First Do No Harm
November 24, 2020
by Autumn Dawn Galbreath, MD, MBA
I got to hear Philip Yancey, one of my long-standing heroes of faith, speak in person a few weeks ago. My college-age daughter and I attended a conference (which, lest you are concerned, was sparsely attended, socially distanced and masked) where he spoke to a group of about 100 people. The minute I received the invitation, I knew I was going to attend if humanly possible. I am a huge fan of Philip Yancey, have read all his books and find him to be one of the most simultaneously encouraging and convicting Christian authors out there. I certainly was not going to miss the chance to hear him speak in person in a small group! I spent the intervening weeks in eager anticipation.
So imagine my dismay when he stood up and said, “I want to talk a little bit about God and Coronavirus.” My happy bubble of anticipation popped and thudded to the ground. The absolute last thing I want to hear about is Coronavirus. That’s all I hear about all day every day. If I’m not poring over the latest articles trying to be sure I am completely up to date for treating my patients, I am agonizing over whether or not it’s safe to see my parents, or answering texts from friends about where they can get tested, or being crucified on social media for not agreeing with a friend’s preconceived ideas about treatment of the virus. I have even woken in the middle of the night with my heart racing and realized I was dreaming about not having the right equipment to care for a patient with COVID-19. Honestly, I went to hear Philip Yancey to get away from Coronavirus, not to hear yet another person’s thoughts about it!
Interestingly, Mr. Yancey’s opening to the talk about COVID-19 was to explain to the lay audience that, when we graduate from medical school, we doctors take the Hippocratic Oath, swearing, among other things, to “do no harm.” I was bracing myself for some sort of discussion of how doctors are doing harm. But, instead, he took a sharp right-hand turn and said, “Sometimes those of us in the church actually do harm.” Interesting…maybe he hadn’t lost me after all…
How does the church do harm? And, by extension, how do we as individual Christians do harm? According to Philip Yancey, who is a whole lot smarter than I am, we do harm when we speak for God. As humans, we want to understand why. We want to look at our circumstances and make sense of them. We want to evaluate the world around us and find meaning. This is, of course, part of our imago Dei, that is, part of being made in the image of God. God is Creator, and He is sovereign over all. He understands the whys. Since we are made in His image, we are creators on a human level, and we are made to find meaning in the world around us. The problem is that our desire for a full understanding can’t be fulfilled in this world. As C.S. Lewis said, “The world is a good thing, spoiled.” The world is not what God initially had in mind. It has been broken by sin and imperfection, and it falls short of His glory. Our understanding is limited by this broken world in which we find ourselves. As we look for meaning, we have a tendency to look backward and ask, “Why?” But very often, the whys are beyond the limits of the understanding of this life. Scripture doesn’t encourage us to look backward for the whys. It encourages us to look forward to what lies ahead. The entire New Testament points us forward—from the birth of a poverty-stricken, illegitimate child who becomes a refugee, to His excruciating death on a Roman cross, and all the way to resurrection, ascension and glory. The pattern of making good out of bad permeates the New Testament.
But what about those terrible moments when life is filled with the bad? Even if we know good will come, the bad is still harmful, painful and relentless. Those are the times when we cry out to God. We have only to look at Job to be assured that God can handle lament and honesty. God was big enough for Job’s lament, pain, doubt and despair. God did not rebuke Job, but He did rebuke Job’s friends when, unable to endure the opaque and unexplained suffering they were witnessing, they began to speak for God.
- Eliphaz: “Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it. At the breath of God they perish; at the blast of his anger they are no more” (Job 4:7-9, NIV).
- Bildad: “But if you will seek God earnestly and plead with the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, even now he will rouse himself on your behalf and restore you to your prosperous state” (Job 8:5-6, NIV).
- Zophar: “If you put away the sin that is in your hand and allow no evil to dwell in your tent, then, free of fault, you will lift up your face; you will stand firm and without fear” (Job 11:14-15, NIV).
Each of Job’s friends, in different ways, explained God’s mind to Job. The problem, of course, is they were wrong. God was not punishing Job because of his sins. God’s purposes were not understandable by the human mind. (To be completely honest, even thousands of years later, I read the story of Job and God’s purposes still seem really confusing to me!). And God does not like for His people, well-meaning though they might be, to speak for Him unbidden. In fact, he rebuked Job’s friends for their well-meaning advice to Job: “After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has’” (Job 42:7, NIV).
It is easy to look at Job’s friends, or other examples in Scripture or in history, and see that a fallible person should not have attempted to speak for God. It’s a lot harder to see where we are doing the same thing. Between the pandemic and the election, the U.S. has had a lot of upheaval this year. And many of us Christians have spoken on God’s behalf in the midst of it. Many have criticized a perceived lack of faith by the mask-wearers. Others have condemned a perceived failure of righteous standards by those who voted differently. And still others have condemned a perceived lack of compassion by those who fail to show concern over the death rates in the pandemic. I certainly have my personal convictions in all of these areas, as do you, I’m sure. But I think these questions get things the wrong way around. They are all the wrong questions to ask. They are the “why” questions of 2020. Questions that are trying to make sense of why God is allowing events to unfold as they are. They are questions that do not have answers, and if we focus on questions that have no answers, everything remains out of focus. It is only when we shift our focus to Jesus Himself that we begin to see with clarity. When we shift our focus to Jesus, we see a Savior who wept over His friend, who cried over the fate of Jerusalem, who took the time to ensure that His mother would be cared for after His death, who sweat blood as He asked for relief from the suffering He knew was to come.
When Jesus was asked the “why” questions, He always shifted the focus. The focus was not on the earthly understanding. It was on a heavenly reality.
“Why was this man born blind? Did he sin?”
“God will be glorified in him.”
“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (paraphrased from John 9:2-3 and Matthew 9:11-13, ESV).
So what does this all have to do with COVID-19? I think we can all agree that COVID-19 is bad. But, if God is in the business of making good out of bad, where do we see redemption? And where are we partnering with God in His work of redemption? Instead of focusing on the circumstance and its why, focus on God’s work in the midst of it. That changes your view of the pandemic. Or the election. Or whatever other bad thing you are experiencing.
As I have reflected on these truths over the last few weeks, I have found that there is an incredible amount of redemption going on all around me, even as I have sunk into discouragement and exhaustion. I have had time with my husband and kids that I would never have had, and probably will never have again. I have prayed with and comforted frightened patients more than at any other time in my career. I have practiced calm, rational speech in tense, emotional conversations, and I have managed to grow quite a bit in this difficult skill. I have begun meeting two dear friends—the kind of friends you don’t see for months on end because none of you has enough time—outdoors on a set of benches in a park every single week, and it has filled up my soul.
What about you? How is COVID-19 being redeemed in your life, your family and your practice? How does a focus on Jesus impact your point of view?
A college friend emailed me unsolicited today with the following words, which apply equally to all of you, my CMDA colleagues: “I’m thinking right now how God knew all along right where He was going to need you—on the front lines of a global pandemic! That is so amazing! Stay strong and keep your eyes on Him. He will get you through it.” Take those words to heart as you renew your focus on the One for whom 2020 is but a tiny blip in the course of all eternity.
“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18, ESV).