On Compassion in Medicine

Welcome to my website! You can expect my future post to resemble this one, linking together themes of theology, history, and medicine.

This post is a revised version of one I originally wrote for the Gospel Worldview Blog.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it looks like to be a Christian doctor. At first, I thought the answer was pretty simple: excel at what you do (for God’s glory of course), be nice, and be ethical. But, to be honest, that doesn’t look too different from the world’s view of what a good doctor is either. I’ve met a lot of doctors who fulfill these criteria, but when I look at them, I don’t see Jesus.

I started reading through the gospel of Mark several months ago. I came across a moment in the first chapter, where Jesus performs one of his first healings. It’s become a kind of mission verse for me. It reads,

40 And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, ”I will; be clean.” 42 And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. (Mark 1:40-42)

There’s a lot to unpack in this passage, but my favorite part is the phrase, “Moved with pity.” As a former Classics student, I can’t help delving into the Greek here. The participle used here references Jesus’ “splagnon” or innards. This word puts a vivid picture of the scene in my mind. I see Jesus, so affected by the man’s suffering, that he has a physical reaction to what he is seeing. Jesus doesn’t merely acknowledge this man’s suffering and need for healing; he allows himself to be profoundly touched by it.

This immediately made me think of the idea of professional distance. You experience so much suffering as a physician that you have to hold yourself at arm’s length so that you’re not overwhelmed by it. In some ways, this view makes sense to me. Seeing another person suffering is painful and draining, and you don’t want to allow it to affect you any more than it has to. Medicine is a difficult place where you are confronted with the world’s brokenness every day.

But Jesus has the opposite reaction. He didn’t need to be moved with pity. It would have been enough for him to simply acknowledge the man’s suffering and heal his body. Instead, he opens himself to the man’s suffering. In a sense, Jesus looks at this man and deems him worthy of his own pain. Jesus looks at the man and says, “You matter so much that I will allow myself to feel pain because of you.” What a powerful act of selflessness. As I think more about this, I realize that I really shouldn’t be surprised. Jesus is the one who suffered on behalf of all humanity and bore our sins on the cross when he didn’t have to. Is it so surprising then that he would take the suffering of one man to heart as he healed him?

While it certainly seems noble to embrace this man’s suffering, the realist in me asks if this even matters. Does it make any substantive difference that Jesus was so deeply affected by this man’s condition? At the end of the day, the man was healed and his disease was gone. Why does it matter if Jesus was affected by it then?

This is where I think some cultural context comes in handy. In ancient Israel, leprosy was a disease of ostracism. Lepers were excluded from crucial parts of society like worship in the synagogue. As we said before, when Jesus opened himself up to this man, he affirmed this man’s worth as a human being. But crucially, he did this while he was still a leper, outside of society. Thus, Jesus implicitly tells the man that he is a human loved by god even while he is still ill. That’s why this is so remarkable. Yes, when Jesus healed the man, he didn’t just restore his health to him, he restored his place in society, his ability to worship in the synagogue, and his ability to have whole relationships. But in showing such profound compassion, he affirmed this man’s place as someone created in the image of God.

So this is how my thoughts on what a Christian doctor is have evolved. Yes, Christian doctors should excel at what they do. And I sure hope that they have high integrity. But what sets them apart is that Christian doctors embrace human suffering as Christ did. They allow their “splagnon” to be affected at a leper’s suffering because at the end of the day, compassion tells patients that their suffering matters and that they have worth.

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Author: Calvin Gross

Calvin graduated from Princeton in 2015 with a degree in Classics. He's now a medical student at the University of North Carolina, living and serving in a low income neighborhood, and trying to understand what serving in medicine really means.

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