To pop a pill or to not pop a pill, that is the question…
Having battled with physical pain for much of my life, I’m no stranger to taking medication. Taking prescribed drugs each day is as much part of my routine as having breakfast and brushing my teeth. I’ve happened to notice in recent years, however, that there are a couple of schools of thought within Christian circles regarding said taking of pills. For example, on the few occasions I have mentioned to other believers that I take medication to assist myself in getting to sleep, the response – “REALLY? You take sleeping pills?” – boasts of their dismay that I could even contemplate doing such a thing. Perhaps the taboo in this instance lies not intrinsically in the taking of pills in itself, but because sleep disturbance can often be lumped together with mental illness. As it happens, a fair few followers of Christ have a tendency to shun anti-depressants and the like without even a second thought about what might be best for the individual. It is this sort of reaction to drugs that births in me a desire to avoid mentioning what I swallow back in the privacy of my own home; it’s almost as if my practice of pill swallowing is on par with dabbling in the occult in the eyes of some…
Nonetheless, there does exist a group of Christians who would think very carefully before heading to the medicine cabinet. Ultimately, it is a decision each of us has to make for ourselves. I am not debating this topic though simply for the sake of it, rather, a few conversations have stirred in me a desire to respond with my own view point. In one such conversation, I distinctly remember walking from the church car park one Sunday evening up to the auditorium with a fellow worshipper pacing alongside of me. She confided in me that she had a headache, but that she didn’t like the idea of taking pills to relieve the discomfort. The Lord, she told me, is her healer, with the underlying insinuation being that a visit to the drug store was not a sound dual action. Thus, she was praying and pushing through the pain; that was her choice.
Of course, perhaps the reluctance to help one’s self by taking drugs is tied up with the idea that God can deliver us from all ailments. I get the impression that to take the wheel into one’s own hands and take something by way of medication seems to be associated with shifting away from God’s healing hand and relying instead on things of this world. More and more I’ve found myself withholding from those in Christian circles just what I’ve suffered from and jointly how I manage it, mostly for fear of being judged. And so I have, in a backwards glance, begun wonder: does taking medication really make me a substandard Christian?
A little background…I’ve thought about writing a blog on my own battle with physical conditions on and off for some time now. I think the real reason behind putting it off is that I do consider myself very much to be a private person, this also attributes partly to my unwillingness to share my ailments with other believers. I haven’t shared my health issues with more than a small portion of my friends, and whilst nothing about my body is particularly out of the ordinary I still feel it is not the sort of thing that needs to be publicised. This proclamation may seem ironic given that I am now blogging about it, but if I am to write this blog and actually have it make any sense in terms of my own conviction then I should probably discuss a few things in relation to me personally. You will soon learn why the topic of Christians taking medication concerns me…
When I was nine years old I was operated on for appendicitis. I’d been having abdominal pain for some months and, following a scan, it was eventually discovered that my appendix was in need of removal. I looked forward to being free from the pain that had become a part of everyday life for what seemed like a long time in my child eyes. I was soon to be disappointed, however. The pain persisted long after my appendix was removed; in fact, it worsened as the years went on.
In addition to this on-going issue, I was also a sufferer of unbearable cramps every month. Like many faced with this predicament, I couldn’t feign fine when the pain came gushing through my abdomen. To manage, I’d knock back whatever medication I had going at the time and wait over an hour (and often up to two hours) for any sign of relief to begin to take hold of my innards. The pills would barely start working before they began fading out again and the pain would recommence escalating all over again. It would start from a murmur of discomfort to full-blown, thrashing-around-on-the-bed agony in the span of twenty minutes. This was what I dealt with from the age of 12 and a half.
To paint this picture accurately, in conjunction to the pain pills, it is necessary to mention that I would always cry out for God to deliver me from the intolerable pain (whether it was of the female variety or from the aftermath of having appendicitis). Moreover, with only one exception, God did not reach down and free me from my struggle.
Regardless of this absence of intervention, though, I need to make a vital point here: whenever the pills did kick in, no matter how far down the track it took for my pain to ease, I would always, ALWAYS thank God that I had access to this medication. I truly believed I was blessed to be living in a nation with accessible pain relievers and other medical provisions. I also believed I was blessed to be living in this era: had I been alive 100 years ago (or even 50 years ago), such drugs would not have been available to me (and, if you really want to get down to the nitty-gritty of it, 100 years ago I would have died as a 9 year old from appendicitis). I would not then and cannot now be convinced that God doesn’t have a part in modern-day medicine. It was an answer to my prayer to be freed from pain, even if it wasn’t by the hand of God in the space of five seconds.
“I could not then and cannot now be convinced that God doesn’t
have a part in modern-day medicine”
In 2001 at the age of twenty I underwent laparoscopic surgery and was finally diagnosed with endometriosis. It was rather extensive by that stage, and a doctor who had witnessed the operation commented to me afterwards that I “must have been in a lot of pain”. It wasn’t until I had my second laparoscopy at the age of 22 that relief finally visited me, nevertheless. Following my diagnosis, I was also prescribed much more powerful drugs to combat any future pain, medication that might have proven invaluable had I had the luxury of taking it during my teen years (if you’re a sufferer of endo you will know the story – it is very difficult to get anyone to take you seriously when you describe the severity of the pain). I wonder how many hours sleep I lost during my high school years simply because the pills were inadequate for combating what was a much bigger problem than anyone ever realised. I had surgery again at age 27, and following this I started taking the pill in an effort to keep me on a good run of freedom from pain for as long as possible. I’ve met people over the years that are hard set against the pill, they cite that it can cause fertility issues later on. As I see it though, if I were to marry and God wanted to bless me with children, no prior use of synthetic hormones could stand in the way. Certainly it is not in God’s character to take us through something only to then abandon us on the other side.
What seems unfathomable to me is that some would consider it out of the question to take medication that those sufferers of the past could have so greatly benefited from. Perhaps we should consider that the prayers of sufferers from generations previous are in part responsible for the bringing about of more advanced medicine today.
Finally, in relation to my other abdominal issue post-appendectomy, I spent many years and accumulatively thousands of dollars seeing GPs, specialists, natural-paths and anyone else who might possibly be able to help me. I must have had ever test under the sun done at some point. In 2010 I paid a visit to the Food and Allergy show at the Greenlane show grounds; there, dietician Anna Richards gave a presentation on food intolerances. I decided to make an appointment to go and see her, not because I believed in my heart of hearts that she could help me, but because ticking another box was an art I’d brought to perfection. Much to my dismay though, Anna introduced me to the FODMAP diet; this diet was the first thing to ever make a significant and long term difference to my daily abdominal pain.
To summarise further events intertwined with this particular pain, two years ago I was given medication to help me sleep as, for reasons unbeknown to me to this day, I’d gone from being a notoriously good sleeper (bar the instances of pain), to being someone who couldn’t rake in more than two hours sleep a night to save herself. The medication prescribed to me is not intended for insomnia per se, but is often used for its drowsy effects to treat long term sleep deprivation. This drug, in conjunction with eliminating restless nights of lying awake, has also alleviated 95% of my abdominal pain and as such I’m no longer in need of being quite so rigid with the FODMAP approved foods.
I was considering inserting a phrase like ‘due to share luck’ or ‘by chance’ in relation to the pain reduction from the sleeping medication, but I feel this is an unfair accreditation on closer deliberation. While I can’t say exactly why I believe this, I am certain that this prescription drug was God’s way of helping me deal with my on-going war against pain. If God had said to me “Will you accept a few months of sleepless nights in exchange for the long-awaited relief of your daily abdominal pain?” I would have readily said yes. I guess God didn’t need to ask me that question; He already knew my answer.
“If God had asked me “Will you accept a few months of sleepless nights in exchange for the long-awaited relief of your daily abdominal pain?” I would have readily said yes. I guess God didn’t need to ask me that question; He already knew my answer”
During the years prior to any sign of relief, it is fair to say that I’d wondered on many occasions why God seemed reluctant (in my opinion) to divinely intervene. I don’t think we can really examine God’s reasoning in this regard without referring to the well-known book of Job. In Dr Larry Richards’ works Every Good and Evil Angel in the Bible, Richards’ points out that what is significant about God allowing Satan to torment Job is that God had an entirely unique “purpose in mind” for this allowance (Richards, 118). The chapter ends with the conclusion that whilst God was “ultimately responsible for Job’s suffering”, from the very onset of it, God “intended Job’s pain to result in good”, and this good is realised when we see how Job drew nearer to God (118).
I don’t pretend that my situation was vaguely similar to that of Job’s, I haven’t lost loved ones in the wake of my testing, but I do feel that this experience has drawn me nearer to our creator. For one thing, if the pain was restricted to one year, rather than many years, it is entirely conceivable that my prayer life would have been altered to reflect this. Without the pain, I would not have been nearly as eager to have God hear my cries. Also, if it wasn’t for my own experience, I would not have had the empathy that I have today for others suffering through illnesses, nor would I be so dedicated to praying for their healing. In this sense, my story is not entirely dissimilar to Job’s; good has also come about by my prolonged suffering.
As a further branch on the subject of suffering, there was one significant episode where God did reach down and intervene. I was 18 at the time, and I awoke one night to intense pain in my abdomen. This in itself was not a new experience; although in the space of a few minutes I quickly came to realise it was heading in a formerly un-ventured direction. As I climbed out of bed with the intent of finding something to take, the pain climbed rapidly and in the space of a few seconds and I was in more pain than I’d ever been in my whole life. Novel symptoms occurred as I stood there: sweat began seeping out of me like never before and the room would not stand still. Now feeling scared, I wanted to call out for help, but I had no strength in me to carry my voice any further than the four walls of my room. I wailed “God help me” and in my frightened state I totally believed I was going to die.
What happened next was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. I woke up on the floor and even though I’d not yet taken any medication, I was completely free from pain. It was a miracle in the most literal sense. I can still recall my profound relief upon realising that not only had I not died, the pain had gone.
Again, this is not something I commonly share with others, I can probably count the number of people I’ve mentioned it to on one hand. Even as I contemplate it now, I’m not entirely sure why I’ve rendered it inappropriate to retrieve this incident when citing the work of God’s healing hand. Perhaps it is because the battle didn’t end there, although I feel ever grateful now as I did back then for God’s decision to swoop-in and save me on that particular occasion. In my mind, however, this episode might be affronted by others when I am forced to acknowledge that the typical daily pain still revisited me in much the same fashion for a long time after this (basically until I was introduced to the FODMAP diet, and later on the sleeping pills). What then can I say about this on-going suffering and my reliance on God…
“We do not want you to be uninformed, bothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” 2 Corinthians 1:8-9
Perhaps that night was God’s way of showing me that He is more than capable of helping me in my time of greatest need. Although my intent had been to swallow back something for the pain, God chose that event to reveal that He does hear my cries and that I cannot be entirely self-sufficient. To go back to the point I am making, my taking of pills doesn’t mean I am not reliant on God. God didn’t hear me thinking “I’d better get up and take something for this pain” on that fateful night and in turn decide “Oh look, she doesn’t need me after all – the pills will suffice”. If the instance described here proves anything, it is that pressing into God does pay off, and that God doesn’t withhold deliverance because we’ve tried to help ourselves. Rather, it seems to me that God can work in conjunction with modern day medicine.
Is it over for me in terms of healing?
No, it isn’t. As a wise Christian friend once pointed out, when the bible describes Jesus administering healing to people, He doesn’t lay hands on them and leave them markedly better off than they were before, yet still marginally sick. I think what I am getting at here though is that, in my experience, God is a God of more than just that one moment of complete deliverance; He is also the God of helping you every day in the lead up to that release.
“I think what I am getting at here though is that, in my experience, God is a God of more than just that one moment of complete deliverance; He is also the God of helping you every day in the lead up to that release”
Perhaps it is my long standing relationship with medication that has made me want to defend its cause in the face of Christian critics. I still believe God can deliver us from intolerances and sensitivities as through His stripes we are healed. I’ve been to many healing meetings in my time, and have had church prayer ministers lay hands on me as well. For as long as I am with these ailments, I will continue to pray for my deliverance from them in additional to receiving prayer from others whenever it is offered. However, I think to assume that this is God’s only means of intervention is to limit how God works. After all, the Lord works in mysterious ways, and why can’t that be via medication? To reiterate once again, I don’t think it was share luck that saw me land on sleeping pills that near-eliminated a much more loathsome battle within my flesh.
To be perfectly blunt about the topic at hand, if I were to eradicate medication of any description from my life, it would be like handing myself over to a prison sentence for a crime that I didn’t commit (or perhaps one that I’d long since repented of). To this affect, I don’t believe God wishes for His children to live their lives as though they were doing time and suffer unnecessarily. Medication, when administered correctly and for the right reasons, is a blessing and should not be treated as though it is an abomination, or a substitute, to the Lord.
Richards, Larry. Every Good and Evil Angel in the Bible. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998. Print.