How religion helped this physician in the PICU

I majored in history of religion in college and have always had an interest in the places various twists and turns of theology can lead people. One relatively recent wrinkle is what has been loosely termed “prosperity gospel” or “prosperity theology.” It’s built upon the basic notion good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. Of course, that’s a foundational viewpoint of much of Christianity in the sense that virtue is rewarded and sinful behavior is punished in the great beyond. Protestant groups with strong traditions of predestination theology don’t see things exactly that way, but over the past century, I think it’s fair to say most American denominations believe virtue is eventually rewarded (or is its own reward). The key word here is eventually.

Prosperity gospel, the origins of which most historians place in the 1950s or so but which really blossomed with the advent of televangelists, puts a new wrinkle on the centuries-old formulation of rewarding virtue. The basic idea is that faith and good works are not only rewarded in the next life, but also in this one. And that reward is very concrete. If your faith is strong, you will be rewarded with success, especially riches in this world, as evidence of God’s favor. The darker, flip side to this viewpoint is that poverty is largely a person’s fault and perhaps even a sign of God’s disfavor. An extension of this way of thinking is the implicit, or sometimes explicit idea that personal good health and a happy, healthy family are also signs of godliness; in contrast, ill health or sickness in one’s family represents the reverse. It’s the second of these I’ve seen poison situations in the PICU.

Families with critically ill or injured children in the PICU are under enormous stress. I have always regarded religious faith as generally a good thing for families to have because it often helps hold them together in such stressful times. But over the years I have also seen the toxic effects of parents thinking their child is ill because their faith has not been strong enough. Parents often come to the PICU with this kind of thinking already bothering them in nonreligious ways: “I shouldn’t have driven down that road,” or “I shouldn’t have let my child go swimming.” If one adds to that: “My faith was not strong enough,” you can easily see where this can lead. The absolute worst cases I’ve seen are when families belong to a church group whose members imply a child’s misfortune is proof of the substandard zeal of the parents. It’s devastating.

Now and then I’ve spoken about this to pastors and ministers who participate to some degree in prosperity gospel thinking. Not surprisingly, all deny such a thing is a problem. But the more thoughtful ones understand how it can happen. To me, it’s an example of how the practical working out on the ground of abstract theology affects daily reality. I’ve always felt my background and training in religion has helped me greatly in practicing pediatric critical care. I work in one of the most technical fields of medicine, yet paradoxically what I do is in some ways the furthest removed from technology.

Christopher Johnson is a pediatric intensive care physician and author of Keeping Your Kids Out of the Emergency Room: A Guide to Childhood Injuries and IllnessesYour Critically Ill Child: Life and Death Choices Parents Must FaceHow to Talk to Your Child’s Doctor: A Handbook for Parents, and How Your Child Heals: An Inside Look At Common Childhood Ailments. He blogs at his self-titled site, Christopher Johnson, MD.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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