The bioethicist Abigail Rian Evans notes that in biblical Hebrew and Greek the words for health and salvation are identical. Evans says that health – like salvation – is not an individual achievement, but a community responsibility. She looks to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians (I Thessalonians 5:14-24) as a prescription for our individual and corporate health.
Prescription 1: Be Part of a Community to Promote Health
The damaging effects of isolation are proven. Being part of a community, recognizing our interdependence, supporting and being accountable to one another is one of the ways we stay healthy.
The apostle Paul repeatedly encourages the robust participation in Christian community. It’s good for the community and it is good for the individual participants.
At Faith, the congregation promotes health by arranging meals for those who are living through stressful times, visiting with those who are isolated, coming together for fellowship meals that includes those who usually eat alone, praying for healing and counseling in times of crisis. Our network of caring offers connection, not just through pastors, but through Deacons and Stephen minister and members reaching out to one another.
The community Paul encourages is also a place of accountability to one another. Our health defeating patterns are of concern to others. The whole body of Christ is only as healthy as its individual members and the whole body is compassionately invested in the welfare of others. This – I believe – is the reason that our 3b wellness program and Faith’s Biggest Loser and Walking to Jerusalem are such important programs for our church to be invested in.
Prescription 2. Enhance Health by Love and Support, Not Judgment
“Encourage the Faint Heartened.” Paul says. “Support the weak”. Paul was concerned that mature Christians not shame or call forth judgment on weaker Christians. We help one another to be healthier when we are supportive and encouraging, not when we are condemning and judging. For example, research has documented what we could already surmise: shaming – or socially isolating – people who are obese, does not lead them to loose weight, but the exact opposite – to gain more weight.
When we are able to share our weakness and receive support, rather than judgment, it encourages us to be honest. Transparency about our challenges, describing our needs, accessing support releases us from bondage and frees us to cope with and overcome our limitations.
Prescription 3. Approach Health Improvement with Patience
Paul is encouraging the congregation to be patient with those who are having a hard time abiding by the expectations of the community. “Be patient with all of them,” he writes.
We can give ourselves and one another the same generosity. When it is difficult to be strong, when it is hard to make changes, we need to be patient. Stress and anxiety about what we ought to be doing or achieving is self-defeating and prejudicial to our health. Establishing new habits takes an astonishing amount of time – and a lot of relapses for most of us. In physical – as well as spiritual health – making incremental changes is generally more lasting than radical alterations that are difficult to sustain.
And while practicing patience, it is good to remember Paul’s admonition: “Do not return evil for evil.” Paul is speaking to the human tendency to focus on what is wrong instead of what is right. Paul understands that it will hurt the whole community, if people get into a power struggle of retaliation. It is a way of clinging to or perpetuating evil and it is exactly what we do when we reinforce and repeat unhealthy behavior practices.
Yet, we often engage angrily, stubbornly, destructively with things that have hurt us. We say, “The doughnut made me do it”, or “I’ve already blown it today, so why not eat the whole thing” or “I’ll just watch one more episodes,” and repeat that five times. It is a way of returning to what is destructive.
We will want to talk about how corporations have learned to utilize what is tempting for us, to increase their profits. Our sense that it is more difficult to maintain healthy practices is not an illusion. For now, let’s acknowledge that continuing in destructive patterns because they are familiar patterns is self-defeating and punishes the body.
Prescription 4. Promote Health by Clinging to that which is Good
The antidote to focusing on what is destructive is focusing on what is good. Paul says, “Hold fast to what is good”, turning our attention not to what has to be avoided but what can be indulged in with zest. In spiritual terms this is gratitude as the foundation of our prayer lives; fill up on the good stuff and there is less room for what is worrisome. For our physical health that can translate into filling up with the good food and drink and movement, rest and connection and finding that there is less time and space for what sucks our energy and strength.
It’s surprisingly difficult for many of us to focus on what is good. Paul offers four specific recommendations.
“Rejoice always. In everything give thanks.” Paul is not referring to a fleeting state of being happy. Joy, in the New Testament, is associated with blessedness, the blessedness we hear about in the beatitudes. Joy is a deep and abiding inner peace. It enables us to confront crisis, problems and misfortunes with a positive spirit, believing that God is at work at all times.
We know that emotional reactivity has a direct, deleterious effect on our health, causing – for example – blood pressure to spike and hormones to be dumped in injudicious quantities. But being unable to manage our emotions also is a prime culprit in poor health habits – from over use of narcotic medications, alcohol, food, insomnia and a sedentary lifestyle.
Many people can only develop healthy habits when they have done substantial work on their mood and mental state. Through counseling or group support and through prayer it worthwhile attaining the place where we can always find joy in being a creation of God.
Paul recommends “prayer without ceasing”. There continues to be a steady trickle of stunning evidence that being prayed for, as well as praying, can led to a better medical outcome in those who are ill. Yet, we know too that prayer is no guarantee of recovery; people of great faith, do die, while others recover. Suffering and healing are both science and mystery.
What Paul seems to be offering here is the greatest power of prayer – to connect us to our creator. When we weave prayer into the fabric of our days, we are more aware of ourselves as belonging to God and – as a consequence – desire to do what is good for ourselves and for others.
Paul’s recommendations to “Not quench the spirit and not to despise prophesying” orient us to the future and to hope. Accepting prophesy affirms that there is a future, which is different from what has been – that things are not doomed to remain the way they always have been. The presence of the Holy Spirit affirms the conviction that God is present – at work in the world and in our lives.
This isn’t an illusionary hope that there is no sorrow, no suffering, or tears. It is the conviction that God created us out of God’s goodness, knows that we are broken and is still at work now and in the future to bring about even greater goodness.
Paul closes this letter to the Thessalonians with this stunning blessing. “May God sanctify you entirely. May your spirit, soul and body be kept sound and blameless until Christ comes again.”
Spirit, soul and body. God made all of us. We are God’s creation.