Healing is Holy: Why medical professionals "playing God" is a good thing

I didn't go to church yesterday because I was working my shift in the urgent care clinic where I practice medicine.

At the time when my church family was receiving communion, I was administering a different kind of sacrament to a badly-injured patient.  Water instead of wine, a hydrocodone tablet in lieu of bread. 

My patient, who had come in tearful and anxious and in pain, drifted off to sleep, and I sat at their bedside in the procedure room, gowned and gloved, performing a procedure to heal the wounds they'd sustained.  

It was quiet.  It was bright.  It was still. 

Healing is holy.

When I finished the procedure nearly an hour later, instead of the biblical Balm in Gilead, I applied triple antibiotic ointment to the wounds, and wrapped them in gauze white as snow. 

Though I miss my church family, I love the occasional opportunities I get to practice medicine on Sundays because it's a poignant reminder of how sacred and spiritual medicine can be. 

I've often heard people talk about doctors "playing God," but it's always an accusation, never a compliment. 

“Playing God” is, without fail, used as an accusation implying that a medical professional has crossed an ethical line, has been off-puttingly arrogant, has exercised too much authority, or has made a unilateral decision that resulted in a patient’s life being prolonged or ended.

But in reality, in its purest and most noble form, practicing medicine is playing God. It is imitating the Great Physician who is intensely committed to comforting, helping, and healing. It is following in the steps of Jesus, who healed the woman with twelve years of unstoppable menstrual bleeding, made blind people see, healed crippled people who couldn’t walk, and raised the dead.

When we set broken bones and carve out cancers and suture wounds and alleviate pain, we are playing God in the best possible way. We are agreeing with God that while disease may be the present state in which we find the world, it is not the way it’s supposed to be, and often it’s not the way it has to be, and we do whatever we can to make it right.

Medical professionals spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn how to heal. We work eighty-, ninety-, hundred-hour workweeks, stay up all night, take call, staff ERs that are open 24/7.

We are possibly the closest that humans can come to imitating the God who never slumbers or sleeps.

There are an undeniable number of ways in which medicine and religion are intertwined, and even allied.

When I worked in the ER and paramedics radioed to let us know they were en route with a Code 3 (a patient who was unresponsive or in cardiac or respiratory arrest), the unit secretary announced “Code Blue, ETA two minutes” over the loudspeakers, and both doctors and chaplains ran to the resuscitation room.

Medicine and religion have similar ethical and legal regulations. What patients tell clinicians in exam rooms is, by law, as private as what parishioners tell priests in confession booths.

For many years, before couples were granted a marriage license, they had to go to a doctor for blood work to certify they didn’t have syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease. In other words, they had to be evaluated by a medical professional before they could be married by a minister.

Both clergy and medical professionals are distinguished by white. For clergy, it’s a white collar. For medical professionals, a white coat.

Whether it’s bread and wine or hydrocodone and water, both clergy and clinicians are administering tangible gifts as a means of compassion and grace. 

"I'm here all night if you need me..."  the benediction at the end.


Parts of this blog post are excerpts from my new book, WELL.  Click here to learn more about the book, and to get your copy!