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Spiritual Morphine: The Delusory Hope of Dying on Your Own Terms

Kristina Robb Dover

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The doctors had said she had little more than six months to live. Since then, the cancer had aggressively metastasized, but not enough to destroy her insatiable will to live. Esther, 72, talked confidently about God's power to heal both the pain and the cancer.

When I asked her where she drew her inspiration from, she cited the teachings of Joel Osteen and his mother, Dodie Osteen, who, in a little book titled Healed from Cancer, attributed her own miraculous recovery to a strict, daily regimen of reciting particular "healing" verses from Scripture. Invoking God's Word "against the devil" in the guise of aches and pains took its place next to a special diet of pureed fruits and vegetables and occasional rounds of chemotherapy.

I decided that I would check out the Osteens' teachings for myself. What I found was an innocuous, pain-free form of faith with a quid pro quo for its adherents. "Claim God's Word in your thoughts and speech, and you will be healed, because God's will for you is to be healthy and happy" is a good summary.

With the exception of a few scarce references to Jesus Christ, Joel Osteen's Your Best Life Now reads more like a secular self-help manual than a Christian work. It offers "seven simple, yet profound, steps to improve your life": "enlarge your vision; develop a healthy self-image; discover the power of your thoughts and words; let go of the past; find strength through adversity; live to give; and choose to be happy." Nothing about pain, or dying, or death, about lives that can't be "improved" but have to be endured.

Pain-Killing Care

Osteen's teachings reflect one incarnation of a gospel touted for its painkilling properties. But Esther's enthusiastic conversion to the Osteens' teaching points to a larger phenomenon of religion as pain relief that both intrigues and disturbs me: its role in care for the dying.

As a hospice chaplain, in weekly meetings convened to discuss patients' care, I took my seat next to doctors, nurses, and social workers, all of whom had made it their single, greatest aim to relieve the pain of terminally ill clients. This place at the table for religious faith deserves celebration: first, because it signifies a growing appreciation for the spiritual dimensions of health and, in turn, significant advances in understanding how to care for whole persons; and second, because it may be an example of how science and religion are learning to converse with one another in a shared language.

Yet the highest, governing value presumed in these meetings was the necessity of freeing the patient from pain, physical, emotional, or spiritual. It is this presumption that gives cause for concern. In my experience as a hospice chaplain -- and I know that others may have a very different and more extensive experience -- this value has become an implicit, guiding principle that directs chaplains in their ministry of "pain relief."

Some will dispute this interpretation. They argue that hospice is less about pain relief and more about patient autonomy, but I am not so sure these are two different things. If the customer is "always right" (as he usually is in the privatized hospice setting with which I am most familiar), the overriding goal of palliative care is to keep the customer as comfortable as possible. Eliminating sources of pain and discomfort is the most obvious way to do so.

If I am right about this principle, I think it relies on two unspoken, common assumptions.

Read the entire article on the Touchstone website (new window will open).

Posted: 31-Dec-07

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