methods of achieving it are not accomplished by merely a spiritual or theological dimension to the physical and medical-technical aspects, but by the serious attempt to treat persons as whole units in their relationship to God. Only Christ can help us locate and treat the real cause of man's disease and remedy its effects in all dimensions of life.

The second striking quality about Jesus' mission is that He was wholly devoted to His fellow men. The cross is evidence of Christ's absolute surrender to the will of God, and at the same time of His love for His fellow men. Every thing in His life and work showed that He lived for others. Though He sought to relieve physical distress, His chief goal was to bring us forgiveness for our sins, freedom from our fear and frustration, peace with all men, power over temptation, and newness of character. He sought to restore in individuals the image of God. Health care that aims at the same goal will be medical mission indeed.

Jesus' control over nature stands as the third characteristic of His life. No matter how wild the waters, Jesus walks over them. He rebukes the storm. He gives His disappointed fishermen-disciples a netful of fish, feeds the five thousand, and changes water into wine. These miracles suggest that feeding the hungry, by whatever necessary means, is an essential part of Adventist health care. They also suggest that miracles are not the essential sign of Christ's divinity. Jesus exercised no powers that God would not also grant us, Ellen White assures us. The Saviour promised His followers that they would do greater miracles than He had done (see John 14:12).

The implication of these events is that all Adventist health care should be a work of faith. Medical missionaries should be men and women of faith, in whom the image of God has been re stored, not people who themselves need restoration. If Adventist health care were carried out by only ten persons of faith, it could do much more than with a hundred who did not believe. (How would this insight affect the operation of Adventist institutions, in many of which the vast majority of physicians, staff, and nurses are not knowledgeable of nor committed to the principles of Adventist health care?) Lack of faith is the reason why church members are spiritually weak and sickly; it is also a major reason for the often slow and problematic advance of the Adventist health-care mission.

Since the goal of the church's ministry of healing is to restore men completely to the image of God, we can draw no line between healing and redemption, liberation and salvation. Medical mission is not an independent branch, but an integral aspect, of the gospel commission and of the church's whole ministry of healing. It should aim at helping the whole man, in all his relationships, including restoring his faith in God and his obedience to God's Word. Since it is God's will that all men should be saved and know His truth, those who plan for medical mission should develop strategies to reach out to the masses of people now living in such isolation, poverty, or misery that they have little or no contact with God's instruments of mission. Furthermore, all members of the church should be enlisted in some form of participation in the healing ministry.

We should give greater attention not only to health education and the prevention of disease but also to the change of habits and customs, or social and religious traditions, which either create serious health hazards or interfere with the goals of Adventist medical mission. We should put more emphasis on teamwork between physicians and evangelists, social workers and other church members, to accomplish the objectives of our mission. We should feed the hungry and help the poor by improving their living conditions and environment. This should be an integral part of Adventist medical mission.

Yet healing does not constitute an end in itself; our aim is to prepare people for service to God and their neighbors, as ambassadors of reconciliation, to hasten the coming of Christ.


Texts credited to N.E.B. are from The New English Bible. © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961, 1970. Reprinted by permission.

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Gottfried Oosterwal, Ph.D., Litt.D., is professor of world mission at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

February 1979

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