I can remember sitting around the cafeteria table at seminary where my friends and I were talking shop and someone brought up a nagging health issue. One of my friends quickly piped up that he knew what was ailing his friend and recommended a course of treatment. Flabbergasted, another one of my friends sat up and annoyingly declared, “Hey! You’re studying for an MDiv, not an MD!” He then turned to my suffering friend and said, “Stop being cheap and go see a doctor. Don’t take advice from this quack.” At the time I thought the advice was sound and the more I have reflected upon it, I’ve come to think that it is counseling gold for a number of reasons.
As learned as some minsters are, many fail to recognize the limits of their field of study. I have heard too many ministers, for example, talk derisively about psychiatry and even brag about telling people to stop taking their medication. To put it mildly, such advice is quite foolish. To contravene the medical treatment of a person without any formal medical training is very unwise. While it is true, our culture likely too frequently looks to medical prescriptions to solve moral problems, there are genuine medical issues that have nothing to do with spiritual problems.
Case in point, I began to suffer from an intense amount of stress in my pastorate, which also happened to coincide with a series of medical problems: migraine headaches, insomnia, irritability, and aching joints. At first, I thought that I was suffering from a lack of faith and trust in Christ particularly as it related to my stress at work. I prayed diligently and sought to repent of my lack of trust, but to no avail. I thought my heart had confessed my sin but my body was calling me a liar. Finally, my wife gave me some excellent advice—go see your doctor, get checked out. I did. Long story short—I had to have surgery, which literally solved every health issue. My headaches, insomnia, irritability, and aching joints vanished. I had a medical issue, not a persistent spiritual problem.
Hence, whether you’re a pastor or non-pastor type, don’t underestimate the importance of good health and the benefit of medical science. If you’re counseling someone who’s taking medically prescribed pharmaceuticals, under no circumstances should you advise them to stop. Know the limits of your knowledge. I have had people specifically ask me, “Do you think I should stop taking my medication?” And I have told them, “That’s something for you and your doctor to discuss.” From there, I would take them to the Scriptures and deal with those issues that were related to my field of specialty: Scripture, theology, and ethics (broadly speaking). That is, I sought to identify the spiritual problems a person had regardless of what medication they were taking. My hope was, and is, that if they were taking medication for the wrong reasons, that the Spirit’s work of sanctification would eventually show them their sin and lead them to repent and cease taking their medication after consulting with their physician.
If you are counseling someone and they struggle with problems that might be spiritually caused, don’t rule out medical problems. If the person hasn’t seen a doctor in a while, tell them to go get a check-up. It could very well be that they’re suffering from a genuine medical problem rather than a persistent spiritual one. Remember, therefore, you’re an MDiv, a doctor of the soul, not an MD.