Columns for The Lufkin News

The Importance of Spirituality in Healing

Posted Feb 11, 2018 by Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR


Spirituality has gotten a bad rap. This is understandable, given the watering down of and movement away from organized religion in the late 20th century through today. The use of the term spirituality to describe any inclination beyond the purely physical – often based solely on “it feels right” – makes it difficult to assign any validity to the term. Add to that the oft-accompanying rejection of organized religion (most especially Christianity), and the term spirituality becomes as ethereal as the east wind.

I don’t believe this type of spirituality – this vague notion of otherworldliness or mysticism – has any particular benefit. I doubt it does much harm, either. It is just there. However, a spirituality that equates to magical thinking is not benign; it can be quite harmful. Spirituality is not a golden ticket to physical healing.

Those who “claim” physical healing based on the strength of a person’s faith or the perceived closeness of a person’s relationship with God are gnostic charlatans peddling a vile snake oil that insinuates that those who are not healed are spiritually inferior and somehow less worthy than those who are. I have had the honor of participating in the cure of thousands of cancer patients over my career. Some of those cases have been so remarkable or unusual as to be “a miracle”, but I have never actually observed a truly miraculous healing. Any such healings that might occur must be ascribed to God and God alone, and God is not a lifeless puppet manipulated by human prayers.

I wish everyone would be cured, but that is not the world we live in. I have also had the privilege of caring for thousands of dying patients in my career, and providing comfort through the dying process is every bit as important – and rewarding – as the curative treatment I provide.

Ultimately, healing is more than just a physical event, as much as we strive for that. Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the modern hospice movement, famously coined the phrase “total pain” to include not just physical pain, but also the emotional, social, and spiritual components of pain. That holistic concept translates to the overall healing process as well. I might cure a patient’s cancer, but their persistent financial distress, guilt, broken family relationships, and spiritual angst can result in no actual relief of suffering.

Anecdotally, I get a strong sense that patients who have a more than superficial faith cope better with the suffering associated with illness and death than those who do not. There is data showing that faith and religious practices do help patients not only cope with their illnesses but have a better quality of life.

Patients who continue to suffer spiritually despite good medical care often seem to fit in one of two categories: those who have no belief in a hereafter (and worry they have not accomplished enough in this life), or more commonly, those who fear death and eternal punishment for not having lived a good enough life. Either way, they worry they haven’t been “good enough” and it’s kind of late in the ballgame to turn things around.

On the other hand, orthodox Christian faith starts with that very acknowledgement that none of us are “good enough”. Comfort – the healing of our spiritual pain and suffering, if you will – comes from accepting that God loves us anyway. Further, our suffering ironically can have meaning. That is not to say, as many well-meaning people too often do, “God meant it for good,” or worse yet, “What sin in your life have you not confessed that caused this to happen?”

The Christian faith – more so than any other – speaks volumes about the significance of suffering. Others may teach suffering is something to be overcome by quashing our desires, or that suffering is just a test from God (or worse, always a punishment). Biblical Christianity teaches not only the universality of suffering but the provision of comfort in and through suffering, whatever the cause.

Having a major illness is expensive, stressful, and often all-consuming. Without a comprehensive approach to care for the total person, we will never truly heal. That means more than doctors and nurses need to be involved in the healing process. We must include social workers, chaplains, and frankly, the entire community.

We need to recognize the spiritual struggles that attend our illnesses and the importance of spirituality in promoting comfort and healing. We can do this by sharing our stories with one another, listening without judging, and by mending and strengthening relationships within families, our houses of worship, and the broader community. And, yes, we need to pray for healing and comfort, not as a magical spell compelling some god to act on our command, but as a partner with the one true God who knows what it is to suffer. Let the healing begin.

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Meet Our Team

Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

Radiation Oncologist

Madelene Collier, RN, OCN

Madelene Collier, RN, OCN

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Jewel Randle, RT (R)(T)

Jewel Randle, RT (R)(T)

Lead Radiation Therapist

Aimee Salas, RT (T)

Aimee Salas, RT (T)

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Josh Yarbrough, RT (R)(CT)(T)

Josh Yarbrough, RT (R)(CT)(T)

Radiation Therapist

Julie McClain, RT (R)(T)

Julie McClain, RT (R)(T)

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Linda Miller, MS

Linda Miller, MS

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Evelyn Leach

Evelyn Leach

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